A silver medal in the Olympics is better than a bronze medal. Duh. Second place is better--by any reasonable definition of the word "better"--than third place. Given a choice, wouldn't you want to stand higher on the podium? You certainly would want your child to be second rather than third in a competition involving the best athletes the planet has ever assembled.
Or would you?
Because interviews with athletes across sports and over time has produced the same result: Bronze is preferable to silver. The silver medalist is thinking about what she could have done to be first. The "if-onlies" start as soon as the race ends and follow her for the rest of her life: If only I had gotten a more perfect start; if only I had trained even harder; if only I could have shaved just the least little bit off my time, I could have won. Whereas the bronze medalist is thinking, Awesome! I'm on the podium; I'm in the history books. Another few milliseconds and I would have lost. Only the first three finishers get a medal and I'm one of the first three. Yes!
I'm not just referencing strength of schedule. This essay isn't about the relative size of fish or ponds. Olympic athletes are the best of the best not just in 2020 but in history, recorded and otherwise. Indeed, given improvements in nutrition, training, sports psychology, and shoes, athletes today are undoubtably the fastest of all time ever. Nobody loves the heroic story of Philipides running from Marathon to Athens 2500 years ago more than this author. But no way Philipides stands on the podium today. Indeed, in the 1896 Olympic qualifying races, Charles Vasilakos and Ioannis Laurentis were first and second. Half the people in my running group have better times at 26.2 miles than those two. And--how can I put this gently?--no one is offering any of us a free pair of shoes, never mind a chance to line up against modern champions. A hundred years ago, our times would have been among the best on the planet; today, we are a determined, loquacious, pleasant bunch--strong local runners in our respective age groups. Modern athletes are impossibly better than their counterparts of previous generations.
Which brings us to admissions: In the absurdity that is chasing highly selective college admissions, students frequently choose Harvard and Stanford over Duke and Northwestern. Let's call those institutions in Durham and Evanston Silver Medalists. Students usually matriculate at Duke and Northwestern rather than Eckerd, Earlham, Colby, or Appalachian State. Consider--for the purposes of this essay only--that Eckerd, Earlham, Colby, and App State are "Bronze."
Every status-conscious parent seems to prefer that Junior enroll at Duke rather than Earlham. But take this to the bank: with a 3.0 from Duke University and a 90th percentile score on the MCAT, your child will not be admitted to a medical school in the United States of America. Medical schools do not admit students with a B average. No matter which institution the B average is from. Whereas with a 3.9 from Earlham and the same 90th percentile score on the MCAT, there is every likelihood of your young adult attending medical school in this country.
Maybe it's time to stop giving everyone a hammer. Colleges are not nails. It's easy to measure time, distance, and rate: running ten minute miles gets you to the finish line long after the winners--who ran five-minute miles--have taken their place on the podium and gone back to the hotel to shower. Measuring the excellence of excellent colleges, to the contrary, tends to the offensive, unhelpful, and absurd. If admission to medical school is the goal, Earlham may indeed be "better" than Duke.
Stated without humor or irony, here is my heartfelt advice for college students: study hard; learn a lot; develop meaningful skills; deal with adversity; read a book that wasn't assigned; make some friends; have some fun. Focus on what you know rather than obsessing about where you will subsequently go. Perform well in college; earn an A in organic chemistry; apply to Harvard for medical school.
Last I heard, Harvard Medical School has a lovely facility and a well-deserved reputation, a gold medal program by any standard.