DON'T Go to the Best School You Get Into? Really?

“When it comes to choosing your undergraduate institution, you should never go to the best institution you get into. Never. Go to your second or your third choice. Go to the place where you’re guaranteed to be in the top part of your class.”


In the video above, Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, argues that it is irrational for students to choose to attend elite universities rather than less elite ones. Gladwell attributes the choice of most students to attend the best college possible to something he calls Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder: “When we have an opportunity to join elite institutions, we are so enormously flattered and pleased with ourselves that we do things that are irrational.”

But even if there are psychological factors affecting what universities students choose, what exactly makes it irrational to choose the most elite one? Gladwell presents data on dropout rates for science and math majors by school, showing that while a student with a middling math SAT score might switch out of his computer science major at Harvard because it was too tough, that same student would likely have performed very well in a STEM major at a less competitive school. Thus, Gladwell claims, students should not attend the best school they get into, but should instead pick one where they will be one of the most intelligent students.*

1) Why His Argument is Flawed

This argument exemplifies why I loved Gladwell’s books and articles as a high-schooler, but why they have become far less convincing to me now. The main flaw is that he uses an extremely narrow set of data to try to make a very broad point. Let's figure out (at least roughly) what percentage of students nationwide could actually find Gladwell's data applicable:

First, his focus is on students who are accepted to elite institutions (you only have a choice between elite and non-elite if you get into elite in the first place). 0.4% of all undergrads attend an Ivy League school. If we multiple that number by 3 to include all the other Top 20 schools, we're still only at about 1.2% of all undergrads.

Gladwell's argument only applies to STEM majors. Since only 20% of college students are STEM majors, let's take 20% of the 1.2% of students to find the percentage of students accepted to elite universities intending to major in science or math. That percentage is 0.24% of all U.S. undergrads.

But wait, we're not done yet. Gladwell is really focused on the bottom third of students in STEM majors at elite universities. If we take one-third of our previous number, we are now down to .08% of all undergraduate students. Gladwell's data is relevant for less than one out of every thousand students! Yet, look how animated he is towards the end of the video, insisting that all students should not go the best school they get into.

2) Why He’s Still Right

Gladwell's data may be completely insufficient for proving his point, but he still has a legitimate point here. Most students accepted to elite universities have a choice between attending that elite university and a less elite one, perhaps a safety school. Assuming the difference in cost is not too great, most students immediately jump at the chance to attend an elite institution, whose name and aura can be quite alluring. However, Gladwell is correct that most students should give the matter more consideration.

The typical student who gets accepted at an elite institution is a superstar in high school: near-perfect grades in all the hardest classes, leadership positions in a variety of extracurricular activities, and so on. She's the big fish in a little pond. At to a top college, the pond is a lot bigger, and she will no longer be the biggest fish.

Students should think carefully about how they'll react to being on a campus of true peers in terms of cognitive ability, intellectual interest, work ethic, and ambition. No student should go to an elite institution expecting to finish at the top of his class. It may happen, but it's far more likely that that outstanding high school student will fall somewhere in the middle when surrounded by thousands of other outstanding students. It's also likely that the student will struggle at times to keep up with his classmates and to fully absorb and comprehend new content that is quickly being thrown at him. He'll likely have difficulty taking on the same degree of involvement and leadership in campus organizations compared to those in high school. The key is for students to expect this change, to be ready for it, and to take an honest, introspective look into their own ego to see if they'll be comfortable becoming a little fish in a big pond.

Nevertheless, going to an elite institution is not all bad, and there are many reasons why students would elect to go to one aside from the Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder cited by Gladwell. The social connections and networking, the intellectual experience, and the fact that future employers will likely have their own version of Elite Institution Cognitive Disorder (wanting to hire alumni of top colleges), just to name a few. That being said, if you are a student accepted to a top school, before you send in your commitment card, I highly encourage you to spend some time visualizing a college life where you are just one in a crowd. An extremely impressive crowd full of outstanding students and unique individuals, but a crowd nonetheless.



*Gladwell also presents evidence on publication rates of graduate students, but since we’re focusing on his claim (at the top of this article) about choosing an undergraduate institution, we’ll focus on the undergraduate part of it.