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.

You’ll fall in love with a “Yes!”

I’ve written before that no matter how disappointed a student may be when a dream college says no, that feeling will be long gone four months later when the student moves into a dorm somewhere else. Students almost always find a way to eventually fall in collegiate love with a school that had the good sense to say, “YES!”

Last week, Breanne in our Irvine, California office received an email from one of her former student’s mothers with a glowing update on college life. The school her daughter is attending was once a distant second to her dream school. But as is often the case, a college that says yes has a wonderful way of turning that disappointment around.

Senior families, if bad admissions news arrives later this spring, remember that the disappointment will be temporary. Treat it like a romantic breakup, a real—but temporary—disappointment that will fade as fast as you are willing to move on to another fish in the collegiate sea. You’ll fall in love with a school that said yes even if it feels like you’ve just lost your soulmate.

Here’s the email, shared with the parent’s permission:

“We just got back from Boulder Family Weekend. Leah is doing great and I think she is very glad she is at Boulder. There is so much to do, the facilities are gorgeous, not to mention the views. The first two weeks she hiked to a lake in the nearby snow-dappled mountains and took an overnight field trip with one of her classes to a mountain retreat. None of that would have been possible at her original first choice school in California. She gets along with her suitemates, has made a lot of friends on her floor (one of them bakes in the dorm kitchen and brings everyone muffins), and is playing fall ball with the club lacrosse team. She went to a football game in Denver with the guys in her hall. She placed out of math, science, and language and she’s helping her friends with calculus and physics. So Collegewise is right. Once you get to the school that wants you, the others just fade away.”

Mother of Leah
University of Colorado – Boulder

For private counselors: use process of elimination

When our Collegewise counselors help students find the right colleges, it’s a team-effort. We don’t just hand a student a list of colleges to apply to based on a few characteristics. Instead, we give them a “preliminary college list.” We teach them how to learn more about schools. Then we assign them a task to research those colleges on their own with this caveat:

“You’re probably not going to like some of these colleges. And that’s OK.”

Some students know exactly what they’re looking for in a college right from the start. Many more do not. Allowing our students to learn about colleges on their own lets them better define what they are and are not looking for in a school. When they come back to us with their own feedback, we listen carefully, then make some revised suggestions and have them investigate the new additions. It’s like process of elimination when taking a test. Eliminate what’s wrong, and eventually, you’re left with what’s right.

As Katie in our Bellevue, Washington office tells her students:

“I want to help you find more of the colleges you like, and fewer of the ones you don’t like.”

It’s important for students to take charge of their college process. Part of that means letting them find their own colleges, rather than just applying based on your suggestions. So listen to what they (and their parents) are looking for in a school. Help them get started by offering preliminary suggestions and teaching them how to research schools. Then let them dive in on their own before they come back to you with feedback.

A conscientious college searcher probably won’t like all of the schools you suggest at first. Remind them that is exactly what you expect will happen. Feedback—both positive and negative—is always helpful. It will help you use process of elimination to eventually hand the student a balanced, well-researched college list. When they apply, they’ll have a good answer to any question about why they’re interested in a particular school. And most importantly, they’ll almost certainly be left with plenty of great acceptances in hand from colleges that fit.

Repel some to draw many

CWTakesSeattleOur newest Collegewise counselors and I celebrated the conclusion of our week of training with a tour of Seattle University (that’s Curt and Leigh in the photo–and it’s a pen, not a cigarette, tucked behind Curt’s ear).

I asked the tour guide, Noah, to name a popular misconception people have about Seattle U (which happens to be a Jesuit school). His answer:

“The Jesuit thing. People think it means we’re really conservative. This is a very liberal school. Veeeery liberal. I’ve had people on tours ask me who the gays are on campus. People who ask questions like that aren’t going to be happy here.”

I liked his answer for a reason that might surprise some people—because his answer will inevitably turn off some students from applying.

In their efforts to draw as many applicants as possible (and often on the advice of expensive marketing consultants), many colleges try to appeal to everyone. But just like no student is right for every college, no college is right for every student. I have asked this question of many tour guides, and his was probably the most honest answer.

This isn’t a post about judging the validity of anyone’s values or politics. It’s about getting what you want and what you’re paying for when you accept an offer of admission from a college. Every student deserves to make informed college decisions. Colleges have a responsibility to tell the truth to potential customers, even if some potential customers won’t buy the product because of that truth.

It seems like a simple thing for colleges to do—be honest. Yes, you’ll turn off some students who probably wouldn’t have joined your freshman class anyway. But you’ll draw more of the students who are likely to accept your offer to attend, and who will thrive once they get there. You’ve got to repel some to get many.

Thank you, Noah.

And here’s a past post on how I wish colleges would do tours.

Nowhere to go but forward

From Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams:

“The right college is the last, best chance for masses of teenagers to find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to grow. And fast. The editor at the Harvard Lampoon experiences this. I felt it when I co-ran a large student-run business. The advanced physics major discovers this on her first day at the high-energy lab, working on a problem no one has ever solved before. That’s the reason to spend the time and spend the money and hang out on campus: so you can find yourself in a dark alley with nowhere to go but forward.”

Find the why before you’re asked

Our Collegewise counselors spent yesterday morning discussing application short-answer questions—those essay prompts of 150-300 words, one of the most common of which is some version of “Why do you want to attend this college?”

Those of us who’ve worked in admissions all agreed that the worst responses come from students who rely on vague generalities (“It’s a great school”) or who parrot back information they researched on the school’s website (“You have four Noble Prize winners and an 11:1 student-faculty ratio”).

The best way to avoid those outcomes? Find the why before you’re asked.

Too many students add colleges to their lists based just on the schools’ prestige. Then they struggle to come up with compelling answers when colleges ask why they have applied.

As you consider schools to add to your list, find the answer to why. Your answers may vary depending on the schools. But the very act of finding the answer will force you to be thoughtful about your college search. You’ll find more colleges where you could ultimately be happy and successful. And you’ll likely have a lot more offers of admission next spring.

Make matches moving forward

Matchmaking—finding the fit between a student and a college—is one of the best ways to ensure a less stressful, more successful college process. When you find colleges where you could be happy and successful, that fit your budget (or where you’re likely to receive need- or merit-based aid), and where your chances of admission are strong, you set yourself up to have many great college options from which to choose. Matchmaking puts you in charge of your college process.

But matchmaking doesn’t work in reverse.

“What is Harvard looking for?”
“Would Northwestern want me to go to a summer program or get a part-time job?”
“Will my chances of getting into Chicago be better if I declare a major in math?”

Questions like those come from students attempting to matchmake in reverse. They want to change themselves to fit the colleges they like instead of finding schools they like that already fit.

I’m not suggesting that students should rest on their laurels. When you work hard to improve your grades, when you raise your test scores, when you make an impact in activities you enjoy—you’re exerting efforts that could add potential colleges to your list and improve your chances of admission at many schools.

But you shouldn’t fundamentally change your interests, your activities, or your future plans just to fit what you think one college wants. Reverse matchmaking isn’t effective or healthy. It gives too much control to colleges and too little confidence to applicants who are left feeling that they don’t measure up just being who they are.

Instead of matchmaking in reverse, make matches moving forward. Challenge yourself. Work hard. Commit to activities that matter to you. Then find colleges that fit who are predisposed to like you just the way you are.

Take more out of college

If you want to get more out of college, take more out of college.

Back in May, I shared the recent 2014 Gallup Poll, “It’s Not ‘Where’ You Go To College, But ‘How’ You Go To College” which showed no difference in college graduates’ workplace engagement or well-being whether they attended a college that was public, private, highly-selective or less competitive. But it’s worth taking a look at the college factors that were found to affect the quality of your college experience and your well-being later in life, such as:

Graduates who worked closely with a professor who took an interest and mentored them were twice as likely to be engaged at work and thriving in terms of their well-being.

Graduates who had a deep involvement in a job/internship, a long-term school project, and/or an extra-curricular activity were twice as likely to be engaged at work.

Students with no student loan debt are three times more likely to be thriving in terms of their well-being than are those with between $20,000 and $40,000 in loan debt.

The best part: you have influence—and even complete control—over those factors. Don’t sit back and wait for a college to give them to you.  Take them for yourself.

Start by working hard in high school. Find colleges that fit you where you can be happy and successful. Apply for financial aid and make sure you have plenty of schools where you are a strong applicant. And once you get there, get busy building a remarkable college career.

The stats don’t lie. The students who take more out of college (and don’t take out more debt than their budget allows) get more out of college.