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This is a tough time for students finishing secondary school. The difficult UCAS applications are behind you but then there is the stress of waiting to hear if you have been accepted for the course you’ve chosen.

The agony of choice

Some lucky students have been accepted by more than one university – but then there is the stress of how to decide which one to choose.  One obvious way is to look at the grades students needed to get into the different universities; surely the better choice is the university with the highest entry standards?  

That is the conventional wisdom but is it right? University is all about looking at evidence, so let’s look at how students at different universities do. Let’s take a famous university with very high academic entry standards and compare it to students from St Mary’s - also a great university, but with lower entry standards.

Bigger is not always better

I’ve left the comparison to Malcolm Gladwell, the best selling author. In his book, David and Goliath, he compared students from Harvard University (arguably the most famous university in the world) with students from Hartwick College, a small, liberal arts college (a bit like St Mary’s) in New York State.

Even the top students at Hartwick can’t compete on grades with average students at Harvard. But a strange thing happens when we look at drop out rates.

A similar proportion of students at Harvard and Hartwick start out taking the hardest Maths and Sciences courses. Surprisingly, the same proportion of Harvard and Hartwick students drop out of these subjects over time. You’d expect the Harvard students with their higher academic grades to have a lower drop out rate. What’s going on?

Success is relative

It turns out it isn’t the absolute level of intelligence that matters but rather how smart students feel relative to their classmates. If they feel they are doing well relative to their classmates they feel good about themselves. This builds their self- confidence to compete at even higher levels.

In my 25 years experience with graduates in the financial services sector, the best graduates from lesser-known schools did better than most of the best students from the prestigious schools. It is better for the soul to be a big fish in a smaller pond than being a small fish in a big pond. 

Courses that prepare you for working life

St Mary’s will undoubtedly prepare you intellectually for the challenges of the working world. We are known for our high lecturer to student ratio and focus on the development of the whole student. These things, and your hard work, will help you develop the self-esteem and confidence you need to succeed. Join us!

Bruce Rigal
Head of Department - Business, Law and Society