Does it really matter where you go to college? (Hint: not really)

Waiting to hear whether you’ve been accepted by your dream college? Find out why it may not matter quite as much as think whether or not you get in.

Every spring, high school seniors who are eager to spread their wings for a college experience find out where they “got in” – which colleges accepted them in the United States or where there was space for them at the many excellent schools in countries like the UK or Canada.

And, inevitably, a lot of prospective undergraduate and graduate students find themselves disappointed or even devastated when the acceptance and rejection letters arrive.

Savvy college-bound individuals know that most college educations are created (relatively) equally, but the rest of us make the mistake of falling in love with a college or university “brand” – we want to tell our friends and family (and someday our future employers) that we went to that place they’ve heard of that’s considered “prestigious.”

Or we want to go where our parents went. Or we want to get far, far from home. Or we’re desperate to “get in” where our boyfriend is, where the coolest internships can be had, or where the sports stadium looks absolutely epic and riotous with school spirit.

So, what do you do when you don’t get into your “dream school?” You spend a day or two moping – crying even. Then it’s time to get out of the emotions and into the facts. Take it from someone who studies the higher-education industry and who has quite literally “written the book on it” that this is not a tragedy.

If you have an opportunity to go to college – anywhere – moping for more than two days is excessive. Chin up! Here’s the truth about going to college.

A college is a college is a college

Be careful not to equate brand reputation with value. You might find it interesting (and even shocking) to know that the “rankings” – which often drive our perceptions of a college’s quality, especially in the US – are highly flawed and don’t even consider the one thing that will determine your readiness for a successful career: good teaching.

Most colleges and universities in the United States are accredited by regional accrediting bodies, which ensure relative parity in teams of academic quality. This is also true of most countries around the world.

So, for all our worries about “getting into a good college,” most colleges are pretty good – the accreditation process mandates it. Indeed, with few exceptions, a college is a college is a college. (Just like McDonalds, Subway, and Pizza Hut are all “lunch.” Different flavors, different options, different brand loyalty, different vibe. But they all get the job done when you’re hungry.) 

Rejection letters are a rite of passage – celebrate them!

High schools around the world are starting to host “rejection letter parties” – where you bring all the rejection letters and shred them (or burn them!) alongside your friends, classmates, teachers, and family … all of whom know you are smart and capable and that a rejection letter means nothing at all.

Wherever you get accepted or rejected, and whatever program or course of study you ultimately choose, those circumstances have nothing to do with your character, your intelligence, or your potential.

Brilliant people who go on to change the world sometimes get the cold shoulder from colleges and employers early in their adult lives; they get “rejected.” Likewise, folks who can’t really cut it in the “real world” sometimes get into amazing colleges or universities before the real world has its way with them.

Your college choice is not the single predictor of what kind of future awaits you. Give yourself a break and know that you don’t have to put so much pressure on yourself.

The college choice is a match to be made, not a prize to be won

Beyond the critical factors like affordability and whether an institution offers the academic major or course of study you want to pursue, the college choice is really all about “fit.”

Think back to the campus visits you did or the time you’ve spent on college or university websites and virtual tours – where did you feel comfortable, happy, included, respected, safe, and seen? (When looking for a safe campus, make sure you avoid 50 of America’s most dangerous campuses.)

My mother always made me “look up” when I was trying on shoes at the shoe store, because she knew that if I was looking at how cute they were, I’d buy a pair of shoes that hurt my feet. “Walk in them … How do they feel?” she’d ask me. She was teaching me to identify “fit” without getting distracted by brand reputation or my own ego (or sense of vanity).

That advice works with the college choice too. If you get accepted at a school where you just “fit” – where it feels like a good institution and/or a good academic program for you – you’ve got your answer.

A plan is better than a dream

“Wanting” to go to a particular college or university is nearly always about the feel-good emotions that come with a dream.

And when that dream doesn’t become a reality, it’s sometimes (ironically and unexpectedly) a gift. Instead of dreaming about “the one” – the college that makes your heart race, the one with the cool mascot or school colors and awesome t-shirts, and the one that makes parents and grandparents say “wow” – make a plan for your future life and career and get honest about what you need to get you there.

If you want to be an architect or a social worker, ask yourself what competencies, skills, knowledge, habits, attitudes, and credentials do you need for that career to begin? Any college or university that can connect you to those requirements is a great university for you.

Now, go be amazing!

Kate Colbert is an acclaimed marketing and communications expert, corporate ghostwriter, market researcher, higher-education thought leader, and bestselling author of the books Think Like a Marketer: How a Shift in Mindset Can Change Everything for Your Business and Commencement: The Beginning of a New Era in Higher Education.

Kate has four college degrees from institutions she won’t bother to mention, just to prove the point that it doesn’t really matter where you go to college.