How do I break the prestige mindset?

Yes, but “prestige” doesn’t operate in a vacuum. These colleges became “prestigious” for a reason. They have many factors that are desirable such as world-class faculty and programs; very smart student peers; small faculty to student ratio; excellent alumni network and connected people; sizable endowments; larger percentage of students across the U.S. and the world; and top notch recruiting on and off campus.

“Prestige” can give you much more than just a name on your college diploma.

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We want what we don’t think we can have. I was accepted ED to Columbia University this year. If you had told me that last summer, I would have probably cried with joy. I had been so stressed about getting into a ‘good’ college throughout the summer and fall that I was convinced that if I could just get into this school, everything would work out.
In reality, it may be hard to consider this now (it certaintly was for me), but getting into the dream school won’t fix your problems. The stress you’ve felt for months on end about college applications doesn’t go away. It just gets funnelled somewhere else. It’s very easy to think we need something, when in reality, it makes our lives no better. Frequently after I was accepted to Columbia, I thought about if I had gotten rejected and ended up going somewhere like Syracuse, and the fact that I probably would have been just as happy, or even more so, had I gone to that school.

As a final thought. I suggest taking a really long and hard look at if an elite, ‘prestigious,’ school is what you want. You have to really love learning and school, and working hard, and stress. If you’re the type of person that can feel reward from working hours on end to create something great, then great. If that seems like something that would make you overly stressed and unhappy, please don’t. There is no reason to go to a T20 just for the name.


Do you mind me asking which 2 schools you are referencing? Just for context?

Some really really thoughtful responses here. I hope something clicks for you b/c getting out of the prestige mindset can make you so much happier, less stressed. Not just during college app/admissions but the rest of your life. Make happiness your goal, not achievement for its own sake.


Make fulfillment your goal. Chase happiness and you won’t be happy. Same with prestige. Work to achieve for a cause you believe in. Find a purpose for living. On your death bed, you yourself won’t care what college you went to. What you will care about would be the impact you had on other people.



Have hope and purpose.

With nearly any purchase you make there are 2 considerations. First is function. What do need the product or service to do. For colleges this can also include things such as environment, size, areas of strength, majors, etc. The second is how does it make you feel. Marketers love the second because it’s easier to sell a feeling than function. It’s also where things can get expensive. Functionally all else being equal a Mercedes and a Honda are pretty equal but people are willing to pay a lot more for how the Mercedes makes them “feel”. I consider college the vehicle not the destination. Focus on what you want to accomplish at a university and not how you want it to make you feel (once you start it won’t). Getting into a university, any university is just the beginning. From here your success is up to you.


Each time someone brings up US News Rankings, make the comment that the criteria being used is not meaningful and the rankings, themselves, are laughable.

Did you daughter end up transferring out of Columbia or choosing not to attend in the first place?

@triviascenes, she did transfer. She is at the University of Washington and enjoying most of her coursework and Seattle! Sometimes my husband and I wonder if she is being challenged enough in academics, but I prefer her happiness.

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When thinking about college, I think too many students (and sometimes families) start and stop with these questions:

  • What school will get me the most research/internship/future job opportunities?
  • What school will most easily allow me to get the highest paying job/best grad school?
  • What school name will most impress my friends and family?

My daughter started to ask other questions, like:

  • What school will not over-tax me academically, so that I have time and energy to put into building a group of forever friends and genuinely getting to know instructors and professors in fields that interest me (all those people I want to someday throw my bachelorette party or be godparents to my children or start a business with me or write the foreword in my first published book)? Going to college shouldn’t be just about acquiring skills and knowledge, but about finding your ride-or-die people. Some people can meet them in the trenches of all-night study sessions at an Ivy, but others will struggle to make meaningful connections when their nose is always in a book and mind is always clouded with problem sets.

  • Because I am not 100% certain about what I want to study or my future career, what school offers a lot of great majors and makes it easy to get the major or majors you want or to switch majors?

  • What school offers many different clubs and activities and opportunities to get involved in the community that interest me and which are not competitive to join? What school will also not over-tax me academically so I have time and energy to explore these other interests? Employers want to hire graduates who are involved in their communities and are able to talk with clients about subjects beyond the academic.

  • What school features a student body that strikes me as friendly and supportive and not so driven and ambitious that being around them stirs up my own competitiveness and anxiety to unhealthy levels? Part of becoming a healthy independent adult means learning to achieve work-life balance and care for my own mental health in the decades of working years to come. Some people are energized by hours in the lab and need less downtime; others need space to take more walks and binge watch more TV on the weekend to manage stress. No one should try to force themselves to be a kind of person they are not.

  • What kind of school is both affordable and likely to allow me to succeed academically so that when I have a more focused grad school and/or career goal, I will have the money and grades I need to achieve it? Assume, as a result of my undergrad education, I develop a passion for a subject and clearer career goals and now want to dive headlong into one of the nation’s best programs, which happens to be at a top-ranked university. Will I have the money and grades needed to attend, or will I have blown all the funds while I was still finding myself (and maybe messed up my GPA in a highly rigorous program)?

  • Will I have ample opportunity to make up for some life experiences I missed out on during the pandemic and sow some wild oats and avoid burnout before I have to buckle down in a challenging grad program or career and pay a mortgage, etc.? I realize it is a privilege to be able to take time to learn and smell roses and not grind away unceasingly to survive, but if that privilege exists, it seems shortsighted to pass it up.

Over-achievers sometimes fail to see the downsides of achieving their highest goals. Sometimes getting the lead role means staying up all night to do homework when cast-mates with small roles got it done between their scenes. And sometimes the environment on the “best” sports team is toxic because teammates are competing against each other for playing time more than working toward a common goal. Likewise, sometimes the pressure to be “perfect” is exacerbated in classrooms where everyone is a superstar; not only can you never be the “best” in that kind of group, but it can start to feel like you are never enough. Each person has to evaluate for themselves the amount of pressure they can or want to handle at this moment in their lives.

After asking THOSE questions, my daughter stopped caring about prestige and is 99% sure she will attend one of the safest of safety schools, because it the one that gives her joy when she thinks about attending (not pleasure because of what OTHERS will think, but genuine joy at the prospect of what she will experience there).


And to add to CMA’s excellent post- there are also kids who haven’t been adequately challenged intellectually in school. The kid who gets tapped by the teacher to help the kids who are struggling, rather than having their own educational needs addressed. So those kids might be asking “Where can I go where I won’t be at the top of the heap, where I can learn from peers who are smarter than I am?” And there are kids who have been tracked as “The math brain” who want to be at a college where they can also study Russian literature or Poli Sci, of the kid for whom academics came easily but wants to be in a place which encourages taking risks outside one’s comfort zone.

Not a one size fits all process!


That’s awesome! Is she still at the UW? How many years until she transferred? Did she feel she could have handled Columbia or ever wished to go back?

I am currently in a similar situation, so this helps a lot.

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My daughter was in her first year at Columbia when she knew living in NYC was wrong for her, so she left early. She really did like her classes there, and the instructors were wonderful, but the location and cramped environment was a terrible fit. She is very happy at UW, so I’m very happy about her choice and try not to look back. Also, her first year coincided with the start of the pandemic, so to be quite honest, I would not have been thrilled for her to return to NYC.

I do think she realizes that she could have handled the workload at Columbia as long as she stayed organized. She came in with strong writing skills, which definitely help.

So…I believe strongly that a student needs to find their best environmental fit along with academic fit.


CMA22 post is the best and most important one I have read on this forum in the past 18 months. Bravo.


We want what we don’t think we can have.

I suggest making a spreadsheet in which the columns are things that are important to you (like cost, academic fit, social fit, location, weather… whatever you think is important in your college search), and the rows are colleges.

Assign weight to each column, so that the sum of the weights equals 100% (or 1). So you might have Cost - 0.5, Academics - 0.3, Social Enviro 0.1, Location 0.05, Weather 0.05.

Then, for each school, assign a score between 1-10 for each of those variables.

Then, multiply each score by the weight of that column, and put that product in the space.

The farthest-right column is “Total” – simply add up the columns for each school.

This would be a way to completely take prestige out of it, place your focus solely on fit, and provide a quantitative way to rank schools according to your preferences.

When adding schools to the list, don’t just do it willy-nilly; rather, first run the net price calculator for each school to give you a fair idea of whether the school would be affordable. Only add a school to the sheet if it would be affordable.


This is, to the T, exactly what I did and it is very powerful. Thinking through the weighting really forces you to determine what is REALLY most important. When done properly, the results are almost anticlimactic. There will be no shock at the end.

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Of course, it looks like many posters would use weights like: prestige 0.8, … .


Unfortunately, yes.

I think prestige should only be used to break a tie. That, or just flip a coin.