Self-fulfilling prophecies

As much as I preach about the importance of finding the right college fit, it’s not realistic for most students to be certain of their collegiate match until they actually become a college student.

There are just too many variables when evaluating colleges to expect to be certain with your choices. Our former students who rave about their experiences point to things like particular classes or professors, new friends, activities they’ve discovered—many of which cannot be researched or planned ahead of time.

What you want out of college, the environment that feels right, your goals and interests and what you do for fun—all of those things can change between the ages of 17 and 22 (how many adults could say that they didn’t change at all during those pivotal years?).

And there’s almost no way to effectively test-drive a college. Yes, you can research and visit and even talk to current students. But you won’t really be able to experience it until you begin your life as a student and a member of that community.

So if this certainty is so elusive, why push the search for fit?

A student who really takes the time to consider what they want out of college, who ponders what interests them, what they’d like to learn and do and experience, will understand themselves better than the student whose search begins and ends with, “I want to go to an Ivy League school.”

A student who investigates and then evaluates potential colleges will be a savvier college shopper. She’ll have strong points of comparison and contrast as well as a much better sense of the available options.

A student who is engaged in the college search will take appropriate ownership of the process. They’ll refine their gut instinct about schools and do a much better job of imagining themselves on each potential campus.

And most importantly, a student who searches for the right college fit is taking appropriate ownership of what might be their first major life decision as an adult. Isn’t that better than just trusting college rankings or simply applying to schools that parents select?

Uncertainty is a normal part of big decisions. It’s hard to be completely sure until the aftermath of the choice. But much like in romance, job hunting, and just about every other major decision that affects our lives, the more thoughtful and deliberate we are, the more confidence we have in ourselves and optimism we have that things will work out somehow, the more likely those thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Right the first time

The first student who ever enrolled at Collegewise (way back in 1999) went from a C average in high school to an A average at the University of Arizona. Much of that turnaround had to do with the opportunity to study what interested him and his conscious decision to simply apply himself. But he also discovered a secret academic weapon by regularly visiting professors during their scheduled office hours. Many of those faculty members mentioned that he was the only student who ever visited during those times. And as he put it, “When you just talk to professors about the material, they’ll tell you what’s going to be on the test!” By the time he graduated, he had close relationships with over a dozen of his former professors, many of whom advised him on his next step and even served as references.

He, and thousands of Collegewise students since then, have only reinforced what all of our counselors believe:

1. Great educations take place at lots of colleges, not just the prestigious ones.

2. No matter what benefits a college may tout, it will be up to you to make the most of the experience while you’re there.

3. What you do while you’re in college will ultimately be more important than where you do it.

4. You’re more likely to thrive when you attend a college that fits.

5. The right college can help just about any student learn, have fun, discover talents, and reach their potential.

Thanks, Nick, for being the first Collegewise kid, and for setting a great example for the nearly 8,000 who’ve joined us since.

Be your own matchmaker

If someone gave you a list of the ten people at your school who will make the best husbands or wives one day, a list based on a complex algorithm factoring in everything from GPA to personality traits to fashion sense, would you believe it? Even more importantly, would you act on it and try to get into a relationship with someone based on a rating of their future spouse potential?

The decision to marry someone is a big deal, certainly one that should be made thoughtfully and deliberately. You should absolutely seek out the qualities you would appreciate most in a life-partner. But you probably wouldn’t put too much stock in someone else’s ranking list no matter how scientific it might be.

That’s a bit how I feel about making college decisions based largely on college rankings or even the new College Scorecard which has been getting a lot of press lately.

The decision of where to attend college is a big one. And as college costs continue to rise, so do the stakes. I hate the idea of a student taking on mountains of debt to attend college without a clear sense of how or even if they’ll ever be able to pay it back. And I love the idea of giving families more, accurate information so they can make informed choices about what college to attend and how much to pay to do it.

But like a marriage, a college education is a complex thing. Someone else’s perfect match might never be the right fit for you. And just as both partners need to commit to making a marriage work, wherever you go to college, you’ll need to do your part to extract as much value as possible from the experience.

So yes, avail yourself of the increasing volume of information about particular colleges. Be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices. But please remember that there’s a big difference between evaluating a college and measuring one. You’re better off being your own matchmaker than you are relying on someone else’s list.

The search for strategy: early decision and early action

The search for strategy often works against a college applicant. Applying to early decision and early action programs can be one of those times.

Early decision and early action application programs allow applicants to submit a completed application (usually by November 1 or 15) and in return, you’ll get a decision by December 15. While the dates are similar, the big difference between the two plans is that early decision applicants are making a binding promise to the college—if you’re accepted, you must enroll. Schools offer those plans as options—applicants elect to participate in an early plan rather than in the regular decision pool.

At many schools, the admission rates for early applicants are higher than those in the regular pool. Many applicants surmise that those rates mean their chances of admission will be higher if they apply early. And that’s where the search for strategy can work against some students.

The most effective strategy as a college applicant is to present your strongest application. Don’t let a decision program get in the way of doing so. For more details, here’s some good advice from the University of Virginia’s blog.

To be clear, that post is speaking only for UVa. But I can’t think of a college that would give a different message than, “Apply when you can present your strongest application.”

Start with a balanced list

One of the most effective strategies for college applicants—if you want to get in, get financial aid, and end up happy and successful in college, is to apply to a balanced list of schools. It’s a strategy that anyone, from an “A” student to a “C” student can employ. It works effectively for just about anyone. And it’s a drastically underemployed strategy in today’s pressure-packed world of admissions.

Before you employ other strategies, start with a balanced list. I explain how to do that here and here.


First, find the fit

I almost always advise against high school students making decisions just to please particular colleges. Trying to reverse engineer yourself like a widget just to please your dream school is not a good strategy. Far better to make your own decisions and then pick colleges predisposed to appreciate the real you. With over 2,500 schools, most of which admit the majority of students who apply, there are bound to be some who like you just for who you are.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some room for doing your part to match well with schools that fit you.

The best reason to be interested in a school like Caltech or MIT is not that “it’s a great school.” It’s that you have a passion for math or science that borders on the romantic, along with a real desire to immerse yourself in an environment with similar (budding brilliant) minds. Once that interest connects you to those schools, by all means, visit their websites. Closely read their list of recommended high school courses and their testing requirements. Get a sense of the kinds of things that students who get admitted have done. Gathering information to help you pursue a goal that seems right for you is a smart thing to do.

It works in this scenario because you thought about what you wanted out of your college experience and then found schools that fit you. First, find the fit. Then worry about trying to please them.

A question for seniors facing college decisions

If you’re a senior with multiple college acceptances and you’re having trouble deciding which one to attend, here’s something that might help a little.

It’s tempting to try to pro-and-con your way to a decision. You can compare features and benefits, make lists, compare the offerings of one college with those of another, etc. But while I think it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve really compared your options, don’t be surprised if that act doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to a decision. Most of the seniors I’ve met who made pro-and-con lists were ultimately left with long lists and no further clarity.

Instead of comparing schools, try asking yourself this—what part of the decision are you not talking about?

The answer might be obvious to you. Maybe you already know the part of the decision that you’re not talking about because you think it’s embarrassing, or you’re worried people you share it with won’t understand.

But I’ve also met seniors who didn’t know the answer to that question until I asked them. And all of a sudden, the source of their hesitation or outright anxiety came front and center.

Maybe you’re scared to leave home.

Maybe you’re worried you’ll never make friends like those you’ve met in high school.

Maybe you’re unsure about majoring in engineering, or worried that you’ll let your parents down if you choose the school you really want to go to, or concerned that you’ll be on campus 48 hours and realize you made the wrong choice.

Just identifying and acknowledging that part you’re not talking about can be a relief. You can focus on the part that’s actually causing your doubt instead of circumventing it by talking about what you think you should talk about.

The next step? Talk about it. With a parent, your high school counselor, or even a friend. And if that just sounds too awkward or flat-out painful, write about it. Spend as much time as you need just blurting everything out in writing. Remind yourself that this isn’t a graded assignment—let your feelings fly without worrying about whether they’re spelled correctly or remotely organized. Just getting it out will be cathartic.

Finally, please know that it’s normal to feel uncertain. You’re making a big life decision, and this is how big life decisions work. Your friends may seem entirely sure of their college choices. But while some of them may in fact be, many more are not. Don’t worry too much. I promise that within hours of committing (and hopefully putting on your new college sweatshirt), that anxiety will turn to excitement. This is what you’ve been working and waiting for, and it’s almost time to celebrate.

A helpful college search tool

For students doing their college searches or for the counselors who are helping them, Katie Konrad Moore in our Bellevue, Washington office shared this with our Collegewise counselors yesterday: a tool from The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Who Does Your College Think Its Peers Are?

You select a college, and it tells you not only which schools that college considers its collegiate peers, but also which colleges listed your selection as a peer. For example, if a student is interested in Colgate and wants to know what other colleges might be similar, select Colgate in the peer tool, and Bowdoin, Hamilton, Bucknell, Connecticut College, etc. come up.

It’s not meant to be used as a precise college search tool, and students shouldn’t assume that just because a school is listed as a peer necessarily means it should be added to your list. But the similarity hit-to-miss ratio is good enough that we find the tool helpful. Use it as a way to suggest schools that might be like the one you like—then do your own research to verify the findings.

Open minds

Several times a year, we reach out to our former Collegewise students to find out how life is going at their new colleges. It’s our way of not just checking in, but also living vicariously through all of the fun and learning they inevitably describe to us.

One particular student who responded this week, Alex, attends Boise State University. She’s deliriously happy at BSU. But in high school, Alex couldn’t quite see herself there. BSU had many of the qualities she was looking for in a college. But Alex, a native Californian, never imagined herself attending college in Idaho. Still, she kept an open mind, so much so that when Boise State accepted her, she planned a visit with her family. That’s when everything changed for her.

Alex offered up the following advice to current high school students going through the college search process:

“To all of the high schoolers, apply to a wide range of schools. You’ll know that you’ve found your school when you get that special ‘feeling.’ It’s hard to explain, but within five minutes of going on my tour at BSU, I leaned to my dad and said, ‘This is my school.’ I almost didn’t want to like it when I toured because going to school in Idaho wasn’t what I was imagining for me. But as soon as I saw the campus and talked to people, I just knew this was the place for me.”

Well said, Alex.

The point here is not to apply indiscriminately to a bunch of schools that don’t fit you. Alex did a lot of college searching with her Collegewise counselor and she knew what she was looking for. On paper, Boise State had a lot of those things. It was the location that initially gave her pause.

But today, Alex loves Boise as much as she loves Boise State. So keep an open mind. You might like living in a new state more than you imagined. You might enjoy a smaller or larger school than you see yourself attending. You might change your mind about your major, decide that you want to be closer or farther from home, or find a new appealing quality that you didn’t know existed at any college.

Applying to a particular college doesn’t meant that you necessarily have to attend. So keep an open mind, like Alex did. If you do a thoughtful college search and focus more on fit than you do on prestige, you’ll probably find a college that will make you blissfully happy (like Alex is).

Match colleges to you

Many students approach the college process like performers trying to please judges. They spend their time wondering what the colleges are looking for, then frantically try to do those things. But those applicants often forget that they, not the colleges, are the ones with all the options.

So here’s a suggested exercise for juniors who are just starting your college search:

I’m going to assume that if you’re a student reading this blog, (1) you want to go to college, and (2) you’re at least a little excited about the idea. Before you think about specific schools, make a comprehensive list of everything you want to do when you’re in college. Nothing is out of bounds, so don’t edit yourself. If you want to study biology with a Nobel Prize-winning professor, write it down. If you want to minor in theater, write it down. If you want to go to football games, join a fraternity, play late night video games with new friends or just finally experience life on your own, add it to the list. If you need a little inspiration, here’s a past post.

Whether you’ve got 10 or 100 things on the list, it’s a start. We call this a college wish list. Now, as you learn about schools, you know what to look for—the items on your wish list.

A savvy college shopper will change your wish list over time. You’ll add new things, take away others, and rearrange your priorities about which items on the list are non-negotiable and which you can take or leave. But the point of the exercise is that you’ll be consistently training yourself not to ask questions like, “What is Dartmouth looking for?” Instead, you’ll be asking, “What am I looking for, and which schools can offer those things to me?”

If you do this for 6 or 8 or 12 months, you may put some items on your list that can only be found at a particular school, such as a specific professor, program, or opportunity that simply can’t be found anywhere else. Those will make for great inclusions in your “Why this college?” essays. Unlike many other applicants, you won’t just be visiting the website and grabbing a few statistics to include in the essay. Instead, you’ll have some good college soul-searching to back those desirable offerings up.

But more importantly, you’ll probably be consistently reminded of just how many schools can actually give you what you’re looking for, whether or not they’re prestigious.

So instead of making a college list and then trying to match yourself to those schools, start with a wish list and match the colleges to you.