Is your college list realistic?

If you’re a junior, one of the best college planning steps you can take in the next few months is to schedule a meeting with your counselor and ask, “Are the colleges I’m considering realistic?”

Maybe you don’t have a well-researched list of schools you know you’ll apply to this fall—that’s fine. But almost every college-bound junior has ideas about where they might want to apply. Even if those ideas are loosely formed or based entirely on how lively the football stadium appears on television, take your list in whatever form it currently exists and get your counselor’s feedback on your chances of admission based on your current qualifications. Assumptions frequently work against families in this area. No matter what you’ve heard, witnessed, or gleaned from your research, this decision of what colleges to apply to is just too important to leave to chance.

When you have this meeting, there are three possible outcomes:

1. Your counselor gives her enthusiastic endorsement of these schools and believes you have a strong chance of being admitted to most or all of them. Fantastic! Yes, your list might evolve over time as you research and learn and refine what you’re looking for in a college. But you’re off to a strong, realistic, and encouraging start.

2. You get a mixed review. Some of your schools are likely to admit you, but a roughly equal number of choices are out of your reach and not likely to say yes. This can be discouraging, but now you have the opportunity to take steps to address it. Ask your counselor if there are things you could do to improve your candidacy. And get her recommendations for similar schools that are more likely to admit you. Better to find out now and make adjustments than to apply with your fingers crossed and find out later you overshot with the majority of schools on your list.

3. You get the news no college-bound student wants to hear—most or all of your schools are out of your reach. Ask your counselor if she believes you can still make yourself competitive enough to take a realistic shot. If not, it’s time to face facts and go back to the college selection drawing board.

If you find yourself in category three, it’s understandable why you’d be disappointed. Nobody likes to hear that their goals are unrealistic. But here are a few things you can do to stay engaged and to craft a list you can be excited about.

First, as difficult as it is to do, please accept the news. Don’t look for reasons your counselor must have been wrong (“So and so got in, and his grades and test scores aren’t that much better than mine!”). Don’t spend the next six months repeatedly taking standardized tests or frantically adding activities or learning an instrument because someone told you the marching band at your dream school is losing their bassoonist to graduation this year. If you still want to apply to one or two of those schools just to take your shot, that’s reasonable. But refusing to accept reality is the college search equivalent of finding 19 different ways to convince someone to go to the prom with you when they’ve already made it clear they’re just not interested. It’s fruitless, it’s demoralizing, and it cuts into your chances of finding another perfectly good match who’d happily accept the invitation.

Second, consider this question: Why were you interested in those schools?

Be honest with yourself. Did you really know much about them? Had you researched and thoughtfully decided that they were good matches based on what you were looking for in a college experience? If so, it’s unlikely that those characteristics are limited to just a short list of colleges. Tell your counselor what appealed to you about those schools, and ask for recommendations of others with similar offerings that are more likely to admit you.

But if the real answer is that you don’t know why you were interested, or that your interest was driven largely by the name and prestige, I understand that can still be disappointing. But it’s not reasonable to take it as crushing news either. The most selective schools are reaches for everybody (math dictates that). And with over 2,000 colleges to choose from, most of which admit the majority of their applicants, there’s a bountiful harvest of other options available to you no matter why your current list is deemed out of reach. The sooner you get to finding those matches, the sooner you’ll be having a very different—and more enjoyable—conversation with your counselor.

Enjoyment now vs. later

In 2001, I was invited to give the welcoming address to the new freshman class at my alma mater, UC Irvine. And during my opening comments about how much the campus had changed, I remarked that one thing likely remained the same:

“I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

And seemingly every freshman in the room laughed.

That joke wouldn’t resonate as much today as it once did because it’s no longer true for a host of reasons. But at that time—much as when I began my own freshman year—it spoke to a reality. Most students had originally wanted to be somewhere else, most commonly, about 40 miles north at the home of The Bruins.

There’s a powerful lesson in here for students just starting their college search, and for seniors who will spend the next few months waiting for news about where they’ll be spending the next four years.

Those freshmen were able to have a good laugh at their own admissions expense for two reasons:

1. They were over it. Yes, it had hurt when UCLA said no. Plenty of tears had been shed. But those students eventually did what most human beings do in the face disappointment—they licked their wounds and forged ahead. If ever you needed evidence that a “no” from your dream school is not a tragedy, just look at how quickly most teens bounce back at another college.

2. Disappointment over where they couldn’t go had turned to excitement about where they’d ended up. They were starting college that day! Everything they’d been working and waiting for during the last four years was about to pay off. Dorms, classes, new friends, new experiences—it was all there in front of them. How could they not feel excited about what was in store?

Seniors, if you don’t get the answers you’re hoping for from your top choice schools, remember that room of freshmen at UC Irvine. When UCLA sent the bad news, they were just as disappointed as you’d expect them to be. But just six months later, they were laughing about that school that said no. And even more importantly, they were thrilled to be attending the school that said yes.

And juniors, as you begin your college search, as you think and answer questions about what you’re looking for in a school, it’s only natural that you’ll develop some front-running favorites, schools that you pine for more strongly than others.

But don’t let those preferences inject negativity into your process. You’re going to get in somewhere, probably a place where you’ll one day be thrilled to sit in freshman orientation. And if you develop a reasonable college list that has your counselor’s endorsement, that outcome is almost a guarantee.

If you want to have a college admissions process without all the stress and anxiety, imagine that enjoyment you’re bound to feel later and inject some of it into your process now.

If I get in, then…

Students are too focused on the allure of prestigious colleges, often believing that if they can just get into one, everything else will just fall into place. All their work that led up to it will be validated. They’ll be happy and less stressed. They’ll be virtually guaranteed a life of success and fulfillment.

But college acceptances, even to prestigious schools, don’t work like that. Yes, an acceptance to your dream college would feel great and would definitely be worth celebrating. But any expectation that just getting in will start a domino-like chain reaction where everything else in life just goes your way is unrealistic and unhealthy. Your education, your success, and your life are all a work in progress, no matter where you go to college.

Author and Harvard professor Shaun Achor spent years not only counseling Harvard students, but also teaching a positive psychology course so popular that at one point, 1 out of every 7 Harvard students enrolled. I think his quote in this Psychology Today article has a lot of relevance for high school students (and their parents) who are putting too much hope into just how much happiness that dream college acceptance could likely bring (the bracketed portion is mine):

“When I was counseling overwrought Harvard students, one of the first things I would tell them is to stop equating a future success with happiness. Empirically, we know success does not lead to happiness. Is everyone with a job happy? Is every rich person happy? Then step one is to stop thinking that finding a job, getting a promotion [ed. note: or getting into a famous college], etc. is the only thing that can brings happiness. Success does not mean happiness. Check out any celebrity magazine to look for examples to disabuse you of thinking that being beautiful, successful or rich will make you happy.”

If you love a prestigious college, you think you would thrive there, and your counselor agrees, by all means, take your best shot! But also take some comfort in knowing that whether or not you’re happy and successful in college and in life will depend a lot more on you than it will on where your college sits in the US News rankings that year.

Monday morning Q&A: How many colleges to apply to?

Kathryn asks:

The number of colleges that guidance counselors at our high school recommend students apply to has risen over the last decade – almost at the same pace as college tuition. This year they’re recommending students apply to 8-10 colleges. That number doesn’t seem unusual in our area (outside Boston). If the increasing number isn’t just specific to our area, why is this happening? Our family has theories and frustrations, since we have a student who can’t find 8 colleges that he wants to apply to.

You’re right, Kathryn—it’s happening, and not just in your area. There are a lot of reasons, but here are the three that are really driving that change. In no particular order:

1. Submitting multiple applications has gotten easier.
I completed my college applications using a typewriter. Then came online applications. Then came the Common Application, which allows students to complete one application and submit it to multiple colleges. Adding just 1, 2, or 8 more no longer necessarily requires a comparable addition in time and energy required to do so.

2. Lottery logic runs rampant.
Many students, particularly those who want to attend the most prestigious colleges, use lottery logic and assume that the more schools they apply to, the better their chances of getting in. But as I’ve written before, that logic doesn’t work. Harvard’s Dean of Admissions explained the flawed approach of applying to 20 highly selective colleges in a bid to improve your odds by using the analogy of an archer standing 1000 feet away from the target. His words: “The fallacy is to think that if you apply to all 20 schools that you will broaden the bull’s eye…all a student has done is drawn a circle around the pea-size target 20 times.”

3. Fear.
There was once a time when a student could apply to just 2-3 colleges and feel confident they’d be admitted to one. With over 2,000 colleges in the country, that’s still a viable approach, but not for the most popular colleges. Add in all the surrounding pressure, anxiety, and drama that the admissions process creates and you’re left with fear. That fear sounds like:

“What if I don’t get in anywhere?”

“What if I was wrong about the colleges on my list?”

“What if we don’t get financial aid?”

And many families choose to combat that fear by applying to even more colleges.

There’s no universally accepted number of schools students should apply to, but the best way to combat the three behaviors above is to create a balanced college list. Here’s a past post on just how to do that, and another for families who may need help falling in love with less famous colleges.

Thanks for your question, Kathryn. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Monday morning Q&A: Will not visiting a college hurt your chances?

Here’s the first entry in my new Monday morning Q&A series.

Carmela asks:

“Will colleges take a decision not to visit as a sign of disinterest? We live on the West Coast and my student is applying to colleges that are in the Midwest and the East. We cannot afford to go on college visits. How do we explain this and demonstrate continued strong interest? She has already had preliminary contact with all the colleges and asked a question about AP tests vs. SAT Subject tests, but we don’t want to bombard them with silly questions. We hear that if the answer can be found on the website, don’t bug them!”

Good question, Carmela. The short answer? No, your decision not to travel great distances to visit will not hurt your daughter’s chance of acceptance.

In fact, the only circumstance where some colleges might question that decision not to visit is for students who live within a short (let’s say 1-hour) driving distance. And this is really only a concern with smaller private schools that are selective but not highly selective, because they lose many of their strongest applicants to other schools. A big public school like UCLA gets far too many applications to care (or to even notice) whether or not a student bothered to visit. And a highly selective school like Harvard has the luxury of knowing that most of their admits will take the offer. But a school like Claremont McKenna might wonder why a student who lives just 30 minutes away decided not to visit.

But families shouldn’t drive themselves crazy trying to decipher which colleges care about this and which do not. There are many ways to demonstrate interest in a college, and almost all of them happen naturally when a student is legitimately interested. That student will want to make the short drive to see the school. They’ll want to attend the information night at their high school. They’ll have great answers to the application question about why they’ve decided to apply to this school. All of those things happen naturally when a student selects colleges that fit them. And none of them are as effective when a student is just trying to appear interested.

Here’s a past post with more tips on how to effectively demonstrate interest to a college.

Also, that inclination not to bug them is a good one! It’s certainly not a good idea to ask questions just for the sake of appearing interested, especially when that information is available on the website. Thanks again for your question!

I’ll answer another question next Monday. If any readers would like to submit their own, here’s the form to do that.

Changing tides

At the speeches I would give at Southern California high schools shortly after starting Collegewise in 1999, one line was always guaranteed to get a big laugh from the crowd.

“Southern Californian kids aren’t going to arrive at the breakfast table one morning and announce to their parents, ‘Today is the day I apply to the University of Alabama.’”

No insult intended to ‘Bama fans or alums. That joke had nothing to do with the quality of the school, the education, or the experience. Kids and parents everywhere have preconceived notions about particular colleges, geographic regions, and even weather, many if not most of which are not rooted in facts. At that time, in those zip codes, for those particular families, the notion that a student would travel all the way to Alabama to attend a big public school in lieu of attending others that were closer, more prestigious, or both, just seemed nonsensical to them.

I’m happy to report that the joke would never work for those same audiences today.

Alabama gets applications from plenty of Southern Californian students today, including those from high schools where I’ve made that joke. And many of our former Collegewise students from those and other areas have gone on to Alabama and now happily sign off their emails to us with “Roll Tide!

The school didn’t fundamentally change during that time—the students (and parents) did. It only takes a few students to break new college ground and report back to their younger former classmates to start a trend for the next wave of applicants. We saw the same shift in 2006 with the University of Texas (not coincidentally after their Rose Bowl win over USC in what’s been called the greatest college football game of all time).

No college is right for every student, and there are lots of perfectly legitimate reasons why you might write off a potential school as being not-for-you. Effective college matchmaking means deciding which schools are left off, not just included on, your list.

But as you choose colleges to apply to, it might be worth asking yourself if any of your “deal-breakers” would change if one or more of your older classmates were currently attending and enjoying their experience. Too cold, too small, don’t like the Midwest or the South or the Northeast, no basketball team, no fraternity/sorority scene, too middle-of-nowhere, can’t handle big cities—whatever your reasons for leaving a college off, would they change if your good friend were already there and loving his or her experience?

Happy reports like those may not change your mind at all, and that’s OK. But considering whether or not such a testimonial could make a difference might help you distinguish between a genuine preference and a preconceived notion.

Perceptions can change over time. And there’s nothing wrong with embracing or even initiating a change in the college tides.

A great college is…

If you’re a senior compiling your college list, focus on three things that make a college a great choice for you.

1. One where you can get in.
I’m not suggesting that any school that wouldn’t admit you simply isn’t a good choice. But much as a romantic interest isn’t your soul mate if the interest isn’t returned, a college isn’t a truly great choice unless it’s one that admits you. Make sure the bulk of your list is comprised of schools that will say yes.

2. One where you can be happy and successful.
I know this means looking into the future. But if you approach your college selection process with this metric in mind, you’ll move past things like rankings, what your friends tell you, and other factors that don’t actually measure the quality of a college for you.

3. One that you can afford.
You don’t know for sure whether or not you can afford a college until your financial aid package arrives. But as I’ve written before, affordability is part of fit. And a strong argument can be made that a college isn’t a great college for you if you end up taking on debt that will take you 30 years to pay off after you graduate.

Put another way, if you can’t get in, if you won’t be happy and successful once you’re there, and/or if you can’t pay for it, it’s not a great college. It might still earn a place on your list. But approaching your college search with these three elements in mind will ensure that you end up with plenty of great college options from which to choose.

The strike by lightning approach to college lists

It’s difficult for a student with straight A’s, near-perfect test scores, and more honors and awards than most adults rack up in their lifetime to understand why they need less selective schools on their list than whatever “Top Ten” US News added to their list that year. Counselors routinely field questions from these students and their parents that are some version of, “I’ve done everything I was supposed to do—if I’m not a strong candidate, who is?”

It’s a fair point. And most colleges in this country will trip over themselves to admit that student. But there are around 40 schools (out of more than 2000) where the math—the number of applicants, their record of achievement, and the number of available spots—is just unassailable. Mathematically, nobody has a good chance at those schools.

So what should those students do instead? If you fall in love with schools that make that list, take your shot at a few where you really fit (and not just because you love the name). But balance that list with other schools from the “We’ll trip over ourselves to admit you” category. Put a different way in this article by high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor (emphasis his):

Lots of people want to go to the same college. Not everyone will get in. That could be you. 95% of the students applying to Ivy League schools can do the work, and hundreds—that’s hundreds—of valedictorians—were denied admission to the Ivies this year. You may never need Plan B for college, but you’ll need to know how to make a Plan B once you’re in college. Now is the time to practice. Find two schools you’d love to attend where your chances of admission are greater than getting struck by lightning. They exist.”

In-state tuition at an out-of-state school?

According to data collected by the College Board, the average tuition and fees to attend a public university are roughly 1/3 what they are to attend a private college, as long as that public university is in your home state. As soon as you venture to new state territory, the costs more than double at most public schools.

So it’s common for families to wonder if it’s possible for their student to establish residency at an out-of-state public school, thereby availing themselves of the cheaper cost for in-state residents.

Unfortunately, while establishing in-state residency is not impossible for a student, as this Consumer Reports piece explains in detail, the lengths to which you would need to go to even have a remote shot are pretty drastic.

If college costs are a concern and you want to make sure you have some viable public university options, first, do all the things that make you more admissible to most colleges—take challenging classes, get good grades, spend some (not inordinate) time improving your test scores if necessary, etc. Also, complete the FAFSA and any other financial aid forms your chosen colleges require. Now here are a few tips to help you choose appropriate schools.

1. Consider your in-state options first.
The easiest way to get an advantage is to leverage one that’s already available to you. Depending on your state, most public universities are not only cheaper for their residents, but also easier to gain admission to than they are for students applying from out of state. If your state doesn’t have public schools that appeal to you, remember that applying to a college is not the same as actually attending that school. In this case, you’re giving yourself more potentially viable options. That’s almost always a good thing, especially when you’re concerned about the cost of college.

2. Apply to schools that are most likely to admit you.
This is a great strategy for both private and public colleges. The more likely a college is to admit you, the more likely you are to get a financial aid boost, a practice called “preferential packaging.” Every year, our Collegewise students receive generous and often unsolicited offers of financial aid and scholarships—including from out-of-state public schools—simply because their college lists included some schools where they were strong applicants and were almost certain to be admitted. This is yet another reason why it’s so important to file your FAFSA—many schools will not consider you for preferential packaging without a FAFSA on file.

3. Consider a regional exchange program.
Some public schools enter into agreements with each other that allow students to attend neighboring states’ public schools at a discounted rate. Read to the bottom of the article referenced above and you’ll find links to those programs.

Almost all colleges are more expensive than they used to be. But public universities can be some of the best available bargains in education if you (1) choose your schools carefully, and (2) apply for financial aid.