Malcolm Gladwell has raised his voice before on the problems with college rankings. What we at Ivy Coach have always loved about Malcolm Gladwell is that he doesn’t just state an opinion. He bases his arguments on data and then, through the power of his adept storytelling (a skill we so rarely come across among students applying to colleges), he very simply translates the meaning of this data so the world can understand. And so we figured we’d discuss Gladwell’s latest argument related to highly selective college admissions and Ivy League colleges.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” Gladwell tells the story of a young woman who wanted to pursue a career in science. As he describes it, the young woman had a passion for science ever since she was a little girl, when she had a fondness for bugs. Wanting to pursue a life — and career — in science was all she’d ever known. The young woman was very smart and earned admission to a number of colleges, including the Ivy League’s Brown University. She also earned admission to her safety school — the University of Maryland. As you can imagine, students admitted to Brown rarely — if ever — debate going to a school like the University of Maryland. The two are just not competitors in this way. Brown is one of the top ranked colleges in America. The University of Maryland — while they often have a solid basketball team — just isn’t. Sorry, Maryland.
Anyhow, Gladwell argues that because this young woman attended Brown instead of Maryland, the world lost a valuable scientist in an age where we need more folks in science — especially women. Because at Brown, the young woman was competing against so many other high achieving students that she didn’t excel, got frustrated, and pursued a less challenging course of study outside of the sciences. Had she attended Maryland, she’d likely have excelled in her science courses and pursued a PhD in the sciences, an MD, or both. In this case, Gladwell posits that the Ivy League isn’t right for everyone and, in fact, it can hurt the futures of smart and talented students. Gladwell of course uses data to underline his point and we at Ivy Coach will not refute his point. Because, on some level, he is absolutely right. The Ivy League isn’t right for everyone — even those who can gain admission. And the world does lose some valuable scientists and doctors because they choose to go to an Ivy rather than a school like Maryland where they can be big fish in a small pond.
But what Gladwell doesn’t point out is how attending an Ivy League school helps you time and again throughout your life. That first job. Those friends and acquaintances who go on to become captains of industry in finance, tech, education, medicine, and so much more. That alumnus who gives you an interview because you attended his university. The list goes on and on. And there’s data to back all of this up, too. There are advantages to being a small fish — or a medium-sized fish — in a big pond, too.