“You’ll never be successful.”

“You’ll be passed over when applying for jobs.”

“No one will respect you.”

“You won’t make ‘good’ money.”

“You can’t run for office with an alma mater like that on your resume.”

These are just a sample of the comments I heard from close friends and family after sharing my plan to reject an offer of admission from a top college in the United States. Unfortunately, I’m far from the only student who has faced this kind of pressure and scrutiny over college decisions. Studies from both the American Psychological Association and New York University confirm that the judgment High School Juniors and Seniors face over their college ambitions is contributing to a decline in their ability to succeed at home, school, and work. Forbes has even reported that the adolescent suicide rate has skyrocketed because of the college admissions process.

While I never planned to publicly share my own experience applying to college, I realized how much I would’ve gained from reading something like this blog when I began the college application process in an all girl, private school that judged a graduate’s success by the number of digits in her chosen college’s acceptance rate.

Firstly, though, a few clarifications: I will be attending a summer program at Yale Law School, I interviewed at numerous Ivy League Institutions, and I am blessed to have been accepted (and came very close to committing) to some of the schools you see at the top of US News’s Best Colleges List. I had the 4.0 GPA, top test scores, a course load composed of all AP, College, & Honors classes for four years, national awards, and a slew of extracurricular activities with a global impact. 

Therefore, I am not, in any capacity, attempting to condemn these top universities or those who attend them. Rather, it is my intention to share why I didn’t succumb to the peer pressure and pick a school because of its name alone, in hopes that this article will reach a student who has the same worries I did.

My story begins at the end of sophomore year when I initially began floating the idea of attending a college closer to home. Everyone I knew – with the exception of three people named Mom, Dad, and Grandma – told me I was ruining my life. Their constant criticism left me feeling embarrassed for even suggesting the idea, and I internalized the “fact” that I absolutely must attend a brand name school if I didn’t want to be ridiculed for the rest of my life.

So, when I saw the confetti pop up on one particular college’s portal in April, I almost hit “accept this offer of admission” instantaneously. Had I accepted that offer of admission, however, I would have also been accepting more than $85,000 per year in student loan debt, a liberal arts degree that wouldn’t have prepared me for a professional career, a new hometown that wasn’t located near any major internship or job opportunities, little time to focus on anything other than academics, four years of courses that didn’t truly interest me, cutthroat competition over every aspect of life from joining clubs to applying for student leadership positions, a campus with a high rate of depression among students, and a culture that wouldn’t have empowered me to share my true beliefs.

I thankfully resisted that urge to click accept and came across Legislator Josh Lafazan’s TedTalk about his journey from Community College to Harvard. As the youngest elected official in New York State, Legislator Lafazan had a myriad of outstanding college options, but he instead chose to attend a local community college to be closer to his constituents, save money, and explore his diverse academic interests. This path led Josh to Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell for his advanced degrees, setting him up for an incredibly successful career in both the public and private sector.

Hearing Legislator Lafazan speak inspired me to closely consider my other college options and look beyond the acceptance rate next to a college’s name. I soon stumbled upon a school that offered me a full scholarship, a place in the Dean’s Honors College (an acceptance rate in the single digits itself), an opportunity to graduate in three years because of my advanced classes in high school or in four years with a Master’s Degree, the ideal program for my major, and a location close enough to home that I could keep my current job while still enjoying the traditional “college experience.”

In addition to the personal experiences of Legislator Lafazan and those he highlights during his speech, research suggests that Ivy League Schools are having less and less of an impact on an individual’s career success. 89% of Fortune 100 CEOs did not attend Ivy League Schools, and fewer than ⅓ of Senators have an undergraduate degree from a top school. Furthermore, Wall Street Journal recently surveyed top recruiters to learn more about which colleges produce the very best job candidates. The survey results did not feature names like Harvard or Yale in the top five, but Penn State, Texas A&M, the University of Illinois, Purdue, and Arizona State.

After trips across the country for campus tours, hours spent analyzing the intricacies of college websites, countless searches on LinkedIn to learn about the career paths of each college’s alumni, and many “Pro/Con” lists, I am proud to have chosen a school that is the right fit for me. I truly hope my experience can lead others to do the same and to realize that, as Harvard Rejection Letters state, “the particular college a student attends is far less important than developing strengths and talents over the next four years.”

Madison S