Does it matter where you go to college?

The other students are the biggest advantage of going to an elite college; you learn more from them than the professors. But you should be able to reproduce this at most colleges if you make a conscious effort to find smart friends. At most colleges you can find at least a handful of other smart students, and most people have only a handful of close friends in college anyway. The odds of finding smart professors are even better. The curve for faculty is a lot flatter than for students, especially in math and the hard sciences; you have to go pretty far down the list of colleges before you stop finding smart professors in the math department.

So it’s not surprising that we’ve found the relative prestige of different colleges useless in judging individuals. There’s a lot of randomness in how colleges select people, and what they learn there depends much more on them than the college. Between these two sources of variation, the college someone went to doesn’t mean a lot. It is to some degree a predictor of ability, but so weak that we regard it mainly as a source of error and try consciously to ignore it.

I doubt what we’ve discovered is an anomaly specific to startups. Probably people have always overestimated the importance of where one goes to college. We’re just finally able to measure it.

The unfortunate thing is not just that people are judged by such a superficial test, but that so many judge themselves by it. A lot of people, probably the majority of people in America, have some amount of insecurity about where, or whether, they went to college. The tragedy of the situation is that by far the greatest liability of not having gone to the college you’d have liked is your own feeling that you’re thereby lacking something. Colleges are a bit like exclusive clubs in this respect. There is only one real advantage to being a member of most exclusive clubs: you know you wouldn’t be missing much if you weren’t. When you’re excluded, you can only imagine the advantages of being an insider. But invariably they’re larger in your imagination than in real life.

So it is with colleges. Colleges differ, but they’re nothing like the stamp of destiny so many imagine them to be. People aren’t what some admissions officer decides about them at seventeen. They’re what they make themselves.

Indeed, the great advantage of not caring where people went to college is not just that you can stop judging them (and yourself) by superficial measures, but that you can focus instead on what really matters. What matters is what you make of yourself. I think that’s what we should tell kids. Their job isn’t to get good grades so they can get into a good college, but to learn and do. And not just because that’s more rewarding than worldly success. That will increasingly be the route to worldly success.

Colleges“, by Paul Graham, September 2007 (footnotes omitted)
If you are a high school student, see Paul Graham’s not-yet-given high school talk for more good advice: “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” January 2005

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