Who Is Stressed Out About College?

In my last post I shared an email from a mom whose is concerned that her family makes too much money to qualify for financial aid at schools on her son’s list. If you missed the post, here it is:

Do You Really Expect Me to Pay That Much for College?

I had intended to write a followup post that focused on the finances – and I will do that in the next post – but I veered in a different direction today. I have to confess that I experienced a visceral reaction to the mom’s email when she shared the schools on the teenager’s list – CalTech, MIT and Stanford.

All these schools are huddled near the top of US News & World Report’s college rankings. In fact, the three institutions are currently tied for 5th place in the prestigious national university category.

This touches upon one of my biggest pet peeves about the college process: bright students from affluent families often are determined to fish in the same pond. Too many upper-middle class and rich students seem to believe that if they are highly intelligent that they should aim for the same two or three dozen schools.

Rejecting Nearly Everyone


Schools like MIT, CalTech and Stanford, however, reject nearly all applicants including valedictorians and test takers who can boast of perfect ACT and SAT scores. There are, after all, roughly 37,000 high schools in this country, which means that there are at least that many valedictorians. And, of course, in reaction to the college admission arms race, plenty of schools are bestowing valedictorian honors to multiple students.

I checked the stats for CalTech, MIT and Stanford and found that they accepted a grand total of 4,846 students during the latest available admission season. These are miserable odds even for valedictorians and yet spurned applicants are often stunned when they get rejected.

Just last week during a college presentation that I gave in Orange County, CA (a magnet for rich, smart, stressed-out teenagers), a mom mentioned that a brilliant girl she knew recently got rejected from all 12 institutions that she applied to. Apparently, the high school counselor had told the girl that she was smart enough to get into Ivy League schools so she applied to a bunch.

If this young woman had constructed a solid list of schools that represented great academic fits – and applied to elite schools sparingly –  she would have enjoyed lots of wonderful choices. Instead, the girl’s only offer came from the University of California, Merced. She didn’t even apply to that school, but since she was rejected from the premier UC campuses, she was given this opportunity as a consolation prize.

The Race to Nowhere Crowd

It’s no wonder that students get stressed out when they severely restrict the universe of schools that they will consider. Students, along with their parents, who take their cues from the college rankings, are typically the ones who are also stressing out about the documentary The Race to Nowhere.

This over-hyped documentary makes it appear that colleges and universities across the country are rejecting the vast majority of applicants; teenagers who have sacrificed their teenage years by spending their waking hours taking obscene numbers of AP classes and who have devoted the rest of their time to  extracurriculars that they think will wow the admission gods at places like Harvard and Amherst.

Here is a post that I wrote about this movie:

A Race to Nowhere Skeptic

Who Is and Isn’t Worried

I really do think this elite-college fixation is largely confined to private and public high schools where the student body is largely affluent. This spring when I was back in my home town of St. Louis, I had a conversation with a mother whose children attend a prestigious private high school – Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MICDS). She told me about all the elite colleges that had recently rejected students she knew.  I asked her what percentage of teenagers that she thought get accepted into their first-choice schools across the country.

Ten percent?” she replied.

I laughed, which prompted someone else in the room to blurt out, “Five percent.”

Actually, I laughed because the mom was so far off. The true figure, according to the latest annual UCLA survey of freshman nationwide, is 76%! And here’s another fact that some will find amazing: Only 2% of colleges and universities reject more than 75% of their applicants.

Where You Won’t Find As Much Stress

While I was back home, I gave a talk at my high school – Incarnate Word Academy. This private girl’s school (St. Louis has an extremely high number of Catholic single-sex high schools) doesn’t attract a lot of wealthy students and it’s not located in a fashionable part of town. (I grew up a half block from the school.) When I asked the parents in the audience how many were stressed at the prospects of their girls getting into good colleges and universities, very few raised their hand.

I think the reaction of parents at my alma mater is more common among families across the country.  Most of the students at my alma mater will end up attending state universities within Missouri that aren’t that selective. What these families are worried about is paying the tab, not getting into schools that impress U.S. News.

When I get Incarnate’s yearly newsletter that contains the collegiate choices of the graduates it makes me sad that few girls are attending schools beyond public universities in Missouri or some regional Catholic universities. Some of these girls should be aiming higher.

In contrast, the students at the most prestigious high schools in St. Louis and elsewhere should end their fixation with the same prestigious universities. They are often aiming too high when they apply to schools (Aiming high isn’t the right term because that implies that the most elite schools are always the best institutions for undergrads which I don’t believe.).

I wish more students, regardless of their financial wherewithal, would do a much better job of developing solid lists of schools. And that means casting a wider net!

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution: A Guide to Everyone Looking For the Right School at the Right Price.










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  1. Thanks for this post, Lynn. Re: your statement, “I have to confess that I experienced a visceral reaction to the mom’s email when she shared the schools on the teenager’s list – CalTech, MIT and Stanford.”

    Are you always anti-top tier college or are there legitimate reasons why you would steer a student toward one? I ask this out of sincere curiosity. It seems when I visit sites like College Confidential, there are two vocal camps–the Ivy-or-nothing camp and Ivy-are-for-snobs camp. Does it have to be all or nothing?

    Contrary to appearance, my son has never been caught up in the prestigious college game. He was originally drawn to Caltech because of many reasons–JPL, articles he’s read by scientists, discoveries made by researchers there, Richard Feynman, proximity to home, and more–not because it appeared on anyone’s list. He wasn’t even aware of the USNWR rankings! He just knew that some of the most brilliant scientific minds were gathered at Caltech and was attracted to the rigor of the academic work. He was also attracted to the collaborative environment (students working on problem sets together) and the honor system (take home tests, honor code), etc.

    He eventually became aware of Stanford and MIT in much the same way–by reading articles by/about researchers, and learning more about the student culture–but his first love has been Caltech.

    Obviously, I don’t want to set him up for disappointment, and he knows that many brilliant students are denied admission from Caltech every year. He is completely open to investigating other colleges, including state schools, to pursue his interests in engineering, science and computer science.

    I have been looking for alternatives to the three I mentioned. The challenge is finding a school with all the elements that would make it a good fit for him: 1) being challenged by top math/science minds; 2) low student-teacher ratio; 3) a collaborative vs. a competitive environment; and 4) the likelihood of graduating in 4 years.

    The state schools are more affordable, to be sure, but the large classrooms with hundreds of students, the challenge of getting to know professors intimately, and the extreme competitiveness of certain majors/campuses are not appealing. The difficulty of getting all the necessary classes to graduate in 4 years due to budget cuts are especially alarming. If we have to pay for 5 years at a state school, it’s not a bargain like it’s cut out to be.

    I’ve looked at LACs, but other than Harvey Mudd (another top tier school), I cannot find one that would have the depth of math/science/engineering or other elements that he’s looking for.

    Any thoughts? I’m all ears!

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thanks for your note.

      I have visceral reaction to students who only aim for schools that are the most highly ranked. To me it shows a serious lack of imagination. I am not saying that you wouldn’t get a great education at these schools or that you can’t apply sparingly to these schools.

      When you are looking at universities I think it is wise to research whether undergrads will have much interaction with professors. At intensive research universities, professors are No. 1 interested in their own research. Undergrads can be a nuisance.

      If your son wants to major in a science, I would suggest that he also look at liberal art colleges where he would have lots of interactions with professors, he should be able to find a mentor easily and he is more likely to move onto graduate school. Unfortunately when students look just at rankings, they ignore the HUGE differences between colleges and universities. I talk about this problem in the latest edition of my book, The College Solution.

      If your son is interested in engineering, I’d also suggest that he check out 3-2 programs which would allow him to go to liberal arts college for three years and then two years to an engineering school such as Wash U in St. Louis and Columbia U and obtain two bachelor’s degrees. When I talked to the 3-2 coordinators at both those schools, they raved about the students coming from the liberal arts colleges.

      Good luck.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Lynn,

    Priory grad here. I do recall many of my classmates back in the 80’s being pretty bummed about their college rejections. It seemed that the colleges didn’t take into account the school we went to when evaluating our class ranking. We saw our public school Parkway buddies seemingly having an easier time getting into selective colleges which left us wondering what the hell we were doing at an expensive school with no girls. But we all still got into good colleges and as far as I know, most of us are leading successful lives. What we didn’t realize at the time was that employers, grad schools and medical schools don’t seem to care much where we went to college, just as the colleges didn’t care that we went to a selective high school.

    I now teach chemistry at a mid-size state school and I have taught plenty of high quality students who in my opinion would have succeeded at any college. Many have gone on to medical school and prestigious graduate programs. They probably saved themselves a lot of money coming here and being a star rather than being just another guy at a big name school.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Nice to hear from another native St. Louisian. I think there would be far less stress in the admission process if people realized that you can get an very good college education just about anywhere. You can find solid professors with excellent pedigrees at any college or university. Bottom line: people are way too worried about brand names!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. Thanks for this insightful article, Lynn. We need constant reminders from folks like you to combat articles like “Does It Matter Where You Go,” which appeared on The Atlantic business section last week: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/05/does-it-matter-where-you-go-to-college/257227/

    The article discusses the statistics that “prove” that attending the Ivies results in a higher paycheck. I hesitate to provide the article’s link, because stories like these just fuel the frenzy. The writer touches on but doesn’t pursue with much earnest the idea that perhaps the reason that the students who attend Ivy League schools command higher future paychecks is because they are generally super-bright, high-achievers who traditionally come from affluent families with great connections.

    In fact, the article states: “The big surprise: Selectivity didn’t matter. Academic siblings ended up making just about the same wages after college regardless of how choosy their school was.” But it doesn’t then successfully (to my mind) extrapolate that finding to the notion that high-achieving, bright students will be financially successful period, whether they attend an Ivy or not.

    it worries me that when parents and student read articles like the one presented by The Atlantic, they’ll focus on catchy sub-headlines that read “The more elite the school, the better its alums’ paychecks.” Phrases like these can’t help but tempt students and parents to ignore your sage advice and thereby continue to create top-heavy college lists that are destined to disappoint.

    Keep it up, Lynn!

  4. Nice post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve been getting very frustrated with the only way to succeed is to attend an Ivy attitude. Never mind the entire issue of the education quality, it is simply a matter of numbers. I spend some time on IPEDS and found that the number of freshman has increased by 41% from 1990 to 2010. The top twenty universities in US News College Rankings have increased their student population by 20% during the same period. The top 10 Liberal Arts Colleges have only increased by 12%. These are the averages.They would be a lot lower if some schools such as Emory, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, U of Chicago, and Emory hadn’t dramatically increased their freshman classes. The size of the Yale class actually decreased.

    In any case, that means that there are a lot of excellent students who are attending other schools and adding to the values of their institutions education experience. Hopefully, we will someday reach a critical mass of those students who will be able to actually take some of the varnish off the Ivy League/Prestigious school mystique.

    (I don’t know if I’m allowed to post this but I have the list of the top 40 at http://diycollegerankings.com/2012/05/01/college-rankings-and-the-best-students/)

    1. Thanks for sharing Michelle. I absolutely love your site! I want to do a post on it soon so more people will know what a great resource it is!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy