Your college is not your worth

The eight Ivy League universities in the US. These universities, as well as other hyper-selective schools, are some of the most prestigious schools in the world and are the most sought after schools in upper-class circles.

The eight Ivy League universities in the US. These universities, as well as other hyper-selective schools, are some of the most “prestigious” schools in the world and are the most sought after schools in upper-class circles.

Ian Sun

I’m sure many of us were told that we should go to a “great” college. That we should fill our school schedules with APs and our evenings with extracurriculars. That we should excel in academics, get near-perfect SAT scores, and win top prizes at international competitions. That we should seek the best education possible and work hard to secure a high-paying job. Day in and day out, we were told that the college we go to would make or break our future.

But that’s far from true. Your future can survive without going to a “great” or “prestigious” college. 

You see, before “prestige” meant “respect and admiration… usually because of a reputation for high quality, success, or social influence,” it meant something entirely different. In the 17th and 18th centuries,”prestige” meant “of, relating to, or marked by illusion, conjuring, or trickery.” These days, “prestigious” colleges fit the old definition more than the new one. 

For one, college rankings on famed websites such as the US News and World Report are fraught with biases and abuse, which jeopardizes their credibility. A report by Jill Johnes from the University of Huddersfield says that there are “concerns from senior managers of universities that some measures in league tables are susceptible to ‘cheating’ behaviour, and suggestions that universities are influencing data in order to raise their rankings.” For example, some schools advertised admissions in order to artificially lower their admission rates, while other schools flat-out lied about their students’ test scores and other metrics. On top of that, the weights assigned to each metric are mostly arbitrary in rankings. Yet we still rely on college rankings to decide the colleges we go to, treating their rankings like gospel truth.

On top of that, “prestigious” colleges are major sources of stress and depression in students aspiring to reach them. Students in high-achieving schools report depression rates three times higher than the national average. This is especially the case for Asian students — the model minority myth harangues Asians into succeeding and shames them if they “do not succeed.” No wonder why Asian American college students attempt suicide more often than other students.

Even in the colleges themselves, the situation is not better. Harvard University in particular reports over twenty percent of students having depression and anxiety. Despite their struggles, students suffer in silence, often needing to put up a “Penn Face” to pretend they’re fine. “Ugh, I have so much work to do,” students say. “I have four tests tomorrow and I haven’t studied for any of them.” “Oh my gosh, I haven’t even started on this essay, and my professor doesn’t allow extensions.” 

Yet the alternative for high-achieving students like them is shame for “not doing enough.” 

Given these facts, why do we still base our whole future and even our worth on the college we go to? Why do we overburden ourselves with a dozen AP classes, hundreds of hours of extracurriculars, and months of exhaustive SAT prep, and national-level competitions? Is it just for a slim chance of getting into Harvard or some “prestigious” college, and feeling good or superior over it?

You might say, “It’s worth doing all this work if it means going to a good college.” But please rethink what a “good” college looks like. Does it look like Harvard or Stanford or MIT, or does it look like a college best tailored to your specific needs? 

The thing is, you shouldn’t base your college decision solely on its “prestige.” When you take into consideration that some colleges lie to improve their rankings as well as the stress of “prestigious” colleges and factors in the admissions process outside your control, choosing to go to a college that best matches your interests would be the best decision you could make.

As Radnor High School counselor JJ Lemon says, “The notion that somehow your journey through school, all the hard work you’ve put in, the countless hours of studying, the relationships and connections you’ve made, is somehow less worthwhile because you were denied at a specific school is heartbreaking and fundamentally untrue.”

So if you do want to strive for straight-A’s, a perfect SAT or ACT score, take dozens of APs, and fill your schedule with extracurriculars, go for it. But there’s no shame in not doing them. You’re just as worthy if you don’t do these things. Your mental health is important, and if taking care of your mental health means not overburdening yourself, so be it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As JJ Lemon notes, college admissions are “just one part of our larger life journey,” and that “nothing that happens in this process determines our happiness and success in life.”

In the end, your college does not define your worth. Your character and personality does.