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Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Probably Not.

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Many of my friends have children who are getting their college acceptance letters -- or rejections -- this month. This means that I'm doing a lot of cheering -- and consoling.

The cheering is easy. We all love to see those nice, fat college acceptance envelopes in the mail, proving that everything those kids (and their parents) have done is worthy: The sports practices! The play practices! The debate teams and chess clubs and robotics competitions! Our exhausted children and their cranky parents want proof that it was all worthwhile.

Then there is the consoling. This is much harder. I haven't figured out how to convince my friends that where their kids go to college doesn't really matter, or that a rejection from that "first choice" school might be the best thing that could ever happen to their kids.

I speak with some degree of experience about this as a parent -- and also as someone who has worked in college marketing for the past twenty years.

Let's look at my anecdotal experiences as a parent first: I have four older children who have all gone to college; three have graduated and one is about to in May. Of my four children, only one got into his top choice school -- one of the small, New England independent colleges. You know: brick buildings, liberal arts, lots of snow and parties. He graduated with an English degree and got a great job right out of the gates as a marketing writer.

Our other son didn't make it into his first choice school. He chose one of his second choices -- a mid-level private college too far west for him to be happy. He transferred to a local city college, graduated with a film studies degree and is now working with special effects shops in Hollywood.

The oldest daughter also wasn't admitted into her first choice college -- another small, private independent -- and had to settle for the State university. She hated the idea of a huge school with lecture halls instead of small classes. Nonetheless, she stuck it out because it was the best financial package. Within a year, she loved the school and had great friends, wonderful roommates and went on to graduate with a degree in natural resources. She got a job immediately with an environmental engineering company in California, moved across country, and is now headed to Alaska to work for the U.S. Forestry Service.

Okay, on to daughter number two: She got into her first choice international school in Paris. After two years there, however, she decided she wanted a U.S. degree and transferred home, this time to an Ivy League women's college. She'll graduate this May. Her plan? She'll waitress and live in a cheap apartment, then spend next fall traveling through Brazil for a while.

So. Were my kids in the "best" colleges? Maybe. Eventually. For them, anyway. But that's not why they were happy, or why they got jobs.

The son now working as a marketing writer landed that job because he had started earning money writing for web sites while he was still in college -- on his own time. The son who went to Hollywood? Sure, he has a film studies degree, but what got him started with special effects shops is the fact that he worked as a carpenter all through high school. His tool belt was his ticket into the movie business.

Meanwhile, the daughter who went to the big university took every opportunity that came her way, working as a laboratory assistant for one professor, doing field work in Indonesia, studying abroad in Spain and doing environmental work with another professor over the summer. Yes, she graduated with honors, but her extracurricular activities got her career launched -- and helped her discover what she loves to do.

All of our kids are passionate, curious and smart. Their college experiences gave them time to explore and grow. But truthfully? They could have had those experiences at almost any college.

To those students who have been accepted into their top choice colleges, I want to say a hearty congratulations. You've worked hard and you deserve those honors. I hope the colleges turn out to be not just "top choices," but also the best fit. If they're not, I hope you'll transfer out and find a place you belong.

And, for families whose kids are despairing because they made it only into their second- or even third-choice schools, I'm going to put on my college marketing hat for a minute. The reasons your child didn't make it into her top choice school probably has nothing to do with who she is or what she is capable of in the future. It's more about what those colleges had as an applicant pool this year.

What's more, as someone who writes college marketing materials and helps institutions "brand" themselves, I know firsthand that all of the literature and web sites you've looked at to find out more about your dream schools are carefully crafted (by people like me) to show you the best of the best. You know: the student profiles of talented kids, the enlightening community service opportunities, the innovative curriculum and honors courses, the close relationships with caring professors, the internships that lead to jobs, yada yada.

Yep. I've written about all of those things for dozens of colleges, from small four-year schools with minimal reputations to huge schools with lots of international clout.

And you know what? I wasn't lying. Every college has great students, wonderful professors and boundless opportunities to enrich student learning outside the classroom.

In fact, the experiences that students have outside of class are probably more important than the degrees they earn. Every college offers work study opportunities, activities and sports teams. Every college offers an alumni network and career counseling, too, and many encourage study abroad, even if it's just for a short term.

A designer degree doesn't matter nearly as much in the long run as the things a student does while getting that piece of paper -- especially the activities and jobs between classes and during the summer. Those are the things that will truly contribute to a depth of self-discovery, transforming college students into adults with not only education, but confidence, job skills and a global perspective, too.