The One Prize That Matters Most

Life is not a contest, and the world is not an arena. Just by being here, unique among all others, offering contributions that no one else can give, you have already won the one prize that matters most.

I read an interesting Opinion piece in the Times the other day, that ended with the quote above. The title, “Let’s Hear It for the Average Child” confused me a bit, because there is nothing presented that shouts “average” to me, and I don’t see how being a student “whose talents lie outside the arena” makes one at all “average,” however average is defined (which is not clear in this piece).

But I “get it” and love the overarching message: you don’t need to be an award-winning, straight-A-getter, popular, all-subjects-enjoying, all-star athlete. Often, student’s whose gifts don’t translate to how society rewards them are the biggest “winners” of all.

It’s too bad we don’t more often—and outwardly—award students who are kind, compassionate, empathetic, self-aware, reflective and who have developed an understanding of how the world works on a deeper level. The students who get that it’s not all about their grades, or their resume, or where they go to college. In fact, it’s not even all about them.

I can’t wait for the day that colleges seek to measure and reward Margaret Renkl‘s “average” student. Until then, I’ll keep encouraging students to do the best they can in school but also to actively pursue their genuine interests, whatever they are, and engage with their communities (home, school, online, wherever they find and develop them!) in a positive and meaningful way. School is a central, significant part of your life in your teens and twenties, but it is not who you are, and it does not define you. 

 

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College Applications Benefit From Focus

Until colleges start honestly looking for students who aren’t hyper-focused, I find myself having to make clear that students who drill down on their interests early on in high school will be better positioned to tell a clear, focused story in their college applications, and might have an advantage. Being well-rounded is fantastic, but colleges are looking for students with something unique, a specific talent, skill, goal, or interest to add to value to their next class. With a more focused application, you hand the reader of your file precisely what they are looking for—you make it easy to see your value add, and sadly, fit into one of the many boxes they try to place applicants in.

There are some other arguments toward being more narrow, focused. You may love all five (or more honestly, ten…) clubs you are in and the three sports you play, but how much can you meaningfully contribute to all of these activities? Chances are not that much, and by spreading yourself so thin, you’re not making much of an impact in any single one of them.

If you want to have a bigger impact, while at the same time create a profile that might be more appealing to admissions officers, try to narrow down your interests and corresponding activities by the end of 10th grade, and think about how you can engage more meaningfully and at a higher level in the one or two things you love the most. It’s a bonus if these activities relate to your potential college major, or support it in some way, as well as demonstrate a commitment to serving someone other than yourself. If you are not sure what that means or how that translates in a college app, email us.

Drilling down on your interests to develop a clear story or narrative for your college apps will go a long way in the admissions process, and is one of the focus areas of our college counseling work with high school students.

Remember, colleges seek to build a well-rounded class comprised of students with unique talents and skills, not a class full of unfocused students or generalists. If this changes, we will definitely be posting about it here!

 

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Academic/Career Exploration for Pre-Business Majors: Free Online Courses

There are so many awesome (and free) beginner level courses online, it is a missed opportunity to not take advantage of at least one or two if you plan to study business in college. Here are a few of my favorites—many are self-paced—that you can sign up to take now.

Yale: Financial Markets

Michigan: Risk, Return & Valuation

Michigan: Bonds and Stocks

UVA: Introduction to Personal Branding

Penn:  Social Impact Strategy: Tools for Entrepreneurs and Innovators

Illinois: Financial Planning for Young Adults

To take the course for free, select enroll now and the option that reads “Full Course, No Certificate.” You will still have access to all course materials for this course without paying. Contact us if you have questions about Coursera classes and how they translate, and are useful, on college applications.

 

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June Action Plan – By Grade

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

 

Juniors:

  • It might seem like a silly piece of advice, but many students are not aware that each school has a set of application instructions that are not located on the actual online application. I suggest you read them before tackling the application process.
  • As you begin your essay work, open a Common App account, and begin filling out the base data (Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities). Unlike in past years, if you open up an account now, it will not be deleted before August 1, 2019. There is no better time than now to get your CA base data underway.
  • If you’ve finished testing, it is time to review your college list and application strategy. Pinpointing your top 5 or so schools now can help you maximize your time over the summer doing research and outreach.
  • If you are not finished testing, continue to prep.
  • If you have summer college visits planned, take advantage of the summer slowdown, and prepare meetings with your department of interest ahead of time. Interview if possible, too. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. Extended research and outreach can make a big difference in your admissions outcomes.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). If you do, aim to complete it over the summer.

Sophomores:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Come up with a plan for test prep. Summer before junior year is a great time to begin test prep! Here are a few resources to get you started if you are not quite ready to work with a tutor 1:1: = PSAT, ACT, SAT, SAT on Khan.
  • Thinking about how to explore your academic interests this summer? I hope so! There are tons of options, and you should be doing something “academic” this summer if possible. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edX, Ted Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also always beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

Freshmen:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Explore your academic interests this summer! If you are unsure what they are, that’s even more reason to get out there and do some exploring. Figuring out what you do not like is often just as important as figuring out what you do like. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edX, Ted Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also always beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

 

 

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There’s More to Being Human Than Achievement

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Wonderful article by Scott Jaschik on how one high school in Palo Alto—a community not unlike NYC and the metro area—is taking a small but mighty stand against the toxic culture created around college admissions. The conversations taking place at this high school should be and thankfully are taking place at others around the country, and I am hopeful that more and more families will begin to see that there is so much more to the high school and college experience than where you go. It is it time for priorities to shift and for people to start getting real, and it has been time for a while now. Please give this one a read!

Fighting ‘Toxic, Comparison-Driven Culture’

If you live in a certain kind of suburb, you know some of the ways that students and parents boast about getting into the “right” colleges. The casual references to planning for Cambridge or New Haven. The decals or bumper stickers on cars. The constant questions about “where is your son/daughter applying/going?” The process builds the kind of competitive environment that adds to student stress and leaves many feeling inadequate because their college goals don’t include attending the most prestigious of institutions.

Then there is the college map, which at elite high schools is a feature of the end of the school year. A map of the United States shows all the places students will be off to in the fall. Students give permission to have their names linked to the map’s locations, so everyone at elite colleges can learn how many are headed for the Ivies and which ones. At The Campanile, the student newspaper of Palo Alto High School, the map has been an annual tradition. The image above is from a few years ago (and we’ve cropped out the lists of student names and their college destinations). Palo Alto High School, located in the backyard of Stanford University, and attended by children of professors and Silicon Valley executives, year after year sends many students to what are considered the best colleges in the country.

This year, in the wake of the admissions scandal that has focused attention on parents who seem more focused on prestige (at any cost) than finding a good match between student and college, editors of The Campanile decided on a new approach. They killed the map.

“The Post-Paly Plans Map has historically been one of The Campanile’s most highly anticipated pieces. Though its intended purpose was to celebrate the postgraduation plans of every senior, the reality is the map contributes to the toxic, comparison-driven culture at Paly,” wrote the newspaper’s five co-editors in chief in an editorial announcing the decision. (Paly is how they refer to their high school.)

“Our community fosters a college-centric mind-set, which erodes one’s sense of value and can lead to students with less traditional plans feeling judged, embarrassed or underrepresented. This worldview sets the bar for achievement extremely high and punishes anyone who falls short. We believe the burden of improving Paly’s environment falls on the students. If we don’t shift how we talk and think about college, the culture will never improve. This is the reason we decided not to publish the map this year.”

The editors surrounded their editorial with boxes in which some members of this year’s senior class discussed their college choices — and among those sharing their stories were students who turned down more prestigious for less prestigious colleges.

Gila Winefeld wrote, “At Paly, there’s kind of a norm of going to the ‘best,’ most selective college you can get into. Sometimes other factors that can be important like proximity to home and money fall to the wayside, but I realized a lot of those factors were important to me and my family … There were definitely some instances where people, even if they didn’t say it straight to my face, implied that if you’re a good student, why aren’t you going to a ‘better’ college, a ‘better’ school. I had a few different options I was looking at and I had some more prestigious options so a lot of people were very shocked when I told them that I had decided … One person even asked me, ‘Oh, do you not care at all?’”

Several students wrote of their pride at going to community college and the stigma associated with such a choice.

Bryan Kagiri wrote, “Personally, I think community college is a great, great plan. The stigma is that if you aren’t going to a four-year people look down on you. I look at it the opposite way — if you’re going to a two-year that means you’re confident enough that you can help yourself out. I don’t understand why there’s such a negative view on community college, because I think it’s a great idea financially and mentally for a senior.”

Along with the student voices was that of Arne Lim, an alumnus who is mathematics instruction supervisor at the high school. He wrote that the admission scandal is “not a by-product, it is a direct product of believing you have to do whatever you can to get your kid into this school … We hate those [U.S. News and World Report] rankings here, we absolutely abhor those rankings. You will always hear … college is a match, it is not a reward.”

Previous essays in The Campanile make clear that — whatever the sentiments of the editors of the newspaper — others at the school look down on those who deviate from the Ivy path.

“On college shirt day last year, a day that is intended to enable students to show pride for their post-high school plans, a student wore a Foothill College shirt with the words ‘Sorry, Mom’ written on the back. This message exemplifies the shame that many students planning on attending community college may feel due to the Paly’s culture of excessive competition. Students should not be made to feel this way about their college choice,” said one essay.

It continued, “The choice to enroll in a community college is often regarded as inferior in the broader Paly community due to a culture of intense competition. While it is rare for students attending community college to be explicitly shamed, the general attitude when one discloses that they are attending a community college is much less congratulatory than the attitude towards students who announce they will attend a more high-profile school.”

For the editors in chief, the theme of college admissions as a corrupting influence — one they addressed in killing the map — is also something they have written about previously.

Last month, as news of the scandal spread, they wrote in another editorial:

“Throughout our time at Paly, we’ve witnessed — and, admittedly, sometimes contributed to — the ugliest parts of this culture. Paly fosters a goal-oriented student mind-set, and we often allowed this mind-set to dictate our own self-worth and our view of our peers. As seniors, we have emerged from the dark cloud of the college admissions process and have witnessed firsthand the way that it erodes one’s sense of value and place,” wrote the editors, Leyton Ho, Waverly Long, Kaylie Nguyen, Ethan Nissim and Ujwal Srivastava.

They added, “Frankly, no one can be blamed for valuing the glitz and glamour of a prestigious institution or high GPA. But there’s more to being human than achievement — we think the drive for traditional measures of validation can force students to miss some of the most valuable lessons and experiences high school can offer.”

Source: Inside Higher Ed

 

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May Action Plan – By Grade

With AP exams, the SAT/ACT prep, and finals coming up, May is a busy month so the action plan is light. Juniors should be gearing up for essays in addition to finishing up testing!

Juniors:

  • Consider this process as you would a class from here on out! You’ll need to carve out time for it every week.  Starting early means you can be flexible—but this won’t be the case later this summer and once school starts.
  • Have you pinpointed two teachers to ask for letters of recommendation? Now is an excellent time to decide who to ask.
  • Some colleges have opened up their on-campus interviews. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. And optional should not be considered optional!
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.

Sophomores & Freshmen:

  • Firm up summer plans and a tutoring schedule if you plan to start prep for the SAT, ACT or Subject Tests.
  • Work on your resume!

Recommendation of the Month:

Someone recently reminded me of the power of Ted Talks. I was sent this list a while back. I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to do a quick search on TED for talks in your areas of interests. They are fascinating, and, great fodder for essays.

 

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How to Really Get to Know the Colleges on Your List

Over the years, I have found that students who take “extra steps” consistently get into their top schools…and many more.

The students we work with who engage in extended research and outreach do extremely well in the college admissions process. Maybe it is because they know the schools they are applying to in ways other students do not; maybe it is because knowing schools well helps them craft smaller, more targeted college lists; or maybe it helps that they have gone above and beyond to get to know a school and see if that school is the best fit for them and vice versa.

Since I am no longer working in admissions, I can’t say for sure. But I can say with confidence that engaging in extended research and outreach can make a substantial difference, both in your applications and outcomes. It also has one other major benefit: it means you can walk away from this process knowing you did everything you could, you pulled out all of the stops, you did not rush the process. And when you walk away feeling proud of the process, in our experience, it makes it easier to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.

Consider the following for the schools on your list. Why? Because all of the above, and, many colleges use demonstrated interest as a factor in their admissions process. When two files are side-by-side, the applicant that has the most touch points with the school will likely be deemed more interested, and that might give them an advantage during file evaluation.

Ways to engage in extended research and outreach (aka network with colleges and get to know them really well):

– Don’t forget your regional reps! They usually read your file, so keep them in the loop throughout your admissions process, from the time you visit through while you are waiting for your decision. Send them an update after campus visits, or to say “nice to meet you” after those visits or college fairs. Keep them posted on new accomplishments or awards after you submit your application. They should be your go-to person in admissions throughput the application process.

– When you receive email from colleges, open it and click through. Many schools track whether you open their emails or not and if you click through. Open them!

– Reach out to faculty in your department of interest. Faculty members are busy and so not always the most accessible, but it can’t hurt to try. Your #1 reason for applying to any school should be academics. Reaching out to individuals in your intended major is a great way to learn more about what your academic life at school X might entail. You might also want to try reaching out to a specific research center or institute of interest. If you email faculty, copy their department or program coordinator. The emails of the individuals in these roles are often available online. If you are planning a trip to campus and it is a bit short notice, reaching out to the department or program coordinator will be your best bet for an on-campus meeting. Again, these interactions and the information gained from them could be helpful when it comes time to write your essays or interest letters (see below) and will certainly serve you well as a talking point in an interview. A quick email sample (but please, make it your own!):

Dear [name],

My name is [enter name] and I’m a [year] at [high school full name]. I will be visiting [college] on [date] and I want to learn more about the [enter program or major name] while on my visit. Would it be possible to meet with you or someone else within the department (or even a current student) while I am on campus that day? If not, anyone you can connect me with via email would be excellent.

Thank you so much,

[name]
[phone #]

*Don’t forget to send thank you emails to everyone that you speak with—even if by email only.

– Make peer and local connections. Do you have friends at the schools on your list? Talk to them about their experiences, meet up with them on your visit to campus (if possible), and use them as a resource to get to know more about the school (especially about aspects you can’t glean from the website or official tours).

You can also check (via an easy Google search) to see if the college/university has a local alumni group; if so, reach out to them and ask to be connected with someone for an informal informational interview—a great option if you do not know anyone at the school that is a current student. Use this meeting as an opportunity to learn more about the school, and to demonstrate your interest in attending. Some regional groups host events and attending one that interests you (for example, a talk by a professor), if you can get an invitation, could be a great learning experience—and an excellent addition to a supplemental essay or interest letter.

– Write an interest letter (email) after you apply. This letter should contain information you were not able to present in the required application materials (resume, essay, etc.). It is a beneficial way to show a school a little extra love and reiterate your interest. Citing the contacts you established above (if you haven’t already discussed them at length in previous materials), can work well in these letters. An interest letter should be sent after you apply, and can also include any relevant updates since the time you applied, such as awards, etc. Many schools allow you to upload additional information on your “portal page” after you apply, so this letter could be uploaded there; if not, you can email it to your regional rep and CC the general admissions email. Please note: some schools explicitly state they do not welcome additional materials. Do not send interest letters to these schools.

– Take advantage of virtual tours and local college fairs/college nights. Not everyone can get to campus, and even if you can, school’s virtual tours sometimes offer perspectives in-person tours do not. You can also tour colleges from the perspective of actual students by taking tours via CampusReel.org. If a school is attending a fair near you, and you know you won’t be able to get to campus in person, go meet your rep at the fair/college night.

 

 

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Starting the Common Application

You can now roll over your Common App account from year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account, get familiar with the system, and get some of your app work completed.

Create Your Account

There is no preparation required for this step, so you can create your account as early as you’d like. All you’ll need is some basic profile information—like your name, date of birth, address and phone number. And of course, you’ll need to provide a valid email address.

 Note: Your email address will become your username and the Common App’s primary method of sending you updates and reminders, so make sure that you provide an email address that you check on a regular basis (every day).

Gather Your General Application Information

While every school has a different list of college-specific requirements, the general application information (for the Common App) will remain constant for all schools on your list.

You’ll be asked to list your activities, entrance exam scores and exam dates, parent or legal guardian and sibling information, and for some schools your high school grades and courses. Get a head start and save yourself time by collecting this information before you fill out the application.

Specific Requirements

Just like every student is unique, so is every school. We know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. No two schools will have the exact same requirements—so work to understand these requirements early on.

How? The first thing you need to do is read the Application Instructions on each school’s website. Please take the time to read the application instructions in their entirety. On the Common App, you can also check out the Requirements Grid and download the Requirements Tracker worksheet.

Add Schools to Your Dashboard

The Common App presents you with the opportunity to search from more than 700 schools (private, public, large and small), find the ones that meet your needs, and then add them to your My Colleges list—a convenient place to track the work ahead of you.

Once you log in, simply click on the College Search tab to find schools based on their name, location, deadline, or distance from your home.

Note: If you add schools to your Dashboard before the Common App refreshes for the 2019-2020 application year, any data you fill out on the school-specific pages can and most likely will be erased. If you add schools to your Dashboard after the refresh takes place, your information will be saved for the duration of the 2019-2020 application season.

 

For Common App support, join our FB page, Conquer the Common App. Check out the files section to see what an app looks like filled out. Pay special attention to how you can maximize the impact of your Activities section—a section that many students don’t take too seriously!

 

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I might be a helicopter parent if…

  • I start a conversation with, “I am not one of those helicopter parents, but…”
  • I read my child’s emails and respond to them.
  • I fill out the visit form for my kid in the admission office lobby.
  • I unintentionally enter my email when I fill out my child’s application.
  • my question during the information session begins with, “My son would like to know if…”
  • my child is only considering universities at least 2000 miles away from me.
  • my child’s Common Application lists his birthdate as 10/21/1972.
  • I would like to see the residence hall I will be staying in.
  • I rub every statue on a college campus for “good luck,” even if it’s not a tradition to do so.
  • I have been banned from contributing to College Confidential.
  • I buy a sticker from every college tour “just in case!”
  • I consider changing my child’s name to something that sounds like the college’s founder.
  • I call colleges when my student is in sixth grade to ask advice on course schedules and extracurriculars.
  • I have accidentally signed my child’s name on a document at work because it’s become a habit.
  • I have any admission office’s phone number saved in my contacts.
  • I text my child a talking point during their interview.
  • I post on Facebook, “We submitted our college applications!”
  • my child’s college essay sounds like it was written by a 45-year-old.
  • I call the admission office pretending to be my child and get their login information for the portal to find out “my” decision.
  • I create a “more important title” for a volunteer group my daughter is on so it sounds better for college applications.
  • I hand out my business cards at the college fair on behalf of my son because he is too busy and couldn’t attend.
  • I am more concerned than my child is about that “dreaded” B-.
  • I hand-write thank you notes to admission officers in obvious dad language and sign it from my son even though no 17-year-old boy writes like that.
  • I ask for advance notice of the admission decisions to “mentally prepare” my child.
  • the phrase, “This is their decision!” is immediately followed by, “But I think they really want…”
  • my child receives an admission decision from a college he didn’t know he applied to.
  • the college counselor recognizes my number…on their cell phone…on Christmas morning.
  • colleges mistakenly address all mailing flyers to me, and not my child.
  • every sentence my child says in college counseling meetings starts with “well, my dad wants me to…”
  • I spend more time on Google Docs working on my child’s college essay than my child does.
  • I have an excel file listing all the people who might write recommendations on my child’s behalf.
  • I’ve directed my child into the extracurricular activities most preferred by elite colleges since they could walk.
  • I show up uninvited to meetings my student has scheduled with their college counselor.
  • I don’t allow my student to take any ownership of their college process.
  • I ask more questions on a campus tour than my student.
  • I compare college lists/decisions at cocktail parties with other parents.
  • I buy a college sweatshirt in my size.

Did you find yourself feeling a little uneasy as you read this list? Did some of these warning signs hit a bit too close to home?

Okay, so some of these are just for fun, but many aren’t a joke. Head to Forbes to read Brennan Barnard’s full article. In it, he provides some thoughtful commentary as well as an amazing reading list, which includes one of my favorites:

Give his article and Lythcott-Haim’s book a read if you have not already!

 

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The Right Way To Choose a College

Dr. Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.” This essay is adapted from “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More than Selectivity,” a report published by Challenge Success in October.

Please read her important article!

Does the brand name of the college you attend actually matter? The best research on the question suggests that, for most students, it doesn’t.

Challenge Success, the research and advocacy group that I co-founded at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, conducted an extensive review of the academic literature on the subject. We found that a school’s selectivity (as typically measured by students’ SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA and class rank, and the school’s acceptance rate) is not a reliable predictor of outcomes, particularly when it comes to learning. As common sense would suggest, the students who study hard at college are the ones that end up learning the most, regardless of whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college. Similarly, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of over 30,000 graduates, found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. The study showed that graduates were just as likely to score high (or low) on a scale measuring their “thriving” whether they attended community colleges, regional colleges or highly selective private and public universities.

Research does suggest that there is a modest financial gain from attending a highly selective school if students are the first in their families to attend college or come from underserved communities. But the difference in financial outcomes between the low-earning and high-earning graduates of top-ranked schools is greater than the difference between students from such highly selective schools and graduates of non-selective schools, including community colleges. As Greg Ip noted in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, “The fact that smart, ambitious children who attend elite colleges also do well in life doesn’t mean the first caused the second.”

A study of over 30,000 graduates found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. Would such findings have mattered to the parents involved in the college admissions scandal that has unfolded over the past two weeks? Probably not. In a society that is hyperfocused on achievement, credentials and status, it isn’t surprising that some parents are willing to sacrifice just about anything, including their integrity, to get their child into a top-ranked school. Unfortunately, many high school students also have a “cheat or be cheated” mentality when it comes to getting the grades and test scores that they believe they need for future success. More than 80% of students at high-achieving schools cheat in one way or another, according to surveys of over 145,000 students conducted in recent years by Challenge Success.

Today’s admissions scandal should serve as a wake-up call. As a society, we need to reexamine the purpose of college and the underlying issues that lead families to be so obsessed with status or brand that they jeopardize their own children’s healthy development and well-being. In surveys conducted by my group, three-quarters of high school juniors and seniors list planning for college as a top source of stress or worry in their life, well above relationships and family issues. More and more students are reporting severe sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide as they struggle to meet the unrealistically high expectations foisted upon them. The ultimate irony is that, even when these students do end up in selective colleges, many of them continue to struggle with mental and physical health issues, and often lack the independence, resilience and sense of purpose they need to graduate and enter the workforce.

What would a better approach look like? If the name of the school they attend doesn’t make a difference for most students in the long run, what does? It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative.

Studies conducted in recent years by Gallup-Purdue also show a strong connection between certain forms of engagement in college and future job satisfaction and well-being. In particular, they found six key college experiences that correlated with how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they thrive in life after college:

  • Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
  • Working with professors who care about students personally
  • Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
  • Working on a project across several semesters
  • Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
  • Being active in extracurricular activities

And yet, as important as these various forms of engagement seem to be, relatively few college graduates say that they experienced them. While more than 60% of graduates strongly agreed that at least one professor made them excited about learning, only 27% strongly felt that they were supported by professors who cared about them, and only 22% said the same about having a specific mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. Just under a third strongly agreed that they had a meaningful internship or job or worked on a long-term project, while just a fifth were actively involved in extracurricular activities.

Given the research on what matters in college, the best advice for choosing the right one would seem to be finding a place where the student will be engaged, in class and out, by all that the college has to offer. The good news is that engaging experiences of this sort can happen at a wide variety of colleges, regardless of selectivity, size or location. And with over 4,500 accredited degree-granting colleges in the United States, students have plenty of options from which to choose.

Evaluate Colleges by their attributes
Parents can play an important role in the college search process, but they should always let the student—the one who will actually attend the school—lead the way. Here are some practical tips and conversation starters for students as they navigate the college admissions process.

Keep the ultimate purpose of college in mind.

The college years are short relative to the rest of your life. How do you want to spend your time while you are there? Are you hoping to learn new skills in a particular area? Meet role models, mentors and new friends? Be exposed to ideas, people and places you otherwise would not have access to? What kind of “return” do you want on your investment, in terms not only of future finances and career options but also of personal growth and future well-being and satisfaction?

It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. For some students, the desired return on investment may be strictly monetary. If that is the case, you may want to consider preprofessional schools such as maritime academies, pharmaceutical schools or other schools with specialized business and entrepreneurship programs. These colleges rank highest in lists that measure value added to expected income, and many of them accept all or nearly all of their applicants. If your goal in attending college is simply to maximize your income, attending one of these less expensive programs at a lesser-known school may be worth considering.

Ask the right questions.

What are you most excited about learning, doing and experiencing in college? Consider academic factors such as access to cutting-edge researchers, ways to apply your learning through long-term projects or opportunities to be involved in graduate-level work, and which subject areas interest you most. Make sure that the offerings and core requirements at the colleges you are considering match these interests. What types of places or settings do you imagine you will most and least enjoy? Consider both location and geography. Do you want to be close to home or far away? Do you want to be in a big city or rural area? Do you want to experience cold weather or a sunny locale? How about a big campus or small? Dorm life or off-campus housing? What interests outside of class do you want to cultivate? Since students seem to thrive when they are more involved in campus activities, consider the range of activities offered at the college and where you see yourself fitting in, whether it is sports, arts, service activities, student leadership opportunities or the myriad clubs offered on most campuses.

Are there specific resources, supports or types of classes that would help you to be fully engaged? Check out mental health services, the support system for students with learning differences and community supports for first-generation students and students of color. What kind of advising and career counseling systems are offered? And don’t forget to look closely at financial aid and other scholarship opportunities.

Who do you want to hang out with and get to know? What social scene do you want? An active Greek system? A rah-rah sports scene? A mellow coffeehouse vibe? International students and study-abroad programs? Students who share your religious affiliation or values?

Do your research.

The internet can be your friend as you peruse different college websites, take virtual tours or visit nearby campuses to learn about the type of school you want. Look for schools that match the answers to the questions above. Sit in on a class or two if you can. Talk to current students or recent alumni. Don’t necessarily base your decision on your parents’ experiences or misconceptions, especially because colleges change and evolve over the years.

Enter college with an engagement mindset.

This is critical. Consider how you might make the most out of your time in college by investing in relationships, trying new things, studying hard, reaching out to adults and peers, building empathy and taking appropriate risks. Be sure you know how to balance a checkbook, do your own laundry and handle the inevitable setbacks and stresses that will occur.

Is an Elite College Worth It? Maybe Not

Challenge Success works with K-12 schools across the country to increase student well-being and engagement with learning. Our survey results show that almost half of students are just “doing school,” that is, playing the game in order to get ahead. That’s no way to prepare for a satisfying life of learning and work.

The message that we try to impart is clear: Parents and students must work on a different attitude toward the classroom long before they start thinking about which college to attend. It’s never too early to foster the skills needed for a healthy and meaningful college experience.

After a talk I recently gave in New York, a father approached me to say that, a year earlier, his daughter was choosing between an Ivy League school and a well-known regional college that was ranked much lower. He took her to visit both schools, and on the way home from the Ivy, she told him that she was going to turn it down. She liked the people and programs at the other school and thought she would be happier there.

He was furious, he told me, and didn’t speak to her during the entire ride home and most of the following week. Who turns down the Ivy League? “But boy was I wrong,” he said. “She is now a freshman at [the regional school] and has never been happier. I thought I knew what was best for her, but she was the smart one who knew where she would thrive.”

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