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1: The Search Begins (or, What to Do When You Don't Have a Clue)
(or, What to Do When You Don't Have a Clue)
The college advising office in your high school can be a pretty intimidating place, especially on your first visit. An eerie silence pervades the room. As you cross the threshold and survey the scene, your eye catches the twelfth-grade boy who used to flick spitballs into your hair from the back of the bus when you were in middle school. He's still wearing the same flea-bitten Nirvana T-shirt, but now his nose is buried in a college guide as he scribbles feverishly in a spiral notebook. On the other side of the room, the girl from down the street with the doting mother and the 4.0 grade point average is staring purposefully into a computer screen, clacking the keyboard every few seconds as she calls up a new file. Suddenly, you get a sinking feeling that she and all the other kids in the room know exactly what they're doing. You're the only one who doesn't have a clue. Of course, you could always ask Mrs. Stonebreaker for help. That is, if you don't mind the familiar glasses-on-the-end-of-the-nose routine and the icy stare that says you've just asked the stupidest question of her thirty-four-year career. You want to beat a hasty retreat and come back later-much later.
It's no wonder that beginning college applicants often get the strong urge to run away and hide. Talk about an intimidating situation! Many students have barely gotten comfortable in high school before the college search looms ominously on the horizon. Rumblings about "selective colleges" and "the job market" begin to pop up in dinner conversations and on guidance office bulletin boards. Friends who used to be social butterflies suddenly begin to hit the books and talk about "getting the grades for college." Relatives you haven't seen in years marvel about how much you've grown-and then want to know all about your career plans.
As if those storm clouds weren't threatening enough, there is the little matter of finding one college out of about twenty-two hundred four-year schools in the nation. They come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins or Ben & Jerry's ever dreamed of making-large, small, middle-sized, rural, urban, and a thousand permutations. If colleges were ice cream, a student could sample four or five flavors and make a choice. Unfortunately, college applicants must get it right the first time or go through the same agony again when they transfer. How can you figure out what sort of college is right for you?
One place you won't find the answer is your mailbox, which, if you have blackened a certain oval on your PSAT exam, has become a direct pipeline to the propaganda factories of colleges coast to coast. Though the deluge of college mail can be highly entertaining, every school from Harvard to Ho Hum U. advertises a similar bill of goods. If you were confused before, try figuring out the difference between two colleges by surfing their websites or reading the glossy brochures. The scenes portrayed there are always the same: eager hordes of racially diverse undergraduates thinking deep thoughts or frolicking in a perpetual spring against a backdrop of white columns and grassy lawns. Let's see now...College X offers "academic excellence" and "rich diversity." On the other hand, College Y offers "rich diversity" and "academic excellence." Still can't tell the difference?
Meanwhile, all the adults in your life (and a few you've never seen before) offer their two cents about where you should go to school. From your grandfather, you get the latest updates on colleges and the job market from the Wall Street Journal. Mom says that you can choose any school you want-as long as you stay within fifty miles of home. Even your great uncle Pete, whom you barely know, takes you under his wing and says he has the perfect college for you based on his wonderful experience in the early 1960s.
If you're confused by conflicting advice, if you're put off by college propaganda, if you're eager to get started but don't know where to begin, this book is your ticket to a successful college search. We'll take you on a guided tour of the entire process: how to find the right college for you, how to get in, and how to pay for it. Along the way, we'll help you focus your thoughts and figure out what you're really looking for. We'll tell you how to cut through the college search nonsense and then give you insider sketches of hundreds of colleges in dozens of categories. We'll reveal the secrets of the highly selective admissions game and how you can play it to win. And finally, we'll delve into the shadowy world of college financial aid-how to get your hands on it and how your need for it may affect your chances for admission.
Before we begin plotting strategy, let's step back for a minute and remind ourselves of what the college search is all about. Amid all the anxiety about getting in, it helps to keep the big picture in mind.
That may seem like a stupid question, but there is more to the answer than meets the eye. Practicality says that people go to college to get a good job after graduation and there is plenty of research to show that college is a sound economic investment. On average, college graduates can expect to earn more than twice as much as those with a high school diploma over a working lifetime, and the gap is widening.
There are two schools of thought about how to get the most out of your college experience. Many educators stress the value of exposure to a broad spectrum of human knowledge. The phrase "liberal arts education" connotes learning that "liberates" the mind to think new thoughts. A liberal arts education is an introduction to the great events and ideas of the past, as well as the most recent discoveries of today. It can include history, art, astronomy, zoology, and everything in between. It doesn't prepare you for any particular job, but instead equips you with the basic skills-reading, writing, thinking-to meet any challenge that comes down the pike. In other words, it means "learning to learn."
The alternative to a liberal arts education is to use college to prepare for a particular career. This approach places less emphasis on a well-rounded general education than the acquisition of knowledge related to a particular job or subset of jobs. Some careers, such as engineering and architecture, require concentrated training beginning in the freshman year that leaves little time for smelling the roses. Facing the uncertainties of the job market, nervous undergraduates often feel strong pressure to "major in something practical."
Nervous undergraduates often feel strong pressure to "major in something practical."
Nearly as important as what you study in the classroom will be the things you do outside of class. In recent years, the possibilities have multiplied dramatically. Study abroad once meant a handful of students doing a semester in Europe. Today, opportunities are available to the distant corners of the globe, during the academic year and over vacation breaks. Internships, which will allow you to sample the world of work while in college, are also more plentiful than ever before. Traditional extracurriculars such as writing for the newspaper or participating in community service projects also provide outlets for hands-on learning.
In addition to the many opportunities it provides, college attendance also provides a high school graduate with the first public measure of his or her academic and personal success. Admission to a "name" college is like getting an A in growing up and comes with the presumption of future success to follow. The ego of anyone-especially an eighteen-year-old-is fragile. Who wouldn't want a stamp of approval from one of the world's most respected institutions?
With all the practical reasons to attend, let us not forget that college is also a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can test your limits, try new things, and make some incredibly stupid mistakes-all without the responsibility of having to make a living. The friendships you form will last a lifetime and so, too, will the memories. Decades from now, when you're rocking away the retirement years on the front porch, college will probably rank high on the list of things that made life worth living.
Taking a Year Off
More and more of today's brightest students are deciding that they want to go to college-but not right away. From hiking in the Alps to working at the local Apple store, year-off experiences give students a chance to see the world, make some money, and recharge their batteries before plunging ahead with four more years of school. The possibilities are endless; just make sure you have a well-thought-out plan that will expand your horizons. If you're contemplating a year off, we recommend that you go through the college admissions process as a high school senior and then ask to defer enrollment at the college of your choice. Most will be happy to oblige.
There is no perfect way to categorize everything a college experience can give you, but these are the basics: (1) a liberal arts education, (2) career training, (3) a prestigious affiliation, and (4) enduring friendships and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which of them seems most important to you? Are there other benefits that you think are just as crucial? Don't feel pressure to answer right away because your choice will probably dictate the shape of your college search. Most applicants will be looking for a combination of some or all, but the process of examining priorities is still useful. If a liberal arts education ranks high, you'll definitely want to look at institutions where teaching is a priority. Those interested in career training should focus less on institution-wide characteristics than on the programs in their field of interest. Interest in a prestigious affiliation means playing the highly selective admissions game. If friendships and experiences are a high priority, you may be the kind of person who marches to his or her own drummer or at least the type who is less interested in high-powered academics than a healthy balance between work and play.
Only you can decide what is important in a college, but we would like to help you avoid two major pitfalls.
First, many applicants mistakenly think that prestige automatically equals academic quality. Call it the brand-name syndrome: the idea that if you haven't heard of a college, it can't be any good. Many big-name schools do deliver educational excellence, but others are overcrowded, overrated, and coasting on reputation. There are scores of comparatively little-known colleges, most of them small, that offer an education every bit as good.
But you're probably thinking, Don't all the best jobs go to Ivy League graduates? Not by a long shot. They get their share, but so do graduates of countless other schools that aren't household names. In a landmark study of colleges with the highest percentage of graduates earning a PhD degree, the top finisher wasn't Harvard, but Harvey Mudd College. Harvard placed thirty-seventh, behind liberal arts colleges such as Eckerd, Wabash, and Kalamazoo, which continue to produce excellent graduates with much less fanfare.