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Looking at colleges for next year? It might be wise to re-consider your top choice

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton. File photo

By Jim Kempton

David & Goliath, prize-winning author Malcolm Gladwell’s latest bestseller, explores the “big pond” theory: that no matter what arenas we compete in, we compare ourselves to the immediate surroundings of our sometimes very small sphere. The question he asks is, “When that sphere holds a disproportionate level of talent, might it skew both our chance for success and our positive view of ourselves?”

The example he uses are Ivy League college students who rate in the lower third of their classes. Often these otherwise exceptional scholars feel they are failing or are not good enough to compete, and consequently give up on their area of study or drop out of college altogether.

For instance, the bottom third of the science students at the seventh-ranked Brown University felt like failures, though they had tested above students who were at the top of their class in colleges that ranked in the “average” range. These kids were not comparing themselves to all science majors. They were only comparing themselves to the other students at Brown, who often tested in the top 1 percent of all college applicants.

By contrast, students who graduated at the top of their class in any field or any school—whether at Harvard or University of New Mexico—were more likely to be successful, not only in college but in later life as well, producing more scientific papers, holding more executive positions or becoming professional athletes.

Gladwell notes we naturally assume that going to a better school, playing on a more elite team or joining a more prestigious organization is a better choice for us or our children.

But research shows quite the opposite. Unless we can be assured of achieving a top rank at the premier school or team, it may be more advantageous to go to a lesser-known school and be among the best.

In short, sometimes it is better to be the big fish in the smaller pond than be in a big pond where you are not even competitive.

I have recognized the “bigger pond” theory in my own life and called it social relativity. Although I was accepted to Brown University, I went to a small college in California where I was able to do well and still pursue my love for surfing. I started my career at Surfer magazine, a small magazine, instead of continuing where I did my internship—at Diners Club in the giant world of finance.

At the time it felt like a lesser option, a smaller pond, but I was perhaps better able to succeed than if I had competed against the prodigies choosing the more prestigious alternatives. We seldom judge ourselves against the entire universe of potential competitors; instead we look at only those in our close proximity.

So for parents looking at their children’s alternatives for college acceptance this June, it might be worthwhile to consider the less prestigious school—whether for academic or athletic success. As counter-intuitive as it seems, a small pond can often nurture the big fish.

Jim Kempton is a surfer of 30-plus years who only needs to surf Lower Trestles with NSSA champs, ASP pros and the many outstanding locals to feel like a very small fish.

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