How do I break the prestige mindset?

I’ve started building a college list and the more time I spend on it, the more I realize that I’m one of those kids who’s stuck in the prestige mindset. I’m not ignorant, I know that there are some benefits of going to a less selective school over a T20, but I can’t help but feel like this mindset isn’t going to go away.

For a bit of context, I happen to go to a private HS that’s pretty close to my state flagship. We send over 40% of our students there each year (another 35% go to the other big state school we have). The state flagship is no joke—it hovers around a match/reach school for most people, but just because of the area and how common it is for kids to go there, people have this crazy idea that it’s a safety school. Not only that but in many Asian circles (especially immigrant ones) it’s actually looked down upon if someone goes there (it’s like they failed to reach their potential of going to an Ivy or something ridiculous like that).

Maybe it’s because I come from an immigrant family so there’s definitely a lot of emphasis and concern surrounding college, but I can’t stop feeling like I need to go to a T20. How in the world do I break this mindset? I really don’t want to be in a world of hurt if I get rejected by all my reach schools.

I have that mindset as well, I don’t know how to break out of it either, I hope someone enlightens us with their wisdom about this.

It’s tempting to go after the Name Brand schools. They look shiny and bright at first glance. Once you become used to the glitter of their advertising and the hushed tones they’re spoken of on forums such as this, you find fairly quickly that outside of small academically oriented circles, most of the schools aren’t all that well known. Or, if they are well known, people don’t care.

So except for the Big Name Brands like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, most people on the planet don’t really pay attention. Most people haven’t heard of Pomona or Williams or Vassar. They may know Notre Dame or Michigan for the football teams, but don’t think they’re any “better” academically than Ole Miss or Auburn, also known for their rocking football teams.

Even college professors at Ivies don’t keep the USNWR list in their heads when looking at grad student applications. They are less likely to know or care about the name of a school and more likely to care about the student’s grades/scores, own research or work experience, own ideas, and maybe the professors (less the school) that the student has worked with or has a rec from. I’ve known Ivy profs who never heard of Bowdoin and can’t pronounce it and yet on this forum people get very exercised about Bowdoin. I’ve known other profs who have laughed when they heard the name Harvey Mudd because they’d never heard of it. Even places like Harvard Law School pulls students from all sorts of schools, from the prestigious to the not-very-prestigious.

Then there are the individual departments / disciplines that are better studied at state unis than at Ivy or Ivy equivalents. Would you study marine bio at Williams? Or at Oregon State U, which is easy to get into and has facilities on the Pacific Ocean. You’re more likely to have more meaningful and valuable experience at OSU and more likely to move forward in your career. There are many examples such as this. Glass engineering–best done at Alfred University which most people have never heard of.

Then there’s the premed story. Attending Yale or Princeton for premed is almost doing yourself a disservice. Getting into med school requires GPA+MCAT scores. Therefore the best place to get that combo is not at the most competitive schools but at a less competitive school and not in California or another state with many premed applicants but in a small, out of the way LAC in say Minnesota or Missouri.

Law school entrance is also primarily GPA+LSAT. Therefore being the stand-out performer at small rural LAC is better than being lower-performer at HYPS MIT.


If you are looking to break the prestige mindset, I would suggest not spending a lot of time on this site. Or at least selectively doing so. There are a lot of people here who very much have the prestige mindset. And for some the T20 aren’t good enough. Needs to be T10. And many of those people will do nothing but further your own prestige mindset.

If you know kids from your school who didn’t go to T20 schools, talk with them about their experience. Maybe they have older siblings who have graduated already and are in the job market/grad school. See what they are doing. I expect many of them who did not go to T20 schools are doing very well.

Reach out to people who are in the field of study you are interested in to see where they went to school, where people they work with went to school, etc.

There are a lot of people who are very successful who went to non-T20 colleges. And people who go to T20 colleges are are not very successful. Most T20 grads are very successful but thats to be expected given their backgrounds/skills/smarts.

In addition to the thoughtful response above, there is also the cost factor - Especially for students interested in pursuing medicine who have years and years of schooling ahead of them.

Close friend’s D turned down a top LAC for a full ride to a less selective LAC. She graduated #2 in her class, had all kinds of amazing undergrad opportunities, and was accepted to med school in her first round of applications. She was able the big fish in the small pond.

1 Like

I think some could find it helpful to tap into their own sense of individuality or even minor ‘rebel’ mentality. Think of finding the best non-elite school for you as a way to not follow the crowd or get caught up in the hype. Chart your own path.

My kids were not elite/T15 contenders, I admit. Both go to lesser known medium sized schools and I think they enjoyed telling people where they were going, explaining what/where it was if people had never heard of it, and what drew them there. They take pride in not going to the usual suspects for kids in their high school and for branching out and finding what was best for them…not what so many people think is best for everyone.

A read of Colleges That Change Lives can be a good immersion into a non-elite mentality. If you don’t want to be crushed by not getting into any of your reaches, put in the work to find some matches and safeties that you really, really like. And feel good about doing what is best for you.

And sometimes a visit to campus is enough to help break the mindset. My D found the students she encountered at some schools to be hyper competitive and way too intense for her liking.

1 Like

There are thousands of examples of people who have attended schools with 75% admit rates who have gone on to do fantastic things. I know two people who attended schools like this - one then went to Harvard Law, another received a PhD at Stanford.

Google “Caroline Sacks” and read about the Big Fish Little Pond Effect.

Look at the biographical and CV data of the professors at these schools you are looking at as your focus. So few would have attended the school itself or the target group you are discussing it’s enlightening.

Dig deep. Show your parents. Get a better focus on things. Apply to these schools and attend if yoyu are selected.

Apply with the current mindset to what you consider your match schools at your own peril. If a college is listed as selective or most selective and they arent on your usnwr radar. Believe it.

Also look at Forbes rankings. I like it much better than usnwr because it combines all schools and sizes.

I would say the top 100 on that list are all extremely competitive, widely respected and rigorous. It’s also the top 3 percent of all schools in the USA by being in the top 100.

If you are in the top 3 percent of your class do you feel that’s an ok student or a top student?

If you are top 4 percent now you are a slacker? That’s ludicrous. Apply that logic to this search too.

Education is about information. It’s about perspective. It’s about facts.

Demonstrate that fundamental truth in your search.

Good luck.

Take a look at where many of the CEOs of major corporations went to school:

@skate17 First of all, your post shows a lot of maturity. You attend a private school and imagine that includes pretty robust college counseling. Listen to you college counselor and they will help
you build a balanced list. Get your parents involved in these meetings too.

Highly recommend reading the book “Where you go is not who you’ll be” by Frank Bruni. It should be mandatory reading for many families.

One of my children was very caught in the prestige trap and when we visited a lesser known liberal arts school on a trip she loved everything about it - she was finally willing to read the above book and we could see the change in her and her thinking as the college process progressed.

Good luck !

I don’t think you need to break the prestige mindset- as long as you aren’t defining prestige by “appears in the top ten of a magazine which publishes these listings to sell more magazines”.

Identify what YOU are looking for in a college. Want a rigorous program in mechanical engineering? Yes, MIT and Cal Tech are prestigious. But so are a lot of colleges where employers LOVE their graduates, consider the programs both prestigious and rigorous, even if your local dry cleaner has never heard of them. Missouri M&T, Purdue, Rose Hulman? Check them out. Want a rigorous curriculum in Classics and Ancient History? yes, U Michigan, Chicago, Princeton and Harvard have fantastic departments. But check out U Toronto, Holy Cross, Ohio State…Want a “nationally known” program in creative writing? Yes, Johns Hopkins has one. But so does Kenyon-- a national profile.

You’re not doing anything wrong by aiming high. It’s just that your goal needs to be one that YOU identify, and that’s “worth it” for you. I wouldn’t go to Harvard to study animation, and I wouldn’t go to Yale to study the culinary arts. You have to define what YOU want!!! And then you can aim high- knowing that there are ambitious students and great faculty and tremendous resources all over the country, you have to know where to look. (and outside the country-- don’t mean to diss the Canadian universities, some of which have superb programs in a bunch of different fields).

1 Like

The one school my son DIDN’T like when he visited it was an Ivy. It was also the only school that rejected him. He wasn’t upset.

There are SO many amazing schools out there. And it’s so tough to land a job as a professor that most teachers are pretty darned good. My daughter went to a small school but had professors trained at top US universities. My son who graduated from the American University of Beirut had similar instructors!

As you get older, you’ll learn not to care what others think. Have you heard this saying?

"When I was 20, I cared what other people thought about me.

When I was 30, I decided I didn’t care what other people thought about me.

When I was 40, I realized other people weren’t thinking about me."

It’s really true.

The engineer I had the hardest time working with graduated from MIT. He was eventually let go. Graduating from a prestigious school doesn’t mean anything once you’re working.

Good for you to realize this issue as it is one of the biggies in college selection. As other have posted, there are so many great schools. If you took the names off and drilled down a bit, you might find many of them interchangeable.

I suggest you take this angle, approach. Start with you! What do you want to do? Where do you want to be? Type of school, location, size, vibe, academic strengths, etc. You’ll wind up blowing by many of the T20s because they won’t fit your P20 (personal top 20). You’ll also find there are schools below common T20 ranking that are world class in your areas of interest.

As an example, niece (top student in top school district) was looking for a strong Health Sciences / Occupation Therapy program. Her search led her to consider Quinnipiac. Turns out they are a major program for her specific area of interest but few would put Q at the top of any highly selective list. She looked at the staff of a very specific program within a leading children’s hospital (one of the best in the world) and over half of the clinicians were Q grads. Who knew? She would be better off going there than Harvard for that specific program (If they even have her program).

You’ll find that to be fairly common if you dig deep enough.

Prestige is about how others look at you. Be more concerned about you and what you do with your future opportunities.

Good luck!

@skate17 , you’ve received excellent advice here.

My own daughter was a bit focused on prestige (applied to 3 Ivies and eliminated 5), and shared that her classmates had never even heard of some of the other colleges on her list. This bothered her a little, but she did do the hard work of researching the programs, courses, and professors at each school and selecting those that appeared to best meet her needs. We visited most colleges on her list. As parents, we told her that Ivy League colleges were a bit overrated and thought small liberal arts colleges might provide her with a better education.

Well…my daughter was accepted to Columbia University and other highly/extremely selective schools. Columbia best met her academic checklist, and she wanted an urban college, so off to Columbia she went.

She learned a lot about herself in the past year. Although she wanted so badly to attend the most challenging college that met her academic needs, she had not thought enough about her environmental, physical, and social needs. She made a cluster of great friends, and she loved her classes, but the campus is tiny, and she craved privacy and quiet time. Big campuses with green spaces and opportunity for down time became very attractive. Smaller cities became much more attractive. She realized she longed to be closer to home (but not too close), nearer to her high school friends and family. She wanted a campus with a more traditional feel. She could not imagine living in NYC for 4 years.

I believe my daughter learned that there is a lot more to college than the prestige and even academics. The US offers a broad range of wonderful colleges that can provide the “full package” experience for well-matched students. And these schools are unknown in regional circles.

My own daughter has decided to attend her state flagship university. It might not provide the absolute best education in the humanities, but it will provide her more with the social and physical environment she wants and needs right now. To me, this means a lot. And she didn’t reapply to one of the LACs I recommended. :wink:

Good luck with your search. Please try to drop the prestige and focus on the full range of your needs in the college experience. If you can, look at Colleges That Change Lives, the Fiske Guide, Hidden Ivies, etc. If you must choose an Ivy to apply to, select one based on what you want.

Wishing you the absolute best!

1 Like

My D had to re-examine prestige due to cost. We could not afford her dream schools (e.g. Bates, Kenyon) and she needed to seek merit.

I got her to

  • imagine the names of these 2 had been removed, and to list out what she liked about them apart from the name
  • find other schools that offered merit that had similar characteristics, programs, locations, even if the new schools didn’t meet ALL the criteria.

For example:-

  • She liked a residential liberal arts experience. So we found lower ranked but still excellent LACs that offered merit (outside the NE).
  • She was interested in lighter distribution requirements and realized that at state schools she could use AP credit to knock out a lot of general requirement classes and get that freedom.
  • She also wanted to be in a group of intellectual peers - so where can we find these people? Honors Colleges at state flagships, specialist programs with selective admittance requirements, competitive merit programs

Her final list included fine LACs that offer merit e.g. Wooster, Denison, Susquehanna; honors college at our state flagship; and a couple of competitive programs at OOS universities, e.g Blount Program at Alabama; Capstone Scholars at South Carolina. She also applied to one competitive merit program at Boston College.

Result? She is absolutely with her intellectual peers, she didn’t have to take a lot of GE classes due to AP, and she got a residential liberal arts experience. She also got a lot more. And all in budget with no loans.

It was NOT at a school that is anything like as prestigious as her Dream Schools, in fact it is unlikely to ever be mentioned in the same sentence as them.

1 Like

One thing to do, which might require waiting for the pandemic to wind down, is visit some schools. Sit in on classes. Talk to students. Talk to professors. You are going to find that there are a lot of very good universities and a lot of very good professors.

Anyone who has seen my posts over the past couple of years knows that I am not of the “prestige mind set”.

I think that I might have broken the prestige mind set by the somewhat odd method of attending a couple of prestigious universities (MIT for undergrad, Stanford for my master’s degree). Then I got a job. I found that my strongest coworkers come from a very wide range of universities. Some of the very strongest coworkers or other strong experts that I have ever worked with graduated from MIT, Stanford, Rutgers, U.Mass Amherst, UNH, U. of Minnesota, U. Michigan, UVA, UNC, seminary school, SJSU, any one of various IIT’s (in India), Tsinghua, U. Witwatersrand (this was a professor I had), U. Alberta, UBC, McGill, Toronto, and a very very wide range of other schools. I also noticed when I was in graduate school (at Stanford) that the other students there had done their bachelor’s degree at a very, very wide range of universities.

A couple of years ago I had a very tough problem to solve. I had to go to a really top expert, so I asked someone I have known for decades. He is a top expert in this very narrow area who happens to be an MIT graduate. He listened to my problem, them immediately said "you have to talk to ". I went to talk to (another really top expert in this narrow area, and a really nice guy). He listened to the problem, very clearly explained the solution and related considerations. Then we went to lunch. Over lunch we started talking about universities. He graduated from the local in-state public university. His parents could afford it. He did really well there.

I also know someone very well who got their bachelor’s at a school that is not in the top 100 in the US, but is in the top 150. They could save money by living at home. Then they did their master’s at an Ivy League university that happens to have a strong program in their major.

And I know someone who is going very interesting research as an undergraduate student at a university that you have never heard of. One issue is that they go to a small school where you get to know your professors. Another is that they are nice, pragmatic, and at the top of the class so the professors want to work with them.

The point is that there are hundreds of universities with excellent professors and great research opportunities. There are hundreds of universities where the top 10% of students are as strong as the students that you find at Ivy League schools. Really smart people attend a wide range of universities for a wide range of reasons.

Another point is that what you do in university is more important than where you do it.

Looking at rankings is easy. Finding a university that is a good fit for you is tougher. Unfortunately the pandemic makes it even harder since visiting is not practical and there currently are no classes that you can sit in on.

Someone recommended a video to me recently. Malcolm Gladwell talks on why you shouldn’t go to Harvard. Google His name and Zeitgeist. Interesting statistics–it’s worth a view.


Is your family independently wealthy? You have indicated elsewhere on this forum that you want to be a doctor, and maybe get an MBA as well or something. Or maybe do consulting for a pharma company or research. Frankly, you are a little unclear in your career goals, but that’s ok…you are in HS.

I would strongly suggest that you at least consider undergrad programs where you won’t have a dime if debt after undergrad school. I say this, because medical school is hideously expensive with precious little free money funding. Med school is usually paid with loans, loans and more loans. And we are talking a large amount of money in loans because you need to fund both Med school tuition, and living costs (I won’t even go into the details of testing costs, and applying for residency costs).

The best way to not get sucked into the prestige hound circle…stop reading rankings. Just stop.

Look at the things you want in an undergrad college. Not the rankings.

And discuss the costs with your family right now. Even if they have tons of money, they might just have a limit on what they intend to spend annually on your college costs.

And look at your instate public universities. See if they have honors colleges. Look positively at what they provide. Plenty of professionals graduate for state public universities…and are very successful.

As already noted many times above, there are a large number of outstanding academic institutions which you may never have heard about!


  1. If a university/college has a entering class with an average unweighted GPA approaching straight A's, your classmates can help you.! (I.E. a 4.0 on an unweighted scale) The dialogue will be there and your faculty is used to it. Walk around the campus, meet the students and interact. This will tell you more about the university than a popularity (ranking?) score.
  2. Find out their job placements BY MAJOR. Do not compare English Lit BA incomes to BS in CS incomes. Note, many BS in CS majors do not forgo a high income for graduate school. Biology majors may need graduate school to find gainful employment. Where did those literature/history majors go to law school?
  3. Find out graduate school placements, if possible, by specific Universities. Many of the top departments in many fields are not found in the Ivies. By way of example, how about a PhD in BME or an MD from Johns Hopkins? Yes, they admit students from colleges you have never heard about.
  4. Many outstanding colleges/universities will never be showing their football/basketball teams on national television. They usually have the student teams on campus. Participation in sports or other activities are usually more often helpful than not... see if they have what YOU want and you will have a richer learning experience!