Seek good certainty

I always remind seniors who are weighing their college options that some amount of uncertainty is normal. That’s the way that big decisions like a job offer to accept, a new city in which to live, and yes, a college to attend, work. You do as much research, thinking, and soul searching as you can. Then you just have to listen to your gut and make the leap. Don’t assume that you necessarily have to be sure of this choice when you make it. In fact, that uncertainty is often the best part.

But here’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of–if you take on student debt to attend college, you’re going to have to pay it back.

Whether you’ve already identified your post-college career or haven’t even chosen a major yet, life will always offer uncertainties. You may fall in love with a career option that just doesn’t pay very well. You may not get into the graduate school that you hoped to attend. You may land–but then be laid off from–your dream job. These things happen even to smart, successful people. And if they happen to you, you’ll need to be flexible and resilient to keep going.

But your student loan lenders will not care how your plans changed or what unforeseen circumstances you’re facing. They’ll want to be paid on time. That’s a certainty.

This is not an argument that you shouldn’t take on student debt. I think that’s a decision that each student needs to make with their family. And there are certainly adults who are not only thankful that they took on the debt required to attend the college they did, but also very proud that they responsibly paid off what they owed.

But the more debt you assume when you start college, the bigger role that debt will play in your post-college plans. The less debt you owe, student loan or otherwise, the more freedom you’ll have to make decisions based on what’s best for you, not best for your creditor, and the more flexible you’ll be able to be when life has different plans. And nobody ever lost sleep at night because they just didn’t owe enough people more money.

The more uncertainty you have about your college and your future career, the more cautious you should be taking on a potentially large debt to attend. If the only thing you can be sure of today is that the school you’re about to choose won’t leave you with hefty student loans when you graduate, that’s a pretty good certainty to carry with you to college.

Take the “good” out

If you were to strike the word “good” from your vocabulary, your evaluation of colleges would be a lot more precise. And a lot more honest.

It’s a good college.

They have good professors.

It’s got a good pre-med program.

Take out the “good” and start over. Now what are you going to say?

Don’t cheat and use “amazing” or something else positive but completely nondescript. The idea here is to be precise.

Maybe your answer is, “It’s a famous college.” Maybe it’s, “It’s a college with the major I want, it feels like the right size for me, and it gave me a financial aid package that made it affordable for my family.” Both those answers are more accurate and more honest than “good.”

They have professors who teach instead of research.

They have several professors who’ve won the Nobel Prize.

They have professors in the economics department who regularly depart campus to advise on national economic policy in Washington D.C.

You’ll put your knowledge—and the strength of the professors—to the test when you go further than “good”:

70% of their students who apply to medical school get accepted.

It’s got special study abroad programs just for pre-meds so they don’t fall behind in their science studies.

It has a full-time health careers advisor, six professors students can go to for pre-med advice, and a list of former students who’ve gone to medical school and are willing to speak with undergraduates about their experiences.

Who’s more likely to know exactly what to expect from their future pre-med program—the student who stopped at “good,” or the student who dug deeper and replaced “good” with some real facts?

No college can guarantee you a successful outcome. You’re not shopping for a car you can research on Consumer Reports or experience for yourself with a lengthy test drive. You’re shopping for a four-year experience predicated in large part on your willingness to make the most of what’s available to you while you’re there. Part of being comfortable with your college list means accepting a certain amount of uncertainty. That’s why when so many people refer to a “good” college, what they really mean is a “famous” college. Famous is an easy shortcut to what you think must be “good” when you don’t know what else to base that choice on.

But the best way to improve your odds of turning that uncertainty into a four-year record of learning, growth and fun is to match the student with the right colleges. And to do that, you’ll have to consider those things that you can be certain about. Don’t accept reputations, rankings, or prestige as proxies for quality. Dig deeper into the offerings. Crash them against what you hope or expect to gain from your college experience. Seek advice from people who know you well and want the best for you. Then make your choices confidently knowing that you sought clarity where it existed and accepted uncertainty when it did not.

The parts of any college that deserve to be described as “good” will be much clearer once you take the “good” out.

Old message, new source

One of my recurring themes on this blog is that it actually isn’t that hard to get into college–that all the bad news about fierce competition, declining acceptance rates, and other angst-inducing stats is true for only a comparatively short list of schools from the over 2,000 colleges available.

Here’s an article from financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, who seems to be expanding his topic touch now that he’s doing so for Cappex: Myth: Getting into College is Really Hard.

Among the most salient stats:

  • Only 70 colleges have a less than 25 percent chance of admission.
  • Only 6 percent of colleges admit less than a third of their applicants.
  • There are only 14 colleges where less than 10 percent of applicants are admitted.
  • On average, students apply to six colleges and are admitted by three to four colleges.

Bottom line: there’s a college out there for you even if you aren’t in the top, or even close to the top, of your class. You just have to be willing to look for it.

Sometimes the best way to get an old message across is to send it from a new source.

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.