Moving the goalposts

Exclusivity breeds popularity. 

The more exclusive the
night club, the more we wish we could get inside (and the longer the
lines outside will grow). 

The popular kids in high school aren't necessarily the nicest or the smartest–it's
the air of exclusivity that makes them popular (an air that disappears
approximately two-and-a-half minutes after graduation, but still…). 

When celebrities were seen wearing ugg
boots, the prices and the demand soared to a
point that for a time, the boots were very difficult to get.  The harder they were to find (and pay for), the more people wanted to wear them.

The night clubs and the cool kids and the uggs aren't necessarily better than their counterparts.  They just benefit from the part of human nature that makes us desire something more if we can't get it. 

The most exclusive colleges, and their associated popularity, work the same way.

There are over 2,000 colleges to go around.  We are lucky to be living
in a country with the best, most accessible system higher education in
the world.  No matter what you read in the press about how hard it is
to get into college, just about any kid can go. 

But the same 50 schools keep getting more and more competitive, with greater numbers of highly qualified applicants vying to gain admission every year.   The more difficult it is to get in, the stronger our desire to go to those schools (or see our kids go to them).  We believe there must be something special about those places because so few people are invited to attend.  That's why when you hear people talk about the "best schools," they're almost certainly basing that analysis on one factor–how difficult it is to get in. 

Kids today are working harder, studying more, and sleeping less in an effort to get into what amounts to an exclusive collegiate nightclub whose very appeal is the fact they reject most of their applicants.  That's an academic arms race in which no amount of hard work and success can guarantee victory.

What if we moved the goalposts?  What if we encouraged kids to work hard with a different goal in mind, one that won't need the validation of an admission offer from an exclusive college.

A kid who works hard in challenging classes, who studies for his SATs, who makes an impact in his activities, who’s nice to his peers and respectful of his teachers will be better educated.  He will be more mature.  He'll probably have a better sense of his real intellectual interests and inherent talents. He will be more prepared to succeed during and after college.    That should be reason enough to do it.  That kid doesn't need an admission to an exclusive college to prove his worth (or his parents' worth).  

He will, of course, also be admitted to hundreds of colleges.  Most of the 2000 colleges will trip over themselves for this kid.  But if it's not UC Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke, or Stanford, or Pomona, he hasn't failed.  He'll still go to a college where he will use his talents and abilities to make a success of himself.  

I have nothing against the popular schools; I'm against kids and parents putting too much luster on them just because they're exclusive.  There are lots of valid reasons to work hard and improve yourself, but trying to get the popular colleges to like you shouldn't be one of them

It might be time for some different goals.

Life changers…

I've made a living doing public speaking almost since the day I graduated from college.  But I never knew I was any good at it until that one day in college when I ran for an office in my fraternity and we had to get up and give a speech.  I learned something about myself that day (I would also later learn that "Rush Chair" is a pretty thankless job in a fraternity, but that's not really the point). 

In “Making the Most of College,” a Harvard education professor interviewed more than 1600 undergraduates about what had been their deepest, most meaningful college experiences.  When he asked students to think of a specific experience that changed them profoundly, four-fifths of them chose something that happened outside of the classroom.

Yes, colleges are like academic supermarkets where you can study anything that interests you.  But don't forget about the opportunities for self-discovery that take place in college, too.  What you learn in your psychology class may not ultimately be as life-changing as that one day the professor told you that she saw great potential in your work.  The one internship you get over the summer, or the time you spend writing for the school paper, or the research you do with a professor, or the volunteer work you do at a local non-profit, your college experience will give you a lot of opportunities to discover your talents, likes, dislikes and potential life paths. 

At Collegewise, we tell our kids all the time that it's not where you go to college, it's what you do while you're there.  If you spend your college years putting yourself in the positions to have these kinds of self-discoveries, you'll find them.  I don't care where you go to school–the famous colleges do not dole out life-changing experiences with any more efficiency than the non-famous ones

That's an importing thing to keep in mind as you're searching for colleges.  Remember that the college rankings don't take these experiences into consideration.  The websites and literature and tour guides can't tell you what your discoveries will be.  But your chances to find them for yourself will be waiting for you wherever you go.

And if you're a senior who's starting to receive your college news, remember that if your dream school says "No," you'll still have these life-changing moments in college.  You'll just be doing it somewhere else.  It doesn't matter where you have them; lives change at lots of colleges.

Five college search tips for juniors and their parents

This is the time of year when a lot of juniors (and their parents) start getting serious about the college search.  That's a good thing; choosing where you apply to college is a big decision and it's not one that should be put off until the fall application season.  To help your family enjoy it a little more, here are five college search tips for juniors and their parents.  

1. Students need to take the lead.

I think any parent (especially one who's paying the tuition bill) deserves input on your kid's college choices.  But it's important to remember that it's the student's college experience that matters, not a parent's.  The more students do for themselves, including researching and selecting appropriate colleges, the better. 

2. Remember that where you apply is totally different from where you actually go.

I mention this because it’s OK to want both big schools and small schools.  It's OK for parents and students to disagree on some of the college choices. It's OK to not be completely sure you're ready to move 1500 miles away from home. You’re not going yet—you’re just researching schools and deciding where to apply.  Acknowledging that difference can take some pressure off students and parents during the search process.  

3. Remember that what you do in college will be much more important than where you go.

It will be up to you to extract the value your college has to offer, whether it's atop all the college news rankings, or some tiny school your friends have never heard of.  So it's much more important that you find the right fit than it is you find a college that's famous. 

4. Don’t expect to be certain about your college choices until you get there.  

Big life decisions always have some uncertainty.  It’s normal.  And almost none of our happy college students perfectly articulated their current college existence back in high school when they were researching colleges.  For now, you just need to be engaged and curious.

5. Relax.

Statistics show that most students like their colleges, even those who are attending schools that weren't their first choice.  You are, after all, with a bunch of 18-22 year-olds and your most important responsibilities are to learn and have fun.  College is a pretty good arrangement, no matter where you are.  So enjoy this.  Be engaged in the process, trust your instincts, and have a little fun while you're at it.  You're only going to get to go through the college search process once, and you'll enjoy it a lot more if you allow yourself to do so.

Adding up…

When I was at the grocery store this afternoon, a group of four college guys were stocking up for what appeared to be a college roommate barbecue–hot dogs, buns, charcoal, chips, generic brand ketchup and mustard, and of course, (very) cheap beer.

When the elected accountant of the group did a rough calculation and told his friends they didn't have enough money for everything in the future feast, one of them–and I swear I'm not making this up–made a quick executive decision and said,

"Dude, that charcoal is nine bucks!  Put it back.  Let's just microwave the hot dogs." 

That, my friends, is college ingenuity at work.

If you're a high school student right now, you're probably worried about your GPA.   You're probably worried about your SAT scores and your AP tests and whether or not your dream school is going to say yes.  It's a lot of pressure and it can sometimes be easy to forget how much you have to look forward to.

But someday, none of those things are going to matter anymore because you'll be in college.  And even if you don't end up at the school that you're sure today is the only one for you, you'll still get to do things that you talk about 5 and 10 and 30 years later. 

Not too long from now, those college guys I saw at the store will be grown-ups with jobs and families and real responsibilities.  And they'll look back fondly at their time in college.  They'll laugh when they remember how they could get a whole weekend's worth of meals (and beer) for under 20 bucks and be completely happy.  Great college memories are created everywhere from Harvard to the tiny college you haven't even heard of yet.  

By the way, two of these guys had sweatshirts identifying them as attending the University of California — Irvine, one of those schools that rejects a lot of qualified applicants.  Don't assume that smart kids don't enjoy roommate barbecues and cheap beer in college.  

Don't worry.  Whether or not a barbecue like that is your idea of a great time, everything you're doing will eventually add up to a great college experience you'll remember. 

Who deserves the credit?

According to the Boston Globe, Harvard received a record 29,112 applications for the Class of 2013.  

2,900 of them scored a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading section.  3,500 got a perfect SAT math score. Nearly 3,700 were ranked first in their senior class. 

Still, 93% of those amazing, brilliant, accomplish students were rejected.  Why?  Because Harvard only has 1655 spaces in the freshman class. It's not a miscarriage of justice; it's just simple math (I was an English major, and let's just say that for me to call math simple is really saying something). 

So, when those 1655 lucky students who are currently freshmen at Harvard go on to do great things in their lives, who deserves the credit?  Does Harvard deserve it? 

I don't think so.  Those students' future success will come from of qualities they developed long before they ever took up residence at Harvard, like their work ethic, interest in learning, character, persistence, and maybe even their personality and charm.  Schools like Harvard go out of their way to accept students with those qualities.  So it really should come as no surprise if the graduates go on to do great things. 

And what about the 27,000 amazingly brilliant and accomplished applicants who were rejected?  Are they doomed to substandard lives now that they won't have Harvard degrees?  I know–that sounds like a stupid question because it is.  Of course they're not doomed.  They're too amazingly brilliant and accomplished to be left behind. 

I'm not arguing that the Harvard experience isn't a special one; I'm sure most of those 1655 freshmen will have an amazing four years.  But so will the rest of those hard-workers who got rejected and ended up someplace else.  Smart, hard-working, passionate kids will almost certainly make something of themselves wherever they go. 

The notion that you have to go to a famous college to have a happy and successful life is a scam. If you had to go to one of those schools to have a good life, we'd never
have 2,000 colleges in this country that people would pay good money to
attend.  So don't fall for name-brand-itis.  It's not where you go to college; it's who you are and what you do while you're there that counts. 

The right college–famous or not–can certainly help you.  But you'll still deserve the credit for your own success.

Works in progress

I've noticed three things about our former Collegewise students when they describe their college experiences.  If you ask some current college students about their collegiate lives, you'll likely find the same three similarities.

1.  Almost all of them are happy in college.

Statistics show that most students like their colleges, even those who are attending schools that weren't their first choice.  You are, after all, with a bunch of 18-22 year-olds and your most important responsibilities are to learn and have fun.  College is a pretty good arrangement, no matter where you are.

2.  When pressed, most of them would admit that their colleges aren't necessarily perfect.  

Why do marriage vows include the phrase, "For better or for worse"?  Because life isn't easy and perfect every day, and college is no different.  Wherever you go to college, you have to work to make the experience great for you.  The same will be true of your jobs after college, your relationships, and anything else of value in your life.  You can't reasonably expect that your college will be perfect every day for four years.     

3.  Almost none of them perfectly articulated their current college existence back in high school when they were researching colleges.

Some seventeen year-olds can describe their ideal future college experience in perfect detail; most can't.  You likely won't know what you love most about college until you get there.  So unless your 21 year-old self has a time machine to come back and advise you during your high school years, you're going to have match your college research with some gut instinct to pick the right schools.  This can be difficult for parents to watch (especially for those parents who enjoy making spreadsheets to compare campus characteristics–we know who you are!).  But the nation's collegiate youth would have collapsed in despair long ago if great college experiences could only be born from a spreadsheet-based audit.

Yes, you can (and should) take your college search seriously.  You're
talking about a four-year expenditure of time and money, one that no
reasonable student should take lightly.  Don't apply to schools just
because your friends are choosing them or because they rank somewhere
on the US News list.  Think about yourself, how you like to learn and
what type of college environment might be good for you.  It's the way any mature student should approach such a big decision. 

But no matter how much you research, visit and evaluate colleges during your search, you won't find a perfect one that will guarantee you a flawless four years.  Wherever you go, your college experience will be a work in progress, one that you'll have to work to make work for you.  That might seem scary, but once you accept these truths, it takes some pressure off.  

If you like different colleges for very different reasons, that's
OK.  If you visit a college you thought you loved and leave thinking it
should come off your list, that's OK.  If you fall for a college your
friends have never heard of, that's OK. The process doesn't have to be
rational all the time. 

And if you don't get into your school that you were sure was meant to be your collegiate soul mate, that's OK, too. You'll find four-years of love (and a lifetime worth of college memories) somewhere else. 

Great college matches are always works in progress

What students and parents need to know about search letters

Colleges do a lot more marketing today than they used to.

When juniors take the PSAT, most of them check the optional box that asks if you would like the College Board to share their contact information with colleges that might be interested in you.  And for most students, that guarantees that as you get closer to applying to college,your mailbox will fill with information from colleges, many if not all of which you will never heard of.  And yes, a lot of those schools sending will probably admit you if you apply.

Colleges call these “search letters.”  They’re a marketing tool, as most of the over 2,000 colleges in this country actually do need to work to ensure they receive enough applications from qualified students.  It’s proof that it’s not as hard to get into college as a lot of people think it might be.

But I think some of them are misleading.

For students who get particularly high PSAT scores, many of the nation’s most selective colleges, the same schools who reject most of their applicants, will send out their own search letters.  And they’re just as positive and inviting, often saying things like:

“We congratulate you on your impressive academic record and encourage you to consider us,”

or…

“We are looking for exceptional students who will flourish in our classrooms and make positive contributions to our campus community.  Based on your PSAT scores, I think our university might be the place for you.”

Some of these search letters come with invitations to attend local events the college will be hosting.  Some include college paraphernalia like decals (although I can’t imagine the flack a high school kid would catch if he put a decal from Yale or Princeton or Duke on his car before he was actually admitted?)

How could a student not take a letter like that as a good sign?  The college is encouraging you to apply, and telling you you’re the type of student they’re looking for.

But as Jay Mathews wrote in Harvard Schmarvard (a book every high school student and parent should read, by the way),

“The marketing executives for some of our nation’s finest institutions of higher learning seem to be making promises that their admissions offices can’t keep.”

Highly selective schools admit only 10-20 of every 100 students who apply, and you can imagine how impressive their applicant pools are.  They’re not sending out search letters because they have a shortage of applicants.  They’re sending them out because they want to have an even bigger pool of highly qualified students from which to compose a freshman class.  It’s not dirty pool to have that goal, but it can be misleading for kids who receive those letters, and many are left to believe they now have a much stronger chance of admission than they really do.

For those kids who apply and are later rejected, it’s hard not to feel a little misled.  It’s like a person at school saying to you,

“I know we don’t know each other that well, but based on the little time we’ve spent together, I really like you.  You’re smart and easy on the eyes.  And I’d love to go to the prom with you.”

So you ask this person to the prom feeling pretty good about your chances of acceptance.  Then you get rejected.  Ouch, right?

If you get a search letter from a highly-selective college, it means that based on limited information, the college thinks you might be the kind of person they’d like to see apply.  Most of the people who will apply are accomplished students, and you’ve shown early signs you might be like them.  That’s the good news.

But it doesn’t mean your chances of admission are better than those of other qualified students, or that you’re somehow on an admissions fast track.  And it doesn’t change the fact that most of the students who apply to those schools get rejected.  It’s nice when you’re Harvard and get 30,000 applications for 1600 spots in the freshman class.

Here’s what I tell Collegewise students who get search letters from ridiculously competitive colleges.

“The bad news is that (insert school here) is still a big reach, just like it is for everybody.  It’s not that you’re not good enough–they just get way too many applications from qualified students.  If you decide to apply, we’ll help you take your best shot because you’ve worked hard enough to earn your right to try.  But this search letter is documented proof that if you keep doing what you are doing, there will be hundreds of other colleges who will trip over themselves to admit you.  Let’s make sure to find some of those for you, too.”

I’m all for more positivity and encouragement in the college admissions process.  And I think it’s great to remind kids with strong academic records just how proud they should be of their accomplishments.  But
it’s important for students and parents to know what search letters really mean.

It’s a tradition…

Here's a quick way to get a sense if a college might be the right place for you.  Go to Google and type in the name of a college followed by the word "traditions." 

Seriously, try it.

Bryn Mawr, Bard, Denison, Ohio State, College of Wooster–pick any school that's interesting to you.

Some college traditions involve big parties before football games.  Some involve professors cooking breakfast for students during finals week.  Some are academic, some are social, some are superstitious, and some are just flat out strange.  But they all reveal a lot about the students and the schools.

College traditions are traditions for a reason–because students and faculty have embraced and honored them over time.  There's a reason why Duke students fondly recall camping out for basketball tickets the same way University of Chicago students remember camping out to get the coveted economics classes.  Both are great schools, but they attract very different students.    

If the traditions make the school seem like the kind of place you'd want to be, that's a good sign that you might have found a fit.  On the other hand, if you think to yourself, "If the president is going to cancel class, the LAST thing I'd want to do is go hike to the top of a mountain!" then maybe you should look elsewhere

“It’s a good school.”

"It's a good school."

That's got to be just about one of the most banal (yep, somebody's bringing out an SAT word!) reasons you can give for being interested in a college.

Don't tell a college that you're applying because, "It's a good school."  When your college interviewer asks you what got you interested in Yale or Duke or USC or whatever the college may be, don't tell them, "It's a good school."  Citing that as a reason to apply is akin telling your parents you want to marry someone you barely know because your friends say she's "pretty cute."   The interviewers, the colleges, and your counselor will all think that you (almost certainly) know little about the school other than the fact that it's famous. You'll be outing yourself as someone who hasn't thoughtfully considered your colleges.

Instead, try this.  "It's a good school for me."  

When you can follow that answer with a detailed description that backs it up, it's usually a sign that you've done some thoughtful college soul searching.  It shows that you've considered what you want your college experience to be like, what you hope or expect to gain from your time on campus, and how you see yourself learning and contributing while you're there.  

Spend the majority of your college search seeking out the colleges that will fit that statement.  You'll inevitably spend as much time thinking about yourself as you do about potential colleges.  That's a good thing. And once you identify the schools and the reasons why you're picking them, you'll have a lot of things to say after,

"It's a good school for me."

Make your own value

The Today show ran this piece yesterday on the "Top 20 Best Value Colleges" which came from the results of a recent survey by The Princeton Review.  Now more than ever, families are asking questions–as they should–about the quality of colleges in relation to their sticker price.

Are private schools worth the money?

Will my education at a less selective public school be as good as the kind I might experience at a selective private school?

Which colleges will help me get a better paying job when I graduate?

But as you're comparing different colleges and what you'd be getting for your money, keep in mind that each student has enormous influence on the value of her college experience.

Here are two very different examples of students attending two very different schools.

Student #1 chooses to attend the cheapest public school in his state.  It's neither famous nor selective as it admits over 70% of the applicants.  He throws himself into the college experience.  He starts by visiting regularly with his academic advisor to talk about his courses and which ones he seems to like the most.  He visits professors during their office hours and gets to know them.  During his sophomore year, he chooses "regional development" as his major, a subject he first investigated at the urging of his advisor who thought he would love the courses (the advisor was right).  He's excited to go to class every day because he loves the subject matter.  He explores various activities and gets a part time job in the athletics office scheduling intramural sports games.  That job later turns into an internship where he works for the Director of Campus Activities.  When the school wants a student representative on the committee to plan for the new athletics complex, he interviews and is selected.  The summer before his senior year, the Director of Campus Activities hires him for a full time summer internship to coordinate student volunteers.  He does such a great job that they allow him to trim his hours and continue working during his senior year.  All the while, he's creating lifelong friendships and enjoying the fun that college has to offer.  He flourishes inside and outside of the classroom.  He graduates with honors, with a resume of experience, with professors and mentors who can advise him and serve as references, and with a lifetime worth of college memories.

Student #2 attends a highly selective, famous private college.  He majors in business because that's what he always said he wanted to major in.  He meets with his advisor only when he's required to and never fully avails himself of that resource.  He doesn't visit professors during their office hours.  He attends most, but not all of his classes, and is naturally smart enough to study the night before the test and pull off "B." He does fine academically, but certainly doesn't love his classes.  He plays intramural sports and makes some good friends, but doesn't ever seek out or locate an activity that he's passionate about.  During his college summers, he hangs out with his friends and has the occasional part time job to make extra spending money.  He doesn't cultivate any professional relationships with people who could serve as mentors or recommenders.  He makes some good friends and has his share of fun, but if you ask him, he really likes, but doesn't necessarily love college.  He graduates with a degree in business from a famous university, but no real experience other than his part-time summer jobs.  

So, who had the better college education?  Which student is likely to be more successful after college?  Which student got the best value for his college education?

The student is the variable in every college's education.  That's why it is almost impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy the potential quality and value of any one particular school.   

The best funded university in the world with small classes, plenty of support and loads of Nobel Prize winning professors won't be worth its tuition to the student who isn't willing to take advantage of those resources.  And the cheap public school that makes no appearance in the annual college rankings can become the launching pad to success for the right student who is naturally inclined to work hard and achieve his goals. 

Yes, you should be cost conscious when choosing colleges.  You should ask what you're going to get for your money.  And you should evaluate the spending decision just like you would with any purchase of a similar magnitude.  To do anything other than that would be irresponsible.

But it's important to remember that colleges don't make kids successful–kids have to do that for themselves.  A student's work ethic, curiosity, initiative, integrity and maturity–and what she does to apply those traits during her time in college–will have far greater influence over her happiness and post-college success than the name of her college will.  

If you want to get the most bang for your college buck, start your evaluation with the variable–the student.  Think about the kind of environment where a student would flourish, the kind of place where she can put her natural talents to the best use.  Then find the colleges that match that description.  Don't do it the other way around; don't pick famous colleges because you're sure they're "good" and then try to find a way to get accepted.

In college, you don't automatically get what you pay for.  You have to make your own value.