For students choosing college, it takes a village to avoid the ‘Prestige Trap’

It was a December morning in Northern California – warm yet grey, as if ambivalent about whether it belonged to fall or winter. Cara, a senior in high school, sat across from me at the small table in her living room. She had just received the bad news: her early- action application to the University of Chicago—her “dream” school—had been denied. I watched as she stared pensively at the documents spread out on the table between us – the dozens of essay fragments, forms, and school profiles that were the product of a process that had been years in the making. Now, however, they carried the weight of her so-called failure. “I wanted to go to Chicago ever since I can remember,” she said. “My dad and mom both did.” She trailed off… “What do I do now?” 

As a private college counselor, this was not the first time I’d had to answer this question. Nor, of course, would it be the last. 

For increasingly many students, the process of applying to college is one defined by stress, anxiety, and, ultimately, letdown. To chase ever-plummeting college acceptance rates, students must persist in a culture fixated on superficial numbers: the decimal point on a GPA, class ranking, SAT score—and, finally, the acceptance rate of the college they ultimately attend. You don’t have to look very hard to find institutional voices chiming in, echoing this fearful logic: If you don’t get into a “top” school, you’ve somehow failed. 

This is what, in my work as a counselor, I have come to call the “Prestige Trap.” It is the deep, ingrained assumption among students that the prestige of their chosen college is somehow interchangeable with their value as a human being. 

In today’s society, the emphasis is too often on prestige. Students and parents alike treat high school as merely a prelude to college admissions, prioritizing performance over daily wellbeing. A student once commented, “I wish my parents understood how wrong it is that students often have to literally choose between getting all their assignments done and their health, and when they choose the latter, they get penalized.” This mindset leads to an academic culture that, from AP mania to SAT perfectionism, demands levels of achievement from students that lead to sleep deprivation, burnout, and depression. All this is based upon the premise that a prestigious college will bring greater happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction. 

But does it? We wanted to know, so we read dozens of articles and studies that discussed the correlations between college choice and income, happiness, and job placement. We collected the testimonies of friends and former classmates, interviewing them about their college experiences, their current job prospects, and about what they would have done differently. 

As it turns out, the happiest students were not necessarily those who attended the most prestigious college. In their recent white paper, “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings,” the non-profit Challenge Success arrived powerfully at a similar conclusion, complicating the the ostensible equivalence between value and prestige. In fact, when it comes to life after graduation, the happier students were those who had the opportunity in college to take time to spread their roots extracurricularly, engaging in sustained projects with peers outside the classroom; to build strong connections with mentor figures, such as professors and professionals from fields of interest; and to explore interests that would take them beyond the classroom, into jobs often found in the regional setting of their college. 

As we found, the schools that fit this criteria are often the less selective, smaller colleges — the very kind endorsed by organizations such as Challenge Success or Colleges that Change Lives. Offering more flexible and relaxed academic cultures, smaller class sizes, hands-on professors and intimate student communities, these schools provide an ideal climate in which students can thrive. 

The data on graduation outcomes for students who attend smaller, less-selective programs helps to reframe the conversation around high school academics. Rather than piling on as many AP courses as humanly possible in the hope of being accepted to a highly selective school, students could prioritize mental wellbeing in high school while nevertheless fulfilling their goals in college. 

Old habits die hard. Yet given the epidemic prevalence of anxiety, burnout, and depression that attend academics and college choice, we need to shake them. Fast. As a college counselor, I do my part to help families understand the importance of addressing these issues head-on by forming a healthy mentality around the college-selection process. But de-fusing the cultural fixation on prestige is a job that will require many voices from as many corners of our society. 

Sitting in the kitchen with Cara, watching her blink back hot tears, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time that I would console a heartbroken student. For the moment, she would slog through disappointment. But soon after, we’d begin the work of moving forward – of learning that success begins not with an admission letter on a distant horizon, but in knowing that when one door slams shut, a dozen more graciously swing themselves open. 

Learn more about McNeil Admissions and their unique approach to working with high school students to prepare them for college and beyond.