Young students are increasingly absorbed by the prestige and brand-name recognition of colleges, often at the expense of personal fit or academic alignment. This trend, colloquially known as “prestige whoring,” has sparked a widespread conversation about what truly matters in education.

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Key Takeaways:

  • The current trend among students is to focus more on the prestige and brand-name recognition of colleges rather than the personal fit or academic alignment, often leading to unhealthy competition. 
  • Research findings suggest that students who get accepted into Ivy League schools but choose less prestigious universities often reach the same wealth level as Ivy League graduates. 
  • Mental health and self-care are crucial aspects often overlooked in the pursuit of prestigious college admissions. 

When hearing the words “prestige university”, what typically comes to mind? Probably, widely-known Ivy League names like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and others that have already established their reputation as exclusive and very hard to get in. High tuition costs and far from budget-friendly student accommodation, as well as extremely low acceptance rates, make those places seem like the only respectable options when getting higher education. However, the reason behind this point of view doesn’t necessarily lie in the fact, that quality education can only be achieved there. People tend to get obsessed over the highest-ranking universities and the atmosphere of luxury and prospective wealth while dismissing other, not-so-prestigious institutions. 

Our team caught wind of a popular Reddit thread in which OP shared concerns about their own obsession with prestigious universities and the approval of others it can give. They asked users for a “reality check”:

I’m one myself. I’m constantly thinking about others and what they think about me. Getting into a good college seems like the only way to prove those who doubted me wrong. This college admissions rat race has pretty much been the only thing on my mind, and I need a fat reality check.”

So, let’s sort everything out.

The Problem of Prestige College Application Racing

We decided to take the usual approach for us and dive head-first into the issue. For those unfamiliar with the mentioned problem, let’s establish a clear understanding of what lies behind the term “prestige whores” and how exactly it correlates with the said “rat racing” on college admissions. 

Urban Dictionary defines the term as “someone who makes choices about colleges, jobs, scholarships, and internships on the basis of prestige, and revels in their exclusivity rather than picking the options that are most substantively interesting or actually enjoyable to them”. While taking this definition light-heartedly (as it is a slang term), it still sums up the issue quite nicely. It doesn’t necessarily mean that such people are a dupe of Regina George from “Mean Girls”; rather they are much more obsessed with university ratings, as they serve as the breaking point in their decision-making process.

But to what extent are those decisions based on the long-term succession of students? If this is such an established societal opinion, then it surely must be close to reality, right? Not exactly.

The Harsh Truth about College “Prestige Whores and Admission Rat Race”

Economists Alan Kruger and Stacy Dale shared their findings after extensive research was done on post-graduation success. It revealed that most of the students who got accepted into Ivy League schools, but instead opted for other, “less prestigious” universities, ended up getting to the same wealth level as the Ivy League graduates. The question, which logically follows this thesis is how we determine “success” and on what factors the perception of a “better university” is built. Generally speaking, some universities are considered high-status due to the number of academic works, papers, projects, etc. the professors and educators produce. This leads to them being less interested in the teaching profession and more oriented toward publishing and increasing their appearances in respectable journals. Although we can’t dismiss the fact that academic publishing is a crucial and valuable part of the professional journey, however, it takes away attention from actually putting effort into teaching.

According to the research, the university rankings in Computer Science and the employment index isn’t nearly on the same level for every “prestige” university. Although one’s achievements in the workplace are definitely influenced by their school, it is the personal qualities that are a deal-breaker for whether the person is successful in the future. Without drive, resilience, and readiness to power through the learning challenges it is unlikely that any folk will survive with just their diploma on hand. 

Reddit Users Speaking Out On the Issue

After ringing the bells in the original post, the author provided some more context, so that others would better understand the influence of being a “prestige whore” on their well-being. Struggling academically through elementary school, the author was frequently considered the “dumbest kid.” Despite this, their mother’s persistent advocacy led them to attend an intensely rigorous private school instead of a special needs class. This proved overwhelming, leading to low grades and widespread rumors about their perceived lack of intelligence. Their struggle extended to sports, with failures in various activities fueling further confidence problems. A lack of attention span became a hallmark trait but was misinterpreted, leading to further criticism instead of recognition of a potential ADHD issue.

Experiencing a positive shift after leaving private school, the author began teaching themselves coding, advancing significantly in math. Simultaneously, a YouTube addiction morphed into a fascination with university acceptance videos. This sparked an intense desire to get into a top college. OP described the feelings as follows:

“This led me to become arrogant, ambitious, and extremely competitive. (…) I pretty much lost all close friends and turned on everyone. I began to hang around all the toxic-smart kids in high school, but I eventually turned on them too because I got so competitive”.

Referring back to the original post, the author has taken a step back to reflect. OP has recognized the unhealthy extremes of their competitive mindset and is working to dismantle it, however, still struggling. This is the reason they decided to ask other Reddit users for help and they weighed in.

One user expressed their opinion by saying that college admissions aren’t solely based on merit, but are also influenced by factors like luck or money. In society, people often admire “shiny” college names, yet getting into a renowned school doesn’t alter who you are as an individual:

“Why is getting into a “good” college a sign of success when you, as a person, haven’t changed at all?”

Interestingly, those most impressed by prestigious colleges are often the least informed, yet they are the ones people typically aim to impress.

Another user eagerly agreed with the previous statement, since obsessing over “prestige” tends to be toxic and counterproductive. They decided to look through their mates’ social media profiles to find out whether they ended up in a successful position. The findings prove that most of the people who didn’t attend TOP-10 or even TOP-50 schools still got secure employment opportunities and were striving in life, further proving that its one’s personal skillset and passion that matter. They summed it up in typical Reddit fashion – citing the movie “Ratatouille”:

“It’s like what that food critic judging a tiny rat said: “Not everyone can be successful, but successful people can come from anywhere.” 

This user also mentioned a point worth noting about how we are constantly programmed as children to strive for things that should fall into the category of generally-perceived success. It doesn’t really matter if that is a good fit for us; rather if it can be flaunted to make other people jealous.

Tips on Getting Yourself Out of the “Rat Race”

It’s nice to establish an understanding of the problem, but where do we go from here? Many users expressed their personal solutions on how to change the mindset of a person if they start to feel the negative consequences of focusing on the issue of prestige in college admissions too much.

One person shared their opinion stressing the fact that if you continue engaging in “the race”, it never really ends. After finishing school, you come across problems with finding internships, jobs, etc., and still exhaust yourself while trying to be better. As the saying goes, the first part of the solution is to recognize and acknowledge the problem, which is why you should act as soon as possible.

“The sooner you’re off the rat race train, the better. It will not bring you happiness.”

Another upvoted comment also expressed empathy for the OP and highlighted that it is better to be the best student at a lesser-known university than a “nobody” in a prestigious one. Furthermore, after finishing it employers don’t care as much about your diploma as they are believed to. It matters who you are as a person and how well you can navigate the challenges in the workplace. A college applicant should have their best interests in mind when picking out an alma mater, not other people.

“Stop listening to other people. Stop listening to rankings. Prestige is classism.”

Other highly-rated answers include valid suggestions on where to go from here. Trying not to focus too much on your success (or lack thereof) and exploring both the opportunities around you and your inner world is the right choice in the situation. 

“Honestly? Go be in the world. Be in the world that most people live and die in.”

“Work a minimum wage job. Make friends there. Take the bus across town and see what you find there. If you’re American, learn to speak Spanish and visit a Latin American grocery store.”

“Open your eyes wide, and don’t look with pity but with curiosity. There is so much out there that you’d never imagine.”

“Figure out what kind of life you want to live. Figure out how to earn enough money to live that life. Figure out who you want to live that life with and where you want to live it. Always remind yourself that comparison is the thief of joy.”

Reddit users also discussed the fact that even if you want to outsmart somebody and show your achievements, it is far better to become successful in the long run and not just on the college application stage. You should focus on carefully building your financial security and genuine interest in your profession.

“Being a happy person in a position you want to be in is a far better way to “prove them wrong” than chasing a name on a piece of paper.”

“A good school is not an achievement; it is a tool. Will that tool get you what you want?”

“Why are you living to prove who doubted you wrong? Work for yourself, not people who already don’t like you.”

With that being said, it is possible to get out of similar situations by sorting out your priorities and trying to be more level-headed. Yes, you can’t know for sure until you try something, but the learning curve is all about making mistakes and going forward with the knowledge you have.

How Students Can Prevent Ovestressing When Applying to College 

In this pursuit of prestige, another vital element that often gets pushed aside is the importance of mental health and self-care during the college journey. This highly stressful period can be emotionally taxing, especially if students find themselves in environments that don’t align with their personalities or needs. In fact, maintaining mental health and ensuring self-care are integral parts of the educational journey, deserving equal consideration as academics when choosing a college.

Here are a few things students should consider:

  • A Supportive Environment: A college that values mental health and provides ample support systems, such as counseling services and wellness programs, can greatly contribute to a student’s overall well-being.
  • Balance between Studies and Leisure: It’s essential to choose a school that encourages a healthy balance between academics and personal time. Opportunities to engage in hobbies, sports, or other extracurricular activities can significantly enhance the college experience and alleviate stress.
  • Healthy Social Life: A vibrant, accepting, and diverse social atmosphere can play a crucial role in a student’s mental health. Feeling connected and having a sense of belonging on campus can significantly enhance overall well-being.
  • Physical Health Resources: Institutions offering resources like fitness centers, nutritious meal plans, and health awareness programs can help students stay physically healthy, contributing positively to their mental health.

The prestige of a college can certainly add some shine to a student’s resume, but it’s not the only element to consider when choosing a higher education path. Mental health, personal fit, and educational alignment can significantly impact the quality of the college experience and, ultimately, a student’s overall success. In the end, the aim should be an educational environment that nourishes the mind, fosters growth, and provides a solid foundation for a prosperous future.


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