Does it Really Matter Where You Go to College?

William Stixrud is the co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, with Ned Johnson. Below is an article of his in Time. As we gear up for the 2019-2020 admissions season (yes, it is that time of year!), I suggest both students and parents give it a read.
Because this process is increasingly seen as something that it is not. There are many “shared delusions”: a one-way ticket to greatness, a better life, a magical four years you can only experience at college X, and so on. And it may lead some people to those things, but more often than not, it is not where you go that matters it is what you do when you get there, how you take in, make meaning out of, and navigate those four years. As Stixrud notes: “We become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.”
I would love to know what you think. I love this topic, so feel free to email me your thoughts!
When my daughter Jora was in high school, she went to a talk I gave on the adolescent brain, during which I pointed out that high school grades don’t predict success very well. On the way home she said, “Great talk, Dad, but I bet you don’t really believe that bit about grades.” I assured her that I did. To prove it, I offered to pay her $100 if she got a ‘C’ on her next report card — in any subject.
We’ve all heard the familiar anxiety-inducing nostrums: That a screw-up in high school will follow you for the rest of your life. That if you don’t get into Harvard or Yale, you’ll never reach the c-suite. That the path to success is narrow and you’d better not take one false step. I have come to think of this unfounded belief system as what we psychologists call a “shared delusion.”

So why don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well regarding income, job satisfaction, and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

I am not against being a good student, and there are clear advantages to doing well in school. But you don’t need to be a top student or go to a highly selective college to have a successful and fulfilling life. The path to success is not nearly so narrow as we think. We’ve all heard the stories of the college dropout who went on to found a wildly successful company. I myself was a C+ student in high school who flunked out of graduate school. At one point I went for 20 weeks without turning in a single assignment. (I often tell the underachievers I see in my practice: “Top that!”) Long story short, I managed to do pretty well in life, and I credit my failure in graduate school with leading me to a career more in line with my skill set.

The problem with the stories we’re telling our kids is that they foster fear and competition. This false paradigm affects high-achieving kids, for whom a rigid view of the path to success creates unnecessary anxiety, and low-achieving kids, many of whom conclude at a young age that they will never be successful, and adopt a “why try at all?” attitude. Many of these young people engage in one of the most debilitating forms of self-talk, telling themselves either, “I have to, but I can’t,” or “I have to, but I hate it.”

Why do we encourage our children to embrace this delusional view of what it takes to be successful?

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college — that where you go makes very little difference later in life.

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.”

Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth — giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student — increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.

Children are much more energized when they envision a future that is in line with their own values than when they dutifully do whatever they believe they have to do to live up to their parents’ or teachers’ or college admissions boards’ expectations. We don’t inspire our kids through fear. We inspire them by helping them to focus on getting better at something, rather than being the best, and by encouraging them to immerse themselves in something they love.

So if you want your kids to succeed in life, don’t perpetuate a fear-based understanding of success. Start with the assumption that your children want their lives to work. Then tell them the truth: That we become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.

Like the author, I was not a perfect student in high school (although I did not flunk out of college or graduate school). However, I similarly credit my “failure” in high school, and not getting into my “dream” college, with leading me to a school and eventually a career most in line with my skills and vision. I am incredibly thankful for the unwavering support of my parents along the way, especially during high school when I was a rebellious and often not very pleasant to be around teen.

PS – Adam Grant wrote about grades recently, too. Check out What Straight-A Students Get Wrong. Another fantastic read.


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5 Action Items for High School Juniors

We’ve seen too many students wait until the summer after 11th grade to try to develop and implement the strategies needed to tackle the college application process successfully and with ease. Often, there is just not enough time to do the pre-work that results in the most effective essays, outreach, and positive admissions outcomes.

The best time to start prepping to apply? Now. Seriously!

Juniors, right now you can:

  • Develop relationships with admissions officers and regional reps (the people that make key decisions on your application) as well as current students and faculty (ask us why these connections are so important)
  • Create a testing plan that has you ready for apps due on 11/1 and not taking tests last minute
  • Make the best of campus visits and leverage contacts at colleges on these visits
  • Craft a preliminary college list that maximizes the 5+ application plans colleges now use
  • Open up a Common Application account to get familiar with the system

We hate seeing the second half of junior year go to waste. Email us to discuss what you can do now to always stay a step—or three—ahead of the game.


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Top Undergraduate Business School Admit Rates

Rank School Admissions Score Acceptance Rate Average SAT Percentage of Top 10%
1 University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 100.00 6.49% 1486 97.00%
2 Washington University in St. Louis (Olin) 98.37 9.70% 1510 91.00%
3 University of California-Berkeley (Haas) 94.09 4.30% 1490 80.85%
4 Cornell University (Dyson) 92.14 2.90% 1453 83.33%
5 University of Michigan (Ross) 89.58 12.00% 1470 82.22%
6 New York University (Stern) 88.73 8.00% 1468 77.08%
7 Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) 88.00 12.00% 1473 78.00%
8 Georgetown University (McDonough) 87.64 15.84% 1431 90.00%
9 University of Virginia (McIntire) 86.79 12.15% 1407 90.00%
10 University of Notre Dame (Mendoza) 83.74 19.00% 1429 84.60%
11 University of California-Irvine (Merage) 81.60 22.00% 1359 98.00%
12 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) 79.60 12.17% 1367 82.70%
13 Southern Methodist University (Cox) 77.50 11.12% 1494 49.00%
14 Emory University (Goizueta) 76.65 17.21% 1470 58.00%
15 Boston College (Carroll) 75.98 25.00% 1402 78.65%
16 University of Texas-Austin (McCombs) 75.71 22.80% 1384 80.00%
17 Villanova University 75.40 22.07% 1408 73.33%
18 Wake Forest University 72.52 24.80% 1378 76.00%
19 Georgia Institute of Technology (Scheller) 70.99 23.70% 1376 72.00%
20 Boston University (Questrom) 69.55 17.76% 1422 53.16%
21 Northeastern University (D’amore-McKim) 68.68 18.68% 1463 43.00%
22 Indiana University (Kelley) 68.35 40.38% 1437 67.97%
23 University of Wisconsin-Madison 65.64 35.00% 1405 64.00%
24 Tulane University (Freeman) 65.46 22.00% 1420 48.33%
25 The College of William & Mary (Mason) 63.67 22.40% 1346 61.00%
26 University of Richmond (Robins) 62.99 30.31% 1363 63.00%
27 Lehigh University 62.71 22.39% 1376.39 52.13%
28 University of Washington (Foster) 62.48 20.95% 1310 64.94%
29 University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana (Geis) 60.15 48.98% 1365 73.37%
30 University of Minnesota (Carlson) 60.00 28.44% 1371 52.80%
31 Babson College 59.21 24.00% 1353 50.91%
32 Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Foisie) 58.01 36.00% 1395 50.00%
33 Fordham University (Gabelli) 55.16 44.90% 1361 59.30%
34 University of Pittsburgh 55.05 44.00% 1345 61.76%
35 University of Miami 52.71 30.44% 1327 48.00%
36 University of Georgia (Terry) 50.90 47.44% 1300 65.52%
37 University of Houston (Bauer) 49.92 25.18% 1309 40.87%
38 Rutgers Business School (New Brunswick) 47.47 46.00% 1349 45.70%
39 Texas A&M University (Mays) 47.13 34.07% 1281.72 48.80%
40 Syracuse University (Whitman) 46.42 38.10% 1304 46.00%
41 University of Massachusetts-Amherst (Isenberg) 45.56 30.60% 1336 30.10%
42 University of Utah (Eccles) 44.75 40.80% 1270 52.24%
43 American University (Kogod) 44.43 31.60% 1256 46.15%
44 Ohio State University (Fisher) 44.41 38.60% 1340 34.00%
45 Brigham Young University (Marriott) 43.12 63.16% 1325 57.01%
46 Pennsylvania State University (Freeman) 42.55 37.00% 1319 33.00%
47 University of Denver (Daniels) 42.15 46.30% 1299.3 45.00%
48 Texas Christian University (Neeley) 40.43 46.56% 1265 48.94%
49 University of Kentucky (Gatton) 39.70 69.79% 1395 40.00%
50 Hult International Business School 39.39 50.00% 1264 50.00%
51 Purdue University (Krannert) 39.32 62.00% 1268 60.00%
52 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Lally) 38.20 42.00% 1291 34.00%
53 Michigan State University (Broad) 34.82 32.19% 1241.77 28.27%
54 The College of New Jersey 34.52 41.00% 1254 33.00%
55 University of San Diego 33.89 53.00% 1275 38.00%
56 Santa Clara University (Leavey) 32.48 43.50% 1366 6.00%
57 Miami University (Farmer) 31.38 62.60% 1323 30.60%
58 St. John’s University (Tobin) 31.09 59.00% 1208 52.00%
59 Christopher Newport University 28.58 74.60% 1270 47.06%
60 University of South Carolina (Darla Moore) 27.02 65.10% 1299 28.41%
61 University of Delaware (Lerner) 26.53 46.40% 1285 13.20%
62 Seton Hall University (Stillman) 26.45 57.60% 1257 29.50%
63 University of Texas-Dallas (Jindal) 24.66 60.00% 1242 31.00%
64 Providence College 24.65 51.00% 1247 21.60%
65 Rutgers Business School (Newark) 22.92 55.00% 1157 41.25%
66 University of Tennessee-Knoxville (Haslam) 22.86 85.00% 1212.6 56.44%
67 St. Thomas University (Opus) 21.04 83.00% 1215 50.00%
68 James Madison University 20.13 68.31% 1217 34.00%
69 Drexel University (LeBow) 19.55 74.00% 1262 28.00%
70 University of Akron 19.19 73.99% 1154 51.02%
71 Elon University (Love) 17.71 72.10% 1249 25.00%
72 University of Missouri-Columbia (Trulaske) 15.62 69.17% 1220 24.00%
73 Florida Southern College 15.57 50.00% 1203 10.00%
74 Lipscomb University 15.35 61.00% 1156 30.00%
75 University of Oklahoma (Price) 14.39 61.77% 1212 16.20%
76 Rochester Institute of Technology (Saunders) 13.29 72.10% 1204 25.00%
77 University of Arizona (Eller) 13.13 79.00% 1110 51.72%
78 University of North Carolina-Wilmington 9.39 61.00% 1177 12.00%
79 University of New Hampshire (Paul) 8.02 64.10% 1171 13.10%
80 Ithaca College 7.82 80.18% 1221 16.40%
81 St. Louis University (Chaifetz) 7.28 83.03% 1241 13.40%
82 Sacred Heart University (Jack Welch) 6.39 60.80% 1156 9.70%
83 Northern Illinois University 6.01 53.84% 1110 12.60%
84 University of Michigan-Dearborn 5.13 62.00% 1147.8 9.80%
85 Duquesne University (Palumbo Donahue) 5.12 76.00% 1197 11.80%
86 Texas Tech University (Rawls) 4.53 76.40% 1093 33.78%
87 Bowling Green State University 1.09 70.00% 1128 12.46%
88 Evansville University (Schroeder) 0.00 88.60% 1171 17.64%

January Action Plan – By Grade


  • If you have RD applications due in mid-January that you did not submit, finish those up ASAP. Same goes for 2/1 deadline apps; there is no reason to wait!
  • For RD schools, consider writing interest letters, and make sure your school sends midterm grade reports where required.
  • If you were deferred, work on your deferral letter this month and aim to send it mid-month.
  • Thank everyone who helped you with your college process, and take some time to enjoy what is left of high school.


  • Testing: Once you are in prep-mode it is best to just keep going. The sooner you are finished testing, the sooner you can begin to finalize your college list. If you have a preliminary list, February break is a great time to visits colleges. Plan some visits.
  • Confirm your summer plans. Next summer is a wonderful opportunity to do something really meaningful (and perhaps even fun!) that will help you tell your story to colleges.
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.
  • Start to think about your senior year schedule. Do you know what you will be taking? Your senior classes should be the most challenging of your four years.
  • Resolve to check your email daily. Why? Colleges communicate with students via email. Most schools track whether you open emails and if you click through them; more engagement is seen as more interest (schools use interest in the admissions process). Make checking and engaging with any college-related email a habit in 2019.
Sophomores & Freshmen:
  • Are you planning to take SAT subject tests in May or June? If so, come up with a prep plan now.
  • An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor at most colleges. Study hard.
  • Speaking of courses, when do you pick your courses for 11th grade? Keep in mind you want to take a more rigorous course schedule each year.
  • Now is the time to build your story for college! Have you gotten more involved with any of your extracurricular activities? Have you thought about what you might want to major in? A great place to start exploring your academic interests is Khan Academy.
  • One way that your “story” is conveyed in your app is through your resume. Work on your resume now.
  • Many 2019 summer program applications will open soon. Begin thinking about your plans for summer 2019 now so you can get ahead of deadlines and work on applications if needed.
  • Replace one hour of social media, Netflix, or TV per week with time on Ted ED. Explore what intrigues you! Maybe it’s the history of cheese, particle physics, or what makes a poem a poem. Whatever you find interesting, take some time to be intentional about learning more in the new year!


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Congrats to Our Students!!!

Not one of our students, but a photo we have not had time to share: Brittany visiting LSE last month.

Our students rock—and we are so proud of them! Check out where our seniors have been admitted so far:

UT Austin
U. Miami
University College, London
Ohio State
South Carolina
Penn State
Michigan State

And more to come this week! We will update/repost as more results come in.


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Top-Tier, Test Optional Colleges & Universities

Nationwide, many colleges and universities are reexamining their admissions policies and de-emphasizing test scores. More than 1,000 accredited, four-year colleges and universities now make decisions about all or many applicants without considering ACT or SAT test scores. Half of the U.S. News “Top 100” liberal arts colleges are on FairTest’s list of test-optional schools.

Some of the most highly rated test-optional liberal arts colleges include Bates, Bowdoin, Furman, Holy Cross, Pitzer, Sewanee, Smith, Wesleyan, and Whitman. And among leading national universities, American, Brandeis, UChicago, GWU, and Wake Forest are all test-optional. is the leading advocate of the test-optional movement. There are many reasons for the test-optional surge, according to FairTest. Schaeffer explained, “Studies show that an applicant’s high school record – grades plus course rigor – predicts undergraduate success better than any standardized exam. By going test-optional, colleges increase diversity without any loss in academic quality. Eliminating testing requirements is a ‘win-win’ for both students and schools.”

“College and university leaders are sending a clear message,” Schaeffer concluded. “Test scores are not needed to make sound educational decisions. It’s time for K-12 policymakers to pay attention and back off their testing obsession for public schools.”

You can find FairTest’s frequently updated directory of test-optional, 4-year schools list online at

A list of test-optional schools ranked in the top tiers by U.S. News & World Report is posted at

Every year, we help students apply to and gain admission to many of the top tier test-optional schools on these lists. Contact us to learn more about how to maximize your chance of admission to a selective test-optional college.


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Building a College List? Look Beyond Rankings

Not a news flash: Getting into the country’s most selective colleges is more fiercely competitive than ever, with many schools reporting a record number of applicants (again). To many, this news is fear-inducing. How will I (or my child) possibly get admitted to a “top” college or university? Answering how is hard. There are no silver bullets in this process, and the reality is most applicants won’t get admitted to the top-top schools. Instead of trying (too hard in many cases) to become the applicant you think one of these uber selective schools will admit, I suggest a path of far less resistance and more authenticty—a path that includes looking at colleges where you have a realistic chance of being admitted.

There are schools outside of the top 30 ranked on US News, and they are excellent. We help families find these schools, and we’ve seen that when they can think outside of the box, they end up with incredible options and look back on the process much more fondly than those that are laser-focused on the same set of schools at which the rest of the world is aiming.

Here are some numbers from an earlier Boston Globe article noting the 20-year admit rate changes at a few of the country’s most popular schools. I’ve been saying this for a few years now, but it is time to start looking outside of the bubble of these and the other “most popular” schools, and these numbers should provide a nudge in doing so. Interested in looking into amazing schools that don’t often find themselves on the most popular list? Check out College That Change Lives as well as this list I have compiled.


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