Eliminating the Just Because in College Admissions

Sept 25, 2016 By Amy Mendelson, M.Ed, and Thomas LeCarner, PhD.       Competitive Edge College Counseling

College Counseling Workshops

Just because a college is selective doesn’t mean it is better than less-selective colleges, nor is it the best…or even good, if we are being honest. Prospective college students need to spend more time determining which colleges are a great overall fit for them, rather than simply focusing on a particular school’s selectivity or ranking as a determiner of its relative worth.

As college admissions counselors, we spend a lot of time explaining the merits of developing a manageable and balanced list of colleges. Yet, we often encounter students who are resistant to taking a particular college off their final list. This can be frustrating for students when that school turns away 95% of its applicants—most of whom are very competitive applicants for admission—those with nearly perfect ACT or SAT scores and transcripts with all A’s in rigorous IB and AP classes. Even in those cases, where fewer than 5% of applicants are offered admission, we struggle to get students to understand that applying to such a selective school is often a waste of everyone’s time.

The disconnect here is that students (and often, their parents) are under the mistaken impression that a school’s selectivity or ranking automatically means that it is a good school and therefore, the student must apply, or they will feel as though they missed an opportunity. This is rarely the case, however; and we believe students must look past a school’s selectivity as an indicator of its value, and instead focus on applying to schools that are excellent academic, social, and financial fits.

Take a look at these two schools:

UCLA– You know the one. We all do. It is very selective and enjoys a stellar reputation.

Acceptance rate: 18%

Academic rating: 84

% of students who graduate in 4 years: 73%

Professor interesting rating: 68

Professor accessibility rating: 66

Students say: “campus newspaper is popular, students love Los Angeles, recreation facilities are great, everyone loves the Bruins.”

St. Olaf College– Ever heard of it? It’s in Minnesota.

Acceptance rate: 60%

Academic Rating: 93

% of students who graduate in 4 years: 86%

Professor interesting rating: 91

Professor accessibility rating: 93

Students say: “students are happy, classroom facilities are great, lab facilities are great, great library, career services are great, school is well run, no one cheats, students are friendly, students are environmentally aware, very little drug use, great food on campus.”   (Source: Princeton Review, The Best 380 Colleges, 2016 edition)

Now, we know these two schools are fundamentally dissimilar in almost every way. St. Olaf is a small, private, liberal arts college, and UCLA is a large, public research university. But that isn’t the point. The point is this: students are often closed off to considering schools based on their actual merits and instead are consumed by a school’s perceived reputation. We present these profiles, which clearly show what a tremendously strong school St. Olaf is, in an attempt dispel the myth that just because a school is well known or is highly selective, it doesn’t mean it is better than other schools. Just because a school is selective is not a good reason to apply.

Finally, check out this partial list of schools that were recognized as offering students the best classroom experience as determined by students and not a third party useless ranking like the one US News and World Reports.

Be sure to note the schools that didn’t make the list. (Ahem, UCLA and Stanford, we’re talking to you.)

Franklin Olin College of Engineering*

Bennington College*

Reed College*^

Claremont McKenna College

Bard College*^

Sarah Lawrence College*


Scripps College

Swarthmore College*^

Wellesley College


Thomas Aquinas College

Middlebury College*

Hamilton College^

Beloit College^

Smith College

(Schools with an * indicate the colleges where students ALSO said the professors were good teachers and ^ indicates students said their professors were accessible.)

Our point here (as it is with the families with whom we work) is that prospective college applicants would be well-served to remember that a college’s selectivity has ZERO correlation with a school’s actual value, let alone whether it is a great fit for the student. Simply because a school is selective, doesn’t make it a good fit for all students. We encourage students to take a much deeper look at what each school offers, what the students are saying about the school, and how well the student’s financial, academic and social needs will be met.

And, don’t just take our word for it. Fewer than a ¼ of 1% of the nation’s incoming college freshmen end up at the eight Ivy League universities and research has proven that “undergraduates who earn an Ivy League degree do not fare any better financially or in their careers than other gifted students who earn degrees elsewhere.” In 2002, two economists compared one-year earnings of students who had graduated from Ivy League schools with students who had been admitted to Ivy League schools, but decided to attend elsewhere. Guess what? The earnings of the two groups were nearly identical! The research strongly suggested that it wasn’t the Ivy League institutions, but the students themselves that made the difference in future success. (Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data by Dale and Krueger, 2011, National Bureau of Economic Research)

So, please, students and parents, let’s buck the trend of applying to selective schools just because they are selective. Let’s consider more important factors that actually speak to the quality of education a student will receive. After all, just because is rarely a good reason to do anything.