Is It Better to Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond?

Malcolm Gladwell writes in David and Goliath of bright students who apply to university. These students typically apply to a range of universities, some more prestigious than others. If we were to imagine that a bright student applied for five universities and got offers from them all, which should she choose?

Our default strategy would be to accept the offer from the university highest in the rankings, and decline the offers from the lower, less prestigious institutions.

The issue with this, Gladwell says, is that most students that get accepted into prestigious universities go from being top of their class for their whole lives to being average or below average amongst their peers in this new environment. And this can be difficult to deal with.

The drop-out rate in the bottom third of high-tier universities such as Harvard are the same as the drop-out rates in the bottom third of lower-tier universities. But the students that would be in the bottom third at Harvard would be at the top third of almost any other university!

The truth is, there’s so many smart people in places like Harvard, it’s hard to feel smart there. Instead of being dragged up by the standard of the others, being in the bottom third of a top institution can demoralize the student and lower self-belief.

So should the student choose a lower-tier university? It depends. The student has to accept that if he chooses the top-tier school he should be prepared to potentially be near the bottom of his class. If he’s not willing to accept that, the lower-tier school may be better for him, where he can shine as one of the best students in his cohort.

In my personal experience as a bright student, I applied for Oxford University and was interviewed there. Even in the couple of days I was there, I could feel how smart everyone was, as well as how extremely posh they were too! In a way I was relieved to receive a rejection letter and ended up going to the University of Manchester – a less prestigious but still reputable university.

At Manchester I didn’t have to adapt so much – I went from probably the best in my college class to second-best in my university class. Being in the upper percentile of my class meant that I was able to be picked for an international work placement, which would have been unlikely in a place like Oxford University. In the end, I still had thoughts of dropping out as one of the best students, so I’m quite grateful I didn’t get selected for Oxford University – I would have probably been too flattered to decline.

When Being Good Enough Is Better Than Being the Best

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he described the story of Lewis Terman – an American psychologist who tracked children with high IQ scores. He found that although many of them went on to great successes in their careers, there were some who underachieved relative to their perceived potential.

Gladwell argues that after a certain threshold of IQ, it makes very little difference in how applicable their genius really is. For instance, the US winners of the Nobel Prize tend to come from a variety of different universities, not just the Ivy League schools reserved for the upper echelons of genius students. Albert Einstein had a high IQ of 150, but there are people out there with IQs of around 200 that dropped out of university and now work in menial jobs.

Of course, as Daniel Goleman would attest to in his book Emotional Intelligence, emotional intelligence is just as important as IQ in determining career success. An extremely ‘smart’ individual would find it difficult to navigate the world if he had little social awareness or issues with emotions like anger or extreme sadness.

This leads to the question whether companies should follow “affirmative action” guidelines to hire a more diverse set of individuals for their firms, at the expense of hiring the “best-qualified” candidates. While it would be foolish to hire a lawyer with an IQ of 70 because they fit a racial quota, most people who apply to be a lawyer would have an IQ above around 120 anyway. After this threshold, the more important factors are those such as communication skills, strength of character and creative ideas. A member of another social class, religion, race, sexuality and gender are more likely to add to the pool of collective knowledge and ideas too. The concept of diverse thinking is further demonstrated in Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed.