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Big Fish or Little Fish?

academics college planning college preparation Feb 24, 2023

Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond? As you start your college search, this is an important question for both students and parents to consider.


Many people assume that it’s better to attend the most selective college possible, even if your high school grades, test scores, and other measures place you towards the lower end of the college’s student body. The rationale behind this “small fish in a big pond” line of thinking is that students will always benefit from being surrounded by smarter peers, as well as enjoy the perceived prestige of the more selective school.


Yet, research suggests otherwise. Multiple studies have shown that students who opt to be a top student at a less selective college (in other words, a big fish in a small pond) tend to feel more competent, have better college GPAs, and higher career aspirations than students who just squeaked into a more selective college. This is true even when the student attending the less selective college had a less impressive admissions profile (i.e., high school GPA, test scores) than the student who picked the more selective school.


Author Malcom Gladwell also points out how being a big fish in a small pond can be especially beneficial to students planning to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees and STEM-related careers. At a presentation at Google Zeitgeist, Gladwell discussed how many students who begin college intending to major in STEM fields switch to non-science and math majors. Those whose scores are in the bottom third were most likely to switch majors.


The equation doesn’t change based on the selectivity of the college noted Gladwell. A student’s SAT scores may put him in the bottom third of peers at a highly selective university, or at the top of his peers at a less selective school. But, the odds of the student persisting through to graduation in a STEM major will be greater at the less selective college where he is in the top third.


“As human beings, we dramatically underestimate the cost of being at the bottom of a hierarchy,” said Gladwell in his presentation. “We form our self-assessment and confidence based on our standing relative to the group, not the entire world.” Being among the top students in a college – regardless of its selectivity – makes a student likely to see himself as capable of keeping up with the group.


Of course, there are many reasons for choosing a college. A student and his parents may prefer the programs, location, financial aid, extracurricular activities, or a host of other characteristics of one college over another. A motivated student can also succeed at a variety of institutions, regardless of how he or she compares to campus peers. Students who are likely to be “big fish” among their classmates at a highly selective college will reap the same benefits as they would by attending a less selective school. And, some families value the perceived prestige of attending a more selective institution, even if it means their child will be a small fish in the big pond.


Deciding if you’ll be better suited to being a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond is an important part of finding a college that will be the best match for you. See Malcom Gladwell’s presentation online at:


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