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Looking beyond school stereotypes

Jun 18, 2019

When you’re looking at colleges and compiling the list of schools you want to apply to, it seems like just about everyone has an opinion. Your aunt went to Miami back in the day and says it’s a party school, but your cousin just graduated with an engineering degree and begs to differ. Your dentist says Wesleyan is full of hippies and that Yale is for theater kids, but your piano teacher points to the number of alumni in banking and claims that both schools have gone full-on corporate. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Below are some misconceptions we want to dismiss:

  • Private schools are more challenging than public schools
  • Private schools cost more than public universities: often times, private universities are able to offer scholarships to students that make the price of education far more affordable (for example, at Princeton 82 percent of recent seniors graduated debt free)
  • _________ is a party school
  • _________ school is not fun/where dreams go to die
  • _________ school is for ________ students/people
  • _________ school is elitist
  • _________ school is

Before you can even begin to worry about perfecting your college applications, you have to decide where to apply, and the circulation of all these differing opinions can make that process a daunting one. So what’s a high school senior (or junior) to do?

  • First, it’s helpful to take a step back and understand why the people in your life feel compelled to spout their opinions and make blanketed statements about a school, whether prompted or not. People form snap judgments and express them–it’s kind of just what we do. Always remember that everyone you talk to–even a recent alumnus!–has only a biased and limited perspective. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, necessarily. It just means that they’re right in terms of their own experience, which may or may not be helpful or relevant to your own case. Your dentist who bemoaned hipsterdom at Wesleyan may be basing his opinion off of no more than a couple of encounters, and your aunt might be selectively remembering all of the frat parties she went to a couple decades ago while conveniently leaving out all of the late nights spent in the library. No one perspective or opinion should be considered doctrine, and it’s likely that people think they’re helping you out by providing their insight–even when in actuality they’re just confusing you further.
  • Now that you understand a bit more about where these opinions are coming from, you need to figure out what to do with them. First of all, we don’t recommend that you stop soliciting opinions from people who have firsthand experience with the institutions you’re interested in. The key is to be smart about your sources. Instead of taking the mailman’s advice completely to heart, consider taking it with a grain of salt and remember that his experience was his experience and to take it in stride. To do your own research and find out more, invest in a book like the Fiske Guide to Colleges (#notanad). These types of books include snapshots of around 500 different schools, and each profile includes many quotes from current students. Use email to reach out to additional students or recent alumni if you still have questions. And try to schedule at least a few campus visits, if possible. These visits, while rarely a factor in elite college admissions, are a great help to you when it comes to deciding which schools to prioritize during application season and which ones feel right for you.
  • Keep in mind that almost all colleges are far bigger than almost all high schools, so the social and academic stereotypes, no matter how pervasive, are only generalizations. Even the most intensely fratty school has a subset of undergraduates holed up in the library on Friday nights, just as even UChicago has parties. (Sorry, UChicago, you know we love you.)
  • At the end of the day, remember that you’re the one going to college–not your mom, or your sister, or the neighbor down the street who is convinced that an earthquake will swallow Stanford’s campus whole in the next few years. This process is a huge step towards asserting your independence as a real adult human being, so we encourage you to take ownership of it and advocate for your needs and interests as much as you can. Regardless of the stereotypes, your experience will be what you make it to be and you’ll get out of college what you put into it.

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