Hunt for college begins again
By Jay Mathews
By Jay Mathews
The college search season is over for many applicants who plan to begin their studies in the fall. Letters have been opened. Decisions have been made.
But there's always next year, which is already this year for those trying to get into the best college. How can students and parents reduce the stress?
Admissions directors, guidance counselors and other admissions veterans have many suggestions. Here are 10:
1. Getting into an Ivy League school is like winning at roulette: It is a game of chance that has little to do with brains or talent, so stop worrying about it.
Yale University accepted 8.6 percent of its applicants this year, an Ivy League low. Selective college admissions officers admit that they reject or wait-list many students who are just as good as the ones they accept. If the school is short on engineering majors or Idaho residents or piccolo players, applicants with those characteristics will be accepted. The rest will have to go elsewhere.
If you want to play that game, college admissions advisers say, go ahead. But, said Bethesda, Md.-based educational consultant Diane Epstein, "if denied admission, it is highly unlikely that there is anything wrong with you."
2. Don't fret about picking the wrong school. If you find it doesn't suit you, you can always transfer.
About 20 percent of students who graduate from a four-year college actually began at a different four-year college.
3. Treat campus visits like trips to a theme park.
You're probably on vacation anyway. Why not act like it? Don't try to write down everything. Don't interrogate the professors. Enjoy the scenery, listen to the guide and have lunch at the student union. After you know which schools have accepted you, you can make a more careful appraisal.
4. You need only two good extracurricular activities.
Colleges want to see you follow your dreams and your passions, not show off how many clubs you joined. Pick two things you really like, and give them the time they deserve. If singing makes you happy, join the school choir and enter some talent shows.
5. Freaked out by the SAT? Take the ACT.
The other college entrance test, based in Iowa City and popular in the Midwest, is accepted by nearly all the same colleges and has one advantage for nervous test-takers: If you don't like your score on an ACT test, you don't have to show it to colleges. The SAT rule is that if you send any score to a college, you have to send them all. Most colleges promise to count only your best scores, but that rule makes some students uncomfortable.
6. Still bothered by those tests? Apply to a college that doesn't require them.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) has a list of hundreds of colleges and universities where the SAT or ACT is optional. Twenty-three of the top 101 liberal-arts colleges ranked by U.S. News & World Report often don't use the tests. Many of those schools, FairTest spokesman Robert Schaeffer said, "think the testing requirement excludes talented kids who don't do well on multiple-choice standardized tests, particularly kids of color and those from low-income or first-generation college-going families. Their message is: You are more than your score."
7. Have fun with your essay.
A little humor, particularly if it is self-deprecating, often works. Don't overdo it, and keep it light. Something like: "As I stepped to the plate, my teammates said they were praying the pitcher would hit me with the ball. There was no other way, they said, that I could get on base." Or: "I began to read the poem that I thought was so like e.e. cummings, but I could tell my teacher thought I had copied it off a cereal box."
8. Get off the resume-building treadmill and do something normal.
William Fitzsimmons, Harvard University dean of admissions and financial aid, advises "summer-school warriors" — high school students who feel every vacation must be academically significant — to try an ordinary job instead, and maybe even have fun.
"I have met people who are 35 years old and look like burned-out survivors of some kind of achievement boot camp," Fitzsimmons said. "They said they never had a chance to step back and ask themselves if that was what they really wanted."
A summer job might even help some applications. Bruce Jones, an assistant admissions director for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., said he would love to read an essay about "what they've learned about themselves and others as a supermarket checker. After one reading season, I am sick and tired of what (someone) learned about diversity on the class trip to build a shack for poor Peruvians."
9. Look for a place that fits you, and remember that many colleges can meet your needs.
Mary Ann Willis, college counselor at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala., said: "Stop fueling the hype by believing there is a perfect college for any given field or student. If anyone told you that shirts were only available in one-size-fits-all and three colors, H (heliotrope), Y (yellow) and P (purple), you'd be incensed and find a way to see what options were really out there."
While students are surveying a range of choices, Jones advises parents to "avoid conversations with peers whose superstar sons and daughters are applying to all the 'best' places."
10. Remember: It is your character, not the name of a college, that is likely to bring success.
A study by researchers Stacey Berg Dale and Alan Krueger found that character traits, such as persistence, humor and warmth, appeared to have more influence on incomes 20 years later than the selectivity of the colleges people attend.
Rafe Esquith, an awardwinning fifth-grade teacher in inner-city Los Angeles who often helps his former students apply to college, said a principal once asked him how so many of his kids got into big-name schools. Esquith said he was just as happy when his students were admitted to California state schools. "Why do they have to go to the Ivy League?" he asked.
"Because those schools are the best," the principal said.
Responded Esquith: "Then why are you coming to a UCLA guy for all this advice?"