Each year Harvard Law School publishes a list of the undergraduate institutions attended by their incoming class of aspiring lawyers. Since stumbling upon this gem a few years ago it has become a staple in our toolbox of resources that we share with students and families. Why, you might ask? It’s simple…Brandeis University
Michigan State University
Arizona State University
At least one of our students has enrolled at each of these schools in the past, and all of these are included on the most recent list of 170+ undergraduate institutions represented at Harvard Law. So, why is that relevant? My guess is that most people reading this may be familiar with one or two of these institutions. Perhaps you’ve “heard” of these schools, but weren’t aware that they were producing Harvard Law-quality graduates. In fact, an interesting experiment would be to run through the list of institutions represented and tally the number of schools you assume WOULD be feeder schools to Harvard-esque graduate schools. Maybe 10? 20? Perhaps….but certainly not 170.
Much has been written over the years about the affect your undergraduate institution has on your life trajectory. Does it matter WHERE you go to school, or simply that you went at all? The answer is, of course, both. However, there are many who argue that the WHERE is less important than the WHAT and HOW…as in, what you do with your time in college and how you take advantage of resources and opportunities play an even greater role in your outcomes.
A great example of this is the story of the Oracle of Omaha. Did you know that Warren Buffet transferred from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Nebraska? It’s true. Who leaves an Ivy League school for a non-Ivy? It wasn’t the name on Buffet’s diploma that made him a billionaire. It was the result of hard work, persistence, self-direction and passion. It was the result of connections and opportunities taken…and Buffett isn’t alone.
The whole concept of what makes a school "good" should actually focus little on the names...or even the rankings. What it SHOULD focus on is what makes the school the right one for you, in particular. What matters to your best friend may matter very little to you. Alternatively, what will bring you joy on campus may be a turnoff for a peer. Here's a great excerpt from a piece written by Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech that demonstrates this point:
Is that a GOOD school?
I find it surprising and disconcerting that on average people talk about restaurants with more nuance than they do colleges.
“Is that a good restaurant?” is almost never met with a simple Yes/No. Instead, people are far more apt to make statements like, “Well, their pizza is great, but I am not a big fan of their burgers.” OR “If you are in a hurry and don’t want to spend much, it’s a good spot. But don’t expect a five-course experience.” OR “It didn’t used to be, but they’re under new management now and things have changed.” I’m sure you can add a few others to this list. “Good” for certain things. “Good” at a certain price. “Good” depending on what you are looking for.
Students need to know that while the institution certainly matters, it is what they make of their experience that remains the most important factor in their outcomes. A name on a diploma may open doors, but it does not close deals. It may get you an interview, but it will not make you CEO. It might help you make connections, but it will not be your voice. Those things? Those are up to you.