Congrats on getting into college! Woooooo! The ridiculously early soccer practices, the hundreds of hours you put in babysitting, the twenty-seven club meetings you juggled each day, the large amount of English papers you procrastinated (and then finished at the last possible second), all of it was worth it. Now you just have pick your school.

For some of you, the choice is simple.

For others, the choice is hard.

And I’m sure there are more than a couple of you who are stuck between two types of colleges: the “brand name” school and the one that is not as well known but perfect for you.

What’s a Brand Name School? It’s a college that every person in your town, state, or country knows. The Ivies apply to this category, as do a lot of larger universities with active athletic programs and private universities with a particularly outstanding academic department. It’s a university that people generally say, “Wow!” to when you tell them you go there. However, Ivies, athletic schools, and specialized program schools aren’t the only types of schools; these are just examples.

And what’s the perfect school? Well, it’s a school where you think you’ll be a great fit. It’s a college where you love everything–the academics, the facilities, the people, the faculty, even the trash cans.

And thus you are faced with a decision: which school do you choose? The school with the name, or the school that you think was pretty much meant for you?

Though every person’s journey is different (and everyone’s reasons for attending a particular college vary greatly), here’s a couple of different points to think about when it comes to choosing between the “perfect” school and the perfect school for you.

A Bit about Fit

Emily Keator, a freshman at Davidson College, actually turned down the famous Harvard University to attend Davidson. People were shocked–how could someone decline an acceptance to THE Harvard University for a small liberal arts college?!

However, Emily had her reasons, some good ones at that. “I chose Davidson because, quite simply, it fit me better. Harvard is a fantastic school and I would have been honored to be a student, but I don’t think I would have been happy there as an undergraduate.”

Emily knew what she was looking for in a college, and Davidson seemed to be a more natural fit. “Small classes and therefore close relationships with professors really matter to me at this stage of my education, and I don’t think I would have found that at Harvard as an undergrad.”

The Little Things

For Emily, the “little things” came in the form of the comfort and security at Davidson and in the surrounding area. “I was also incredibly comfortable on the campus, [especially] with its Honor Code–once I saw some cash pinned to board in the student union with a note saying where it was found. That comfortable feeling extends pretty much to the whole town.”

Though Emily thinks that, “…Cambridge [where Harvard is located] is beautiful and near Boston and I felt incredibly sophisticated sitting in one of the cafes near the bookstore, I didn’t get that same comfortable, small town feeling [that I loved at Davidson].” As we talked about earlier in our Real College Checklist series, the location of a college does make a difference! These small aspects add up to create your entire experience. So if you’re just not getting that WOW feeling from a school, you don’t have to settle!

Oh Yeah, Happiness Is a Thing

Honestly, you might not be as happy at the Brand Name School as you would be at a different school. Yeah, it’s so tempting, especially once you’re accepted, to take the offer and run. But think about it: do you really love the school? Do you even kind of like it? If someone asks you where you would be the most happy, is this the school that first pops into your head?

Remember: four years is a long time. You see the people on your college campus EVERY DAY. You will use the campus facilities 24/7. You will be furthering your education through this university. You spend over 35,000 hours as a college student. Shouldn’t you be loving it instead of just going “eh”?

People: They’re Also a Thing

Long story short: Emily loves the people at Davidson, and they’re her number one reason for attending the school. “The number of people [at Davidson] who understand my nerdy Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings references is astounding, and I just get such a sense of community from the the people.”

Remember: students make the campus. And sometimes the types of people at a school are just not your cup of tea. I’m not saying they’re bad people; I’m just saying they’re not completely compatible with you. For example, a liberal Wesleyan hipster would probably not enjoy the conservative Southern pride at Washington & Lee. Both Wesleyan and W&L are fabulous schools with absolutely incredible, smart people; they just attract different types of students.

Think about your Brand Name School. Visit if you’re able to. Do you really like the student body? Are they too awkward, pretentious, academics-obsessed, jock, uncoordinated, or hipster? Be honest with yourself.

And don’t pull the whole “I’ll learn to love the people!” thing. That doesn’t work. Ever. You might learn to tolerate the people, but you’ll never truly love them. Consider the difference. Do you want to spend your four years of college gritting your teeth and rolling your eyes, or do you want to be like, “HECK YEAH I AM PART OF THIS COMMUNITY!”?

Other Considerations

Your Perfect School: People might not know it.

Yeah, some people may have never heard of your school. That doesn’t make it a bad school; it just makes those people are ignorant about colleges. I can tell you from experience that it does suck when you see that blank look spread across someone’s face when you tell them where you go to school and they don’t recognize the name, but eventually you just don’t care; you’re too proud of your college.

Alumni Connections

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Brand Name schools are able to give you connections that other colleges and universities can’t. Sure, a Name Brand college might seem to have more “connections” than another school, or connections that are easier to find. However, I can tell you now with certainty: every school has alumni. Furthermore, every school has alumni who will help out current students.

On the topic of connections, it should also be mentioned that networking only works if you actively participate in it. You can’t just say, “Wonderful alumni people, come at me!” and expect them to. That doesn’t happen. There are students who go to Brand Name Schools who have never made a single alumni connection; in contrast, there are students at schools that aren’t typically thought of as “Brand Name” who have over 500+ connections on LinkedIn. Like everything else in college, whom you interact and network with comes down to your own initiative.

Bottom Line: Think about WHY you are choosing a school. The reasons matter.

Are you choosing it for the name or because you truly and honestly and whole-heartedly believe it’s the perfect place for you? If the school happens to have both name recognition you desire AND it’s perfect, then you have the best of both worlds! If not, as Desi Arnaz used to say, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do.”

Emily’s advice? Remember what the point of an undergraduate education is in the first place. “Lots of people get caught up in just looking at the academic or athletic prowess of a school, but college, especially undergrad, is as much about you and your personal growth into an adult as it is about education. People have accomplished great things in life and been ecstatically happy without a name-brand school.”

Emily also asks you to visualize that college diploma decades down the road. “…Think about this: at the very end, will that faded diploma from a name-brand school make you smile more than all those times you could have had somewhere you fit just right? While you’ll make friends wherever you go, just think about whether you’re willing to trade in an experience that’s practically tailor fit to you for one with a bigger name.”

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the author

Lily Herman is a junior at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Besides bopping around on The Prospect, Lily is a columnist for USA TODAY College (read the Quad Report, yo); an editorial intern for The Daily Muse; a contributing editor for the campus blog Wesleying; a national contributing editor for Her Campus; and an editorial/marketing intern at HelloFlo. When she is not studying or awkwardly waving at people around campus, Lily enjoys eating Sour Patch Kids and re-watching the Friday Night Lights series finale (she's Team Saracen, by the way). Also (shameless plug alert), feel free to follow her on Twitter, or email her at lherman(at)theprospect(dot)net.

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  1. Hugo on April 3, 2013

    I loved y’alls blog. After my senior year in high school, my friends were all headed out to the brand name Texas schools. UT, Houston, A&M. I decided to opt for tiny UT-Brownsville, a satellite of UT with a student body of about 4,000 active students.

    I picked it for a variety of reasons, but the most important one was that it felt like home to me. The small campus and small class sizes really allowed me to get to know my classmates and my professors very well, and they got to know me very well, which helped me out a lot in the future.

    So, while I may have to pull out a map and tell people where Brownsville is, I would not trade that just to be a number at some of the larger institutions that get to have exposure on national television.

    Another thing that you write:

    “On the topic of connections, it should also be mentioned that networking only works if you actively participate in them.”

    BAM! Nail on the head with that one. A lot of people are under the assumption that just because you go to State University(tm) and graduate, you’ll get employers beating down a path to your door after graduation. That’s all nonsense. If you don’t get involved with internships, if you don’t hustle and make connections while you’re in college, that ™ on your diploma won’t mean a thing. Even if you’re going to Harvard, if you’re just coasting on the brand name, you’re going to be beat out of a job by someone who went to Small State U but has been creating opportunities on his own.

    In the end, that’s what’s going to matter. What you did in college. Whether it’s Princeton or tiny UT-Brownsville, if you don’t hustle, you’re going to have a bad time after college.

    • Lily Herman Author on April 4, 2013


      Thank you so much for your spectacular comment! I definitely feel the same way about Wesleyan on many fronts: with only 2,800 undergrads, I feel like I have plenty of opportunities to meet my fellow classmates and professors, and it’s great have that sense of community.

      I also totally agree with you on connections! I actually had a friend last year who was obsessed with going to an Ivy League school because of its “great connections”, but he was missing the most important aspect of networking: his own motivation! He assumed alumni would be throwing themselves at him trying to help him out, and that’s not the case. Many students who use alumni/school networking don’t just get lucky; they work hard and prepare and take the situation into their own hands, and it totally pays off.

      Once again, thanks for a great and insightful comment and your kind words!

  2. Pingback: The Real College Checklist: The Experts Tell It Like It Is | Gifted Education Foundation | Atlanta 14 Apr, 2013

    […] Crew, has some really important advice for students: DO YOUR RESEARCH, especially to avoid choosing the “brand name” school over the school that’s perfect for YOU. “My advice is to break from that mold and do research on everything from the big (Where is the […]

  3. lll on August 7, 2015

    What a great article. Students are so caught up in the brand name schools because the internet and broadcast media make it important. If we focus on fit through a thorough visit on campus, many will understand that brand names don’t fit us due to the people they attract. You don’t want to roll your eyes every time someone mentions your college. You want to reminisce. Success doesn’t come from some well-known college. Success comes from putting the hard work into your success and took advantage of stroke-of-luck opportunities that arise. In the long run, no one cares what college you go to. Just like high school, it’s a part of your life, not your whole life. Everyone is on the same starting line in the workforce once graduation ends; you decide how you finish the race.

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