September 21, 2008

Old College Try is Just Not Enough Anymore ; Competition Tough, but Informed Choices Still Key to Success

If you have a child who has applied to college in recent years, or know anyone who has gone through that stressful process, you are aware that the competition for admission has increased dramatically.

Stories abound of students with 4.2 GPAs and 2200 SAT scores being rejected by their first, second and third choice schools. Admissions decisions, especially at highly selective colleges, are unpredictable and often seem arbitrary.

As competition has intensified, anxiety levels have shot up for students and parents. The bad news is that this year will probably be just as competitive. We are not likely to see a significant decrease in the number of students graduating from high school and applying to college for a few more years. New financial aid policies that make some of the most expensive prestigious colleges affordable for middle-class families should generate more applications from students who did not think they could go to Harvard without taking on huge debt.

The good news is there are still many excellent schools that admit students who have not competed in the Olympics or mapped the human genome. Admissions officers at elite schools often say that more than 75 percent of the students applying are well qualified. Because these schools admit fewer than 20 percent of their applicants, it's clear that the vast majority of accomplished, talented students will end up at other colleges. These high- achieving students have helped to raise the quality of many schools, so that we actually have a larger number of excellent colleges from which to choose.

Students do not need to worry that an Ivy League education is the only path to success. Some colleges that are not at the top of the U.S. News & World Report rankings offer a better educational experience than more prestigious schools, and have high acceptance rates at graduate and professional schools.

Still, some parents believe a degree from an elite school is the only way to guarantee their children a good life. And students who have taken every AP course, spent countless hours doing community service and demonstrating leadership, really do not want to hear that they might not be able to go to their dream college. It can feel like someone is telling them they have to settle for second best, and that is just not acceptable to young people who have always believed that if they work hard enough, they will achieve their goals. An Ivy acceptance validates the sacrifices they made in high school and pumps up their self-esteem, while every rejection is a pronouncement that they are not good enough. That is a tough way to go through life.

So I would like to offer another perspective in this column. And I speak as someone who was not immune to the lure of highly selective colleges. Many years ago, when my guidance counselor said that as an out-of-state student, I'd never be admitted to University of Virginia, I decided if it was that hard to get in, it must be a great school.

Virginia was and is an excellent university, but as a shy person, I was overwhelmed by the size of the school and the popularity of fraternity parties. When I was accepted as a transfer student at University of Pennsylvania, I told myself that since this school was Ivy League, it had to be really good! What can I say, I'm a slow learner.

It was only after graduating that I realized a small liberal arts college, where it's impossible to hide in the back of a lecture hall, would have been a much better place for me. If I had focused on finding colleges that would be good matches rather than getting caught up in proving I could get into competitive schools, I would have been more productive, successful and happy in college.

One of the reasons I love my work as an independent college counselor is I can help students avoid my mistakes. Instead of focusing only on getting into college, I want students to think about what they will get out of college. If they make informed choices, they will find many schools where they can get an excellent education, experience the kind of personal growth that will enable them to realize their potential, and have some fun along the way.

Of course it helps to do well in high school. To prepare for college, students should take the most rigorous high school curriculum they can manage without having a nervous breakdown.

Kids also need time for fun. Burnout is a problem among high- achieving students who arrive at college and realize they spent their whole adolescence trying to figure out what colleges wanted them to be, instead of discovering who they are.

The college admission process is so stressful because there's a lot at stake. College is a major financial investment that can top $200,000 for four years at a private institution. It's also your child's future. You want to get it right. That means looking beyond the "best" college to find the best colleges for your child.

My goal in this column is to lower the anxiety level around the college admissions process. Applying to college will never be stress- free, but shifting the focus from getting into a prestigious school to finding a good college fit can transform the college search into a time of discovery and opportunity.


The author, Audrey Kahane, is an independent college counselor. E-mail: [email protected]

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