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The College Insider: Admissions Freak-Out #11: Why Is Everyone's Top 10 List The Same?

Posted: 02/01/10 10:33 AM ET

At first glance, the results of the most recent Princeton Review college survey suggest that families are starting to regain their sanity. Lots of them say they care most about finding a school that will further a student's career goals, a smart strategy if you happen to have an 18-year-old with an early vision of his or her future. Another big group, may the blessings of the psychology community fall on their enlightened heads, swear that what they care most about is "fit."

Fit is a vastly underrated dynamic, too often the euphemism that college counselors use when talking to a student whose numbers don't measure up to the Ivy League. The implication of fit is that the student's profile is oddly shaped -- an outlier score or grade mars the smooth outline that makes placement easy -- and needs a school that will accommodate him.

But come on: Fit is the foundation for any successful long-term relationship, whether we're talking about a senior choosing Reed over Southern Methodist University or his parents having married each other instead of the candidates who preceded each of them.

But if you think the madness is over, think again: plenty of people who swear they care about "fit" also believe that the best fit for their little darlings is, yep, on a short-list of prestige institutions.

Robert Franek, senior vice-president and publisher at The Princeton Review, includes a bone-chilling little exercise when he conducts seminars for high-school students and their parents: He asks everyone to write down their three top-choice schools, and then he has them scratch out the usual suspects, the Ivies and other elite targets. By the time he's done, it's "rare" to find anyone who still has three schools on their list, he says, and the majority have none.

So we're still hoping to elevate the family profile by adding a big brand-name school to our inventory of great stuff. We're buying prestige, and if you want to know how wrong this can go, listen to the refreshingly candid Edward Fiske, creator of the eponymous Fiske Guide to Colleges and its offshoots and the one-time education editor at The New York Times:

"It makes no sense at all to find yourself in the place of a student who a number of years ago told me that he had opted for prestige over fit," said Fiske, "and compared his college experience to 'a four-year jail term with a $100,000 fine.'"

Ouch. And in that number of years, the price has edged closer to $200,000; by anybody's criteria, it sounds like a very bad investment indeed.

Each guide book stands by its own methodology for determining fit, which includes student surveys that are translated either into narrative, in the Fiske, or listings that cover the waterfront, in the Princeton Review. I don't know that I want to meet the parents who fork over all that money for PR's top-ranked party school, but then, I probably don't want to meet the ones who opt for the top "stone-cold-sober" institution, either.

Speaking of parents, Bruce Hammond, who has worked on various Fiske publications for over 20 years, takes them and the rest of the adults in this equation to task for creating a universe in which the top 10 too often sound like the only 10. "Today's brand obsession is a logical response to the world that we adults have created," Hammond said. "When (high) school administrators get together to talk about college application results, the first thing they want to know is who got into elite schools."

So we're asking teenagers to speak up and make the surprising, unexpected, right-fit choice - teenagers, whom we consider vulnerable to peer pressure on far less consequential issues. Are better grown-ups the key to a better list? Maybe so.

Franek say simply, "getting caught up in the rankings (on a purely academic scale) frenzy is such a poor way to pick a school," and hopes that Princeton Review's extensive student surveys "help them think outside the application box." Hammond, his competitor but philosophical fellow traveler, says we should be careful what we wish for: "Elite institutions have tens of thousand of applicants clamoring to pay their inflated price tag. That's not a recipe for innovation. If you want the sexy bumper sticker, be aware that there are other things you may be sacrificing." Sometimes schools slightly further down the list try harder, like second-to-Hertz Avis in the old car-rental ads, in terms of everything from curriculum offerings to financial aid.

We're not talking East Podunk night school, here. If you parents of juniors want to amuse yourselves before the heavy lifting begins, check out the Fiske, or the Princeton Review, or even the controversial number-crunched rankings over at U.S. News & World Report. Pick a school that's ranked five or ten notches below your lowest-ranked current favorite, on whatever list interests you, and ask yourself, soberly, coolly, as though this was not the end of the world -- gee, couldn't my kid be not only happy but challenged and productive there?

"A successful college search begins with self-knowledge," says Hammond.

Just a thought.


Next up: Admissions Freak-out Countdown #12: Sing Along With R.E.M. - It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine.

Karen Stabiner's comic novel about college admissions, Getting In, will be published in March 2010. Visit www.karenstabiner.com or write to kstabiner@gmail.com.