How important is prestige?
I've heard several perspectives. Some say prestige is irrelevant while others say it is very important. The argument I hear for why it's important is that it can give you a job more easily but the majority of workers in the US did not go to T20 universities so how much of an advantage is it really?
Going to a top school can give you an edge in hiring and give you important connections. It also comes down to what you want to do. For example, if you study compsci, an in-demand field, it matters much less whether you go to your state school or Harvard. If you want to go into consulting or finance, many firms recruit at prestigious schools. If you want to go to grad school, med school, or law school, it can also help to go to a top school since they often have more resources to help you get there.
That said, you absolutely do not need to go to a T20 to be successful. In fact, some may find the environment too stressful and may end up happier and ultimately more successful at a lower-ranked school.
So here's my perspective. Prestige tends to be tied to the University's quality, to a degree. Obviously it's not a direct causation but for the most part, schools with lots of resources and opportunities tend to also be ranked as more prestigious. Additionally, it is true that name recognition can be extremely valuable in a competitive job market. So it's very important, but it's not the MOST important.
When choosing a school, prestige should definitely be considered as a factor. But if you think you'll be happier somewhere else, then that's more important than perceived prestige. For example, I was accepted to a couple of schools and I'm going to be attending Columbia University in the fall. Prestige was important to me when making my choice, but my main goals were to be in a large urban area and to get the best scholarships available. These goals happened to line up with the most prestigious school I was accepted to.
So essentially, here's the factors that matter when deciding if prestige is a big deal to you:
1.Is the job market for your hopeful career very competitive?
2.Is prestige something that matters to you personally?
3.How do your other priorities for college experience align with prestige?
4.Do you need scholarships to help pay? Prestigious schools tend to have larger endowments and better financial aid.
5.Why do you care about prestige? Is it for other people or for yourself?
Whether or not prestige matters is, I think, a very personal decision based on what your goals are, both for college and for life after. I hope this was at least a little helpful.
For undergrad, it doesn't matter too much. If you can afford it & don't plan to go to any other schools afterward then go to a T20 if you get in.
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