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How to Conduct a Great College Search: Dare to Make Decisions

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

Last Updated on November 10, 2020 by Real College Matters

23 April 2019

(Earlier post, revised for the Class of 2020 and their mentors)

“If you all would make some decisions before you apply, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

The year was 2014. The speaker was an admissions officer at a highly selective university. By “this mess,” she meant the admissions frenzy as she saw it then. Ah, 2014—the halcyon days when Stanford admitted 5% of its hopefuls. When UCLA received fewer than 100,000 applications. But I digress.

The point is, the officer’s words were at first disarming but have gradually burned their way into my consciousness forever. She was absolutely correct, and she still is.

The importance of a student’s agency cannot be overstated as the college list is finalized.

“He’s just going to apply to a bunch of colleges, and we’ll see what happens” seems like a sensible, cool-heads-will-prevail approach. When we adopt that posture, though, we set our student up only to react to the process rather than being a proactive driver of it.

We have to stop reacting and start reflecting.

Students believe they are mitigating the risk of rejection—or perhaps of getting the best scholarship—-by skipping past the important and countercultural tasks of reflection, objective clarification, and decision-making. They tend to apply to a long and undifferentiated list of colleges. And let’s give them a break: at age 18, who has the wisdom to know that “more” is not always better? But it’s a rare student who ought to apply to more than a handful of colleges. Every application carries its own bundle of costs, in terms of time, material and emotion.

After a period of discussion and consideration, the students in my practice prioritize the five or six qualities they most value in a college. Within the parameters of parental domain—cost and possibly distance—the student and I work together, ultimately to compile the list of colleges to which they will apply. Yes, we consider affordability and admissibility. But we do not skimp on the “why,” the reasons justifying each college’s place on the short list.

Is “everybody else” limiting their number of college applications to a handful? Absolutely not. That’s why we abide in a world where almost 700K applications were submitted to the University of California system and $243M was charged in application fees just to those students who were rejected during the 2016-17 cycle.*

But your student can take control of the college search and make a short list which is grounded in the reality of objectives, admissibility, and affordability. A student who can articulate why every college on the list makes good sense personally is a student who is singularly prepared for the application process.

*Figure calculated from IPEDs data for academic year 2016-17.

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