3 Rules for Acing the College Selection Process

If you’re the parents of a high-school junior, right about now your family is gearing up for the trip to crazy town that is the modern college-selection process. Determining the right set of colleges to apply to when senior year rolls around can be harrowing if you follow the crowd and fixate on securing a spot at one of the elite schools that only a teeny-tiny fraction of applicants achieve.

As an alternative, I offer the Dana Hirt Promise: You can help your child navigate (and master) the process with relative ease – and distance yourself from its nuttier aspects – by following three key rules:

Rule #1. Understand that crafting the perfect resume guarantees nothing…except potentially an overwhelmed, burned out kid.

Rule #2. Empower your teen to take the reins.

Rule #3. Make “fit” – not college ranking -- the focus of the selection process.

Bonus Advice: Consider this recommendation you may find surprising.

Rule #1 is self-explanatory – and I implore you to take it to heart. Why? Because much of the time, the college admissions process is an exceedingly subjective and arbitrary one. Idiosyncratic and institution-specific, there’s just no way to game the system. This is not to say that achievement of all kinds in high school is not important. Naturally good grades, club involvement, leadership activities and all the rest are great! They just don’t guarantee acceptance letters.

Rule #2 is a win-win-win. First, empowering teens to take the reins of the college investigation and selection process gives them the opportunity to work to the limit of their developmental ability on a long-term, multi-faceted endeavor.

The second win is this: The more students have a voice and vote in determining the schools they apply to (and ultimately attend), the better their chance of success. In my personal and professional experience, students who had a true say in their college selection had a higher tolerance for the tough times that inevitably surface during a college career.

Lastly, parents win by keeping your family off the roller-coaster. Your role, strategically, is to help your teen develop a structure for the project and offer guardrails when he veers off course.

Here’s the most important rule of all: Leverage your experience and expertise by helping everyone keep their eyes on the prospective student’s temperament, interest and abilities – the essentials for Rule #3’s all-important idea – “FIT.”

Considering there are approximately 3,000+ 4-year colleges and universities in the United States alone, finding the right schools to apply to is a daunting task.

But not if you and your teen put ‘fit’ at the top of your agenda.

Parents and teens alike need to ignore the plethora of lists that rank a university’s cache and desirability and focus on FIT. Here are the most fundamental and personal criteria:

Personality and interests. Challenge your high schooler to write down the key aspects of their personality and interests. After outlining their temperament, interests, and wants and needs, the things that matter in this category are setting (suburban, rural or city-based); geography (distance / ease of travel home); social scene (love Greek life or hate it?); and culture (religious school, traditional institution, liberal/conservative). Campus visits are hugely instructive when it comes to finding a school that “fits.” I remember my eldest son was on one campus for just 10 minutes before he knew it wasn’t for him. The school he eventually went to? He felt “at home” immediately. Empower kids to trust their instincts and ‘listen’ to how they feel on campus.

Make campus visits more economical by viewing “like” campuses closer to home. For example, a large state university campus looks and feels a lot like all the others (flora and weather aside) – certainly enough alike to give your teen a sense of what to expect. Likewise with a technical college. Better to save your traveling dollars for exceptional schools, as well as those your child has a strong interest in.

Academic interests. When kids know what degree they’re after, then the smartest option is to pick the schools with the best academic department in that field that he or she can get into – even if the school’s overall ranking is lower. If your teen is unsure of a major, consider Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of “relative deprivation,” which he describes in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. From a college admissions standpoint, the theory purports that students who end up in the top 10% of a lesser-tier school fare much better than those who end up at the bottom 30% of a top-tier school they just squeaked into.

Money. Finances are always a part of the equation. That’s why I advocate looking far beyond the top 100 schools to the expansive range of options that will better fit your teen – and likely, be more affordable. Ultimately, your teen’s choices of where to apply will come down to the best combination of fit and finances.

A Few Additional Tips

I googled “college selection process” and immediately received about 10 million hits. Who’s got that kind of time? In addition to you and your teen asking a trusted few who’ve been through the process for their preferred resources and favorite websites, here are a few of mine:

· Given the ratio of students to guidance counselor at public high schools, many parents pop for an independent consultant to aid the search

· Many parents, myself included, consider College Confidential an invaluable resource. Check out their parents’ forum.

· Education First’s Explore America website provides a thorough overview of the college visit

· The Fiske Guide to Colleges is also a must-read resource

And finally, the promised…

Bonus Advice

Consider the value of a gap year. I outline the many benefits of a gap year and how it can be important for a teen’s development in my blog post on HuffPost, but if you’re time-stretched, here are the highlights:

· It will help your child become more independent, resilient and capable of weathering and thriving during high times and low

· Most colleges will accept deferrals for a gap year – and will even defer scholarships

· The benefits of expanding one’s world view are immeasurable

It may be a tad bumpy, but enjoy this ride. Trust me – your nest will be empty before long.

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