No Snoozing Matter: Dream Schools
BY ANUSHA SENAPATI '24
You’re starting your first day of classes—the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the smell of grade inflation keeps you at ease. You step into the dining hall when you hear life-changing news: U.S. News has dropped your school’s ranking. You freeze, and your last thought before you faint is the fear that you’ve doomed your future to a college that now barely makes the Top 20 National Universities list. Recently, college applicants have chased the idea of a dream school, and many pin their hopes on highly selective schools. While dream schools can have any ranking, prestige, or acceptance rate, the most coveted are T20s, or top 20 schools, which refers to America’s highly ranked universities. Although students may believe that attending a dream school will solve all their problems, this pursuit of prestige makes acceptances increasingly unattainable. In fact, attending a T20 dream school may hinder academic success due to its rejective and competitive nature.
T20s are often romanticized as academic paradises, offering prestige to all. This reputation, however, sparks students’ desire to get accepted to these schools. While these institutions may seem like an ambitious goal for driven students, a specific school should not become a person’s sole motivator. The truth that lies behind many schools’ reputations is that students with access to better resources have a higher chance of acceptance. According to a Brookings Institute study, students with a household income greater than $200,000 scored, on average, around 300 points better than those with a household income less than $200,000 on the SAT, a standardized college preparatory test. Thus, the wealthy have an advantage when applying to T20 schools. Top American universities are coveted for their academic rigor, but elitism led to many high-achieving students’ acceptance in the first place. This manufactures a fake image of equal access to higher education, when one should consider many other factors before succumbing to the T20 appeal.
For example, T20 schools often perpetuate a dream school mindset, which can create disillusionment about what success is. Remarkable alumni legacies are often associated with the school itself, rather than the individual, convincing prospective students that a successful life can be attributed to the school one attends. However, people can also lose sight of opportunities that may provide the same education at a better long-term value. Though T20s may offer an abundance of resources, they also come with significant costs, such as mental health issues that stem from living in a highly competitive environment. As hypercompetitive students apply to these highly ranked schools and are selected, the school culture becomes deeply rooted in competition as opposed to collaboration. Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz explained that elite colleges may even limit academic choices, commenting that “when it comes to choosing a career, there are certain chutes that kids, especially at elite colleges, tend to get funneled towards.” These are vital factors to consider when thinking about a dream school, as one student’s dream school may not be quite the fit for another.
Speaking of picking a school that is the right fit, dream schools bring up another issue—name value. Students will often chase schools for their name, instead of what the school can offer to the individual. Those who choose rankings over personal interest, however, will only be disappointed with news such as the Columbia rankings being unveiled, with the university’s ranking dropping from number 2 to number 18. This drop in rankings shocked many, but it hurt the university’s reputation. Students who attended Columbia solely for its #2 ranking are surely disappointed, and this instance shows how prestige should not be a factor when making a decision about a highly ranked school.
While societal norms may compel one to make their life goal to attend a T20 institution, it is vital to consider what a dream school really means. A dream school is not a ticket to success, and it often comes with many unforeseen setbacks. While dream schools may seem like the key to academic success, consider whether the prestige outweighs your own opinions before misplacing your hopes—and your savings.