College Applicants: What Matters Is Not What You Think!

We are currently well into the college application season for high school seniors and their parents. Early decision applications for many schools are soon due or were recently due. General applications are being prepared and submitted. And there is much anxiety/tension/panic throughout the land of competitive high schools. Have I done enough extra-curricular activities, community service trips, taken enough AP classes and developed enough award winning apps to gain admission to a top school?

We have convinced ourselves that if one does not attend an elite college, life will be a dismal failure. Private and other competitive high schools have an incentive to promote this idea. Part of their sales approach is based on the claim that if you attend, you have a better chance to get into the elite colleges. Colleges also enjoy the prestige and increase in applications that flow from high ranking in the U.S. News and World Report and application competition frenzy. This is good for business. Unfortunately it is not necessarily so good for the young people applying to colleges.

Does where you go make a difference?

Many of us assume that attending an elite college is the path to fame and fortune (or at least fortune). It turns out that there is definitely economic value in attending and completing college. But the surprise is that for most young people your earning power will not be impacted by where you go. In fact, economists Stacy Dale and Alan Kruger have reported that for students with comparable SAT scores, there is no earning advantage to attending an elite school unless you are a minority or first generation in your family to attend college.

So what does matter?

Twice each year, the American College Health Association surveys large groups of college students. Among the items in the survey is a question about problems that negatively impact academic performance. The most commonly reported items are stress, sleep difficulties, anxiety, depression and cold, flu, and sore throats. Students report that major roadblocks to their success at school are issues in their emotional life or behavior. How you feel and what sorts of life choices you make while in school will have more impact on your school success than you imagined.

This suggests that finding schools that are a "good fit" for you -- places where you will feel comfortable and supported and places that are providing the right setting and supports for you are -- is a highly important consideration.

At the Jed Foundation's Transition Year website we provide some guidance about what makes for a good fit.

Here are a few things to consider:

• Size of school: Would you be more comfortable in a smaller more intimate setting or a bigger more bustling kind of place?

• Location: How far from home will be comfortable for you? Are you happier with a lot of activity and variety that might be provided by an urban campus or do you like a more contained and quiet place to live and learn?

• School vibe: Some schools are more structured and supportive and some leave you more to your own devices. Which will work better for you?

• Living situation: will you be most comfortable living at home, dorm or your own apartment? Check whether the schools you are interested in will fit these needs.

• Extracurricular and support services: Find out what kind of activities, clubs, social life and support services the schools in which you are interested have. Do they meet your personal, cultural, religious, emotional and health needs?

Stop worrying about getting into that special elite school. Take a deep breath. It will not make as much difference as you think. There are plenty of schools at which you will receive an excellent and well-rounded education. And if you work hard and learn a lot, this will help you on the way to a successful career and life. But, as you start to consider where you will go to school, think about how well you will "fit" with the school. This will make more difference than you imagine in keeping you on track for later success in school and in life!

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