Does it matter where you went to college?

I read an essay today by Paul Graham (founder of Y-Combinator) about how a person’s college influences his decision on whether or not they are a good investment. His answer:

 “One of the most surprising things we’ve learned is how little it matters where people went to college.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Tim Ferriss, and many other successful entrepreneurs went Ivy League. But beyond numerous popular examples, and thinking of my own experience working with college students, I think he is right.

I coach about 100 college-age student entrepreneurs every year through the start-up of their own businesses. To find these students every year, I interview about 1200 college kids from schools all over California, from UC San Diego to San Diego State, up to UC Berkeley and Sacramento State, and everything in between. How much does what college someone attends play a role in the success of their business?

Well… not very much.

Most kids growing up are trained—by parents, teachers, and society—to think that the college you attend is a HUGE factor to success. I see articles all the time like “Colleges That Bring the Highest Paycheck” that hype up the importance of choosing the right college. So to some extent I guess college does matter; many corporate recruiters make decisions based on the prestige of the college the applicant attended. But outside of the corporate world, does it really matter?

Here are some excerpts from Paul Graham’s essay detailing some of his thoughts, all of which, in my experience interviewing and recruiting at most of the major colleges in California, I agree with.


“I thought I’d already been cured of caring about that. There’s nothing like going to grad school at Harvard to cure you of any illusions you might have about the average Harvard undergrad. And yet Y Combinator showed us we were still overestimating people who’d been to elite colleges. We’d interview people from MIT or Harvard or Stanford and sometimes find ourselves thinking: they must be smarter than they seem. It took us a few iterations to learn to trust our senses. 

Practically everyone thinks that someone who went to MIT or Harvard or Stanford must be smart. Even people who hate you for it believe it.

But when you think about what it means to have gone to an elite college, how could this be true? We’re talking about a decision made by admissions officers—basically, HR people—based on a cursory examination of a huge pile of depressingly similar applications submitted by seventeen year olds. And what do they have to go on? An easily gamed standardized test; a short essay telling you what the kid thinks you want to hear; an interview with a random alum; a high school record that’s largely an index of obedience. Who would rely on such a test?

 And yet a lot of companies do. A lot of companies are very much influenced by where applicants went to college.”


Graham goes on to make another good point about college. People that go to more prestigious colleges don’t necessarily learn way better things than those that go to less prestigious colleges. The curriculum is pretty much the same. A person’s willingness to learn plays more a factor in what they take out of college than the college itself.


“Don’t you learn things at the best schools that you wouldn’t learn at lesser places?

Apparently not. Obviously you can’t prove this in the case of a single individual, but you can tell from aggregate evidence: you can’t, without asking them, distinguish people who went to one school from those who went to another three times as far down the US News list. [3] Try it and see.

How can this be? Because how much you learn in college depends a lot more on you than the college. A determined party animal can get through the best school without learning anything. And someone with a real thirst for knowledge will be able to find a few smart people to learn from at a school that isn’t prestigious at all.

The other students are the biggest advantage of going to an elite college; you learn more from them than the professors. But you should be able to reproduce this at most colleges if you make a conscious effort to find smart friends. At most colleges you can find at least a handful of other smart students, and most people have only a handful of close friends in college anyway. [4] The odds of finding smart professors are even better. The curve for faculty is a lot flatter than for students, especially in math and the hard sciences; you have to go pretty far down the list of colleges before you stop finding smart professors in the math department.”


Advice to college students reading this: No matter what college you go to, remember that it’s all about what you learn and what you do in college, not where you go. Surround yourself with smart and successful people that you can learn from, take your courses with a willingness to learn, and seek to gain experience DOING things—internships, work experience, life experience—and that will set you on a path to success.

Read the rest of Paul Graham’s essay here

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