Finding the Perfect College(s)

This fall many high school seniors are focused on choosing and applying to colleges. As a mom of one of those high school seniors and the president of a highly selective liberal arts college, I can give my child the benefit of a lot of insight into the schools he is considering and into the application process itself. Despite the transparency and comfort I have in knowing the ins and outs, I still see in my child (and feel in my own heart) all manner of worries and concerns. I imagine it is much more stressful for students and families who know less about the process. It is in the spirit of reducing stress that I offer some of the “wisdom” that I have tried to share with my child in the hopes that it may help others.

Don’t focus on finding the one perfect school, but develop a set of similar options. If you create this strong set, your final choice will very likely become the perfect choice. One of the important virtues of American higher education is the great variety of colleges and universities. But you will certainly find groupings of schools that share strong similarities on the things that matter to you. Choosing among schools within a grouping may be hard, but less consequential than creating the group that best meets your interests.

There are important elements to finding that right set of schools for a particular individual, such as an appropriate level of academic challenge, location, size, and the sense of campus community. But once you find schools that generally match on these types of important variables, it will be hard to make a bad choice.

Of course, the colleges in your set will each have distinctive qualities: traditions that students have shaped over decades (or centuries), a sports team with an epic winning streak, or maybe a great local hangout with a fantastic house band. Although these specific characteristics will differ, they will become part of a college experience that you will never forget and that will be at the heart of campus community. That sense of identity, fun, and belonging will be elements of what will create a sense of “fit” once you arrive on campus.

Cost of attendance is a critical factor, but often the actual cost of attendance can’t be known until financial aid has been awarded. Some of the most expensive and well-regarded private colleges and universities can often cost less than public institutions because many private institutions meet full, demonstrated financial need and provide generous financial aid. So don’t rule out a choice for financial reasons until you have found out what the actual cost of attendance will be.

Don’t choose a school solely based on the presence of a single program. Fewer than 20% of students wind up majoring in what they believe they are interested in before they enter college. For many students the first two years of college are a time for exploration and direction changes. Students who have selected a college only because they wanted a particular program may run into trouble if there aren’t other appealing majors. The presence of a particular program isn’t irrelevant, but finding a place that has more than one attractive program or feature means there will be options in the likely event that a student’s interests shift. (While it always is possible to transfer, families should understand that many colleges and universities are much harder to get into as a transfer student and that financial aid for transfer students is often less favorable).

An admissions decision is not a pronouncement on your worth as a human being. Many colleges are incredibly hard to get into. At the most selective, fewer than 1 in 10 applicants are accepted. These schools could likely fill their classes several times over with students with perfect SAT scores and GPAs above 4.0, so even most “perfect students” find themselves rejected. Even if the percentage of applicants that are accepted is greater, the majority of people who apply do not get into colleges described as “selective” or “highly selective.”

While the admissions process at most schools is an intentional, thoughtful, and holistic consideration of each student’s unique strengths, it is best from the student’s point of view to see the process as random. Students should put forward their best self and hope that they get lucky. Schools for their part are looking to shape a well-rounded and diverse class. The reasons for rejection will likely be things beyond the student’s control. This part of the process is the most difficult to accept. Students will weather it best if they understand that in many ways the decision is not a statement of their value.

To be sure, there are ways that students lower their chances of admission -- for example, failing to complete all parts of the application; answering the “Why X College?” essay question with a generic essay that shows the student knows nothing about X College and couldn’t be bothered to find out; or even recycling an essay from a different college and not bothering to find all of the places to switch the names. On the other hand, while essays are important in allowing the admissions officer to get to know you, it is rare that someone gains admission to a school based solely on an essay -- so keep that in perspective.

The crucial point that I try to make to my son and others is that it is important to do the work to try to create the right set of schools. While the opportunity to visit campus is the best way when possible, college websites have gotten better and better at conveying a sense of the place. Search engines can generate lists of schools that share important features. In high schools that have them, guidance counselors can be an excellent resource. Increasingly, community-based organizations and non-profits provide resources to students who might not find that support in their school system.

Social media also makes it possible to connect with current students and alums from a particular school. They can be great sources of information as long as prospective students remember that they are only getting one individual’s view or experience.

So create the set of schools that you think is right for you, complete the application fully and honestly, and then (try to) relax. You may get into your top choice. And if you don’t, but you were careful in creating your larger set of choices, the school that selects you will be lucky to have you. You’ll fall in love with the school you attend and thrive. By the time you graduate, you’ll find yourself saying, “I couldn’t have made a better choice.”

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