Welcome to College Confidential!

The leading college-bound community on the web

Sign Up For Free

Join for FREE, and start talking with other members, weighing in on community discussions, and more.

Also, by registering and logging in you'll see fewer ads and pesky welcome messages (like this one!)

As a CC member, you can:

  • Reply to threads, and start your own.
  • Post reviews of your campus visits.
  • Find hundreds of pages of informative articles.
  • Search from over 3 million scholarships.
Please take a moment to read our updated TOS, Privacy Policy, and Forum Rules.

Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

1171820222331

Replies to: Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

  • YnotgoYnotgo Registered User Posts: 3,475 Senior Member
    @al2simon I've read that grad departments add up to 0.7 to the GPAs of applicants from Caltech. Probably if you were in an economics department, you had no experience looking at Caltech grads. But any thoughts on whether that might be somewhat accurate?
  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan Registered User Posts: 9,999 Senior Member
    @roethlisburger: Please reread again what I said:
    "It's just that in his area, the most rigorous seemed to be concentrated in the top 20-30."

    I am presuming that @al2simon does not consider his field an easy major, true.
  • roethlisburgerroethlisburger Registered User Posts: 1,675 Senior Member
    @PurpleTitan

    That just begs the question of what is an easy major, at an elite university, other than the hypothetical underwater basket weaving?
  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan Registered User Posts: 9,999 Senior Member
    @roethlisburger: Do you really not know?

    I have my opinions, if you care to PM.
  • roethlisburgerroethlisburger Registered User Posts: 1,675 Senior Member
    @PurpleTitan

    I've never heard someone admit that their major was easy. Harvard and Yale don't even offer the undergraduate business majors, which seem to come under so much criticism on this board.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 4,603 Senior Member
    edited April 20
    @roethlisburger : Hell, even faculty at b-schools criticize it: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/education/edlife/edl-17business-t.html

    HYChicago (and more without UG b-schools) have economics programs that are known to be very rigorous overall. Schools aiming for rigorous economics majors are usually doing so by integrating more mathematical rigor especially at the time students reach intermediate courses. At even elite business schools, you of course have majors or substantive areas and some will be known to be analytically and mathematically rigorous, and some will not. In a lot of the "easier" concentrations at such schools, the pressure does not come as often in basic or more traditional courses as it would in an accounting or finance major but they may get it in more project based courses that perhaps require the students to work directly with and for a company.


    Some studies that have evaluated time spent working outside of class (in hours) have always placed it on the lowest end (with I guess much more selective schools being exceptional). However, hours spent studying are self-reported so that admittedly introduces error. However, recent studies of such things were comparing new self-reported data on academic effort vs. older and even the older data had business majors reporting a lower effort than their peers.


    *Also, no one at an elite would admit that unless they were pre-professional and will openly admit that choosing a major they regarded as easier was a strategic move more so than an intellectual choice.
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 4,603 Senior Member
    Looking at this article, the studies should be more precise. Like I would not ask a bunch of folks with senioritis how much they study. It should be at an all time low. It would be interesting to see freshman, sophomore, and junior year. In theory one should become more efficient over time or find a course selection/GPA management scheme that optimizes the amount of effort needed. An estimate that results in a 4 year average could be better.
  • cobratcobrat Registered User Posts: 12,285 Senior Member
    edited April 20
    Some studies that have evaluated time spent working outside of class (in hours) have always placed it on the lowest end (with I guess much more selective schools being exceptional).

    It's also an issue as the amount of time a given student needs to study to attain certain grades/learning outcomes can vary greatly even among students within a given college in the same/related majors.

    For instance, my HS class salutatorian friend by his MIT undergrad roommates' accounts all stated he studied far less than they did, had plenty of free time for ECs/enjoy Cambridge/Boston nightlife, slept at least 8 hours, never pulled an all-nighter in his entire undergrad career, and yet, ended up graduating near the top of his MIT undergrad/Masters in EE classes in 4 years.

    Only surprise from that was his managing to never pull any all-nighters at MIT as he did pull a few when we were in HS.

    The undergrad classmate who graduated with high honors at 17 a few classes ahead of me was similar to my salutatorian friend. In fact, he decided to take nearly 30 credits IN ONE SEMESTER(equivalent to nearly 10 regular courses) just to see if he can pull it off. While he did admit he bit off more than he can chew at the time, still managed to finish with excellent grades.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I had an older college classmate who spent nearly double the amount of study time while carrying a much lighter courseload(9-12 credits) than yours truly and yet, barely eked out barely passing/mediocre grades in the same courses we took together. And this was even after he was taking many of them for the second time.

    There were days I felt like and years later, he recounted he could clearly see a bit of exasperation on my part over how little return he was getting on his study time versus mine or others in our classes.
  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan Registered User Posts: 9,999 Senior Member
    @roethlisburger: Of course few people will say their major was easy, which is why I don't care to share my opinion on a public board, but that doesn't mean all majors are equally rigorous even at an Ivy/equivalent.
  • roethlisburgerroethlisburger Registered User Posts: 1,675 Senior Member
    edited April 20
    @PurpleTitan

    This makes it sound as if they're using undergrad admissions selectivity as a proxy for academic rigor. It doesn't sound like they're really delving down into does the University of Minnesota's econ department have a lot of grade inflation, or require more papers, or provides a more mathematical treatment of econ or whatever your definition of rigor is in a particular major at the undergrad level.
    al2simon wrote:
    Those departments have used their reputation to raise admissions standards for high school applicants into those majors relative to the rest of the university. In a case like that the department's reputation matters more. On the other side of the fence, the University of Minnesota had a very strong economics department ... multiple Nobel Prizes and the like. But their undergraduate majors aren't nearly as stellar, so you'd treat their undergraduate applicants based more on the school's overall reputation than the department's unless a very strong recommendation letter was submitted.
  • FarquharFarquhar Registered User Posts: 10 New Member
    @bernie12

    Well, I think this thread has kind of strayed from the original question. I was more or less concerned with three points.

    A1) are more selective schools more difficult to get top grades at?

    A2) If less selective schools are also academically easier, do graduate schools actually care? For arguments sake, let's say not as much as you'd think.

    B) Assuming A1 and A2 are both true and that I want to go to the beset graduate school I can -- why not strategically select a school that is at least somewhat less selective (and per our line of thinking, less challenging)? Maybe a student could drastically increase her chance of getting a near perfect GPA by going to a somewhat less selective school than the most selective school she could attend.

    I argued that the more selective/more difficult theory has some merit but that there are many factors that impact a student's performance, and some of those factors might be even heavier for a student to bear than being in classes with so-called elite students and teachers.

    One of the arguments I made was that the further you get from the very top, the more likely you are to encounter incompetent teachers. Having incompetent teachers is demoralizing and disillusioning at best. They're everywhere, but for many reasons, teachers who wind up in less glorious positions wind up being bad teachers. There are too many reasons to go into here, but one I encountered often was that even if the teacher went to Harvard and wrote a brilliant dissertation, etc, they may come to feel disillusioned with their work and lack of prestige. Doesn't always happen, but it's not hard to understand. I would also say that less prestigious schools with less money more often force faculty to teach in subjects that they have no real expertise in. The elite public college I attended often had professors scattered all over a multitude of departments -- you'd have a single teacher doing literature, film, gender studies, and history. That individual might be amazing at one of those (maybe...) but terrible and incompetent in the others.

    When I attended an ivy league school later, not only did teachers only teach subjects that they were world-class experts in (often field-defining thinkers), but not so rarely, courses were taught by two full professors. One would teach the part of the class that he was a research expert in and the other would do the half that she was an expert in. Even the TAs in these classes were often better than the professors I had at the public college. And teachers at prestigious schools are more likely to be happy with their work, pay, and students. This all translates to a lot of coddling and a lot of inspiration for students. Some of these classes were friggin catered on a regular basis-- I kid you not... and it blew my mind. It's a lot easier to deal with tough work in this sort of situation than easier work in a depressing place. My impression was that the ivy league schools are dead-set on making students succeed and feel special. My experience at a public school was that it was dead-set on convincing you that it was every bit as hard as Harvard.

    But this whole conversation makes me feel filthy and elitist. The really smart kids often don't even get into good schools. As a guest lecturer said at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, straight A students are usually the most inane, least interested in being challenged students in the country. They just want to get an A and they avoid taking any risks -- like thinking instead of memorizing or brown-nosing -- that might get in the way of that A. This statement enraged a lot of the people in the class (obviously). But it rings very true to me. I hate getting anything less than an A, but I recognize that that A is just so people hiring or admitting to graduate programs will think well of me. If you want to get a real education, you have to do it on your own time.

    Also, I'd say it's relevant here that the two worst professors I ever had had ivy league degrees. And it's also worth saying that the public college I went to had worse professors in my field in a lot of cases than the local colleges that I would never have dreamt of applying to. I didn't notice that until after I graduated.


  • al2simonal2simon Registered User Posts: 847 Member
    edited April 20
    al2simon provided an interesting insight into Phd admissions. However, it was a little depressing. It seemed like his Phd program was judging applicants at least as much based on whether they got admitted to an elite college for undergrad than on whether the elite college offered a more rigorous curriculum at the undergrad level.
    Not at all. We really spent a fair amount of time looking at each individual application in detail. Our Ph.D. admissions was very different from medical school or law school admissions, which seem to be very driven by GPA and MCAT / LSAT scores. We'd look at students' transcripts in detail to see exactly which relevant classes they'd taken and how they did.. We wouldn't necessarily even care that much if their GPA was lower because they had a C or two in some completely unrelated classes that they'd taken for fun. But grades and scores were only a partial filter.

    The goal was to admit the students from around the world who seemed to have the best potential to become serious scholars and real contributors to their fields. It wasn't to reward students who had managed to survive some Marine Corp like obstacle course by getting top grades in the most "rigorous" program. It wasn't to reward pedigree. It was (ideally) to find students with creativity and future potential to succeed as researchers. We'd pay lots of attention to any research they'd done, their recommendations, and their statement of purpose.

    However, year and year we'd find that about half of the best domestic students came from the same list of 25 schools. And for international students the results were even more skewed - the best students seemed to generally be concentrated in the top 3 or 4 schools in their home countries. Honestly, most of the top Ph.D. programs in our field and in similar fields came to pretty similar conclusions. However, even though this seems very skewed towards the elite schools, talented students in the US come from a far larger number of schools than is the case in other countries. We tried hard to find the best students no matter what school they applied from.
    @al2simon I've read that grad departments add up to 0.7 to the GPAs of applicants from Caltech. Probably if you were in an economics department, you had no experience looking at Caltech grads. But any thoughts on whether that might be somewhat accurate?
    There's no doubt that Caltech has lots of great students and has very rigorous programs and tough grading standards. However, there's no way that I'd use such a large adjustment if I were going to try to roughly compare a Caltech gpa to (for the sake of argument) a Harvard gpa. My best guess is this. If I were going to compare the "average good" Caltech undergrad STEM undergrad to a similar Harvard undergrad in the same field, I might adjust by .3 or .4. If I were going to compare a top Caltech undergrad to a top Harvard undergrad, I might adjust by .1
    This makes it sound as if they're using undergrad admissions selectivity as a proxy for academic rigor. It doesn't sound like they're really delving down into does the University of Minnesota's econ department have a lot of grade inflation, or require more papers, or provides a more mathematical treatment of econ or whatever your definition of rigor is in a particular major at the undergrad level.
    People who've worked their whole lives in a field know many of the top programs reasonably well. Some know them because they attended these programs as students or taught there as faculty. They're not guessing. However, there's no escaping the fact that increasing admissions selectivity is a pretty direct means to increase the number of top students.
  • QuantMechQuantMech Registered User Posts: 7,336 Senior Member
    I think a key issue here is that "rigor" is not uniform across a university, nor even within a major at a university. In my opinion, al2simon is right in saying that one has to look at the college transcripts in detail. I wish more selectors would do that.

    At my university, there are roughly 6,000 courses. Given the number of courses that students take as undergrads, there would be about 15 trillion possible course sequences. Of course, many of those would make no sense, but quite a few of them would, many would even fulfill all of the requirements for a degree, the their rigor would be all over the place.

    When I read about evaluations to determine whether high-school applicants can do "the work," I think this concern is inapplicable. There are very few universities in the country where there is anything that could really be termed "the work." The military academies have a definite baseline of academic performance. Caltech, I think, really has "the work," at least in terms of the number and types of courses that are required of all majors. There are probably other places that have "the work." St. John's, with a uniform curriculum based on great works, has something like "the work." Hardly anywhere else, including Harvard and Stanford, has "the work." At either place, a student could opt for a comparatively easy path or a comparatively difficult path. Easy majors exist, but challenging options exist within the easy majors, and some students take them.

    Back when I applied to MIT for grad school, the application form included a list of the texts used for all of my science and math courses. Probably the first hurdle for many applicants was just knowing what texts they had used. One can't completely tell the level of a course from the text, but it does help.
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 62,990 Senior Member
    Much2learn wrote:
    I think the majority of students and parents want an outcome-based ranking that says something about the typical student, not only the 1% of students who win some type of fancy award or go to congress, but says nothing about the other 99% of students. Without a salary outcomes, perhaps it would make sense to call it "Intellectual Rigor Outcomes for students who don't care about money", I think that would be accurate.

    However, outcomes have to be measured against inputs, as well as such factors as the choice of majors.

    For example, there are some posters who really push Stevens Institute of Technology based on its Payscale rankings. But Stevens Institute of Technology is mostly engineering and computer science majors, so graduates' pay levels will generally be higher than for typical colleges. Since Stevens Institute of Technology makes public its own post-graduation survey results by major, it is not difficult to find the real story, which is that its engineering and computer science graduates' pay levels tend to be similar to those of graduates in the same majors at schools like Alabama and San Jose State.

    Of course, that also means that outcomes need to take admission selectivity into context. Stanford graduates may be successful, but is it because they attended Stanford, or would they find much of their success if they attended less selective schools like Alabama or San Jose State? I.e. how much of their success is treatment effect (i.e. based on Stanford actually being better) versus selection effect (i.e. based on the graduates having been selected for success by Stanford's highly selective admission process)?
  • roethlisburgerroethlisburger Registered User Posts: 1,675 Senior Member
    edited April 20
    al2simon wrote:
    People who've worked their whole lives in a field know many of the top programs reasonably well. Some know them because they attended these programs as students or taught there as faculty.

    The reverse of that is having too many faculty who went from Ivy Plus undergrad to Ivy Plus grad school to Ivy Plus TT, is the committee may not have direct experience with numerous state flagships.
This discussion has been closed.