11/09/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Applying to College Requires Electoral Knowledge


It's amazing how two people can look at the same thing at the same time and see two different things. This happens when I go to the movies ("You liked The Artist?), clothes shopping (my daughter and I view dad jeans through different lenses), and when I show someone this.

College admissions is no different. Parents and students hear about a bright neighbor who was turned down at a great college, and they wonder why. They later read about tens of thousands of students applying to colleges that have only a few hundred seats, and they wonder more. They go to the dentist, pick up a magazine that lists the 25 best colleges in the U.S., think these are the only colleges worth applying to -- and the wonder turns into fear.

Counselors have another view. They know about the two dozen colleges where the chances of getting admitted are smaller than getting struck by lightning -- the same two dozen colleges that are in that magazine -- and it's likely one of them was the school that rejected the kid down the street. The counselor also knows any good college plan includes a wide variety of schools where that talented senior will be a flourishing freshman who is so happy, they forget all about the schools that told them no. Throw in a merit scholarship, and the counselor sees one happy family, while the neighbors see a student with crushed dreams and a dad who will kick the dog for the rest of his life.

It's no wonder families and counselors collide when they first talk about college. They're talking about the same schools for the one and only student who's in the office, and the student has the same grades and test scores on the official transcript the counselor is holding that are on the unofficial copy the parents have at home. Yet with all of that in one common view, the counselor sees the college selection process as a rite of passage rich with discovery, while the family sees it as a cap-and-gown-covered version of the Bataan Death March -- a difference that can lead to damaged self-esteem, misunderstood intentions, and a lost sense of purpose on both sides of the relationship.

The key to a more effective college search lies with Nate Silver. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education relates how most of America was frenzied over what was perceived to be a close, anxiety-ridden presidential election in 2012. Silver and his fellow statisticians never held that view; by looking at a different set of data, the political prognostication crew saw an Obama victory coming for a long, long time -- despite predictions of a judicial conclusion to another presidential election, where the majesty of the Supreme Court would meet the affect of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

College-bound families -- and their counselors -- would do well to apply this level of rigor and calm to the college selection process. College advising has the same mix of art and science as running for office; use the right data the right way, and students will reach the end of senior year with an array of postsecondary choices that are just right for them, and right just for them. Nate Silver's approach to elections may not have the ups and downs of The Cyclone or Space Mountain, but his pursuit of the Electoral College offers lessons to be learned in a student's pursuit of every college; know what you need to know, stick with it, and leave the turbulence for X Flight.