The (potentially) perfect fit

Collegewise Class of 2016 senior, Sarah, recently made a decision that would surprise many high school students and parents—she’s decided to attend Case Western Reserve University over Cal (UC Berkeley). I think her experience might benefit students who are about to enter their own college search process, and she gave me permission to share her story here.

I know there are plenty of people (Collegewise counselors, high school counselors, and Case Western alums, to name a few) who find nothing inherently surprising about Sarah’s decision. Case and Cal are both wonderful schools. But in a process that’s driven so heavily by a perception that selectivity equals quality, it’s always refreshing to see a student set aside outside factors like rankings and prestige and instead choose a school based on where she believes she can be happy and successful.

Sarah sent her Collegewise counselor an email detailing all the reasons why she came to the conclusion that Case was the place for her. Case felt, to her, like a more flexible, nurturing environment, characteristics she knew she would appreciate after attending several college programs over her high school summers. Sarah investigated the curriculum and appreciated Case’s focus on preparing students for the workplace. She loved the Sears think[box] building that allows students to use 3D printers to bring their creations to life. She’ll be able to feed her interest in music with $15 student tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and can even take the occasional conservatory-level classes from the Cleveland Institute of Music, which shares dorms with Case.

And these are just a few of the many qualities and offerings that she researched, considered deeply, and ultimately helped her see Case Western Reserve as her home for the next four years.

“Fit” can be an elusive concept for high schoolers choosing colleges. The teenager you are today is not the same person as the young adult who will emerge over the next four years. And while you can visit a college, you can’t really test drive one. How can you be expected to find a perfect fit between a version of yourself you don’t yet know and a college you can’t experience fully until you officially enroll?

But what you can do is take a lesson from Sarah’s book. Give your college search the attention it deserves. Look for places you feel match you well even though you can never be sure they’re perfect. You might ultimately decide that a prestigious college is your fit. But you’ll be a more confident and successful applicant (and college student) if you arrive at that conclusion yourself. Don’t let rankings and reputations and other outside criteria make that decision for you.

Chances are, you won’t find a school that’s a preemptive perfect fit. But a thoughtful, deliberate college search can help you find one that’s potentially perfect.

Worried about choosing the wrong college?

Tufts University’s admissions blog consistently serves up well-written advice from their knowledgeable admissions officers. And this post by Assistant Director of Admissions, Meredith Reynolds, might help those seniors who are torn between two college options and worried about making the wrong decision.

Certainty in reverse

As the May 1 college decision deadline approaches, some seniors with multiple offers of admission may be struggling to make their choice. It’s a big decision, and it’s normal to feel some uncertainty, uneasiness, or just plain fear. If that scenario sounds familiar, here’s something that might help.

Be completely honest with yourself. Don’t invent (consciously or subconsciously) reasons to prefer or avoid schools just because the justifications sound more legitimate. Instead, acknowledge the real source of your doubts or concerns.

For example, maybe you’ve realized that you’re actually scared to death of moving far away from home. Maybe you’re not so sure anymore that you want to be a journalist. Maybe what you’ve always said was your first choice school was actually a lot more attractive to your parents than it was to you.

Your thoughts, fears, and feelings about choosing a college are legitimate. I’m not suggesting whether you should or should not act on them. And there are some things that probably shouldn’t matter when making this decision. But the right path will be more likely to present itself if you get real and acknowledge what’s eating you.

Start by being honest with yourself. Then if you feel like it will help, talk to someone you trust. Sometimes just saying the words out loud can make you feel a lot better about what was previously causing you stress.

The vast majority of students are very happy where they go to college, and yet many of them once had exactly the same doubts and concerns you have today. In fact, some of your peers who seem certain about their choice are probably putting on a confident face.

A little doubt and trepidation is normal. Listen to yourself and to the people who know and care about you. Chances are that once you get to college, you’ll look back and see that you made the right decision.

Certainty often reveals itself in reverse.

Let go to grab hold

As college decisions pour in, those students who don’t get the yes they were looking for from their dream school face the collision of two often frustratingly contradictory lessons—do you accept that things don’t always work out as you’d hoped, or refuse to give up on your dreams?

Some students (and often parents in what feels like support for their kids) choose the latter. They’ll do a ruthless autopsy of their admissions process in search of where they supposedly went wrong. They’ll compare their accomplishments to those of students who were admitted. And in some cases, they’ll appeal the college’s decision, usually as a last-ditch effort to get what they want (before you do that, please consider the advice in this past post).

My problem with that approach is that it keeps students focused on schools that said no. Why not reallocate that time and emotional energy to making the right choice among the schools that said yes? There’s no need to stay stagnant, focusing on circumstances you have almost no power to change, when other acceptances give you a clear path forward.

You’ve probably had experiences where the refusal to give up has served you well. And it will continue to serve you well at various points during and after college. But you have to make the distinction between those things you have the power to influence, and those things that are beyond your control. When a college says no, the decision has been made. There’s no shame in accepting it. When you let go of a school that said no, you free yourself to grab hold of another that said yes.

Make a “Can’t wait for” list

It’s not uncommon for students to dream, often during moments of high school frustration, of what life in college will be like. When expressed, those sentiments often begin with, “I can’t wait for…”

I can’t wait for…

…taking classes I actually want to take
…not being in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. straight every day
…students who are less cliquey and more accepting
…football games in stadiums
…college parties
…meeting new people
…living away from home
…experiencing something new

Here’s a suggestion for students. The next time you have one of those thoughts, just write it down. Substantial or trivial, fleeting or permanent, add it to what will become your “Can’t wait for…” list.

Then use it when you search for the right colleges, when you write your “Why this college?” essays, and when you just need a reminder of how much you have to look forward to.

But most importantly, use it as proof that you don’t necessarily need to attend a famous or prestigious college to get exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

What is a successful college education?

Before he became the president of Reed College, John Kroger served in the Marine Corps (which he joined at 17), studied philosophy at Yale, was a federal prosecutor, wrote a bestselling book (Convictions: A Prosecutor’s Battles against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves), and was Oregon’s attorney general. For me, that’s more than enough success to qualify him to address the question, what is a successful college education?

Whether or not a student has aspirations of attending a college like Reed, I hope parents and their students will spend five minutes reading—and a lot more time discussing—Kroger’s piece, What is a Successful College Education?

As Kroger writes:

“In the United States, we spend a massive amount of time and energy figuring out where our kids should go to college. We start worrying about it their sophomore year of high school and never really stop until we write the first tuition checks. We read guidebooks, consult counselors, pay for test prep, visit campuses, and even—in extreme cases—hire college search consultants. But after all this effort to find the perfect college, we spend virtually no time talking about what students should do once they get there. We equip them with bows and arrows but identify no targets.”

I agree with all of his assertions within the article. But even if you and your family do not, you almost certainly hope to get some kind of return on your college investment. Why not consider thoughtfully not just what you want your particular return to be, but also what the student can do to maximize it?

Cushioning the blow

Patrick O’Connor wrote this post specifically for students who receive bad admissions news from highly selective schools.  But the overarching message at the end is an important one no matter where you’ve applied to college. It does matter where you go—just not in the way you think.

And I’ll add this—the things that matter can be found at plenty of schools that don’t crack the US News Top 50 list.

Our guide to planning college visits is here

If you’re planning on visiting colleges as part of your search, Collegewise counselor Casey Near just finished The Collegewise Guide to College Visits, covering topics like:

  • Frequent planning mistakes and how to avoid them
  • Advice on how to spend your time on (and off) campus
  • Questions to ask admissions counselors and current students
  • Advice for planning summer visits

There’s even some great advice for colleges on how to improve the campus visit experience for the most important party—the student.

It’s an excellent guide that I think will help any family get more out of this important college search ritual.

You can download your free copy here.

Don’t act on headlines

I keep seeing articles referencing the most lucrative college majors, colleges with the highest average starting salaries for graduates, and other headlines focused on a purported measurement of the return on a college investment. Given the rising cost of college and the alarming levels of student debt, I think it’s wise for any family to treat it as you would any large investment. Investigate the options. Think hard about what you hope to gain from it. Don’t assume that spending more will automatically pay more back. That’s what truly savvy college shoppers do.

But as you apply rigorous research to your college process, please don’t use these headlines to drive it.

Just because you major in x or attend college at y doesn’t mean you will necessarily reap the reported benefits mentioned in a 300-word article. If it did, those colleges would be singing from their Ivy-adorned rooftops about how much happier and richer and more successful their graduates are.

No matter what your future career, your college and your major are just two items on a very long list of things you’ll need to be successful, including drive, aptitude, experience, talent, and maybe even a little luck. The college-related items are not as responsible for the outcome as their disproportionate price might make them appear.

I’m not suggesting that your college and your major aren’t important—your odds of becoming a successful engineer decrease to almost zero if you don’t (1) attend a college with an engineering program, and (2) choose that as your major.

But you likely wouldn’t risk up to $150,000 on a stock you learned about from one short online article alone. And you probably shouldn’t do so with your college, either. Headlines make for enticing news, but not always for informed choices.