I was gratified to read this headline recently in the New York Times’ “The Choice” Blog, which focuses on the college admission process: “The Best College For You May Be One You Have Not Considered.”
Students and parents often start their college search with preconceived notions about what college will be best for them. “Harvard would be a great place for Shelley,” parents frequently say to me. Or Duke, or Penn. Or Washington University in St. Louis. This is not the best way to begin a college search.
That’s because most highly selective colleges are “reach” schools for pretty much anyone. I visited Stanford University last week, which received 36,000 applications last year for a class of about 1,700 students. Of the 36,000 applicants, about 1,000 of them are “legacy” applicants whose parents or grandparents attended Stanford, and those applicants are accepted at a significantly higher rate. So if you crunch a few numbers, you’ll realize that Stanford accepts about 4% of the students who apply in the regular decision pool. Even if you have an unweighted GPA of 4.0 and a perfect SAT score (which many, many applicants to highly selective colleges do), your chances are very low. Harvard rejects 80% of the valedictorians who apply each year.
As an independent college counselor, I always advise both students and parents to think less about the college’s name or reputation and think more about where the student will really fit in. That means taking the time to think about what the student might want to explore in college, considering potential career options, and searching for colleges that offer all of the academic majors in which the student may be interested. Students – I’ve said this before: it’s OK not to know what your major will be before applying, but it’s helpful to get a general feel for what areas you like and where your academic strengths are, as well as the academic environment in which you will be able to succeed.
Stanford was actually the last college I visited last week of 14. You've probably heard of a few, others are lesser-known. You can read my reviews and see some photos I took here.
Here’s another fabulous resource for lesser-known but highly effective colleges: The Colleges That Change Lives. This group of 40 colleges, mostly smaller, mostly liberal arts, all of them outside of California, travels as a collective, and they’ll be visiting Los Angeles next week. You can read more about them, and download the invitation to their two events next week, here.
College is about expanding beyond the limitations of high school curriculum, making new (and sometimes lifelong) friends, and preparing for the future. Harvard helps students do that very well; but so do hundreds of other colleges. Keep an open mind as you begin your college search. It’s not about the name at the top of the diploma, but rather, the name in the middle of it.