Read an Excerpt
The Insider's Guide to the Colleges
By Staff of the Yale Daily News
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 The Yale Daily News Publishing Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Applying to college can seem as intimidating as the thickness of this book, but neither should be a chore. In the spring of your sophomore year of high school your Aunt Doris, whom you have not seen in seven years, pinches your cheek and asks you where you are going to college. How the heck should I know? you think to yourself. That fall, your mom tells you that the girl down the street with the 4.0 grade point average is taking the SAT prep course for the fifth time to see if she can get a perfect score and win thousands in scholarship money. You reply that you are late for school. You keep ducking the subject, but the hints come with increasing regularity. Not only has dinnertime become your family's "let's talk about Lauren's college options" hour, but friends at school are already beginning to leaf through college catalogs. Soon you find the guidance counselor's office crowded with your wide-eyed peers, and it's clear they aren't asking for love advice. Panicking, you decide to make an appointment with the counselor yourself.
When you first talk to your counselor, preferably in the early part of your junior year, you may have just begun to feel comfortable in high school, let alone prepared to think about college. The entire prospect seems far away, but choosing the right school for you takes a good amount of thought and organization — and a visit to your counselor is a solid start. You may even be wondering if college is the path you want to take after high school. And you're not alone. A good number of people choose to take a year or two off to work or travel before pursuing a college education.
One important resource in making a decision about any post-graduation plans is your counselor. College counselors have a wealth of information and experience from which to draw, and they can help you lay out a plan for whatever direction you wish to take. If you decide that college is your next step, you will have a lot of options. Although many schools are surveyed in this book, we have not included professional schools or community colleges, all of which also offer a wide variety of opportunities. With research of your own and the aid of your counselor, you should be able to find a school that will give you what you're looking for.
In your hunt for the best college, it is wise to do a little exploring of your own before sitting down with your counselor. Counselors can be invaluable advisors and confidants throughout the college admissions process, but sometimes counselors inadvertently limit your search by only recommending noncompetitive schools, or, conversely, by assuring you that you'll get into whichever school you want. A few may even try to dissuade you from applying to colleges that you are seriously considering. These cases aren't common, but they do happen. Regardless of your counselor's perspective, it is best if you already have an idea of what you are looking for, as it will help both you and your advisor sort out all the options. You can refer back to these initial goals as you learn more. In the end, always follow your instincts.
As you begin to wade through the piles of brochures, ask yourself questions. What factors about a school make a difference to you? What do you want in a college? A strong science department? A Californian landscape? A small student body? A great social life? Although each college is a mix of different features, it is wise to place your academic needs first. Check out the general academic quality of the school, as well as what kind of programs they offer. Please note: since many students change their majors repeatedly before finally settling down, it's a good idea to look for schools with programs in a number of areas that interest you.
Of course, it's impossible to think of all the angles from which you should approach your college search. You can't predict what your interests will be three or four years from now, or what things will prove most important to you at the college you attend. After all, those realizations are a big part of what the college experience is all about. But by taking a hard look at yourself now, and proceeding thoughtfully, you can be confident that you are investigating the right colleges for the right reasons.
As you begin the search, schools will start to seek you out as well. In the early winter of your junior year, you'll receive your PSAT scores, and unless you request otherwise, your mailbox will soon become inundated with letters from colleges around the country. The College Search Service of the College Board provides these schools with the names and addresses of students who show promise, and the schools crank out thousands of form letters to send, often to students who they feel are underrepresented in their student population.
While sorting through these masses of glossy brochures, you'll probably notice that most of them contain lofty quotes and pictures of a diverse, frolicking student body. One of the best ways to find out if these ideals are actually truths is to visit the college. But before that, you can verify some of what you read by comparing it to nationally published articles and statistics. You will probably find the colleges that most interest you through your own research, and the majority of these schools wait for you to contact them before they send information. In that case, create a form letter that briefly expresses your interest in the college and requests materials. You'll get your name on their mailing lists and they'll appreciate the fact that you took the initiative.
Throughout this process, make sure to listen to those who know you well and often have sound advice to share — namely, your parents and elder siblings. Besides having some ideas of schools you might enjoy attending, your parents also have great insight into how your education can and will be financed. If you come to an early understanding with your family about prospective colleges and financial concerns, things will move much more smoothly down the road. But be warned — the college search can be one of the most trying times in any parent-child relationship, and some parents become more or less involved in the process than students want. The best advice we can give is to remember that calm, patient discussions are a better tactic than yelling matches.
When consulting others about your college search, it is helpful to keep a few things in mind. Every piece of advice you receive will be a reflection of someone's own life experiences, and it is likely to be highly subjective. Most adults will suggest schools located in regions they know or colleges they have visited or attended themselves. Also, opinions are often based on stereotypes that can be false, outdated, or just misleading. Still, the more people you talk to, the better perspective you will gain on the colleges you are considering. Once you have a few outside ideas, this book can give you some inside information. If you like what you have heard about a particular school, follow up with some research and find out if it's still a place that calls to you.
As you approach the time when your final college list must be made, you will probably have visited college fairs and attended various college nights. Real-life representatives from the schools are always good to meet. Talking to current college students is an even more important step, as is visiting the schools that make it to your last list. During these encounters, ask the questions that are on your mind. Be critical and observant. When it's time for the final leg of the college selection process, you'll be calm and satisfied if you know you've really looked hard into yourself and all your options.
Whether your list of schools has been set for months or fluctuates on a daily basis, college visits are a great way to narrow down your choices and prioritize your list of options. Try to plan campus visits so you'll be finished by the fall of your senior year, especially if you are considering early application programs. Additionally, aim to see as many schools that interest you as possible — there's no better way to get a feel for where you'd like to spend the next four years of your life.
When you visit a campus, try to keep in mind why you are there. You have probably already seen the college viewbook with glossy pictures of green lawns and diverse groups of students in seminar-size classes. Now is the time to find out what the campus is really like. Is the student population truly that diverse? Do people really gather and play Frisbee on plush green lawns? What do the dorms actually look like? And most importantly, do you feel comfortable there?
If you are visiting a campus for an interview, make sure you schedule one in advance. Making the decision not to interview on campus may be a good one, however. While some schools require an on-campus interview, some insiders recommend that you request an alumni interview instead. Alumni interviews tend to be more convenient and less grueling than on-campus interviews. In any case, make sure you check a school's policy regarding interviews before you arrive, and schedule your visit accordingly.
While some prefer to visit colleges over summer vacation, we think the best time to visit is during the academic year, when regular classes are in session. During the summer months very few students are on campus, so it will be much more difficult to get a feel for the student culture and vibrancy (or lack thereof). Times of unusually high stress also will not give you a good idea of what ordinary life is like. For this reason, you'll also want to avoid exam periods and vacations. During the academic year, your questions about the campus are much more likely to be answered. You'll get a feel for the type of people at the school, and you'll get an idea of what it is like to be a student living on campus. It's important to get a good sense of what your daily life will be like if you end up attending the school.
Before you look at any college, take a little time to prepare. Perhaps you will want to come up with some kind of system to evaluate the schools you will visit. Putting together a list of characteristics that are important to you will make it easier to compare one school to the next, whether they be academics, the size of the campus, or the surrounding area's vibrancy and atmosphere. Make sure you jot down some notes on the schools during and after your trips. Although colleges may seem easy to differentiate at the time, your impressions of each may blur together when you are back at home, sitting in front of 10 seemingly identical applications.
An overnight stay with undergraduates can provide you with a more inside look at campus life. Most admissions offices have students on call who are happy to show you around campus, take you to some classes and parties, and let you crash in their dorms. If you have friends there, they are good resources as well. Either way, staying with students will help you see what an undergraduate's academic and social life is really like. One student said, "I found that it didn't matter much if I stayed over or not, as long as I got to talk to students. But if you do stay over, Thursday or Friday night is the best time." Sometimes it is hard to connect with students during a single day when everybody is rushing around to classes. Try to spend a night late in the week when students will have more time for you and the nightlife will be more vibrant. It is always possible that you will end up with hosts that are difficult to relate to or socially withdrawn. Don't let a bad hosting experience completely dictate your feelings about the college — just do everything you can to get out into the student body and explore what the school has to offer.
Keep in mind that college life doesn't consist entirely of classes. Sample the food, which is, after all, a necessity of life. Check out the dorms. Take the campus tour. Although you are sure to be inundated with obscure facts about the college that may not interest you, it can be useful to have a knowledgeable guide to show you the buildings themselves and the campus as a whole. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask. Tour guides are often students, and are a great resource for any information you want about the school.
Should you bring your parents along? Maybe. Some students prefer to leave them at home. Although parents don't mean any harm, they can sometimes get in the way. Your discomfort at having them around when you're trying to get along with new students may cloud your opinion of a school. However, most students do bring along at least one family member. If you go this route, don't completely discount the advice or opinions they may have about the school. Parents can be great resources to bounce ideas off of, particularly regarding the pros and cons of the various colleges you have seen. You might want to take the campus tour with them, and then break away to explore the campus on your own and talk with students one-on-one. When you enter college your parents will not be there with you, so it's a good idea to get a feel for what that will actually be like.
Most importantly, keep in mind your sense of the campus atmosphere. How does it feel to walk across the main quad? Does the mood seem intellectual or laid-back? Do T-shirts read "Earth Day Every Day" or "Coed Naked Beer Games"? Look for postings of events; some campuses are alive and vibrant while others seem pretty dead. Check your comfort level. Imagine yourself on the campus for the next four years and see how that makes you feel. Focus on these characteristics while you are on campus — you can read about the distribution requirements when you get back home. Most of all, enjoy yourself! The campus visit is an exciting peek into a world that will soon be your own.
Just about every college applicant dreads the interview. It can be the most nerve-wracking part of the college application process. But relax — despite the horror stories you might have heard, the interview will rarely make or break your application. If you are a strong candidate, don't be overly self-assured; if your application makes you look like a hermit, be lively and personable. Usually the interview can only help you, and at some schools it is nothing more than informational. "I was constantly surprised at how many questions they let me ask," one applicant reported.
Consider the interview your chance to highlight the best parts of your application and explain the weaker parts without being whiny or making excuses. Are your SAT scores on the low side? Does your extracurricular section seem a little thin? An interview gives you the opportunity to call attention to your successes in classes despite your scores, or explain that of the three clubs you listed, you founded two and were president of the third.
There are a few keys to a successful interview.
1. The first and most important is to stand out from the crowd. Keep in mind that the interviewer probably sees half a dozen or more students every day, month after month. If you can make your interviewer laugh, interest him or her in something unusual you have done, or somehow spice up the same old questions and answers, you have had a great interview. Don't just say that you were the president of something; be able to back up your titles with interesting and genuine stories. On the other hand, don't go overboard — shocking your interviewer with spring break stories, for example. That will most likely work against you.
2. Do not try to be something you are not. Tell the truth and give the interviewer a feel for who you really are — your passions, your strengths and your challenges. By doing so, you will be more relaxed and confident. Even if you feel that the "real you" isn't that interesting or amazing, take time to reflect on your high school experience — the stories that surface in your mind may just surprise you.
3. A few days before the actual interview, think about some of the questions you might be asked. Some admissions officers begin every interview by asking, "Why do you want to go to this school, and why should we let you?" You should not have memorized speeches for every answer, but try not to get caught off guard. Make sure you really know why you want to attend this college. Even if you are not sure, think of a few plausible reasons and be prepared to give them. Students often make the mistake of giving a canned answer, which is okay since most answers are similar, but admissions officers look to admit students who want to take advantage of all that is available at their school. Your answer must include the three essential elements of a good reply: your interests, whether academic or extracurricular; what you believe the school will provide; and how and why you are excited about the opportunity to take advantage of them. Other common questions include those about your most important activities, what you did with your summers, and what vision you may have for your future.
Excerpted from The Insider's Guide to the Colleges by Staff of the Yale Daily News. Copyright © 2009 The Yale Daily News Publishing Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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