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April 25, 2011

The role of prestige in graduate school selection

This is revised and extended from a post that I wrote in 2008.

In this post I will consider the most nebulous factor of school selection that can have real lifetime consequences: prestige. We can define prestige in this context as the brand value of a school in terms of the status that it confers to its graduates.  Beyond other considerations, such as ranking, location, financing your education, and academics, I always think it is worth considering the general prestige value of the degree. For some strategic advice on school selection based on the concept of fit, please read my earlier post here

To a certain extent, this is always a relative question, but it would be absurd to ignore the fact that a degree from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, and other internationally recognized brand names carry value beyond whatever the degree is in. You might not be a snob, but the guy who is considering hiring you when you decide to change careers in ten years might be.

Prestige is just one factor:  It is critical to keep this in mind.  Bad school selection decisions are frequently made solely on the basis of prestige.  Applicants can become so focused on the prestige of their dream school(s) that they fail to consider their own actual chance for admission and which schools really fit their fit needs.  As an admissions consultant, I try to work with clients who are a good fit for the schools they are applying to because I want to generate win-wins (happy admitted client who is happy with my services) and not just income.  One core reason that I might decide not to work with someone is if I feel that they are unrealistic about where they are applying.  The desire to attend the most prestigious schools can sometimes blind applicants to the reality of their own personal situation. Instead of pursing a good option that will get them the personal and professional transformation that they are looking for, they become to over focused on a specific high prestige (brand) university.

The Grandmother Factor: One thing that is true about the world's most prestigious schools is that your grandmother will likely have heard of them.   The "grandmother factor" applies to the schools that your colleagues, parents, friends, and relatives will know the name of even if they know nothing else.  When applicants begin the school selection process for graduate school, especially applicants applying to schools outside of their home country,  they often focus on selecting schools using grandmother's selection criteria.  While I hope you love and respect your grandmother,  it is highly unlikely that you would want to use her level of knowledge to select schools.  Most applicants get beyond this, but I have encountered applicants so fixated on what their mommies and daddies would think that their school selection was impacted by this.

School snobbery is ugly, but often inescapable. It is the underside of meritocracy based on education. You may have obtained an excellent education, have a high GPA, but if you graduated from a school without prestige, your education will often not be valued highly as someone who had an inferior performance at a prestigious institution. One can make the decision to simply ignore prestige, but doing so may come at a cost. Unlike what you actually learn, the prestige value or lack of it of a degree, will always be with you and cannot be easily undone (except by obtaining a higher prestige degree). For some, prestige will never matter, but for others it will determine what sort of position they can obtain out of school and limit who will even read their resumes.

The value of a prestigious degree for hiring is obvious: It is more likely to get you an interview. The degree may not get you the job. I try to never confuse prestige with actual ability. One of worst managers I ever worked with, a perpetual job changer, was a Stanford GSB alumnus. There are always people who look good on paper. I know because when I was doing hiring, I invited them for interviews. Did I miss someone who was good as a result? Probably, but the organizations I was working for imposed standards on me and I followed them. That is one impact of prestige.

The networking value of prestigious varies with the culture of the school and the strength of the alumni organization, but generally speaking, the higher the prestige, the more valuable the network. After all, people want to continue to associate themselves with institutions that bring them status and often avoid those that don't. It is no surprise that many of the world's most prestigious schools have alumni club facilities located in major metropolitan areas or at least regular events, while less prestigious institutions do not.

Prestige can be location specific. There are many schools that have regional prestige by virtue of the fact that they are the best institution in a particular city, region, or even country. If you are residing in an area where the school is perceived as prestigious, you are benefiting from it, but if you are not residing there, the degree may have little or negative prestige value. One example, I think of is HEC, whose Grandes Ecoles graduates are likely to become France's business elite.  Yet HEC MBA program has, at best limited, prestige outside of Europe. If one plans to work in France or if one is one going to work with French companies abroad, HEC will carry prestige, but in Japan, US, or India, how many people, even those with MBAs, know HEC?  

Prestige can be industry or even company specific. As with location, if you intend to work in an industry or a company where a particular school has prestige, you are obtaining a benefit that may end if your career direction takes a new turn.

Prestige changes: Some schools rise and others fall in prestige. When you look at where to go, especially with newer schools and middle ranked programs, ask yourself whether the school appears to be increasing or decreasing in prestige. Obviously you want to invest in a degree at a school where the prestige is increasing.  Looking at rankings, selectivity of admissions, and prominence of graduates are a few ways to gauge this.

Ask yourself: Are there any negative consequences to having a degree from this institution? Just as some schools have a prestige factor, others may carry a negative factor. Be especially careful with distance and online programs. From my perspective, if you do attend a distance or online program, go with a well-established program at a reputable university. I can't comment on the education you might get from a school with very little reputation or history, but if I were being conservative about it, I would avoid such programs.

Prestige is deceptive: Just because a university does is perceived as prestigious, does not mean, the specific graduate school you are applying to is.  For example, both Cambridge and Oxford are two of the most prestigious universities in the world, but what about their MBA programs? These are both relatively new programs with variable ranking on how you look at.  See here for Oxford.  You should consider the difference between reality of a specific graduate school within an institution and the overall reputation of that institution.  For instance Yale as university is certainly more prestigious than Dartmouth, but Tuck is consistently ranked higher than Yale SOM.  

I would never say that prestige is everything, but it is a real consideration. Prestige is a matter of perception, subject to individual or group whim, damaging to egos, capable of leading some applicants astray, but ultimately an important part of any rational school selection process.

-Adam Markus
 アダム マーカス

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