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Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?


Replies to: Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

  • rosered55rosered55 Registered User Posts: 3,895 Senior Member
    There's a saying (and who knows if it's true) that the hardest thing about Harvard undergrad is getting in. I.e., that despite being very selective, it is not the most or even close to the most academically difficult college.
  • mathmommathmom Registered User Posts: 31,155 Senior Member
    I attended Harvard a million years ago. It wasn't easy to get A's, but you had to be pretty lazy to get C's. I thought the biggest reason though that it seemed easier than high school was because most of my schedule was stuff I wanted to take not stuff I had to take.
  • nw2thisnw2this Registered User Posts: 2,555 Senior Member
    I went to a non-selective all female lac for undergrad (stem field) and a selective university for grad school. I took a couple of undergrad courses (400 level) in grad school. The work at the selective university was much harder than what I had experienced in undergrad. They might use the same text book, but go faster, cover more chapters, and assign more and more difficult problems from the same book.
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Registered User Posts: 71,707 Senior Member
    compmom wrote:
    ps Harvard addressed grade inflation issues some time ago, I believe

    http://www.gradeinflation.com/Harvard.html indicates that Harvard's average GPA in 2015 was 3.65, referenced from http://features.thecrimson.com/2016/senior-survey/academics-narrative/
  • bernie12bernie12 Registered User Posts: 5,190 Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    @ucbalumnus : Apparently addressing grade inflation now means "not having a 4.0 graduating average". I think there was a small period where GPAs at H dropped some but it bounced back.

    Also, as far as this conversation goes. Remember that I do not equate all "high workload" courses to high quality courses. Some courses with high workload can be giving busywork (and when you talk intro. language courses, especially at selective schools, this is a necessity due to nature of the content and the fact that learning a new language requires a lot of "drill") much like many more rigorous HS courses. Some courses may give a lower graded workload but make it more challenging and useful. Some, as is common in STEM, may give "optional but recommended" problem sets that are at a high level. The professor will have higher level items on exams so those who refuse to do or refuse to seriously engage and understand the problem sets cannot expect to do better than the mean for the course. Some STEM courses may have more grades but items in assignments are much lower level. So in the latter case, the greater "time on task" is really just helping students maybe nail 1-2 on level stuff on Bloom's Taxonomy. This is common in like general chemistry courses which may have online problems (ARES, webassign, ALEKS) and maybe some assigned book problems. For general chemistry courses where the instructor wants to put some "weeder" problems (like 3 or 4 but mainly 3) on exams, optional worksheets (maybe recitation or SI) may be used but unfortunately often all the other work at lower levels is a big distraction. From what I have seen, physics classes at selective schools are much more effective in that their systems (often webassign) often include at least higher level problems.

    @ucbalumnus : Were'nt you engineering? How did those two courses compare. Gen. chem and physics for scientists or engineers.

  • calmomcalmom Registered User Posts: 19,958 Senior Member
    It depends on major and it depends a lot on the student's attitude. If a student at an Ivy or other top elite college wants to slack off, they can figure out a path to do so pretty easily. Probably not in a STEM major... math & science don't' leave a lot of wiggle room. But they can choose an easier major and also pick and choose which courses, taught by which profs, to enroll in. Word gets around pretty quickly about which profs are more or less demanding.
  • cobratcobrat Registered User Posts: 12,285 Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    ---Less reading at less selective school. I read 100pp per week per class in the old days. Now? Maybe 30pp and I think I am the only one reading.( This could be related to differences in today's students and yesterday's.)


    When I was taking grad classes at Columbia, I was astounded at how many Columbia grad students, especially SIPA students were complaining about 200 page/week reading loads per class. Most realized they really should stop their whining when I mentioned ONE of the graduate classes I was taking for advanced grad students(8000 level) had a peak reading load of 2000 pages/week. And despite the exceedingly heavy reading load, it was one of the most enjoyable courses I've taken in my life so far.

    200 pages of reading/week per class was about par for the course or slightly higher than what was expected in most of my first year survey humanities/social science courses. And the reading loads increased once one moved into the intermediate/advanced colloquium/seminar classes(Had peak reading loads of 800-1000 pages/week for one of the 2 seminar/colloquium classes I took along with Chinese and another course with another 200 pages of reading/week or equivalent for one semester....and I did that while working a part-time job).

    Even then, I still feel undergrad/grad was much more manageable/easier than the 4 years of HS at my public magnet.

    It was a difference between humming along nicely on a well-maintained seaworthy ship vs barely keeping my head above academic water while treading as furiously as I can to avoid sinking beneath the waves.

    He was saying that you have to take measures atypical of Yale students to get the C, such as not turning in assignments, and doing miserably on tests.

    Several HS classmates and friends who attended HYP joked that one would literally have to not only kick the Prof in the pants, but also set them on fire to get a C at their respective institutions*.

    * With the possible exception of engineering students at Princeton though all of the ones I knew/worked with excelled there. One later earned his MS/PhD in EE at MIT.
  • prezbuckyprezbucky Registered User Posts: 4,297 Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    What is the correlation, if any, between graduation rate and rigor?

    Here's where I'm going:

    Yes, there are many reasons why a kid might flunk out: not disciplined/motivated, not getting the help he or she needs, not the sharpest tool in the shed, long or chronic illnesses, etc.

    But let's take a flagship where the average ACT is 28. I think most would agree that a kid with a 28 ACT ought to be able to graduate if he or she tries and avoids common behavioral or health pitfalls. Heck, 24-25 could get a degree. My sister had a 23 (terrible test-taker...) and graduated with a higher GPA than
    I did, and I am a good test-taker.

    My point is, if, say, 90% of admitted students have the ability to graduate, but only 65% do, can we say that maybe rigor and tough grading had something to do with it? Not everything, obviously, but something?

    If so, what can we say about schools where 100% of the kids have the brains, and 95% of them graduate?

    If 72% of qualified students graduate from School A while 95% of students graduate from School B, which school is harder? Again -- many possible reasons for failing to graduate. But flunking out requires very bad grades. We can probably at least say that the most selective schools aren't the only ones that can be rigorous.
  • reuynshardreuynshard Registered User Posts: 124 Junior Member
    It is pretty easy to skate by at selective institutions by being strategic about the classes you choose and the major you select. Stanford athletics had a whole list of 'gut classes' that they 'encouraged' athletes to take.That said, the general introductory classes for certain - things like multivariable calculus, introductory microeconomics or organic chemistry are fairly rigorous.

    Where the selective schools shine is the other end - you will be hard pressed to find courses like Harvard's Math 55, Yale's Physics 260 or Directed Studies at less selective schools, and harder still to find a bunch of peers motivated to take them with you.
  • Saint68Saint68 Registered User Posts: 46 Junior Member
    Thanks everyone for all the thoughtful responses. Very helpful. I expected the feedback would vary, but I'm at least getting a general vibe that confirms my initial position that in many (most?) cases more selective also means more challenging once you enroll.

    So what are the implications to college choice?

    Here are the first two thoughts that come to my mind.

    1. Does the HS student achieve current academic outcomes easily and with little work or is she already operating at 'full capacity?' The former would be a good candidate to attend the 'reachiest' school to which she is admitted. The latter might be overwhelmed there since she has already worked so hard just to scrape admission.

    2. Does the HS student prefer to be stretched, challenged, to 'compete' academically, to be among people as bright or brighter than her OR does she prefer to be one of the smartest people in the room? Again, the former might thrive at a more rigorous school while the latter might look down her list to colleges where she will be towards the top of the admitted class.

    Agree? Other thoughts? Thanks again.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 34,975 Senior Member
    OP, my D2 was your former type in 1 & 2. Her goal in the college search was to find the smartest people and the most rigorous environment possible. Not every student wants that. And it does vary among schools. Her final choices included UChicago, Harvey Mudd, and Swarthmore. The only reason she didn't apply to Columbia is because she doesn't like NYC.
  • LizardlyLizardly Registered User Posts: 2,395 Senior Member
    Interesting thoughts. When I was in high school, I was dying to get out of my small town/small high school and go challenge myself. High school was easy, the SAT was easy (with no prep in the old days). The highly selective college was initially hard. More reading and deeper thinking required, and my peers were all so smart! But it was what I expected and what I wanted and I adapted. My dad grew up in the same small town and went to the same high school and is a genius (really). But he chose to go to junior college near his hometown, then transfer to Big State U, both of which were easy for him. He has a different temperament and personality than I do. He likes to be the smartest guy in the room and is averse to change. When I was choosing a college, we fought over my choice because he couldn't understand why I would want to make it so hard. (Heck, we still fight over my life choices because I crave challenge and novelty and he doesn't.)

    As I mentioned, I am taking some courses now at a local U. I do enjoy it. But my younger self would have been frustrated because she wouldn't have felt pushed enough.
  • lvvcsflvvcsf Registered User Posts: 2,181 Senior Member
    I can't help but think that if you get a class full of well prepared bright students that the subject matter taught would either be more in-depth or that the class would cover more material in a given period of time. Anecdotally, my D goes to a highly ranked public flagship and studies Chemical Engineering. She co-oped with students from more regional schools. She was taking a class one semester at the same time a friend from a different school was taking the same class. They used the same textbook. My D's class covered the entire textbook while her friend's covered about 2/3rds of it during the semester. Just to let you know she considered her friend an excellent engineer and she has a good job right now.
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