Big fish Small Pond

I am a HS senior stuck between two schools for mechanical engineering, mainly, Cornell and Clarkson (leaning Clarkson). Cornell is best academic school I stand a chance for, but even if I get in I would most likely be in the bottom %50 or %25 of admittances GPA/SAT wise. Vs Clarkson (which I have financial and athletic reasons to attend which are pretty big factors) I would most likely be around the %75+ percentile enrolled.
I am a good student and a pretty decent worker but I am not the type to be up till 3a.m. studying for a quiz in HS.
Additionally Clarkson is a much smaller school (obviously) in fact, Cornell’s engineering college is bigger than Clarkson’s entire enrollment.

That being said, does the “big fish little pond” exist? By that I mean is it beneficial to some extent to go to somewhere you will be challenged, but also easier to be known by professors, get research funding (maybe?), and get thoroughly challenged but stay on top of schoolwork and get a good GPA, and possibility of good job through professor rec’s / GPA.
Additionally if I did enroll in Cornell around the bottom %25 is it a concern that I could get drowned with work and either have no life outside of schoolwork or take a big GPA hit/ get lost in the system of such a big school?
And if the “big fish little pond” effect does exist could is compare anywhere near to the difference in prestige?

Sorry if this is a lot of questions to ask but any opinions are apricated!

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You may want to check out this link from 3 years ago.

In my opinion, you are asking the wrong question which is too broad and generic to help in your decision.

Instead, I would compare and contrast each college’s engineering program. What are the internship and research opportunities?; how’s the culture of the colleges?; is diversity of student body important to you?; do you do better in a small school environment or larger one?; what is the cost difference?; what are the 4 year graduation rates? What % of graduates get jobs in 6 months? What is the average salary? Which college would give you the best overall education (not just in Engineering); etc.

My last point is that since you have not been accepted to either college yet, you need to apply broadly to a good mix of colleges that are are good fit: financially, socially, and academically and then determine which one(s) will be the best for you.

Good luck…

I think you are definitely asking the right questions! It sounds like you may even know the answer. Fit is key. Have you been able to reach out to any students at those schools? Sometimes AO’s are able to connect you which can help tip your decision.

Yes, Some of my best friends go to both schools. Everyone I know seems to love their choice, although the people at Cornell seem much more stressed (even though tbh they are better students than myself). It is the question of preferred fit (high vs low) and I have been promised 15k+ /yr in merit to Clarkson and the overall price difference will most likely be 80-100k more to attend Cornell and most likely including taking on 20-30k in debt vs graduating Clarkson debt free. (can also ski D3 at Clarkson unlike Cornell)
thanks for your response

Part of this depends on who you are as a person. There are people who will perform better just by being in the company of a very ambitious and driven group, even if they are struggling to keep up. Others do better when they are leading the pack. I’m sure you know a version of this through skiing – are you happier on an elite team or being a stronger member of a more moderate team?

It sounds like you really prefer Clarkson, which is a very good school and that the environment at Cornell doesn’t excite you. That’s fine!

One of the students I referred to in the old thread referenced above developed so much confidence and got so much attention as a “big fish” that she’s now pursuing her PhD in a highly rated program.

Thanks, the team example is a great thought experiment, actually helps me a lot! (That exact part is one of the reasons why I if at all am going D3 vs taking gap year to try and go d2/1)
I have a tendency to get very mildly disenchanted instead of motivated when around people doing things at an unobtainable level for me vs challenging myself and goal setting when I’m nearer to the top but not at it.
Thanks again, well said

“goal setting when I’m nearer to the top but not at it.”

Realistic and good when kids have this self awareness.

D1 said the same thing and the smaller college worked well. Clarkson is strong. It’s not like comparing a subpar program. Not at all.

Good analogy. Some kids need others at a strong/stronger pace to stay engaged. Others give up and the pack moves ahead. If you know who you are and what motivates you, you can find the right spot.
One of my kids is very competitive ( sports) and academics. But uses a self metric of how well he/she did. Despises others asking about stats and GPA ( even and esp. if my kid is stronger ). Was raised to succeed but not compare. This made elimination of some schools very easy. Kid tends to fall into groups of hard working like minded kids ( often who are by nature collaborative).

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There are several things to parse here. It depends on the person, but I loved going to a bigger school as there was never a shortage of things happening on campus. But some people hate the thought of being just a number. Regarding stress, it could be you are seeing freshmen who are just getting used to being challenged–you eventually learn to cope with stress.

Regarding cost, are your parents picking up the difference in cost, which means you will have $20-$30K of debt? That’s not much, especially when considering you would be attending an Ivy League school. If it’s closer to $80-$100K for you, that is a big difference, and it would steer me towards Clarkson if I had debt hanging over me. With a degree in engineering, you will likely get a job upon graduation from either school.

Being on the ski team is pretty cool, and if this is very important to you, so much that you would pass on going to a very good school, go that direction. But a lot can happen…you don’t make the team, you get injured, etc.

There’s a significant gap between these two, academically. Are these the only two options? I wouldn’t pick a school based on a club ski team.

The other options I was looking at is RPI, WPI and (kinda) U of R, but with these the Clarkson scholarship seems even more enticing than at Cornell.

Just some more data to throw out is the difference in starting salaries from the two schools. There is a 7k-ish difference in the median starting salaries from mechanical engineering grads from the two schools, but considering the top and bottom of pools this in reality could be smaller for me. (although the celling is much lower 90k Clarkson 120k Cornell)

Attentionally how would this choice affect grad school? Does Cornell undergrad feed right into Cornell grad? Will Clarkson bar me from any high grad school?

(Intrigued by the Cornell M-Eng + MBA double degree but its way to early to know if that’s what I want to do.)

I don’t know how the joint degree at Cornell works, but my son was saying that the kids he knows who did a 3-2 degree (different schools) had to maintain a very high GPA – significant higher than most other students at his school full of smart kids – to keep that option open. In fact, many kids who started with that as a goal found they couldn’t be eligible.

I only mention that so that IF there are conditions for doing that joint degree, you understand them up front.

The reported median starting salaries for Mechanical Engineering at the 2 schools are listed below (sample is small fraction of grads).

Cornell – $73k (University and College Scorecard both report $73k)
Clarkson – $64k (College Scorecard)

While Cornell does appear to have a ~14% higher median, you also need to consider that these are completely different student bodies. Cornell engineering has a 9% acceptance rate (6% male, 16% female) and ACT range of 32-34. Clarkson has a 75% acceptance rate and ACT range of 23-30. Cornell as a whole has much higher quality students who are more likely to have impressive resume experience/skills, more likely to ace job interviews, etc. I expect it’s the huge difference in student quality that is primarily driving the 14% higher salary, not the Cornell brand name. If you compared similar quality students, I think it’s likely that Clarkson would have a small edge in starting salary.

One exception to this generalization is finance, particularly investment banking. However, in the most recent Cornell post grad survey, no mechanical engineering majors indicated that they went in to finance, so this is probably a non-issue for your planned major.

I thought we started here taalking about fit and chances for success within the major (the right level of competition for this OP,) during the four years. Now it’s getting kinda analytical, eh?

And CC doesn’t generally tell kids (or families) to take on more debt, jusy because one college is an Ivy.

CC also likes anecdotes (I don’t, so much,) so here’s my sample of one: D’s hs ex, a high school math wiz, went to Clarkson/MechE, then GA Inst of Tech. He played his cards well, during the four years, made the most of opportunities. In very large part, his Clarkson choice was that merit money. 12k at the time. (Though his family can well afford full pay, several times over.)

OP, Ihave a feeling you will find the right, balanced decision, for you.

It sounds to me as if you think you’d be happier at Clarkson, and you could graduate without debt, but you feel as if you “should” got to Cornell if you can get in… or perhaps Clarkson is recruiting you for skiing, but you’re hesitating to make the commitment and foreclose on the possibility of Cornell? Or is it that you’re considering whether to increase your odds at Cornell by applying ED there, but you’re hesitating to make that commitment because you really like Clarkson better?

Clarkson has a strong, ABET-accredited engineering program. It sounds like it offers the life balance that you’re looking for - smaller school, ski team, and a cohort where you’ll be above average in aptitude and preparation, but not so far above average as to be an outlier. (The better to be challenged but not struggling, and thus able to devote time to your sport and hopefully achieve good life balance!)

This all sounds like a win to me. I don’t see any reason you should hesitate to commit to Clarkson if that’s a decision you need to make early, because of the ski team, and you feel like it offers the best combination of academics, sports, student experience, and affordability. If you don’t need to commit yet, then apply to both and decide later!

You aren’t going to be meaningfully disadvantaged in starting salaries or grad school by going to Clarkson.

And although I agree with @lookingforward that the plural of anecdote is not data, I will add that Collegekid2 is currently doing her PhD at Cornell and is TA’ing in the engineering school. She is very happy that she did her undergrad at her not-known-for-STEM LAC, as she finds the undergrad engineering program at Cornell to be very intense. As others have said above- that suits you or it doesn’t.

Truly, trust yourself.

Thank your for your response and yeah you said kind of where my brain was heading, the other reason why I’m rushed by this the fact that Clarkson also offers a 2k/yr scholarship for applying ED so that 8k would be a great additional plus to the already generous scholarship.

I think that they are both good choices, and you should go to the school that you feel is a better fit for you.

I did just check, and Clarkson is ABET certified for many engineering programs.

I do know someone who might be called a “big fish in a little pond”. This has made it possible (and almost easy) to get some great internship and research opportunities. In total there are probably more opportunities at Cornell. However, there will be more stronger students competing for them, and there will be graduate students competing for some of them.

Highly ranked schools with strong engineering programs (Cornell and MIT come to mind) are academically challenging. There are quite a few students at these schools who do feel stressed out. Some days you would fill excited to be studying with great professors who are teaching at a high pace. Some days it will feel like too much. There will most likely be a few bad professors also at any university. A bad professor in a tough class can be a real grind (in an unpleasant way).

Personally I do not think that there is a bad choice. If you would be more comfortable at Clarkson and if you can graduate with no debt there those are two huge and important factors.

One thing I have said about academically tough schools (Cornell fits) is “You have to want to do it”. Clarkson will require a lot of work over four years and will allow you to learn a lot. Cornell most likely will require even more hard work.