Sunday, January 20, 2008

Choosing Between Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale

By Jonathan Moy

“So do you have any advice?” I asked my friend Doug as I leafed through my acceptance letters. “I mean, is there some clear cut standard that I should use in making my decision?”

“Umm don’t pick the wrong school?” he replied flippantly as he sipped his coffee and sorted through his own acceptance letters.

“Gee, thanks, Doug. You’re a real help. I’m sure you were able to impart the same kind of breathtaking clarity in your application essays,” I shot back.

“Of course I was, Jon. That’s why the only two schools that I wanted to go to and that took me were MIT and Cal Tech,” he said with a sigh. “I probably would have done better if I had formulated some sort of mathematical proof concerning why I wanted to apply to whatever school.”

“Oh, you poor thing. MIT, and Cal Tech? Whatever will you do?” I said snidely.

Doug waited until I picked up my cup of tea and started sipping, so as to eliminate any chance of a sarcastic rebuttal, and stated, “And you’re one to talk? Mr. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale? I wish all of us could have a decision as tough as that one before us.” A long pause ensued as both Doug and I returned our attention to the colorful packets before us, each selling their respective colleges in a morass of glossy photos and articulately phrased boasting.

“You know, none of our banter is going to help either one of us get any closer to making a decision,” I finally responded. “We’ve got to come up with some sort of standard with which we can weigh our options.”

Doug stared at me, slowly lowered his mug, and placed it back on the coaster before him. “So let’s make one and use it. I mean it can’t be that hard, right?”

If I had known how wrong Doug was, I think I would have quit right then and there and started throwing darts at a board with schools’ names on them. Even after he and I came up with this “standard” that we kept talking about, I felt like giving up more than once. Choosing a college that you’ll be spending the next four years of your life at is not an easy decision to make, nor is it exactly one that we’re confronted with on a regular basis. Rather, it is a daunting one, and no matter how trite this may sound, the college that you eventually select will end up shaping the course of events throughout the rest of your life. I don’t think I can describe how much time and deliberation that Doug and I put into the process of deciding which college would be right for us. If you haven’t yet gone through this ordeal, you’ll soon learn for yourself, and if you are choosing between schools right now, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I also don’t know if you are going to find what I have to say to be helpful because all I can do is show you how I approached the process. But, I hope that you’ll find at least something that you’ll be able to apply in your own decision about which school is the best one for you.

The standard that Doug and I came up with is the 5 P’s: people, professors, possibilities, prestige, and parents. How vital each one of these components is to you is something that you have to sort out for yourself, but we both agreed that the order in which I listed them was the one that we felt was most important. I went through each of the schools that extended me an acceptance, debated over how each one measured up to the others, and the college that did best was the one I decided on. Now of course I’m caricaturizing the process because it definitely wasn’t as easy as I made it out to be, but that’s roughly how it went. Here’s how I thought about each criterion:

I decided that I wanted to surround myself with students who could work hard and play hard. I thought that pretty much every student at any serious school would meet this description, but after going on the admit weekend events for the schools I was choosing between, I learned otherwise. I can’t stress enough how important these admit weekend events were because they were fantastic opportunities to watch how students at different colleges interacted with one another. At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I found that people at different colleges treated one another in very distinct manners. For example, I thought that Harvard students spent all day trying to prove to their peers that they belonged there, almost as if they had a chip on their shoulders. On the other hand, Stanford students spent much of their time pretended to be laid-back even though they worked harder than any student from the other schools I had visited by leaps and bounds, and were also victims of a less than stellar dating scene. The bottom line is that I would never have gotten a chance to get a feel for either college if I hadn’t gone to the admit weekend events, and what I learned from them proved to be invaluable.

Because the last thing I wanted to feel like for an entire four years was a mere number, I wanted to go to a college with a learning environment in which the professors were accessible and willing to meet with undergraduates. However, learning about how accessible the professors were took more than just looking at the brochures or by going to the admit weekend events. Instead, it took a bit of sleuthing in the form of talking to current students. Discussions over dinner at Annenburg Hall revealed that Harvard students were taught by TAs even during their junior year, while students in a particular physics class at Princeton were taught by a Nobel Laureate who served milk and cookies during office hours. I would stress talking to students about how they feel about their academic experience because there is no better source for information than the people who are currently going through the system.

What is going to matter when you graduate isn’t that you attended school X, but that you attended school X and you know your stuff. Unfortunately, going to a college that is world-renown but that isn’t strong in the fields that you’re interested in practically defeats the purpose of attending. Different colleges offer different arrays of possibilities for the future, and you should pick one that both caters to your strengths and offers you with the most promising set of possibilities. Luckily, this is something that I found I could glean from the propaganda packets (did I say propaganda I meant informational) that colleges mailed out earlier in the year and from each school’s websites. Since both are designed to sell you the best aspects of a school, and they are reliable source of information about what a school has to offer. For example, I learned from Yale’s thirty-page booklet that it has excellent programs for both music and theater, while from Stanford’s website I learned that there is a linear accelerator on campus that can boast more than its fair share of Nobel Laureate researchers. However, neither websites or booklets are good at relaying prospective students with a school’s weaknesses. Once again, that is something that you have to talk with current students to figure out. Later, I learned that Yale’s music conservatory rarely takes undergrads, and that finding a professor at Stanford’s linear accelerator who is willing to work with non-PHD students is harder than getting a letter of acceptance in the first place. Be deliberate when you’re searching for reliable information about a college. Often times the best places to find out the truth about a school’s weakness are from the current students themselves. So whether you’re a music buff or a budding high-energy physicist, you should know the ins and outs about the possibilities at the colleges you’re picking from lest you be unpleasantly surprised when you start freshman year.

I think that this is the hardest category to deal with because there is a stigma attached with basing any part of your decision around this intangible concept we call “prestige,” but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that prestige is important. It’s not the be all and end all, because as I said before what is going to matter when you graduate isn’t that you attended school X, but that you attended school X and you know your stuff. However, during grad school applications or job interviews it does help to say that you go to Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, MIT, or any of the other big ticket schools out there, and anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t have a firm grasp of reality. Would it be better if society didn’t pay as much attention as it does to the college you go to? Maybe. Would it be better if the college that you went to determined less of your future? Definitely. Unfortunately, that’s the way the system works, and things aren’t going to change in between now and when you have to mail in your letter of intent. What you have to decide is whether prestige matters to you, and if it does how? For example, if you think that prestige is important, you have to decide if there is a material difference between how prestigious Princeton and Northwestern is, how big the difference is, and how much that difference matters to you. Most importantly, the importance you place on this criterion is something that you have to decide for yourself, because no brochure, website, or dinnertime conversation is really going to help you.

How much you let your parents affect your choice is, like prestige, something you have to decide for yourself. If you want to be close to home, or care a lot about their input, then they should be one of your prime considerations. If you don’t think that their input is that important, then put them last on the list. To be fair, you should realize that your parents are most likely footing a considerable portion, if not all, of the cost of your education, so even though you may not relish the though you should give their opinions some credence. On the other hand, no matter how much parents think they know about what’s best for you, you are ultimately the best judge. In my opinion, if you have a disagreement with your parents about what school is right for you, you should trust your intuition. After all, what better source of information about what’s good and what’s not than yourself?

After long weeks of deliberation, I decided upon Stanford because of its energetic and entrepreneurial student body, the strength of its engineering and science departments, the accessibility of professors in freshman/sophomore seminars, and the weather, while Doug decided on MIT (hopefully not because of the weather). Both of us are happy at our respective schools, and I would like to think that this is the case at least in some part because of the effort that we put into making our choices. The lesson that I took away from the entire ordeal was that going to admit weekend events and talking to students, as well as looking introspectively to discover how important I placed prestige and parents in the entire scheme of things, equipped me with necessary tools to make an educated decision. While it certainly wasn’t an easy one, the work I put into the decision ensured that it was a successful one.

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