Picking the right school for your major

I advise (here, for example, and here) not to use your intended major or career path too rigidly in choosing where to apply or attend. You're very likely to change your mind, and that's perfectly fine.

But still, I have students ask me--though maybe in not these exact words--how to go to the right for school for "that competitive edge in the marketplace" if you are really sure of your intended major and career and you're not one of those less-driven, wishy-washy people who will change their mind. 


Fine, let's talk about that. You (supposedly) absolutely know what you want to study and what you want to do. How do you pick the right school?

Google it. Seriously. You don't need me to tell you that one of the best ways to search for information is to use a search engine. But be smart about it. Don't just go to the first hit, or even the first page. Look at what's there, consider the sources, and cross-check. Get a feel for both the consensus and the complexity. Let's look at some examples.

First, I decided to look for something with lots of data and lots of opinions--the best undergraduate business programs. So I Googled "best undergrad business schools" and had a look around. (It can be a little tricky, because some--but not all--of the undergrad business programs are connected with the universities' graduate business schools and have acceptance requirements above and beyond the college general acceptance requirements.) Just on the first page of my search results, I found a few reputable lists: one from US News & World Report, one from Forbes, and one from Bloomberg. Great. For our example I limited myself to the top 10 American schools on their lists. It shouldn't be surprising that they didn't agree, because they use different methodology.

But here are some interesting things. By combining the three lists of top 10, I got 17 different schools. Four were on all three lists: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, N.Y.U., University of Virginia, and the University of Indiana Bloomington. Three of those are considered to be Very Selective according to the College Board, but Indiana is considered Less Selective, with 79% of applicants getting accepted. While it's true that if you want to get admitted directly into the undergrad program at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana, the acceptance rate drops down to around 30%, there are plenty of opportunities to prove yourself as a UI student and then get into the program your second year, and 30% is still much higher than the general acceptance rate for the other three. 

Another five schools were on two of the three top-10 lists, and all are considered Most Selective, even tougher to get accepted to than Michigan, N.Y.U., and U.V.A. The schools on two top-10 lists are Penn, U.C. Berkeley, U.T. Austin, Cornell, and Notre Dame.

If those intimidate you, but you still want to go to a nationally-recognized business school, then check out some of the schools on only one of the lists, places like Bentley, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of North Carolina

I did the same exercise looking for top undergraduate programs in Physics. The sources weren't as high-profile and well-known. On the first page of my search results, I found lists from US News again, something called TheBestSchools.org, and BestValueSchools.com. Using only their top 10, and only schools in the U.S., I found 14 different programs. Six schools were on all three lists, and all six are Most Selective (two of them are Ivy League schools). Four schools are on two of the lists, three of them Most Selective (two Ivies). The only non-super-ultra-intimidating school was U.C. Santa Barbara, which is only pretty-darn-intimidating Very Selective.

So with Physics I see a trend that it's harder to get in to a "top" school, that the "top" schools tend to be really selective and well-known, but that there isn't such a clear consensus or as much analysis from sources I'd consider worth taking their word.

What if you're thinking something more Liberal Arts? Let's try doing the same cross-checking with "best undergraduate Religious Studies." What you find is...that there aren't a lot of people ranking these online. I found lists form a place called StartClass, a site called CollegeFactual (which combines Religious Studies and Philosophy), and one called CampusExplorer. What's more, the Campus Explorer didn't even give 10 schools, but seven. But only one program, Princeton, was on all three lists. Stanford, Columbia, and Duke were on two of the three. So even if you're looking for that one place to give you a competitive edge in the Religious Studies post-collegiate marketplace, it likely doesn't exist. 

As fun as online searches can be, your best bet is to simply ask people. Real, live people. Reach out to people who have the sort of job that you want and ask them where they went to school. Ask them why they went there. Ask them where they recommend you go. What you're probably going to find is that the more people you talk to, the wider variety of advice you get. Don't let this make you anxious--"why won't anybody just tell me where to go?" Instead, let this reassure you that you can find the place that's right for you for college, and that a career path will still be waiting for you on the other side.

Look ahead to grad school or top employers. My dentist told me about his college path once while he was drilling and giving me a filling. He'd first gone to a community college where he could affordably get basic classes out of the way and play on the baseball team. And then a four-year university offered him a full scholarship to go play baseball for them. But he didn't think it was likely he was going to be a Major League Baseball player, and he wanted to go to dentistry school. So what he did--assuming I heard correctly over the drill--is call the area dentistry school he was thinking about going to and ask them where most of their students went to college. He said a plurality all went to the same college, and it wasn't the one that offered him a full ride. So he passed up the scholarship, quit playing ball, took out a student loan, and went to the school that was the pipeline for the dentistry school. He feels perfectly fine with the decision he made, and he's a pretty good dentist.

You can do the same thing. Want to go to medical school? Look for the colleges with the best medical school acceptance rates. Want to be an activist ecologist? Start checking out the bios of staff at the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense. Want to be a college drop-out with a tech start-up? It probably doesn't matter too much where exactly you drop out from.

But seriously. Don't get too invested in this line of reasoning. Think about what you really want and need from college, not your major or job aspirations. You never know where greatness can be found. I got a degree in Literary Studies from a school with a great reputation...as a math and science school. But my English classes were fantastic. My History class, on twentieth-century urban design, was great. My class on pre-Socratic Greek philosophy was really boring, but the early morning meeting time may have had a lot to do with it, and early-morning classes are early in the morning wherever you go to college. Even had I gone to Harvard and earned the highest GPA of English majors, it wouldn't have earned me more money as a public high school teacher in Texas. Or made me a better poet. 

Sorry if this sounds a little corny, but it's better to be alive to possibility than anxious about exclusivity.

Besides, you'll probably end up changing your mind anyway.

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