Monday, April 11, 2016

Choose wisely: Some truths about elite colleges for gifted students

In a recent article, "Our dangerous obsession with Harvard, Stanford and other elite universities," Jeffrey Selingo highlights the frantic quest toward admission to these coveted institutions. We hear stories of beleaguered students (and their families), exhausted in their pursuit of these colleges. Perfectionistic, strategic and driven, they place their future hopes and dreams on the crapshoot that is an often less than 9% acceptance rate.

And we see the fallout of rejected students, distraught, devastated, fearing that their future opportunities are lost without that golden diploma. With so many excellent options available, banking on a handful of almost unattainable colleges is a set-up for disappointment. And with increasing numbers of applications, an emphasis on "holistic admissions," the favoritism granted to legacy applicants, and the seemingly randomness of selection criteria, a "reach" school becomes...well, out of reach.

We also know that the media's portrayal of this obsession distorts the truth; only a very small percentage of students apply to these schools, or actually even care about them. As Ben Casselman notes: "just 4 percent attend schools that accept 25 percent or less, and hardly any - well under 1 percent - attend schools like Harvard and Yale that accept less than 10 percent."

The Selingo article correctly emphasizes that you can become whomever you want; you don't have to graduate from an elite college to pursue your dream. And it cites stats claiming that businesses are actually more likely to hire students from less esteemed institutions, such as Penn State or the University of Illinois. Career success bears little long-term association with your undergraduate degree.

But the Selingo article (and the topic itself) portray attainment of a high-status job as the primary draw; in essence, these schools are depicted as a pipeline to Wall Street. While elite schools may offer a financial edge for business majors, this still assumes that most students pursue elite colleges primarily as a ticket to a high-paying, prestigious job.

A similar article, "Elite colleges don't buy happiness" describes a retrospective survey of college grads who identified access to inspiring professors as the most significant factor influencing their current job satisfaction. Where they went to school didn't matter. Well...of course an elite college will not buy happiness - no college will do that. Despite the flashy title and the correlational and retrospective nature of the research, the survey does imply that access to meaningful engagement with talented professors is important.

What do gifted students need?

What is overlooked, and what is especially relevant to highly gifted and academically motivated students is that elite schools offer a wealth of resources that may be less available at other institutions. These students long for a challenging, meaningful education. After years of boredom in traditional schools, they desperately crave an environment where they can learn alongside like-minded peers and immerse themselves in their interests. And some highly gifted students who have performed well in high school, breezed through standardized tests and delved into an area of meaningful interest may meet admissions standards without the overachieving, test-prep-driven approach the media readily portrays as so commonplace.

Elite colleges typically offer gifted students the following:

  • Highly challenging, intellectually stimulating classes taught by world-class professors

  • Classrooms filled with like-minded peers, also invested in learning at a high level

The cynical among us may label students accepted to these elite institutions as money-hungry, career-driven robots. The media has certainly fostered this view. Yet, if this were true, wouldn't almost every student declare business or economics as their major? Wouldn't these colleges have already jettisoned programs such as philosophy, anthropology, music, art, and even education?

Let's give students and families some credit; not everyone is solely driven by pursuit of the dollar. 

Gifted and academically motivated students need to ensure that the college they choose is not a repeat of high school. It certainly doesn't need to be Harvard, but it should offer an enriching, stimulating and accepting environment, filled with like-minded peers, where students no longer have to hide their interests and abilities. Yes, gifted individuals might succeed wherever they go to school. However, finding the best college fit can make these four years more fulfilling and worthwhile.

For more information about the journey to college, please see the following:

Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college

April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors

There is life after high school - even for gifted teens

Five tips gifted students need to consider when choosing a college

Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome

Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise

*Photo courtesy of #Brown University, taken by kbrittels


  1. This was our experience entirely. My son is not going to an ivy league school, but to an elite school, and it's just what he needed. He actually kind of coasted through school, so it's been a stretch for him in college, but a challenge he needs. We are so glad he found a college that is working out for him. Thank you for pointing out that not everyone who goes to these colleges is just looking to go into a business degree. My son is a sociology major.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I'm glad that your son likes his college. Many people only think of ivy league schools when they hear of elite colleges, but there are many highly challenging colleges out there. And gifted children often benefit from them (assuming they are an affordable option for the family!).

    2. Please point my son and I in the direction of some highly challenging colleges. We are really fearful of a repeat of high school, where all he learned was complacency, even to the point that he wouldn't even prepare for SAT and ACT (and still breezed through them!) Luckily, he latched onto a couple of very excellent teachers that saw his potential and drew him out and challenged him. He is a rising senior and looking to major in chemical engineering, or general engineering.

    3. We'd also love to be pointed in the direction of some highly challenging colleges with like-minded peers and intellectually-driven professors. It would be great if there were some research opportunities in the social sciences before too long in the program as a lot of the basics have been pretty well covered at the advanced high school/introductory college level. In the absence of something else, do lists like the highest ranked schools in US News and World Reports colleges guide (or others) match what was referred to as "elite colleges" above?

  2. I think there are some very valid points in this article, and I wish I had not had just the media's view of these colleges when I was in high school. Several of them sent materials to interest me, but I never applied. I would submit that very few highly gifted kids actually go to these colleges. I was honestly looking for the environment you describe and excited to find it, unfortunately I was 12 and Jr High did not provide it. By 18 I had checked out. School, and college, were things I did because my parents expected it, not because I actually believed I was going to find other people like me or experience excellent classes. My husband's story is much the same. He checked out around 14 and only did what was required to not be in trouble after that. Quite honestly I think the "smart" kids the ivys and other elite colleges get are actually the moderately gifted. I think our system loses the most bright before they ever even think of college.

    1. Anonymous and Linda, Thank you for your feedback. I agree that a lot of gifted kids never get considered for elite colleges because they check out long before college arrives. I wrote a blog post about underachievement, and how it arises typically in middle school: If kids are going to fulfill their potential, there is much needed in terms of how middle schools and high schools manage their needs. Thank you both for your comments.