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College Planning 101

The Search Process Demystified

by Victoria Kidd - Assistant Director of Advancement Communications 

Summer 2006

We've read the stories and seen the statistics. Acquiring a higher education is not only becoming more expensive, but also more competitive. As a result, the college search process has become so complex it can make our heads spin. On top of the complexity, competitiveness and cost are reports that only 54 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had their degrees six years later. According to some sources, one in six students drops out without completing a degree.

These stark realities only add to the pressure placed on high school students and their families to choose the right school. While you yourself may be a few years (or decades) removed from the college search process, you likely have a child, grandchild, friend, neighbor, niece or nephew who is – or soon will be – planning for college. Here are some important questions those prospective students, and their families, should ask themselves.

What are my goals and what type of college best meet them?

The possibilities are endless and no two students will answer this question the same way. But the first step in finding the right college is a family discussion about what considerations are important to them. Certainly, financial factors will be part of this discussion. However, as Robert Herr '90, director of admissions at Seton Hall University, points out, “very few students pay the total cost of attendance at a college.” Because of this, experts warn against making a decision based solely on cost. (See accompanying story on college costs.)

“While it is a good idea to have an affordable ‘back up' school,” says Chris Markle '84, director of admissions at Susquehanna University, “this place should be one the student can imagine attending. No matter what the cost, it isn't a bargain if the student does not want to attend that college.”

Therefore, cost considerations should be discussed in more general terms at this stage of the process. According to Jeff Morrison, of College Solutions, an independent college search consulting firm near Portland, Maine, the more important question is what kind of school a student will be happy attending. For some, it may be a technical school or associate degree program, but for most, college is at least a four-year commitment.

Unfortunately, Morrison says many of the families focused on four-year higher education approach the search process from the prospective of a tradesman. “We all want our kids to go to four-year schools, but we have an associate degree mentality. College is not designed to prepare you for your first job. That is what trade schools or associate degrees do. College is designed to prepare you for life,” Morrison says, noting that almost 90 percent of all students change their major.

Instead of steering a teenager towards a particular professional track, Morrison recommends a broad-based undergraduate education. “How can we ask 15- and 16-year olds to decide what they want to do with their lives? It's no wonder one in six students drop out of school,” he says.

That's not to say that a student's major of interest is not an important consideration. Schools with the major that appeals to a student will invariably move to the top of their search list. But according to Morrison, “we're making a monumental mistake by asking kids what they want to do with the rest of their lives.” He says a more important question for parents to ask themselves is: “Where would my son or daughter be happiest and are their criteria reasonable?”

“We need to listen to what our kids say, but we also need to question some things and separate reality from perception,” Morrison says. For instance, many kids say they want to go to a large school near a city, based solely on social considerations. “They confuse setting with activity level,” he says.

And while social opportunities are an important consideration, Morrison points out that most students have richer learning experiences in small class environments and often don't have the resources to spend on the attractions found in urban areas. “You can't pick out Club Med,” Morrison says.

When and how should I start the college search process?

It depends on where you see the process beginning. According to some folks, like Robert Dunn III '70, who worked in the New Jersey education system for the past 36 years, 15 of which he served as a guidance counselor at Cedar Grove High School, the process begins almost immediately upon entering high school. By this he means that, as early as their freshman year, students should be thinking about the courses they need to complete in order to be competitive in the application process.

Because college admission has become so competitive, Dunn says, many students – often at the behest of their parents – are enrolling in more Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which makes for a more desirable admissions profile. “Sophomore year is the key year, but a lot of students need to start planning as freshmen. Honors courses and AP courses for admissions have to be on track from the freshman year,” Dunn says.

Sean Lewis '05, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at George Washington University, agrees that college admissions need to be in the back of students' minds all through high school. “The fall of senior year is a little too late to be kicking it into gear,” he says. He suggests that students sit down with their parents and guidance counselors by the spring of their junior year to discuss the college search process.

However, Herr says he sees more students beginning their preliminary research of colleges in the sophomore year. To that end, Herr recommends attending a local or regional college fair to gather information about a variety of schools. “If you already know you are interested in a school, go to their Web site and see what they have to offer. It's a great way to gather more information,” he says.

Students should not discount their school guidance counselors either, according to Herr. “Guidance counselors can provide some good insight into various schools,” he says. 

How do I narrow the pool of colleges so that I'm left with a manageable number to consider?

Once a family has fine-tuned a set of goals, our experts say they should use every available resource, from Web sites to word-of-mouth, to help them construct a short list of schools for consideration. That being said, some higher education professionals, including Lewis, are reluctant to recommend such commonly used sources as the U.S. News college guide and Princeton Review.

“Despite their appeal of objectively ranking schools, it is the stories behind the numbers that really matter. As such, do look at them, but view them as parameters and not as educational measuring sticks,” Lewis says.

By far, the most crucial step in the college search process is the campus visit, according to our experts. “Campus visits are very important, and you should begin visiting colleges before applying so that you can figure out what you want in a school,” Markle says.

Herr agrees, calling the campus visit “the most important and influential factor in determining the right school.” He suggests students begin visiting schools during their junior year to obtain some answers to basic questions about the size, location and type of school that might best fit their needs.

One way of doing this is by taking advantage of the many learning opportunities colleges offer high-school students. For example, Susquehanna's Writers' Institute and Leadership Institute for Entrepreneurship (LIFE) offer week-long summer workshops for high-school students interested in creative writing and business. The university also hosts five different Action Days, during which prospective students can spend time in faculty-led sessions on the arts, science, writing, business or liberal arts. Other opportunities include a special spring open house specifically designed for sophomores and juniors just starting the college search.

Another, perhaps more traditional way of visiting a school is to arrange for a campus tour through the school's admissions office. Arranging an interview at that time is also a good idea. However, as Lewis points out, hectic family schedules and the cost of travel makes visiting a slew of schools difficult. He recommends that families trim the search down to the top five to seven schools (others say six to eight) on their interest list and visit them before applying – a point Markle also stressed.

“Many schools keep track of when and how often a student visits,” says Lewis, “and given the competitive nature of college admissions, some schools can be reluctant to extend an offer of admission to a student who has demonstrated little interest in the school. As such, visiting (and if you have the opportunity, interviewing) can be a great way to get a leg up on the competition.”

How do I construct a compelling application? 

According to Dunn, the short answer is “set the bar higher for yourself.” He encourages students to take the “high subjects” and really reach for their full potential. “If you can take honors classes, that's good. Colleges would rather see kids get a B in an honors class than an A in a regular class,” Dunn says.

Lewis says students also need to remember that grades and GPA are two very different things. “Given the huge variation in grading scales, competitiveness and subjectibility of grading scales, a 4.0 in one school may be equivalent to a 3.4 in another. As a result, most admissions offices focus on course selection first (for example, how many honors or AP courses a student has taken) and then look at the actual earned grade in that class, as opposed to just looking to cumulative GPA and making a decision from there,” Lewis says.

What about SATs, you ask. While still important and not something to be downplayed, Lewis says, the significance of SAT scores is increasingly giving way to the value of high school course selection and grades. Some schools, including Susquehanna, have even become SAT optional.

“Our Write Option policy allows applicants to submit two graded writing samples instead of standardized test scores,” explains Markle, adding that the National Center for Fair and Open Testing lists more than 730 colleges as being SAT optional.

In addition to strong academic standing, our experts say sports participation, community service and other extracurricular activities can also play an important role in the selection process. “All these activities are very important to Susquehanna and many other selective colleges. We want to enroll a diverse student body with a wide range of interests and talents. Knowing more about what an applicant does beyond the classroom will help the admission committee to differentiate among candidates who may have similar academic records,” Markle says.

However, when it comes to extracurricular activities, Lewis contends that quality is far more important than quantity. “Most schools would rather see students who have committed to two or three activities and really excelled in them over a student who is involved in a dozen activities that entail going to a one-hour meeting every seven weeks,” he says. To really stand out, Lewis recommends taking on leadership roles in your activities and competing for awards and recognition for your work.

Summing up the selection process, Herr says: “Most schools are looking at the whole student as both an academic and a leader. Grades, courses, writing, recommendations, activities and, of course, SATs all play a role in the decision-making process. It's best to contact each college's admissions office to find out what their review process focuses on.”

I've been accepted. What additional research is going to be important to help figure out whether this is the right place for me?

“When making the final decision, there are many things to consider. Sure, cost and aid are at the top of that list. But the right school can provide an incredible educational atmosphere, numerous opportunities and a comfortable living environment, all of which are things to consider since this is where you'll call home for the next four years,” says Herr.

So what constitutes an “incredible educational atmosphere?” We asked George Kuh, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and Chancellor's Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University Bloomington.

Put simply, Kuh says, a strong undergraduate foundation produces graduates who can think clearly, write coherently and draw informed conclusions about the information presented to them.

“In a world where information comes at us so fast and changes so quickly, the Net Generation needs to acquire a capacity for discernment. That is, the ability to evaluate the quality of information and separate the fluff from good material,” Kuh explains.

This generation also needs to possess more intercultural knowledge. “They need to know and understand how to work with people from different backgrounds,” Kuh says.

In these regards, Kuh says: “You can't separate liberal arts and professional school anymore.” Aspects of both are important in producing well-rounded citizens.

Evidence of this can be seen in graduate school admissions. According to Morrison, students at 78 percent of the top graduate schools, law schools and medical schools come from colleges of 3,000 or less, most of which are liberal arts schools “broader in their scope and less vocational.”

So how do we tell whether a school is providing the strong undergraduate foundation Kuh describes? In higher education circles, the level of “academic rigor” is frequently discussed. However, Kuh says: “Academic rigor does not mean a lot of work. It means enough challenging work that stretches students by setting high expectations for performance.”

Study abroad, internships, student/faculty research and capstone, or senior year, experiences, are all examples of how students may be “stretched” in the learning process. “The number of faculty with terminal degrees and the number of microscopes in the labs don't tell you anything about the quality of the experience. What really matters is how students use these resources,” Kuh says.
Is the kind of learning experiences a school offers consistent with its values and missions? How often does the school take stock of what they're doing? Is there an intentional design of courses? Do they connect to the whole of the intended learning experience? These are the types of questions Kuh recommends prospective families explore.

In short, he says, ask, “What evidence does this institution have that I will be encouraged and supported to do these things?”

If this question were posed to Linda McMillin, provost and dean of faculty at Susquehanna University, she may well point to the deliberate emphasis the institution places on learning goals and curriculum assessment. “There has been a lot of work on both the department level and the university level to determine what it is we want students to learn. In turn, the curriculum committee spent most of last year examining how the core curriculum maps to these learning goals,” she says.

While these are important considerations, often times the decision on where to attend college comes down to “the right fit” – that intuitive feeling of belonging at one institution over another. “The real challenge,” Lewis says, “is finding a school where you can get a great overall experience, which is something that transcends just looking at the student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate and endowment, to the much broader questions of, ‘What type of student does well here, and how would I fit into that?”

“I truly believe that finding the right school is about finding the right relationship, one where both the school and the student have much to offer each other.”




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