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Big Fish - Little Pond Effect? Which Pond Will You Swim In?


"How you feel about your abilities—your academic “self-concept”—in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence.”

"The phenomenon of relative deprivation applied to education is called—appropriately enough—the “Big Fish–Little Pond Effect.” The more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities.” Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants


The underlying sentiment of Malcolm Gladwell’s "Big Fish- Little Pond Effect" is the importance of determining what learning environment will support your success and which schools offer the educational setting to align with your goals. Understanding a college's learning environment and what type of “pond” it is should be as much of a guide as identifying curriculum, majors, campus culture and opportunities offered when researching and evaluating colleges. It is easy to assume that an elite or top-ranked school will provide the best educational opportunities for students. Gladwell's "big fish in a small pond" theory offers a framework for selecting a college that allows us to understand that the "best" school has more to do with how it meets the needs of a student rather than how it ranks in a poll. Allowing students and families to consider the type of learning environment in their college search clarifies that there is no singular path in pursuing post-secondary education opportunities. Not everyone will agree with Gladwell on this topic, but most will find value in a strong match between student and college. While Gladwell bases his position in part on Mitchell Chang's work looking at students in STEM, the idea of relative position and its impacts can be applied more broadly. Including the concept of "learning environment" into the college search can help students build a college list that offers opportunities, challenges, and balance.

Focusing on the highly selective schools that gain regular media attention and reading articles about the one or two students accepted into every Ivy League school is practically a rite of spring. For some students that thrive on challenge and rigor, this pond will be a comfortable environment, but consider Ronald Nelson's story. Nelson was admitted into every Ivy League school as well as some other highly selective schools but chose to go to the University of Alabama. By selecting the school that was the best fit for him, Nelson was able to create opportunities for himself and mitigate the cost factor for his education, graduating virtually debt-free. Regardless of what school a student ultimately attends, another critical piece of the equation is what a student can do while they are there. Selecting a school that will allow a student to take advantage of internships, research, advanced classes, community work, honors programs, or other opportunities will be a more rewarding experience and provide a foundation that can lead to graduate study or career opportunities.

Identifying the best educational environment, coupled with self-assessment and self-reflection, are vital to the college search. Determining a student’s abilities, strengths, and college readiness will help answer the "big fish in a small pond" or "small fish in a big pond" question, and further support their educational success.

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