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,”


“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.

Things that shouldn’t matter at all when picking colleges

Here a few factors I think should have absolutely no influence over where you apply or attend college. 

1. Where your friends want to go

Going to a college where you don’t know anybody can be an intimidating prospect.  And after four years of high school, you might have some pretty close friends who seem the perfect companions for your upcoming college years.

But the cold, hard truth is that you will not be going to high school anymore.  You are about to go to college.  You’re going to have to make this decision based on what is best for you, not based where your friends will be.

2. Where your boyfriend or girlfriend wants to go

No matter how strong your romantic connection and conviction may be, I don’t recommend that you allow it to be a factor in determining where you go to college. 

3. Trendiness

In some cases, teenagers adopt a dog-like pack mentality.  It is a scientific phenomenon that as yet defies explanation.  But if there is a significant jump in applications to a particular college, you can be that school will be on kids’ lists the following year.  We see it happen all the time. 

Sometimes, this might happen for good reason.  After all, there are a lot of great colleges out there who deserve to have their good word spread. 

But if the only reason you are applying to a school is because everybody else seems to be doing it, you might want to think twice before you fill out the application.

4.  Where the school is ranked on the US News list

It's funny how many the same schools who are so proud of their US News ranking would be unimpressed if a student cited it as a primary reason he wanted to attend.  Really?  That's like spending an inordinate amount of time, money and energy to get the perfect outfit before a date and then penalizing your date for telling you your outfit looks nice.   

Don't pick your colleges because of where they are ranked.  The rankings are very controversial, and they change every year.  So you could effectively pick a college ranked in the top ten and have it drop to outside the top 15 before the following year.  Is it worth this risk?

5.  Anything you'd be embarrassed to admit to the college when applying. 

You should be proud of your reasons for applying to a college.  If you're not, you need different reasons (or different colleges).


When rejection is a good thing

Highly-selective colleges are always going to be picky.  They receive applications from the most qualified students from around
the world.  And almost everyone who applies gets rejected (about 10-15 out of
every 100 applicants gets in).  That's not going to change.

So you can lament that your test scores aren't high enough or that you don't have
enough AP classes or that you haven't yet achieved statewide or nationwide or worldwide acclaim
for one of your activities. 

Or you can reject that thinking.  You can reject the idea that not being good
enough to get into an Ivy League school equates to just not being good enough at all.  Reject the idea that your
admissibility to Duke is a measure of your worth.  Just reject it.

Instead, embrace the idea that hundreds of colleges will almost certainly
take you exactly as you are.  

The wisdom and merits of exploring less visible colleges

I once did a seminar about how to choose colleges, and while trying to make the point that you shouldn't apply to a school just because it's famous, I turned to a student in the audience and asked,

"Would you ask someone to marry you just because she was good looking and rich?"

The kid didn't even break a smile and answered, "Probably." 

I do love a teenager's honesty. 

Maybe Marty O'Connell, Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives will have better luck with that analogy when teens read her article about the wisdom and merits of selecting less visible colleges.   

Colleges that Change Lives

Ctcl picMarketing author Seth Godin recently published a recommended reading list on his blog.  And I was happy to see one of our favorites show up–even happier to hear his take:

"The more you learn about the industry of marketing colleges, the more
skeptical you'll become of the $150,000 famous school degree. Every
high school parent in America should read this book."

If you're intrigued, check out:

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges by Lauren Pope

Wanted: Thoughtful and Deliberate College Applicants

The National Association for College Admissions Consulting just completed a survey that confirms that 90% of colleges have reported an increase in financial aid applications.  That's not surprising given the downturn in the economy.  And with every piece of bad news about increasing levels of competition and decreasing availability of financial aid, a lot of students are going to respond by firing off even more college applications.  It's hard not to panic during the throes of senior season, especially this year.

But there's an opportunity for the thoughtful and deliberative student to stand out here.      

Now more than ever, colleges don't just want applicants–they want applicants who are good matches for the school and are most likely to accept an offer of admission.  If you're applying to a school just because of the name, or just because your friends are applying, or just because you want to apply to as many colleges as possible to keep your options open, it's going to be hard for you to communicate your match to that school.  You're not going to appear to be someone who's likely to accept that offer of admission.  And that can hurt your chances of getting in. 

The best way to approach this is to slow down, to select your colleges thoughtfully, and to apply deliberately.  Get good advice about your college list.  It's OK to apply to a few reach schools, but make sure you apply to a reasonable number of schools that your high school counselor thinks are likely to admit you, schools that you also sincerely want to go to.  Consider applying to one financial safety school where you're sure you can get in, you're sure you'd want to attend, and your family is sure they could pay for even if you got no financial aid.   

Students who do show some evidence of thoughtful college soul searching are always appealing to admissions officers, which can make you more appealing to the financial aid office, too.

You, too, can be a crazy fan!

Gonzaga_2We all know that Duke has some wonderfully crazy basketball fans.  There just aren’t many places where students will camp out in tents (in the cold) to get tickets.  But as hard as it is for a Duke student to get a ticket to a Blue Devil basketball game, it’s even harder for a high school student to get an acceptance letter from the Duke admissions office. 

Sports fans, however, can take heart.  Check out rivals.com’s rankings of the 16 schools with the best home-court advantage (based, of course, on the fevered pitch of their fans).  Sure, there are some highly selective schools on the list like Duke and Notre Dame.  But there are also a lot of great schools where you’ll need to be on the top of your game to get tickets, but needn’t be at the top of your class to get accepted.  Check out the pictures of fans at schools like Wisconsin, Illinois, New Mexico, and perennial Collegewise cool school Gonzaga.  As their fans would say (scream), Go ‘Zags!