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checkmateMalcolm Gladwell is one of those writers who is always interesting to read, whether or not there are flaws with his reasoning, argumentation, or evidence. If nothing else, his books always give you something to chew over. In his most recent book, David and Goliath, he puts forward the notion that students should not necessarily go to major, prestigious universities just to take advantage of that prestige. Instead, students should go to universities where they are likely to truly and notably excel. This Business Insider article does a pretty good job of summing up Gladwell’s argument, and critiquing that argument. So what should you do when you’re making decisions between schools, both for applications and for acceptances? Where should you aim yourself?

The first thing to keep in mind is that Malcolm Gladwell makes a good point! But it’s not necessarily fact, as the Business Insider article points out. There are other factors to consider, and purposely veering away from more prestigious universities or colleges so that you can be a big fish in a small pond may not actually be the right decision for you. The advantages of a prestigious university’s name, alumni network, facilities, and so on should not be underestimated. There are plenty of intangible advantages that you get from attending an Ivy League school, for example, that may be more important after you graduate than feeling particularly superb as compared to your classmates during your time at college. But then, if you’re going to spend four years being miserable, then those advantages may not be worth it.

On the other hand, going to smaller university with a less prestigious name may mean that you feel better during your time there, and there might be other side benefits as well — such a university would likely cost less money to attend, for example. You might come out of your college education with the confidence and self-assurance you’d need to pursue the subjects that truly interest you. But then, you wouldn’t have some of those other strong advantages to give you a boost up, like the prestige of the university’s name. What’s more, there is the simple fact that you are going to college for an education, not just for your career prospects after you graduate, and the Ivy League schools are prestigious and acclaimed for a reason — the education they offer is top-notch.

“Great, Brendan,” I hear you saying. “Stop telling me why the choice is difficult and what the pros and cons may be, and just tell me what you think I should do.” Well, okay then, imaginary student voice in my head! Here’s what you should do when you’re considering schools:

  1. Take a close look at your own personality, and compare it to that of the school and its student body. Ask yourself if you think you could happily fit in with that personality.
  2. Take a close look at what the school will offer you for your career, once you’ve graduated. Look at the alumni network, look at its career services, and look at the prestige of the university’s name. Ask yourself whether you need those offerings to help you once you’ve graduated, or if you can cope without, or with slightly lesser resources.
  3. Take a close look at what you want most out of college. A good experience full of great memories? A solid education? A path to a great career? Ask yourself what each college you’re examining would most help you to get.
  4. Keep an open mind. Remember that nothing’s perfect, and it’s ultimately about finding the path that’ll make you happiest.

All of which boils down to: use your head, and carefully consider the right school for you. Don’t just choose to go for prestigious schools because of the prestige, but also don’t choose to go for smaller schools just because you want to feel more exceptional. Consider Gladwell, but also consider the words of Business Insider.

And worst comes to worst? Go to the school with the mascot you like the most.