The Real Reason You Care About Where You Go to College by Hal Ebbott

In his recent Chapel talk, English teacher Hal Ebbott spoke about UPenn, Penn State, and the quality of your day

This talk has two titles. The first is:

The Real Reason You Care About Where You Go to College

Or, the second:

Why Caring About Where You Go to College Suggests that Problematic Things May be True of Your Current Life Philosophy

Let me repeat that.

Why Caring About Where You Go to College Suggests that Problematic Things May be True of Your Current Life Philosophy

But before I begin I want to be clear that, in expressing concern about what it means if you’re the kind of person who cares where they go to college, what I don’t mean to criticize is: ambition, drive, and passion. Those, of course, are mostly wonderful things. What I’m concerned about is something else.

And in order to explain this I want to talk about college through two lenses. The first is statistical, the second is personal; both, however, ultimately get us to the same place.

Veterans of last year’s Cultural Philosophy class: please forgive some of the repetition; but certain things, I think, bear repeating.


First, let’s take a more objective look at the whole thing courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell:

What I’m about you tell you is something I told my classes last spring. I expected them to be overjoyed by the news, but it turned out I was very wrong.

Now, I know there are many reasons for wanting to go to a good school, but in the interest of honesty let’s at least concede that often (not always, but often) perceived future money is a motivating factor. Going to an Ivy League school sets you up to get a better job, to make better connections, to be better prepared for the so-called “real world,” and so on and so forth.

And, on the surface, it appears we have some reason for believing that. For instance, UPenn graduates make more money, on average, than Penn State graduates. That’s just a fact.

But… is it the right fact to look at?

It may interest you to know that each year there’s a fairly large group of people who are accepted by both the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State. One—as you may have heard—is an Ivy League school, the other is a state university. Now, it may also interest you to know that within this group of people who are accepted to both schools, a sizable percentage choose not to go to UPenn—they choose the state school over the Ivy. Why, I can’t say. Perhaps it’s the cost, or the size, or some specific program—who knows. The important thing is that they got into both schools and chose the “worse” one.

So, what happens when we only consider the students who got into both schools?

What do you think the difference in money made is between Penn State alums and UPenn alums when the Penn Staters could have gone to the Ivy?

If you guessed more than zero dollars, you’re wrong. There’s no difference. And it doesn’t matter when you compare them either. Five years, ten years, twenty, forty years after graduating—no difference.

Now, some of you may be shocked to hear this, but when I told my students they weren’t happy, they were upset. It was like they didn’t want this to be true.

I felt like Mr. Roach giving a pop quiz.

“I don’t believe it!” one student shouted.

“What’s the point?” Alex Kennelly screamed.

This was not how I’d envisioned the conversation unfolding. I’d expected it to be an extraordinary revelation, but instead things were falling apart.

Their reaction might seem counterintuitive, but maybe it’s not.

We’ll come back to this.


Now let me tell you about what happened when I applied to college (sparing certain details for the sake of time and also my dignity).

All of this, I hope you know, is told with a full awareness of the fact that it just may be the most prep school problem of them all. But prep school problems can teach us things, too—when we’re paying attention.

If you can believe it, I went to a high school where people might have been even more crazy about college. Many of you have a wonderful head on your shoulders about the whole thing, and I applaud you. I imagine there were people like that at Exeter, too, but apparently I didn’t know them.

Indeed, I have vivid memories (please note the plural) of going to the post office and seeing classmates, letters clutched in their hands, sobbing on the floor—sometimes out of joy, other times out of sorrow. And as absurd as this may sound to you, and as absurd as I feel remembering it, it got to a point where I hardly noticed. I may have even stepped over one such person like you would step over a puddle.

And although I wasn’t the floor-sobbing type, that isn’t to say that I was much better. Somewhere along the line I’d decided that the only thing I could possibly do which was commensurate with my talents and intelligence was to row at Yale. I’m not sure where I got this idea (Maybe it was pictures on the wall of the boathouse? Maybe it was which sweatshirt I wanted to wear the most?), but it certainly burrowed in there. And so, when I was rejected, I took the blow on a deep and personal level.

In fact, when I got into Trinity my self-esteem was so low that I thought less of them. Yale, being Yale, was obviously staffed by smart enough people to uncover my failures and inadequacies. Trinity, clearly, was not. Trinity wasn’t smart enough to realize that I wasn’t smart enough. That’s a real thought that I really had. It’s sort of embarrassing now, but it still happened, and, I think, is relevant to what I’m hoping to say today.

So off I went to college with the worst possible attitude: I arrived with a large chip on my shoulder, and nursed the private belief that I was better and smarter than the people who were satisfied with Trinity.

Not a huge surprise, then, that I didn’t really like college at first. But given the way I was thinking this registered as a false positive: “See!” I thought. “Trinity is terrible. I knew it all along! If only I were at Yale I would be having so much fun. Everyone would be smart and I would be happy!”


People often ask me which experience I liked more, college or high school. And I always give the same answer: Exeter was easier to like, Trinity taught me a more valuable lesson.

By the time I graduated from college I loved it. I found the things about it that were worth loving and I did them with people I loved.

At Exeter everything fell into my lap. At Trinity it didn’t. At Trinity I had to work for it. But the takeaway is infinitely more important and more useful. And this is it:

I am responsible for the quality of my experience.

There’s enormous freedom in that truth, but the responsibility it carries is just as great.

If you’re not having a good time at Peddie, the good news is that you can do something about it. The bad news is that it’s probably your fault.

Everything is just an empty room. And the room can be called Peddie, or UPenn, or it can be called Princeton, or Hightstown High, and the only thing that matters is how you decorate it.

A school is just a place where things happen. Those things can be exceptional or they can be mediocre, and which one they are has almost nothing to do with the name on your sweatshirt and everything to do with what you bring to the table.

And that goes for college, and boarding school dances, and Friday long blocks, and PA, and English class, and days when the bus breaks down in Mercersburg, and beautiful spring evenings, and gross, terrible, cold winter mornings.

It is always true—which is wonderful.

And it is often hard—but it is worth remembering, and it is worth doing.


In order to get into UPenn and Penn State those kids most likely had to be talented and thoughtful and ambitious—and those are the characteristics that matter. UPenn didn’t do anything to change the ones who accepted their offer, and neither did Penn State.

So what does it mean for you? Does it mean that your ambitions are pointless? Absolutely not. If you think that’s what I’m saying you misunderstand me. But it’s the ambition part that matters, not the arbitrary destination. You should strive for excellence; that, in large part, is why you’re here: to challenge yourselves and see how good you can be.
So as I reflected on my college process it suddenly became clear why those Cultural Philosophers had been so offended, so defensive, about the idea that it didn’t matter where they went. Because as much of a relief as it might be to know that college is not the be-all end-all of human experience—the trade off is actually quite serious. If it matters where you go, then you have something besides yourself to blame if things aren’t going the way you hoped.

If it doesn’t matter, then it’s just on you.

So in a way, all this pressure, all this college hype is actually a subconscious defense mechanism. The more important we decide the literal place is, the less we accept responsibility. It might not be deliberate, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

So here’s the actual challenge: stop giving college (or anything, for that matter) so much credit and take responsibility for the quality of your day.

Why would you ever choose to have a bad time?


  1. Great speech and perspective! I hope the students appreciated the message, as it resonates at Peddie and beyond.

  2. This is probably one of the best speeches about college that I've read. Many students get lost in the national rankings of some colleges and universities that hey lose sight of why they truly want to apply there. I have several friends who have even transferred schools because they based their decisions on the wrong reasons. I'm glad that you made the most of your experience, despite it not being the one you had hoped of in the beginning. I also hope the students appreciated this talk!

  3. As the parent of a recent Peddie graduate, I can say I wish my son had the benefit of hearing your speech while he was at Peddie. As an average, or slightly below "Peddie" average student, my son experienced the ever present background hum of Type A intensity and parental pressure (not his) regarding acceptance to name brand colleges. He is currently in his second year at a school very well suited to his academic profile, and is slowly learning the lessons put forth in your speech. He is taking responsilbility for his own success and happieness. After all, isn't that what life is all about after four very short years of college?

    Thank you for an extremely well done and thought provoking presentation.

  4. Great speech HalEbbot - reminiscent of one given by a Dwaine Banton a couple years back. Truth be told you get a great education at whatever college you go to; too much importance is put on grades rather than just education (this was the message of his speech). Keep enlightening already bright minds.

  5. Replies
    1. I agree! I love this speech. And I hope that you, John, one of my fabulous counselees, enjoyed your college experience! Small world!


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