What’s Wrong With College Dream Lists

I recently took a look at The Princeton Review’s latest lists of America’s most popular dream colleges and I immediately saw a problem.

Before I explain why, check out the dream colleges that teenagers and parents cited most often.

Teenagers’ Dream Colleges

  1. Stanford University
  2. Harvard University
  3. New York University
  4. Princeton University
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  6. Yale University
  7. UCLA
  8. University of Pennsylvania
  9. University of Southern California
  10. University of California, Berkeley

Parents’  Dream Colleges

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. Princeton University
  4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  5. Yale University
  6. Duke University
  7. Brown University
  8. New York University
  9. University of Notre Dame
  10. Northwestern University

What Wrong with the Dream School Lists

It’s easy to mention Ivy League schools when a pollster asks about dream colleges because they are prestigious. (Whether they are a wise choice for undergrads is an entirely different story and I’ll reserve that for another day.) It’s also easy to include NYU as a dream school because how cool would it be to attend college in New York City? And lots of teenagers would love to attend college on the West Coast where it offers beaches, sunshine and lots of winning sports teams.

Parents and teenagers fall in love with brand names. They think certain schools are cool because the college rankings tell them so.

However, if I gave teens and parents a quiz that simply asked them to name just five things about their dream schools that makes these institutions smart academic choices, I bet the vast majority of people would flunk.

If you notice the lists also don’t include a single college. And teenagers ignored all schools that weren’t on the East or West Coast.

Picking Colleges the Wrong Way

Unfortunately, many families select schools without much thought. I find this strange since parents and their children have essentially spent 18 years getting ready for college and yet when they have to finally make important decisions they punt.

Children add dream schools to their list because of the wow factor. They apply to the top 25 schools in US News & World Report’s rankings because they are in the top 25.

In reality they know very little about these schools, which the vast majority of them aren’t going to get into anyway.  Instead these teens take the path of least resistance. Most end up going to state schools 50 to 100 miles away without exploring other options.

It’s a shame that parents and teens don’t put more effort into developing a college list since there are so many wonderful colleges scattered across the country with excellent programs that people don’t even know exist. As a practical matter, applying to these highly sought-after schools creates a great deal of heartache at this time of year because these schools get to reject almost all comers.

In addition, the dream schools will cost a tremendous amount for quite a few students who do get into these schools. Some of these schools give excellent need-based aid, but not all of them. In addition, many on the list give no merit scholarships or very little.

Over at College Confidential, which is ground zero for the type of parents who want their kids to go to the most highly ranked schools, you’ll find a lot of wailing and indignation about their children’s rejections letter. They are insulted that their bright children didn’t get into their dream list schools. Here is an example:

All these rejections wouldn’t have happened if the teenager had put more thought into his list and aimed for schools that were good academic matches.

Learn more:

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Read more college posts:

The Nation’s 15 Richest and Stingiest Colleges

Making the Most of a College Campus Tour

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  1. My son has been accepted to a couple of the colleges on your list as well as some of the colleges not on your list. Now we are in the mode of choosing the one that we think is best for him. My confusion now becomes which will benefit him most over the long term. He is wanting to major in Physics and final two choices are now Northwestern and Princeton. Both are offering a large amount of the cost to be covered. Will Princeton’s namesake give him a better schooling over all or better choice at a career, or does the namesake just become bragging rights? Northwestern is hours away and Princeton is a day away and a little more cost. What is your knowledge or experience on the difference between these schools?

    1. Post
  2. I am only just now seeing Lynn O’ Shaughnessy’s posts and wish I had been reading them all along. I actually read scholarship applicant files for a top-tier university and I have a daughter currently in the process of getting college notifications from similar top-tier schools. And (not surprisingly) despite her impressive credentials, she is getting shut out of many of the “dream” colleges. Lynn’s detailed, thoughtful perspective and her bluntness has been refreshing. I know from my work how crazy this process is, but somehow allowed myself some magical thinking in relation to my own daughter’s efforts. Fortunately, she has couple of great options outside of the fantasy choices that will likely be fine.

  3. i completely agree with a lot of this article, the only thing that i have trouble with this your statement at the very end. based on the picture you have posted, you do not know where this person applied. it is very possible that he applied to schools well within his reach and yet was still rejected. My best friend is currently being deferred and rejected from schools that are excellent academic matches for her. To be clear, none of these schools are on the “dream college” list yet it is still so competitive that she is being deferred. It’s not really fair to judge the person in that one picture based on the theme of this article.

    1. Hi Oliver,

      I am sorry that your best friend is getting deferred. I suspect these are schools where most students are rejected. At school with high rejection rates, it doesn’t matter if the applicant has has grades and test scores. Most of these qualified candidates get rejected.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. The ironic truth is that my dream school was Caltech, which is more selective than UPenn, an Ivy, and to get in you really have to show nothing short of an immense passion in STEM. It’s easily confused among the laypeople for Cal Poly but is very well known and renowned in the STEM field. And I managed to get in, but I’m picking Princeton because it offers BETTER FINANCIAL AID while providing amazing programs in astrophysics. It’s by far the cheapest university on my list, and would only be surpassed if I got full rides to places with nonexistent or very obscure astronomy programs.

  5. I see no harm in reaching for an absolute favorite school, as long as student and parent know that the school is a reach. What else could you call a school that accepts a very small percentage of its applicants?

    To give an example, I have a nephew is extremely talented in vocal music and musical theater. He also plays the oboe in concert band as well as the flute in marching band. His academics are very good, though math and science are not his “thing.” His dream is to be a singer or perform on a Broadway stage.

    I recently visited The Juilliard School, one of “the places” to go to learn to be a dancer, musician or stage performer. Ninety percent of Juilliard students receive scholarships; the graduates who borrow owe less, on average, than graduates of Ivy League schools. I felt that Juilliard, given the education, alumni base, and New York location would be an ideal place for my nephew.

    If my nephew told me that he wanted to go to Juilliard, I would say “by all means, try.” For one thing, he would learn how good he really is. For another, he may receive enough encouragement that might help him attain the career goal, even if he did not get in. The key is to level with the student: admission to an exceptionally selective place is not an entitlement.

    1. One thing that I would mention Stuart is that Julliard is not a generous school. It only meets 78% of financial need for the typical student and that figure includes loans. Only 23% of students who have need get their full need met. Conservatories are notorious for being stingy.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. First of all, I live in CA and my son is a JR goes to a private school and we have 2 wonderful college counselors for about 100 students per senior class. We hired a college advisor, and visited colleges up and down the West Coast since 9th grade. I also attended Lynn’s workshop and have read her blog extensively. As a result of her advice, I’ve narrowed down my son’s college list to 15 colleges and universities. None of them Ivy League…schools in TX, IL, VA, FL, NC and SC and 1 school in CA. He will be applying for the top merit scholarships and we have a safe school that is within our budget, in case he does not receive the top scholarships.

    I realized that it was my job to do the college research and I could not depend on anyone else!
    I must’ve researched over 100 colleges to look at their majors, pre-med program, merit scholarships as well as ethnic backgrounds. In light of the current political situation with healthcare, he is also considering Plan B (Public Health) in case pre-med doesn’t work out. So I selected schools with a strong Pre-med program and Public Health program. I was pleasantly surprised to find SO MANY WONDERFUL COLLEGES out there that I wouldn’t have considered, had my friend not referred Lynn’s Blog to me. Our College Counselor also recommended looking beyond the Ivy’s and UC’s as well. For us, Ivy League was not an option, as even if he did get in- we would not be able to pay for it.

    I’ve heard of other students from his school who got into top schools but no merit money.

    I can hardly believe that soon my son will be going off to college!!!

    Thank you Lynn, for saving us a lot of grief and heart ache from applying to the wrong schools.
    (and time and $$)

    P.S. Too funny, last night my hubby asked me- If I could pick one school for my son and $$ was not an object- which one would I pick? Without hesitation- DUKE and then Johns Hopkins.
    I did not even bother to look at the US News and World Reports rankings either.

    From: One Mom’s Opinion based on her son!

    1. Hi Greta,

      Thanks so much for sharing your story. I really appreciate hearing from you! Through all your research you have clearly become an empowered consumer. All this hard work will certainly boost your family’s chances of receiving good news for your son next year.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  7. What if the student is planning on going on to a PhD in math, finance, etc. What schools are ‘good enough’ for getting in to the top PhD programs, and later getting a job at a top Wall Street firm? Don’t the top Wall Street firms just hire from the big-name schools?

    1. Hi Lolo,

      It’s a big misconception that you have to go to a name-brand school to get into a great PhD program. Not so. I wrote about this in the second edition of my book — The College Solution: http://www.amazon.com/College-Solution-Everyone-Looking-School/dp/0132944677/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1329264474&sr=1-2

      And I wrote about it in this blog post: https://www.thecollegesolution.com/the-colleges-where-phds-get-their-start

      If you want your child to work for Goldman Sachs (I can’t imagine why people would aspire to that considering the nature of their predatory work), he/she will probably have to go to certain Ivy League schools. Luckily, 99.99% of college graduates don’t work at that firm.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Other schools besides Ivies do send people to Wall Street investment banking — I went to William & Mary and have known fellow alumni to go on to Goldman Sachs, as well as many other investment/banking firms. I’m not sure if they got hired through campus recruitment or if they approached these firms on their own or through internships, but they did, indeed, get hired by them somehow. William & Mary is a top-tier state university (but relatively small — about 5,600 undergrads), but it is not Ivy League (although is called a “Public Ivy”). It’s not as famous as some other Public Ivies, such as UVA, despite being the second oldest college in the country after Harvard — probably due to not being a huge research school nor having a nationally ranked football team, but it does attract equally bright students. What it lacks in size, it gives in attention to undergrads through excellent teaching with full professors who largely choose teaching over research. W&M is also, by the way, one of the top feeders among state schools into PhD programs when you calculate it by the percentage of students from the school who eventually earn a PhD (and is definitely the top state supported college is Virginia in terms of students eventually earning the PhD).
        Other public universities/colleges in Virginia from which I’ve personally known alumni who went on to Wall Street firms include, but may not be limited to, UVA, Virginia Tech, James Madison University, and University of Mary Washington. Again, I don’t know if they were recruited directly from their campuses, but I know people from each of those schools who somehow found their way to successful investment banking careers on Wall Street with the likes of Goldman Sachs.

      2. Lynn,

        You’re right. Only the top 0.01% of graduates at the top schools get that tremendous opportunity at that prestigious firm.

        The same top 0.01% who were National Merit Finalists and had there choice of schools.

        The same top 0.01% who were high school class valedictorians.

        It’s not for everyone, but the point is, luck has nothing to do with it and Goldman is an excellent career opportunity.

      1. Thanks Paula. I heard a reference to this article, but hadn’t read it. Will now.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. My husband is a Math professor and has worked and studied in Ivy League schools and the UC system. I was a Math major and have some personal experience in this. I can say that if your child actually wants to do a PhD in Math (not financial mathematics which no self-respecting Mathematician cares about as the only reason that financial mathematics exist as a discipline is because some guy from well known bank wanted to get a “Professor” title and the universities were happy to take corporate money and give the guy a place to massage his ego), the best thing to do is to go to a school with a strong Math program staffed with professors who are well-respected in the field. To get a sense as to who is well-respected in the field, go to the library and seek out well-known Math journals (like Annals of Math and Inventiones and Journal of the AMS) to figure out who are the hot Math researchers. Attend their schools and classes and hope that your kid shines like hell. The recommendation letters from these professors are automatic tickets to PhD programs. Everything else pales in comparison. No one cares about GRE scores or GPA. It’s the recommendation letter that counts.

      To get into big name Wall Street firms as a quant, you DO NOT NEED a PhD in financial mathematics. However, you need to be very good at pure mathematics and computing (which is why Physics majors are very popular bank recruits). The banks/hedge funds do recruit from top Math and Physics PhD programs but they rarely get the best students. The best students almost always stay in the program because they realize how exciting the subject matter is and no amount of money can provide that amount of mental stimulation that special brains need to feel satisfied.

      In other words, if your kid is really into and good at math (which is needed to get that special recommendation letter that guarantees entry into the top PhD programs), your kid may not want to go and work for in the financial services industry. If your kid only wants to make a lot of money in the financial services industry, chances of him/her impressing the heck out of his/her professor who can write the ticket to the top PhD program is low to non-existent. Math and physics are funny disciplines – only those who are really enthusiastic will end up pursing PhD programs and not because they want to go and work for hedge funds. The ones who end up working for hedge funds tend to do so because they realize they can never make it in academia – they are just not good enough. No one gets a PhD in math/physics so that they can work in a bank – they only take the bank job when their job applications for post-doc positions that pay a pittance are rejected by every single school and research institution out there.

      1. Hi Kmaruko,

        Thanks for sharing your great insider advice. I hope students who are dreaming about getting into a math PhD program find your comment and take your advice.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  8. The topic of overworked guidance counselors alarms me… my daughter, a junior, attends a very large, suburban public high school where 2600 students are divided up alphabetically among 5-6 guidance counselors… unless a student has been in trouble or a squeaky wheel, there is not enough time in the day (beyond the annual advisement meeting for course selection, etc.) to get to know each one. I have known since she was a freshman that it is our responsibility to do the research & legwork (on all things, not just college counseling) and I am comfortable with that now (Lynn’s blog is an extremely valuable resource-for parents and guidance counselors, btw). But for most parents that are not asking the right questions, or don’t know where to go beyond US News & World Report & collegeboard.org, it is a daunting task.

    I’ve also discovered what we cannot control… her overworked guidance counselor will write the sole letter that most of the colleges will request and evaluate in her applications (it must come from the guidance counselor). It will be based on a standard questionnaire that my daughter completes and not based on a relationship or any true knowledge of her abilities and potential.

    Is she at a huge disadvantage? Are we to assume that the college admissions offices take this all into consideration when they receive the high school’s profile? And finally, should she send teacher’s rec to supplement it even if they don’t request one?

    1. My son went to a similar high school and he did know his counselor from his extracurricular activities. He also carefully picked teachers who really knew him for his recs. Of course, we have no idea what those recs say, but he was admitted everywhere he applied and got into his first choice school with their maximum merit aid award.

      My younger son (sophomore) doesn’t know his counselor at all and we’ve suggested to him that he needs to start developing that relationship. Instead of me emailing to figure out any schedule questions, he needs to go by the counseling office in person. Not only should he start running his own academic life as he goes into junior year, he should begin the networking that will help him with college admissions. Both good life skills and, besides, he’s got way more free time than I do!

  9. Regarding Overworked. Isn’t it your job to advise your students. I assume some of your students are first generation potential college students who would greatly benefit from a counselor who is up to date on financial aid available to them and whose parents may not have the back ground or resources to research their options. English may not be their first language making it even more challenging or they may not have computers at home making researching financial aid options even more of a challenge. Financial aid advice would also greatly help students who have resources available to them. A two or three page informational handout just describing the different types of aid and the pitfalls of too many loans along with a list of the top 25 generous schools awarding non-merit and merit aid updated annually. You could give this handout to your students, have it mailed home, and post it on the high school website. A timeline would be very helpful and definitions of early action, early decision and regular decision with the pros and cons of each. This information should be distributed in the freshman year to help students and parents plan or least start thinking about college and the courses students should think about to make them better canidates for any type of aid. I realize how strained the public school resources have become, my children attended and currently attend public high school, but if you did this you would be the hero and possibly make a big difference in lives of your students. Good luck to you!

  10. It is sometimes so frustrating as a counselor to get everything done! The easy answer is to tell me to educate myself….when should I do that? Between 9pm and 7 am? I am the sole counselor at my school – it is unreasonable to think I can get everything done and train myself in areas that my program lacked. Furthermore, parents and students need to take some ownership here…has you say, it is not rocket science. Take ownership on your child’s future. You have ONE to worry about. I have 300! And college searching is NOT all I do!

    1. Hi – I appreciate your position of having many students to help. I do. But how much help can counselors be if they don’t know how to direct their students to schools that are going to be more affordable when that is the No. 1 issue for many families? People working in education are lucky because they get so much more time off than any other profession. They get a long break in the summer, as well as breaks at Easter and Christmas. Most people don’t have that luxury of time. There is time to learn.

      FYI, I come from a very long line of educators in my family so I know how important they are!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  11. Thank you for another great post. It is all about the right FIT. And, the right FIT means academics, feel of the school, and price. Of course it takes time to find the right fit because every student is unique. They have different majors they want to go for, different vibes of a campus and different comfort with the campus being big, small, city, suburb. Our job as responsible parents is to explore schools, and offer offer guidance that takes into consideration admissions possibilities and cost. ROI of a school may be an unknown concept to high school students, but when explained they grasp it very fast.

    We have a Junior and it amazes me that some people spend
    more time buying a home or planning a vacation. This is s serious four year commitment in most cases and should be handled as such.

    Keep up the great work!!

  12. That is not a great SAT score. My child received that on her first SAT test, which she took at age fifteen, after spending no time preparing. She wanted to see what she would get as a baseline. I think she will have to improve her SAT score (despite having great grades and a rigorous course load) if she is to earn a good merit scholarship at a non-Ivy school.

    Thank you for another great post.

    1. Actually, it seems like many of Lynn’s posts suggest good schools where you don’t need stratospheric SATs to get a good merit scholarships. 2060 certainly seems like a respectable score, enough (with matching grades and appropriate course choices) to win non-need based aid at many schools.

      And… doesn’t it seem like the Harvard Mom didn’t actually read many of Lynn’s posts?

      1. Lynne — I agree with you. You don’t need stratospheric test scores to get good merit scholarships at most schools. An SAT score of 2060 is a very good score unless you are aiming for the schools that reject most valedictorians.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  13. You are spot on! We had a friend who’s son went to Antioch the year before it closed (2007). He is now in a sober living home. I spoke to the parents, whom I have known for 30 years. They admit they chose the wrong school. He really needed to be close to family and didn’t adjust to being so far away.

    It doesn’t matter whether it is an Ivy or state university. Most of the applicants have NEVER seen their colleges. That’s where a parent’s involvement is foremost. I believe that what matters is knowing the child you have loved his whole life is going to leave the nest for the first time. Providing good counseling and guidance at home and with the high school is the most important aspect of helping them find their goals, growing up and becoming both a success an and adult.

    Choosing the college is just the next step.

  14. Great post here Lynn – thank you for sharing your perspective on what parents and students alike should be thinking about when they think about what colleges might be best for them.

    1. Thanks Eric. If families put more thought into this the number of students who transfer to another school – one out of three – would certainly decline!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  15. Lynn,

    I think you’re being unreasonably harsh with this mom & the parents on College Confidential. If you read the site often, which your posts suggests, you’ll know that many parents just don’t have a clear understanding of the process and are given erroneous advice by school guidance counselors. Some parents are drawn to brand name schools as their child may be the first generation to attend college.

    Ultimately, the loser in this situation is the student.

    1. Hi Melinda,

      I appreciate what you are saying about being too harsh on College Confidential. Actually, I rarely visit the site – a friend forwarded some recent posts from devastated moms – because I often want to tear my hair out when I read posts on the site’s college forums. That said, I realize that many families are getting poor advice from their high school counselors.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Guidance counselors are a convenient punching bag, a generic cop-out for peopel looking to place the blame somewhere. A good counselor will educate the parent and student about their options–ultimately, the decisions are up to the parent and student. Due diligence people! Take responsibility!

          1. Really, Lynn.. Throwing School Counselors under the bus is not very professional. Many of us ARE very educated and offer relevant college advice like you but we do it for a fraction of what you are charging.

          2. Hi — My intention is not to throw anybody under the bus! My intention is to shine light on a serious problem — the inadequacy of many (NOT ALL!) counselors! Nothing I have ever written suggests that I believe all counselors are inadequate. I am focused on giving families advice — free by the way — and if I tick off some counselors that’s the way it goes.

            Lynn O’Shaughnessy

          3. Lynn, I absolutely concur that MANY – yes, many – HS counselors do a poor job of advising on college issues. Why? Because their training does not include any preparation relative to college counseling. That’s why independent counselors have become a sought after commodity. If high schools don’t provide this service, parents will seek it out elsewhere.

            If we as parents want HS counselors to be savvy in this area then the programs that train these professionals need to have a curriculum overhaul. Until then, many parents and students are either getting no assistance or incorrect information.

          4. I absolutely agree with you Paula! I also would suggest that this stuff is not rocket science. Any counselors could educate themselves on a full array of college issues if they were motivated.

            Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Please don’t paint all guidance counselors with a broad brush. I (and many others that I know) constantly show parents and students stats regarding how many applications the highly slective colleges and universities recieve and how many they admit. I point out all the time the many outstanding schools that are out there – what they are missing is the name recognition.

  16. Dream schools? I’ve taken to calling this group “Nightmare Schools”. Why? Because the realistic and very likely result of applying to them is a rejection. Plain and simple. Parents and students say, “Well, someone has to get in and it might be me” or “I have 7 chances out of a 100 of getting in”. NO, NO, you don’t. Admission to these schools is not a random event; they don’t put names in a hat and pull them out. The reality is, that given your student data, you may have ZERO chance of admission. Without mitigating factors, the student above was destined to be rejected by these highly selective schools.

    So, what do students who apply to these schools take away from their experience? Anger, frustration, embarrassment, humiliation and a severe blow to their psyche that they aren’t “good enough”. Would you willingly sign up for that? Sadly, thousands of incredibly talented, bright, involved students do just that.

    Keep fighting the battle, Lynn.

    1. Paula — Great observation! Families need to ditch their belief that applying to elite schools is like a lottery.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  17. Hi Lynn,
    After following your blog for 9 months or so, and using the websites you’ve recommended, I’m prepared for the college admissions process that my son begins later this year. Because of the availability of this info, it’s hard to see how the mom described (and plenty of others you’ve mentioned) could be so surprised by the outcome. They must be wearing blinders.

    Last year I took my son and a friend on a tour of Stanford where we learned that they had rejected — not even wait-listed — more than 800 valedictorians that year. If that doesn’t wake you up, nothing will! After that, I decided that we would tour only schools where he has a decent chance of getting in, that also match his interests and our ability to pay. He has several now that he likes a lot, and he would be happy to attend. He will still apply to a couple of reach schools, but we won’t spend time and money touring them unless he gets in. So he still gets into the best school possible, and the best fit, without all those ridiculous expectations hanging over his head.

    Rather than dreading the process, I’m feeling comfortable because you’ve armed me with realistic expectations.