How to make sense of college rankings

When it comes to utilizing college rankings, I’ve found that most families fall into one of three camps:

1. Those who don’t consider them.
2. Those who plan to incorporate rankings into a variety of college factors.
3. Those who let the rankings drive their entire college process.

I’ve seen some families in that third camp arrive at their first Collegewise meeting with the latest US News college rankings in hand, intent on limiting their college list to schools in the top ten. Matchmaking, shmatchmaking—it’s all about getting into the highest US News-ranked school possible.

I don’t expect to effectively convince many folks in that camp to migrate, but if you’re on the fence and might be willing to take a realistic look at whether or not any agency can effectively rank colleges, please check out Frank Bruni’s latest New York Times piece, How to Make Sense of College Rankings, the gist of which can be found in this excerpt:

“But [college] rankings cannot take into account, and thus ignore, the most consequential part of the equation, which isn’t some spell that a given school casts on a student but a student’s commitment, curiosity, daring. An obsession with rankings obscures and invariably minimizes this essential truth.”

Great together

At a wedding I attended last weekend, the groom’s father gave a heartfelt toast about raising a sensitive, happy boy who truly blossomed when he went to college. Dad spoke about watching his son throw himself into Model United Nations, spend a summer interning on the South Side of Chicago doing outreach for those who were HIV positive, and eventually emerge four years later a confident, mature, socially-conscious leader.

Today, the groom is a successful public relations executive. He’s also a proud graduate of Willamette University in Oregon.

This isn’t a post touting Willamette specifically. College applicants need to find the schools that best fit them. And just because Willamette sparked this transformation in the groom doesn’t necessarily mean it would have the same effect for every student.

But prestigious colleges don’t hold patents on transformative college experiences. A student who is eager to learn, grow, and take advantage of the opportunities that college has to offer can fulfill those goals at plenty of different schools. For you, that could be Willamette, Williams, Wabash, or Wesleyan.

It’s not about getting into what the rankings say are great colleges. It’s about finding schools where you can be great together.

How to fall in like with less selective schools

If you want to have a successful college application process in just about every way imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better strategy than to start with a balanced college list, one with a healthy mix of schools (slightly) out of reach, some where you’ll likely get in, and a few where you’ll definitely get in. Students with balanced college lists have less stressful application processes, they get admitted to more schools, and they get more financial aid.

Where college list balance typically falls apart for students and parents is through a focus on prestigious colleges. Students or their parents believe that the schools they’re most likely to get into are somehow beneath them; they don’t see the point in wasting their time applying to schools that accept many of their applicants. They’d rather play the reach school lottery and double down with a few more applications to famous, highly selective colleges.

If your list has fallen out of balance and you’re having a hard time getting excited about schools that might readjust the scales, here’s a fast way to reengage with some colleges that are a lot more likely to say yes.

Imagine that every school on your existing list said no.

Unfortunately, most counselors see this happen every year. A few students combine a bad case of namebranditis with a refusal to apply to schools they think are beneath them, only to be left with no college options. And when the alternative is to attend no college at all, most of those students suddenly become a lot more open-minded about less famous colleges.

I’m not suggesting that you go college list haywire and apply to 25 schools. In fact, one big benefit of a balanced college list should be that you have a reasonable number of schools. For most students, that’s somewhere between 6-10 colleges depending on where you apply and what your counselor recommends.

Compared to those dream schools you most want to attend, plenty of other schools may not shine so bright. But those that seem dull today by comparison would have plenty of luster if they were your only options tomorrow.

You, your parents, and your counselor want you to get into those colleges you’d be most excited to attend. That’s the desired outcome. But it’s important to make sure you’ll have options if those schools don’t come through.

Don’t tell me or anyone else that none of the other schools are good enough. There are over 2,000 colleges in this country and plenty of them—including those that admit lots of applicants—are loaded with smart, interesting people to meet, fascinating experiences to be had, and plenty of learning and growth to be done.

You’ve spent plenty of time imagining yourself at your dream colleges, and it might be unpleasant to picture yourself anywhere else. But it would be much more unpleasant not to have a college to attend at all. Dream schools may say no, but a balanced college list means that others will say yes.

Here are two past posts, here and here, with advice about how to balance your list.

Nothing to hide

I had high hopes for the recent entry on the Georgia Tech admissions blog, 25 Reasons Not to Apply to Georgia Tech. Too many colleges’ marketing messages seem to imply that a school will be all things to all students. And I’ve written before that colleges would stand out, and likely draw more of the very students they want most, if they were honest about what their schools won’t be for those who join their freshman classes.

Georgia Tech’s entry is a good start. They did point out the workload, the heat, and the proud passion for math and science—if those are deal breakers, Georgia Tech probably isn’t the school for you. But those points with merit got a little lost for me among some of the jokes and humble-brags that showed up in the list of 20. Still, applause for having the guts to even try what most colleges just aren’t willing to do.

No college is perfect, and no college can make every student equally happy. Students, as you research schools and look for the right fits, don’t be afraid to ask the question, “What kind of student wouldn’t be a good fit here?” Proud colleges with nothing to hide will happily answer that question.

Perfect on paper, not in practice

One of the most common collegiate sentiments I hear from adults I speak with, including our own counselors at Collegewise, is that they didn’t put nearly as much thought into their college selection as it merited. They didn’t pore over research and tour every campus and create lists of pros and cons. They just applied to schools that seemed appealing, affordable, or both, and chose one that accepted them.

College counselors, and many parents, want our students to make more informed choices. Guidebooks, websites, meetings with counselors, research, tours—college is an investment of time and money, and we want to give our kids the tools and support to invest wisely.

But it’s worth occasionally reminding ourselves and our kids that: (1) there is no such thing as a perfect college, and (2) some uncertainty is normal.

If we’re not careful, the message we can send our kids is that there is one perfect college out there, and that the perfection will be uninterrupted for four years.

Many students do find schools that check every box on the collegiate wish list. But perfect? No way. College absolutely can and should be four years of learning, growth, opportunities and fun. But it won’t be four years of uninterrupted bliss. It will not be free of frustration, failure, or disappointment. Life doesn’t work that way. The best jobs, new cities, friendships, even marriages—all of them have their good days and bad days. What’s perfect on paper is rarely perfect in practice.

Kids should look for the right schools. They should give careful consideration to the type of environment where they could be happy and successful. They should spend the time it takes to find schools that fit their goals, personality, and budget. The fact that there might be no such thing as a perfect marriage doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the decision carefully and thoughtfully. And college selection works the same way.

But it’s entirely possible that a student could do all the research necessary to find the collegiate version of a soulmate and still not be convinced she’s found the one. That’s normal.

Students who head off to college convinced that it’s the perfect match will eventually find or face something that doesn’t seem so perfect. That’s normal, too.

A thoughtful college search process is supposed to make students and parents feel more confident. It should reveal just how many schools there are and give families some sense of security that they didn’t pick based on name, rumor, or pretty architecture alone. It should not provoke more anxiety just because the perfect school has yet to appear. And it should never be mistaken as an immunization against the occasional bad day, week, or month in college.

Look for colleges that are perfect on paper, but don’t expect that they’ll always be perfect in practice.

Dare to dream

Some students spend so much time worrying about getting into their chosen colleges that they don’t take the time to dream about what they would do once they actually get there. That’s like applying for a dream job and having no idea why you want to work there, or more importantly, what you hope to do, learn, and accomplish if you were to get the job.

Colleges aren’t just evaluating your qualifications. They’re evaluating your likelihood of becoming a successful, contributing member of the campus community. They want students who will appreciate and make use of the array of opportunities that are available to them. They want students whose dreams go beyond just getting in and include what they might do once they actually enroll. That’s why essay prompts and college interviewers ask questions about why you’re drawn to the school, how you’ll make use of the opportunities available, and why you think you’re a good fit. They want to know that you’re considering how you and your potential college will work together during your four-year investment of time and money.

Not all colleges expect you to have decided on your major, or to have a list of activities you want to pursue, or to have your chosen career in mind at age 17. But they’ll want to know that you’ve at least considered those things.

Maybe you don’t yet know whether you want to study communications or history, but you’re excited to take classes in both and see which is more appealing to you. Maybe you’re excited about getting out of your small town and meeting people from other areas of the country. Maybe you want to attend football games, spend Friday nights making music with other musicians, or dive into your interest in math. Maybe you want to study abroad and finally become fluent in Spanish, play intramural sports, or write for the campus newspaper. Or maybe you’re just excited to discover your talents and interests and plan to use college as the time to look for them.

There are no right or wrong answers. And you should probably have more than one reason. But as long as you’re sincere and the colleges you are applying to have the offerings to satisfy those things, you’ll be on the right track.

You might be reluctant to spend too much time dreaming about what you’d do if you actually got to go to one of your chosen schools, and I understand why you might not want to get your hopes up even more. But the only way to seriously consider big life decisions is to imagine yourself on the other side after the decision has been made.

So the next time you’re worrying about whether or not a college will say yes, why not channel that thinking into what you’d do if you actually got in?

Chances are, the more you think about what you’d like to do in college, the clearer it will become just how many colleges can give it to you, whether or not they’re prestigious. Daring to dream might just be the best way to make peace with the pressure.

When houses become homes

Some close friends of mine are house hunting. And in what’s proving to be a seller’s market–where just about everyone makes offers over the selling price, waives inspections, and does pretty much anything to beat out the other interested parties–hopeful buyers are experiencing a lot of heartbreak.

The only way to seriously consider buying a house is to imagine yourself and your family in it. You see where you’d put the breakfast table, where your kids would play, and where your favorite spot to read will be. Once you put an offer in, you’re emotionally committed. Even the most rational person can’t completely detach from that connection. And if the sale goes to someone else, it’s difficult to change gears and imagine yourself in a different house. You’re still sold on your current vision.

The only way for kids to seriously consider a college, especially one that they’ve been able to physically visit, is to imagine themselves there. They see themselves enrolled in those class they visited. They see themselves painting their faces for the football games. They see themselves living in one of the dorms, joining clubs, and becoming fully-fledged members of that campus’s community.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach—it’s what serious college shoppers should do. But it also means that if you fall in love with a school and you don’t get in, it’s hard to imagine yourself someplace else. You’re still sold on your current vision.

But most heartbroken buyers eventually find their house. And once they move in, they turn that house into their home. They start living their life and creating their memories, and pretty soon, they can’t imagine themselves anyplace else.

Colleges work very much the same way. If you don’t get into what you think is your perfect college (there’s no reason your perfect college has to be one that isn’t a slam dunk, by the way), it might be hard to imagine yourself anywhere else.

But once you make that commitment to a college that said yes, once you move into a dorm, attend your first class, make your friends, and create your new life at college, you won’t be imagining yourself anyplace else. You’ll be too busy living your new life and creating your memories. It might not happen overnight. But if you put the time and energy into making it work for you, your new college will feel like it was the right one all along. That’s what happens when houses become homes.

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.