Arguably the most important and least-discussed trait to be considered in school selection is a university’s place on the theory/application spectrum. Ask yourself this. What is the purpose of college? If your answer sounds something like, “The purpose of college is to grow in critical thinking skills and learn to understand oneself and the world better,” then you fall on the theory end of the spectrum. Conversely, if your answer resembles, “The purpose of college is to gain the skills to get a good job,” then your ideal school will elevate application over theory.
The vast majority of top schools lean heavily, and perhaps surprisingly to some, toward the theory side of the spectrum, with some of the most notable examples including UChicago, Brown, Carleton, Yale, MIT, Reed, and Swarthmore. Well-known schools that lean towards application include Penn, Stanford, Northwestern, Colgate, and Duke.
In short, a theory-oriented school targets learning for its own sake, and desires students who intensely intellectually curious. Most top schools are theory-oriented simply because theory is the creation of knowledge, which of course is more advanced (or convoluted, depending on your perspective) than the application of current knowledge.
So what does this spectrum mean for your education itself? Statistics tend to show that it actually doesn’t really matter in terms of getting a job – students who work hard from schools anywhere on this spectrum tend to do well. However, the cultural environment at schools vary based on this. Theory-oriented schools tend to be more liberal politically than application-oriented schools. Application-oriented schools tend to attract more socially savvy students, tend to have more school spirit, and tend to have stronger athletic programs. UChicago, in contrast, boasts over tearing down its football field to build a library, attracting quirky students through its exceptionally unique application essay prompts, and having a campus environment “where fun comes to die.”
Remember that this information is all relative. While theory-oriented schools do skew more left politically than application-oriented schools, essentially all top colleges skew left in comparison with mainstream America. Likewise, while I labeled Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, and Penn as application-oriented schools, this is really only in comparison to peers like Yale and UChicago. If I compared Northwestern or Stanford to Illinois or UCLA, then the former schools look like theory-oriented schools. (And to add another step, if one were to compare Illinois and UCLA to NIU and Cal Poly Pomona, now Illinois and UCLA look like theory-oriented schools.)
What type of environment do you prefer? Do you see college as a means to an end? Or is it a journey in and of itself?