Revisiting my “Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal” article


Brinda Ambal

I don’t think I can persuade everyone with this piece. What I can do is provide my thoughts and leave them out in the open for readers to ponder.

Get comfortable. This is going to be a long article.

I’ve thought about this piece for more than two years now. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I wrote a post entitled “Acceptance into elite colleges is the wrong goal.” I’m probably not the best judge of this, but I would consider that article to be my breakout moment as a voice in the Parkway West community, at least to the extent that a high school newspaper gives oneself a platform. That post received a good amount of praise, but I personally have grown less and less fond of it as time passes. Beyond my stylistic qualms — my early Pathfinder bylines should really say “Tyler Kinzy and a misused thesaurus” — I look back on that piece knowing deep down I was trying to convince myself.

In some regards, answering the “does college prestige matter?” question is an impossible task. I’m heading to Rice University, a school with a single-digit acceptance rate and a top-20 ranking from numerous publications. If I tell you prestige does matter, I’ll be accused of stroking my own ego. If I tell you it doesn’t, that’s easy for me to say because I don’t know the experience of “losing” the college admissions game. But if I didn’t get into schools like Rice, telling you prestige doesn’t matter would be waved away as sour grapes. If a young person gives their opinion, people will call them shortsighted and naive. If an old person gives their opinion, people will call them out of touch and ignorant of the systemic factors behind Gen Z’s worries.

So, does college prestige matter? My qualifications are: 1) I’ve spent considerable time thinking about this question; 2) I’m able to write with the awareness that my qualifications are limited. I don’t think I can persuade everyone with this piece. To be completely honest, I don’t even know if that is my underlying goal, which is why (as you’ve likely noticed) this article is meandering more than your standard op/ed. What I can do is provide my thoughts and leave them out in the open for readers to ponder. This is the part where I would normally give you my thesis and outline a few main points, but I don’t have a thesis so much as I have ideas that are loosely connected to one another.

First, I need to make at least one data-driven argument to appease the inner debate kid in me. Future earnings are one of the most widely-used metrics to measure “post-college success.” (I’ll address that presupposition in a bit, but bear with me for now.) However, the literature at hand gets very messy when trying to establish causality between undergrad prestige and earnings. It’s not as simple as saying, “the average Mizzou student goes on to make X while the average Harvard student goes on to make more than X.” Of course the average Harvard alum will earn more: think about who attends Harvard in the first place. Harvard didn’t “cause” their students to be smart, ambitious and often born into rich families; those are traits they would have possessed regardless of where they went.

After adjusting the data for factors specific to the individual, the “prestige bonus” becomes far less pronounced. A diploma from a top-tier school does have an effect, but the level of importance depends on one’s career path. For example, name-brand colleges provide a bigger advantage in the financial world, presumably due to how valuable the best networks and internship opportunities are in that field. Conversely, aspiring lawyers and doctors usually won’t make those types of “needle-moving connections” until grad school anyways. As for law and medical school admissions, your undergrad GPA and LSAT/MCAT score matter significantly more than what college you attended.

Author’s note: the next few paragraphs deviate from the primary focus of this piece into commentary on affirmative action and inequality in college admissions. I apologize for the poor organization on my part, but I wanted to at least briefly address the subject somewhere in this guide.

The value of an elite university also varies based on your background. Low-income students see a larger boost at top schools because the aforementioned networks open doors that were already available to wealthy families. As an aside, this is especially disheartening considering how few low-income students actually do gain access to these institutions. Meanwhile, many opponents of affirmative action will villainize Black and Latinx applicants (who, as a result of past and present discrimination, disproportionately lack the same resources and opportunities) by claiming they are “less deserving”…only to be silent when it comes to legacy preferences and “feeder schools.” According to an admissions officer at a top-five ranked school, “10-15% of our class every year comes from maybe 30 private boarding schools. These applicants are held to a much lower standard and are predominantly very rich and very white.”

Regarding another prominent point of criticism, the notion that affirmative action discriminates against Asian Americans, I think this discussion must be located within a broader analysis of Asian-American history, from past legal exclusion via immigration law to modern exploitative inclusion in service of racial capitalism. This reveals how the affirmative action debate wedges Asian Americans as a “model minority” between other oppressed communities and white elites who would privilege from banning affirmative action. Now, this isn’t to say that affirmative action is perfect. While studies have documented the educational and social benefits of a diverse campus for all students, just as important is genuine inclusiveness towards students of color. I should add that there are, of course, other factors (e.g. class) besides race that construct one’s identity. In my opinion, these components should also be considered to ensure equal access to higher education in addition to creating a diverse learning environment.

But I digress. Everything I’ve covered thus far pertains to the oftentimes overexaggerated link between elite colleges and future earnings. If you’re so inclined, you can dig into the numbers further. This, however, rests on the assumption that material wealth — or, more generally, any other type of tangible acquisition — is the measurement we ought to use. That segues into the second half of this article, if you will. I could litter this half with even more studies and hyperlinks, but to do so would defeat the purpose.

I’m a firm believer in the notion that a writer, musician, etc. can’t truly make their audience feel something if they themself aren’t moved during the creation process. Thus, what follows isn’t traditional opinion writing, but a series of vignettes that begin in my seventh grade year and run through the day I am departing for college. There isn’t a linear “moral of the story” per se, so I hope you take from my work whatever you need to take from it.

Trigger warning: mental illness, suicide

Click here to go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage for people seeking mental health help: “The free and confidential resources below can help you or a loved one connect with a skilled, trained mental health professional.”

April 2016

I tried, but I knew seeing a therapist wasn’t going to work for me. That’s not to discredit the profession or its importance, but I’m just not very open about this type of stuff. Abnormally so. I’m not normal. I don’t mean that in the “this kid is gifted!” sense, but in an “I don’t belong here” way.

Maybe I’m not smart enough for this. Sure, skipping two grades in math probably sounds impressive to most people, but it doesn’t change the fact that I got a D on my last quiz with the type of “see me after class” note that I thought was just a thing in the movies. I didn’t see anyone. When class ended, I just kept my head down and snuck out of the room. I vividly remember getting a 90 on a test once in third grade and a few B’s here and there, but nothing that was a disaster like this. I don’t know if I can hold onto an A for the rest of the year. And this counts now: this is for high school credit. As in, colleges will see this. Maybe I’m just too lazy — no, I studied for three hours the night before for a tiny quiz. And I still got a D. I’m just stupid. Everyone else gets this. They’re smart. They didn’t f*** up like I did and that’s why they’ll go Ivy while I’m at f***ing…where the f*** am I going? Why the f*** am I like this now? I used to actually be good at things.

F*** you, Tyler. This is what you deserve. Don’t act like I don’t know what you’re going to do. You’re going to go home, watch the Cardinals game and try to bury this like it never happened. That’s why you became such a big baseball fan, isn’t it? To ignore the things you’re bad at. Because you think memorizing baseball stats and knowing that the 2013 steals leader was Jacoby Ellsbury at 52 makes you smart. Or maybe it’s because you don’t have many friends and baseball can’t force you into small talk you’re too awkward to handle. Baseball doesn’t drift away when school lets out and, if you’re lucky, maybe call you a few times over summer break. I know you hate going to school right now because it makes you feel stupid, but you’re going to hate summer even more because you’ll feel stupid and lonely.

I…I don’t know what to do. I’ve got people telling me I need to keep taking all the hardest classes and people saying I need to make sure I’m OK. I’m not OK. I don’t know why I’m not me anymore. But I can’t just give up and take the easy way out. I’m supposed to be smart. I’m supposed to go to Harvard or Columbia because that’s always been what I’m supposed to do. My parents keep telling me it’s not worth it, but aren’t parents supposed to say that their kids are good enough? I think I’ll end up trusting them on this one because they’re great parents, but I don’t know. I don’t know.

I just want to stop being sad.

June 2018

The Cardinals were playing the Cubs on a Friday night, the first game of a big series. It didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that St. Louis never led and eventually lost 13-5. It didn’t even matter that I was getting paid to write about my favorite baseball team, that I heard a legendary sports journalist compliment my article on his radio show by 14 or that I was invited to a Q-and-A with the Cardinals’ top executives by 15. Suddenly, none of that mattered.

I was watching that game when I learned they found his body. His family says he passed away after battling depression — we don’t say someone died of organ failure, we say they died of the disease: cancer — and I’ll respect their wish. A lot of things don’t matter anymore when you walk into a funeral home and see pictures of a 17-year-old on the front display. I recently sat face-to-face with his mother as she recounted the last time she saw him. There’s something about looking into the eyes of a grieving parent that changes you forever. I don’t know why I’m trying to describe any of this with words. It’s impossible. There are no words. It just hurts.

I’m supposed to transition to the next paragraph now. That’s what you’re taught to do when you’re writing and switching to a new idea. I don’t know what I’m saying to be completely honest. I’ve been researching mental health education and suicide prevention policies lately; I’m going to meet with lawmakers and school district leaders soon. I could tell you that I’m inspired to fight for a cause greater than myself, that I’m realizing why pursuing genuine passions and making the world a better place is more important than superficial achievements.

All of that may be true, but it feels shallow and self-congratulatory. Someone’s kid died; that’s what I’m thinking about right now. More are dying every day. Millions of people with a mental illness don’t get the help they need. Even those who do still have to deal with stigmas and the widely-held belief that mental health isn’t as serious as physical health.

I feel lost. I don’t really know how to feel. I want him back.

January 2019

I think I’m starting to heal. I don’t know where I would be without all of the amazing people in my life. Thanks to them, I’m also finally beginning to feel like a normal kid who belongs somewhere. I don’t know, I just think it’s so cool that there are people at school who will let me spend time with them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still doing my homework and getting good grades and all of that, but it’s awesome not having to stress about school 24/7 anymore. I’m learning a ton about different political theories even though they have nothing to do with my classes; I just find them really interesting. I also love being able to spend more time on debate, journalism and theatre — I don’t know how else to put it other than I actually enjoy what I’m doing. Funnily enough, I think I’m working harder now than I was a few years ago.

I’m also starting to dabble in what I’ll call Stupid Teenager Things™, that is, things that are stupid from a rational standpoint but dammit I just turned 16 so let me have this. Take high school relationship stuff, which is terrifying but also exhilarating but mainly terrifying. I secretly feel more pressure trying to nail a joke on the way to pre-calc than I do while taking tests in pre-calc — and something about that just feels right. I think I know what that something is: being 16.

For the first time in a while, I feel like I’m in a good place.

April 2021

I’m not sure what word I would put to my current feelings. Maybe numbness? By all accounts, I’ve just finished my most successful month to date. I kept my unweighted GPA at a perfect 4.0, triple-qualified to speech and debate nationals, won all sorts of awards as editor-in-chief of the Pathfinder and received acceptance letters from four top-30 ranked colleges. Sure, I’m pleased with these accomplishments in that positive outcomes are better than negative ones, but it’s not like I woke up the next morning and felt different.

At the expense of coming off as arrogant, I know plenty of people who would do anything to be in my position. I can’t say I’m happy, though. I’m still searching for validation, not the “I need to get into elite schools so people think I’m smart” type, but the “my heart wants to feel loved” type. It doesn’t make sense, of course: from family to friends to teachers, I have an incredible support system and they mean the world to me.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and grappling with these feelings over the past few years. To be honest, they’ve been at the core of the entire back-half of my high school career. I assume it’s because the “good place” I was in sophomore year was really just me latching onto other people without learning to love myself. It’s only a matter of time before you learn the hard way why that isn’t sustainable. I’m starting to understand this better, which is a start, but I’d be lying if I said it’s easy putting that knowledge into practice.

I want to be a good person. I think a lot about if I’m a good friend, if I would be a good parent one day, if I’ll be able to properly support my family when I’m older. The rational part of me knows that I can’t do any of those things as well as I want to if I don’t love myself. Another part of me says that I don’t feel better about myself because I’m not good enough. People tell me I’m too hard on myself, but I don’t know if I can be an accurate judge of that. Rational me thinks they’re probably right.

If so, I don’t think I ever stopped being hard on myself; I think I just changed what that looks like.

August 2021

Today’s the day: I’m leaving for college. Two nights ago, I cried while writing a thank you note to a friend who’s been with me every step of the way since the pandemic began. We’ll often end a conversation by sharing a “rose” (good part of our day), “thorn” (bad part of our day) and “bud” (something we’re looking forward to). I’m normally overly wordy whenever writing something sentimental — you might have picked up on that by now — but I didn’t have much to say that I hadn’t already said before, so I kept things brief.

Rose: Every second with your kindness, support, and overall amazingness in my life

Thorn: Saying goodbye

Bud: The next time we say hello

Near or far, I appreciate you for being you. I’m always just a call away.

Sending love,


Why can’t everyone come to Houston with me? Make no mistake: I’m excited for Rice and for the next intellectual and personal adventures in my life, but there’s something in the word goodbye that makes you want to hold on tight and never let go.

I’ve had lots of experiences recently that are the types of moments you’re supposed to remember for the rest of your life. While I certainly remember moments like getting into Rice or giving the commencement address at graduation, I can’t remember the exact feeling those moments gave me. I don’t know if that makes sense or not, but I think there’s a difference between remembering being happy in the abstract and remembering the specific feeling of happiness in a given moment. I’ve noticed that the latter only sticks with me if something is truly integral to who I am and what makes me feel alive.

So, no, I can’t really tell you how I felt in those ostensibly big moments, but I can tell you all about the pure bliss of sitting with a friend at the tables outside HITEA, playing Kali Uchis’ “Flight 22” from my phone speaker in the beautifully warm breeze that summer night. I remember adding a tally mark to a piece of looseleaf paper right before going to bed every night, one for each day without seeing my friends during the pandemic. And I remember 316 days later, swinging my arms around for a hug that made me too happy to even think about how I wished time would freeze, too happy to realize that we were both standing in the middle of the street.

That’s what I remember, and I love it.