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Learning Curve

You won’t die if you don’t go to Harvard or Stanford

Amy Scott and Gina Delvac Apr 3, 2015
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It’s college acceptance season — or perhaps, more accurately, rejection season — at the most elite schools. Harvard and Stanford turned away about 95 percent of applicants this year, a new record for Harvard.

There are lots of reasons top-ranked colleges are turning away more applicants. They’re getting more, thanks to more aggressive recruiting. And because some kids are so unsure of what it will take to get accepted, they’re applying everywhere. 

All of this can be crazy-making and heartbreaking for a lot of kids and their parents. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni says it doesn’t have to be. He’s out with a new book: “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”

The fixation on getting into top colleges is nothing new for hyper-talented and extra, extracurricular-engaged high school students. But with 95 percent rejection rates, the competition is all the more intense. 

“It’s fed by a whole industry of admissions consultants and coaches,” Bruni says, adding the demand has deeper roots in parents’ fears about the economy. “I think in their anxiety about the country’s prosperity and its future, they want to give kids any leg up, anything that might be a leg up, and they see elite schools as one of those things.”

One reason that the volume of applications have increased: ease. Most elite colleges and universities use the common app, an electronic form that allows students to apply to send the same information, scores and essays to an array of schools. Schools also market themselves aggressively to see as many applicants as possible. 

“They want to get the best students and they want the most diverse student bodies, so that’s the good impulse behind it,” Bruni says. “But they also just want big, big numbers because we’ve entered an era here where a low acceptance rate – proof that you’ve turned away masses of people – is bragging rights among colleges.”

For low-income students in particular, research shows that going to a selective school can make a big difference in graduation rates and future earnings. 

“It’s not fair to say that the brand doesn’t buy opportunities,” Bruni says of the most elite and selective colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. “But it’s not a do-or-die, make-or-break advantage. It’s not going to last your whole life.”

Listen to the complete interview below to find out which school produces the strongest startup founders, according to venture capitalist and Y Combinator President Sam Altman. (That question comes at 3:21). 

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