Why Targeting “Reach Schools” is Rubbish

Over the last year, I’ve been assisting clients who are off to college this fall. Without exception, they are terrific students and fine young people who I’m convinced will be successful in college and life. They’ve earned terrific grades, succeeded outside the classroom, and contributed to their communities. Naturally, well-meaning people in their lives have encouraged them to apply to selective schools where “just getting in” means they will graduate with a prestigious institution’s name on their diplomas. I’m increasingly convinced that this advice is just plain rubbish.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times bestsellers and one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People

According to College Board, a reach school is “one where your scores (GPA and standardized tests) are in bottom 25 percent of the typically admitted students.” Too many students and families are stressing themselves out and stretching their budgets to their limits because they think they should choose “the best college” they can get into. I want to make the case that what truly matters are your skills, experiences, work ethic, and the acquisition of a college degree and that attending a reach school is usually a poor way to find success.

Success Breeds Success; Failure Breeds Disillusionment:

As a kid, I was a phenomenal student. It wasn’t until 8th grade that I received anything other than A’s on my semester report cards. Even then, it was only in one class, Latin. I was taking Latin because people I trusted- parents, teachers, other adults- told me I was smart and I should grow up to be a doctor or lawyer. My parents were paying for me to attend one of the best private high schools in America because of this potential. The first semester of Latin I, I finished with a B+. Second semester, C.

My slide continued in Latin II where I got an F the first semester. I asked my parents if I could drop the class and leave the elite high school for the average public high school closer to our home. They didn’t let me leave and my Latin teacher met with me several times a week for the second semester so that I eventually passed his class for the year with a C.

Great lesson, right? I learned how to overcome a struggle and fight through adversity using my resources. Sure, that’s true. What’s also true is that this experience shattered my confidence. I was no longer felt I was just as smart and capable as my peers (I was). Instead, I was convinced I was just an average student- maybe even below average. Even SAT and ACT scores in the 99th percentile didn’t convince me I was worthy.

It took me a couple of years in college before I truly believed I had what it took to lead- in and out of the classroom. When that confidence returned, I finally fulfilled my college potential. I became the editor of the school literary magazine, was nominated for the university’s most prestigious fellowship, was elected to student government and won the annual MLK essay contest.

The Big Ten has 41% more current Fortune 500 CEOs than the Ivy League (62 vs 44). The University of Wisconsin has produced more than any other college (14) and there are as many Michigan State alumni on the list as Yale Bulldogs (5) .
Kittleman Executive Search

The Numbers: Professional Success Isn’t Tied to Elite Schools

Research suggests that attending an elite school doesn’t necessarily guarantee future professional success. Several studies have shown that students who chose less-selective schools wound up earning as much as their similarly-qualified peers who graduated from more prestigious institutions. A Wall Street Journal study found the prestige of a college has minimal impact on future earnings for STEM majors, and the higher cost of elite private colleges often offset any potential advantages.

On the other hand, the evidence put forward by Malcolm Gladwell in the video above suggests that what I experienced was not a unique phenomena. “As human beings, we do not form our self assessment based on our standing in the world; we form our self assessments based on our standing of those in our immediate circle. Research from UCLA says that a student is 2% more likely to drop out of college for every 10 point increase in the average SAT score of their peers. If you have kids going to college- you should never go to the best college you could get into.”

Gladwell is basing his recommendations based on the data, which I can tell you is absolutely supported by my two years of experience advising students. I’ll end with an example of how the endless quest for prestige can have negative consequences.

Imagine a student who visits their “Reach” school and falls in love with the campus. As a selective school with a smaller endowment, the college offers very little need-based financial aid. The majority of the aid is merit aid, including full-tuition scholarship offered to the top 5% or so of applicants each year. The problem is that the student’s test scores and GPA puts them in the bottom 25% of the incoming class, so not much aid will be forthcoming.

Let’s play this out a little further and assume that the family can afford the cost without the merit-based aid. Imagine what the student’s academic experience will be after graduating in the top 10% of their high school class to suddenly find themselves lagging behind their peers. We can only hope that they quickly learn to use resources like tutoring centers and office hours to keep up. Even if this doesn’t take a psychological toll, it most certainly will inhibit their chances to get involved with extracurricular clubs, co-ops, internships and other activities that will help them thrive in college and beyond.


I’ll leave you with the quote from Malcolm Gladwell, “If you have kids going to college- you should never go to the best college you could get into.” Instead, find a place that feels like home, where you can thrive. Do this and you (or your student) can achieve success, no matter where you graduate.

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