Choosing a College: Where Do I Start?
By Terry Cowdrey, dean of admissions and financial aid
The process of choosing a college can either be a great adventure—full
of both challenges and fun for students and parents—or it can
be the cause of stress and anxiety, causing student and parent conflict,
self-doubt and a year-long stomach ache. A family’s attitude
toward the process—and especially the student’s attitude—can
make all the difference.
The process can be especially daunting for parents who are going about
this with their children for the first time and students who have no
older siblings to look to for examples of both good and bad approaches.
It is further complicated because many parents expect the process to
be similar to what they themselves went through in the 1960s, ’70s
or ’80s. Some important elements have not changed much, but the
timeline has accelerated, as has both the amount of recruiting colleges
do and their selectivity in offering admission. Schools are judged
in large part by how many students they reject, resulting in an incentive
to recruit as many applicants as possible. Technology has made the
process both easier, in terms of accessing information, and more complex,
in terms of greatly expanding the population of students who have the
information. And as costs have risen, so has parental involvement in
the college search process.
Start early, but not too early.
The process shouldn't subsume a student's high school experience,
but there is value in gaining control and proceeding at a comfortable
pace. The fall of the junior year in high school is a good time to
begin, particularly with self-evaluation and conversations between
students and parents about goals, values and expectations. It is also
important to understand at this point what will be required in the
application process, so that you can plan ahead.
Spend time on self-evaluation.
Some of the most important decisions that students must make have
more to do with themselves than with the colleges. It's very important
to understand what characteristics you need from a school in order
to feel good and do well there. Things you'll need to consider include:
* Do you love meeting people who are very different from you, or
do you thrive best in a "comfort zone" where your classmates
share your background, values and ideas?
* Do you need to be in a class of no more than 30 people to feel
that you're connecting with a teacher, or would it be okay if you were
in a class with 300 people?
* Do you achieve more if you're challenged by those around you or
if you're at the top of the heap?
Keep in mind that you're going to live at a college for four years.
What do you love to do? Whether it's hiking, going to the theater,
working on a newspaper, or playing soccer, you need to decide where
you'll be able to do whatever it is you love. And remember, if you
love to play soccer, going to a school with the best soccer team in
the country might also mean that you don't get to play. Too often students
approach the process by identifying a college and trying to figure
out what to do to make themselves appealing to that school. That’s
the opposite of what you should do, which is to assess who you are
and what you value and then identify schools that fit your profile.
Invest your resources wisely.
Students should start by doing things that won't cost anything but
time. As you move along, you'll be investing more and more of your
resources – money, time, energy and emotion. So start out by
getting an overview that doesn't require commitment.
* Peruse college guidebooks available in your guidance office or
at the local public library
* Surf college and college-choice Web sites
* Go to college fairs and pick up information
* Attend visits from college representatives at your high school
The purpose of these activities is to get a feeling for the things
that you and your family will have to think about as you decide which
college will be best for you.
Talk to your parents. And parents, talk to your kids.
All too often, parents admit that they never actually wanted their
son or daughter to go to the school that's now his or her top choice – Mom
and Dad just wanted to see if the student would be accepted. That's
not the best way to proceed.
If parents have very strong feelings about, for instance, distance
from home, religious foundations or the amount they can spend for education,
they should tell children that as early in the process as possible.
There's no point in students exploring choices parents will never agree
to. At the same time, parents should feel free to encourage their kids
to consider certain colleges, including their alma mater, but ought
to be prepared to explain why they believe St. Lawrence, for example,
would be a good fit.
Both parents and students should keep an open mind, particularly
in the early part of the process. Remember that the "sticker price" may
not be the same as your actual cost, for example, and think about your
child's ambitions as well as your own for them. Your goal is to identify
at least one school—and usually a handful of schools—where
the fit just feels right.
Don't think about the harvest, think about
Students at the beginning of their search often get panicky about
picking the "right" school. Instead they should think about
which ones aren't right.
If you fill out the questionnaire portion of the PSAT, as most students
do, you'll receive mailings from certain schools, who hope to inspire
your interest in what they have to offer. In most cases, students must
respond in order to continue to receive information throughout the
process. When you get those initial mailings, be open-minded—read
carefully those from schools you are not familiar with and you may
discover just the set of opportunities you are looking for. However,
once you decide a school isn't going to be on your "short list," let
the school know – weed out the ones that don't interest you and
you'll be better able to focus on those that do.
Consider the source.
Gathering information about colleges is a lot like doing research
for papers. There are primary sources and secondary sources of material.
Guidebooks and college-choice Web sites are good secondary sources.
Information from colleges is also good and reliable, but remember that
it's also promotional. Advice from school counselors is also good,
and they are often helpful in suggesting schools that fit your criteria,
but that you've never heard of. Alumni have great first-hand information,
but it may not be up to date. Current students can be helpful, too,
in describing the academic and social climate.
Make the most of visits.
Looking at college Web sites is a great no-cost way of helping you
decide whether or not to visit a school. Once you decide to make some
visits, make the time spent work for you.
* Visits when school is in session are the most helpful, but even
visits during the summer can be informative – you can see the
campus, check out the town or city where the school is located, and
talk with someone in the admissions office.
* Respect the system that schools have in place for visits. Schools
offer options, such as individual interviews or group information sessions,
personal tours or group tours, open houses and overnight stays, at
different points in the process, and sometimes, not at all. Don't be
afraid to ask about options, but understand if they aren't available.
* Remember, a visit that helps you cross a school off your list is
as successful as one that confirms your interest. Your goal is to narrow
your options steadily.
Choosing a college isn't easy. Sometimes just acknowledging that is a
big step toward making the process more manageable. Many students do
find the college search process to be very fulfilling—it is exciting
thinking about all of the possibilities, it is eye-opening to have conversations
with your parents about your goals and their hopes for you, it is fun
to visit campuses and try to imagine being a college student. Students
who approach the process with confidence, an open mind, and a willingness
to put in the necessary time and effort are usually happy with their
ultimate college selection. Parents are likely to be viewed as helpful
to their son or daughter’s college selection process if they understand
that the student is in the starring role in this production and they
are in the supporting cast.