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What Makes a College Famous?

college campus at night

Why do certain colleges get so well known? It pays to understand what makes a college famous, and then decide if those famous qualities are right for you.

There are colleges everyone seems to know about. And they have certainly earned their celebrity reputations. But what's actually behind their star power?


What Leads to a Famous Reputation?

Of course, famous colleges get a lot of attention just because they are famous. But how did they get that way in the first place?

  • Rankings. Many students and parents assume a highly ranked college must be desirable, whether or not the ranking is based on qualities that fit the student well.
  • Selectivity. Famous colleges are very difficult to get into, further fueling the college's reputation. Admitted students have extraordinary academic and extracurricular achievements, leadership skills, and talents.
  • Rigor. Most famous colleges have academic programs that are at the top of their fields. They boast renowned faculty and graduate programs that attract students from around the world.
  • Age. Older schools have produced celebrated graduates, eminent faculty, and Nobel prize-winning researchers. And it's easy to believe that colleges founded 100 or more years ago are doing something right.
  • Money. A long line of successful alumni may have built up the college's endowment, giving the school the financial resources to fund everything from biotech research to generous financial aid.
  • Looks. Colleges with famous reputations are often situated in the most desirable and beautiful settings. Their classic buildings and grounds epitomize how people think colleges look.
  • Sports and Traditions. Famous colleges have had a chance to build a history of revered traditions and spirited team rivalries with other famous schools.

Note that none of these reasons says anything about what you might learn at those schools or what it's like to attend them. It's important to keep your own needs and goals foremost in your mind when choosing colleges to apply to.


What's the Ivy League?

Eight northeastern universities make up the famous Ivy League: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Columbia. The name has no academic significance. It was made up by a sports writer in the 1930s. 


Four Reality Checks If You Are Considering Famous Colleges

Here are four cautions to consider when choosing a college based on reputation.

  1. The odds of getting in are low. Many, many highly qualified applicants are turned down by these colleges. What it takes to get in is unpredictable.
  2. Prestigious professors are seldom seen. Working closely with faculty at a famous college may sound appealing, but those professors may not give undergraduates much attention. They may not even teach undergraduates at all.
  3. Welcome to the pressure cooker. A student body chock-full of super students increases academic intensity across the campus, sometimes to an extremely high level.
  4. Is the debt worth it? Think twice before going deep into debt to attend a "name-brand" college. Even with a famous college degree, there's no guarantee you'll be able to pay back your loan burden.

There are many highly regarded colleges that are less well known, where the faculty is closely involved with students, and generous aid is available. One of these colleges may be a terrific match for you.

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