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Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

Saint68Saint68 39 replies7 postsRegistered User Junior Member
Hi everyone. I'm a Dad of 3, the oldest is just starting her college search. I'm interested in your opinions about whether more selective schools are also more rigorous and academically challenging in the classroom.

I always figured this was sort of obvious - of course <insert highly selective school> will be more challenging to a given student than <insert less selective school>. This has led me to think that many kids will struggle if they attend the most selective school to which they are accepted (sidebar: if true this flies in face of much of the college admission machinery which seems largely concerned with getting a student into the most selective school possible for that kid... just my take).

I've made this point to a number of people and I'm surprised by how often the response is something along the lines of, "all colleges are equally difficult" or, "XYZ college is very hard to GET INTO, that doesn't mean it's any HARDER to excel once you enroll."

I get that I'm painting with a broad brush here but you see what I'm asking. I could definitely see this issue affecting how I coach my kids in their college search. Thoughts? Thanks in advance.
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Replies to: Are More Selective Colleges More Academically Difficult?

  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus 77195 replies672 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    While there may be a general correlation between admission selectivity and academic rigor, it is not necessarily true for any specific schools.

    Also, some schools have a range of options for some courses. Frosh/soph level math is a common example. Many colleges have the standard sequence of single variable calculus, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations. But more selective colleges are more likely to offer honors versions (in a few cases, their only offerings are like honors versions elsewhere), while less selective colleges are more likely to offer lower level courses (e.g. calculus for business majors, math-light for graduation requirement) and/or remedial/developmental courses (e.g. precalculus). A large school with a wide range of students may offer both honors versions and lower level and developmental/remedial courses because the tails of its student range are large enough fill all of those courses.
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  • HImomHImom 34102 replies389 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    I'd say "it depends." If there is a bell-shaped curve at the school AND the folks in the school are all more motivated higher-achievers than otherwise, SOME folks will have to be at different points of the curve, so yes, I'd imagine it would be tougher. If the profs and school figure that everyone is like Lake Woebegone and everyone is above average, then they may assign grades accordingly.

    My kids went to a competitive private U--S said there were some very brilliant people there but he did better there in his engineering GPA than he did in HS (which was a competitive private HS). Some kids thrive in competition while others fold under it.
    edited March 2017
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  • AroundHereAroundHere 3580 replies22 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    I think they can be more academically difficult, but aren't always so.

    There are probably easy/hard majors and hard/easy classes at any college. At the selective school I attended, education was considered an easy major, for example. Some majors pride themselves on being the toughest majors on campus, and at my school that was physics.

    Some elite schools have a real pressure cooker reputation, but not all do. Some schools take stress reduction seriously and others consider it a rite of passage.

    There are kids working their tails off who are having the time of their lives at school. Others are glad to be somewhere where classes are more manageable, and there is more time for extracurricular activities or earning money. Your child needs to think about what they want before they can recognize a school that offers the right environment for them.

    I know that my kid really gained a lot of insight when she got a chance to sit in on classes or talk to students individually or in a small group.
    edited March 2017
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  • twogirlstwogirls 7149 replies7 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    I think it depends on the major and on the school. Enginering at a less selective school is still going to be difficult.
    edited March 2017
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  • toomanyteenstoomanyteens 992 replies59 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    @thumper1 which begs the question why pay big bucks for the more selective school if you have other options?
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  • toomanyteenstoomanyteens 992 replies59 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    @jonri So far my children have toured a number of colleges at a number of selectivity levels and that seems to be pretty much a given for all schools we have seen from the middle of the road to the most selective schools
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  • CottonTalesCottonTales 1197 replies20 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    If you mean harder to excel, as in getting high grades, I would say yes since you would be competing against higher achievers for grades that are curved.
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  • hs2015momhs2015mom 622 replies54 postsRegistered User Member
    edited March 2017
    I think class pace and rigor increase with selectivity. And for any classes graded on a curve, it's harder to get good grades in a class where everyone is extremely capable.
    edited March 2017
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  • cobratcobrat 12207 replies78 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited March 2017
    My impression from my own experience and comparing notes with friends and colleagues attending a range of colleges is that while there's slightly higher workload/rigor on average, it's nowhere near what most people assume from the admissions difficulty/selectivity.

    Notable exceptions of colleges known for its high workloads in both quantity and rigor are MIT/Caltech/CMU, Harvey Mudd, Georgia Tech, UChicago, Reed, Swarthmore, Cornell(Engineering and A & S....especially natural sciences), etc.

    And even then, it is very YMMV. For instance, none of my Cornell attending relatives...including one currently attending engineering or two others* majoring in a natural science...one as a pre-med felt it was very difficult/demanding. Same with most HS classmates. However, even they would admit they're aberrations rather than the norm.

    * One recent graduate within the last year and another who's an MD.
    Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers" I believe, recommends that students attend a college or university where they would place in the top one-third of their cohorts. Doing so places them on the path to success, he argues. This is worth pondering as college choices are considered.

    I went against that recommendation and attended an LAC where my HS GPA placed me well within the bottom 25% or less of the admitted students. Even my father* was concerned enough to try dissuading me from accepting the admissions offer even with its FA/scholarship package which made it cheaper to attend than my local public colleges at the time.

    I ignored all that and actually found the workload there to not only be manageable even with maxing out my semester load and working a part-time job, but the overall experience to be far easier than HS.

    To this day, I still wished my HS academic rigor/pacing was like that I experienced in undergrad at that LAC or the graduate classes I took at an Ivy as it meant I wouldn't have been consigned to being the academic dunce in HS.

    * My LAC was very well known and respected in my father's country of origin among the educated even when he was a young child in the '40s. .
    But more selective colleges are more likely to offer honors versions (in a few cases, their only offerings are like honors versions elsewhere), while less selective colleges are more likely to offer lower level courses (e.g. calculus for business majors, math-light for graduation requirement) and/or remedial/developmental courses (e.g. precalculus).

    YMMV. For instance, I know for a fact precalc was offered at Harvard and peer colleges....though not always for credit.

    Also, Harvard offers different levels of intro math courses such as the famous/infamous math 55 course or stats*.

    Incidentally, most colleges IME which explicitly offer honors courses separate from regular ones tended to be the less selective institutions though there are exceptions within the elite colleges as mentioned above.


    * Harvard offered differing intro stats courses for math, engineering/pre-med/natural sciences, and Econ/everyone else. And they are counted for fulfilling graduate level stats requirements as I saw several grad students taking those courses to fulfill a skill requirement.
    edited March 2017
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  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan 12668 replies29 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    No absolutes, and some majors like engineering have fair high minimum requirements everywhere, but in general, there is a correlation between selectivity and rigor. Arguably, that correlation isn't so great once you get to the top 100-200 (including most state flagships) or so since the professors there will be at a high enough level that those who want to be challenged will be challenged.

    But is the rigor of regular CS classes at a school with open admissions going to be as high as at MIT/Caltech/Ivies/equivalents/top CS schools like Cal/UIUC? Er, no.
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  • ScipioScipio 8467 replies477 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    From what I observed of my daughters who both attended highly selective colleges vs. my own experience at middle of the road colleges is that the material in similar courses is much the same. They may even being using the same text books. But the workload was noticeably greater at the selective schools. More reading. Bigger problem sets. And the whole thing just seemed move faster - no time spent in class explaining stuff to the laggards. At the selective schools you were expected do whatever it took to keep up with that train - because it has left the station and it is not going to slow down.
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  • PurpleTitanPurpleTitan 12668 replies29 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    To build on what @cobrat said:
    It's more that the distribution of rigor looks different from the distribution in selectivity.
    Thus rigor at a flagship with a 60% admit rate may be closer to an Ivy/equivalent with a <10% admit rate than it is to some schools with a 90% admit rate.
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