Top School Students Aren't Really That Intellectually Impressive...?


Yeah... I go to a top school, so think H*****d, Y**e, or P*******n. And coming in, I almost felt a sort of insecurity, because I thought that I would be up against the grinders whom I knew in high school, and against kids who went to the best boarding schools, which everyone knows prepare kids well. And growing up, I thought you had to be a near-genius to go to those types of schools. I went to an international high school, that had a program called the International Baccalaureate program. It was pretty difficult, for a high school curriculum, and it definitely prepared me pretty well, especially its Extended Essay, a 4,000 word essay with citations written our senior year.

But as a junior at a top school, I feel pretty dissatisfied with the quality of my peers. No one is really passionate about anything. Everyone is just a striver, someone who works hard and games the system, which is fine, but it goes against some kind of popular conception that kids at top schools are really intellectually gifted or possess some kind of natural, horsepower that students at other schools lack. This is my third year here, and I haven't had a single class where I don't feel pretty above average.

There are some really intelligent kids that study in their rooms constantly, day and night, and as you'd expect, lack social skills.  And these kids are vastly outnumbered by kids who come to class, don't do the readings, and put together some kind of half-assed comment just to get their participation points. I guess it is fine people are like this. It's just time management. And you can't judge someone based on one class that you've taken with them.

But I feel like it really goes against just the popular conception that people at top schools are brilliant. It's pretty much a lie, isn't it? Seems like, from the employer's perspective, it must be pretty hard to find someone that is smart, has a good work ethic, and has good social skills.

Comments (22)

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Sep 10, 2020 - 12:42pm

those aren't top schools for intellectuals, they're for trust fundies and legacies. Also, if you're not majoring in some kind of STEM, there's just really no hard content to learn. Reading comprehension, paraphrasing, and memorization is all the humanities could require. 

Sep 10, 2020 - 1:03pm

I think this is on the right track. The really smart kids in most schools (including the top ones, state schools, whatever) are generally people studying engineering, pre-med or other hard sciences. I've been out of school for a bit now and a lot of those kids are doing pretty impressive intellectual things (medical research, start-up creating new healthcare products, etc.). You just aren't going to see as much of that in the humanities / social sciences. 

Sep 10, 2020 - 1:45pm

I agree with this, I’m doubling in Physics and Business and the physics courses take a far higher portion of my time week to week. I have yet to encounter a business class that is difficult to pass (or, frankly, to get below a B), whereas there are several physics courses that scare the crap out of me near the end of the semester and are genuinely difficult to get a passing grade in.

A struggling physics student like myself gets blown out by the really smart kids in STEM fields who actually know their stuff, but can consistently be a top performer on business exams and gen-eds. At some point college is about getting by, and the minimum required input (time, effort, raw intellect) for a STEM major is considerably higher than the minimum required input to pass in a humanity.

That being said, I’m sure there are very smart folks in every major, but it is less clear as to who is pretending and who is actually better in humanities when compared to STEM.

Sep 10, 2020 - 1:40pm

It sounds like you're going to be Valedictorian? Don't let those fuckers beat you in grades, they are obviously intellectually inferior or lack motivation. They must be stomped out with academic excellence. 

"If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee

Sep 11, 2020 - 12:28am

I don’t really know that it is a common view that people at top schools are geniuses... Yes, at all of these schools you will find exceptionally gifted people but the vast majority are not. If you look at the breakdown of students at a place like Harvard, there is a large percentage that fall into the athletes, legacy, affirmative action, etc. categories. This takes up a reasonably large percentage of each class leaving not a ton of room for genuinely qualified gifted candidates. There is also massive grade inflation at these types of schools so once you’re in, having great grades isn’t as hard as it might seem.

Disclaimer: not shitting on Harvard or the Ivys. Couldn’t get into one if I tried. Just trying to destroy the myth that these schools are full of type A nerds.

Sep 11, 2020 - 7:31pm

There are smart kids at targets. There are dumb kids at targets. There are smart kids at non-targets. There are dumb kids at non-targets. But there are more dumb kids at non-targets than targets. 

The 98th percentile kid at UChicago or Duke or Vandy is going to be just as smart as the 98th percentile kid at HYP. But the 90th percentile kid is not. 

Sep 11, 2020 - 8:06pm

Think about how a student gets into a target school. Unless they are of extreme wealth or recruited for sports, most likely their profile consisted of nearly all As, top notch SAT/ACT scores, top notch subject test scores, a handful of AP classes or top IB scores, and great extracurriculars. How do you accomplish all that in high school? You do it by being disciplined and consistent in your drive for near-perfect work. I don't consider target school kids to be significantly smarter than the next tier below, but I can generally rely on them to deliver consistently higher quality output. This is a generalization...of course you'll find slackers in target schools too, but I think there are far fewer slackers at a target school than that of a non-target. 


I went to a target school; I don't consider myself super smart, but I was incredibly disciplined in high school -- I realized early on a target school opens up many opportunities, so I did my grind in high school. My college grades were less than stellar (maybe I would be one of your intellectual lightweights), but I also felt like I had sort of made it and could relax a bit by then.


I'm not even sure what you mean by intellectually impressive... Are they well-read and can converse in a broad array of subjects? Are they more analytical of both sides of an issue? By either of those measures, I still think a random group of target students is quite likely to beat out a group of non-targets. At the end of the day, most people are not going to be engaging in philosophical debates about esoteric subject matters. 

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Sep 12, 2020 - 12:20pm

It's all relative -- kids generally tend to be smarter at targets than non-targets (non-universal, there are ofc exceptions), and the fact that you feel smarter than your classmates doesn't interact with that argument. This is kind of apparent, so I'm wondering if, while you're thinking you are much smarter than your peers most others actually think the same about you?

Sep 13, 2020 - 1:06pm

I think you have pretty smart people at top schools. Sure, there are some people who get accepted based on legacy and other issues.  You need to spend more time focusing on yourself and less time worrying about how other people do not live up to your expectations.
Sep 13, 2020 - 3:26pm
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