I’ve been asked many times for help in getting friends’ kids into a good college, given my long involvement with Cornell as an active alumnus, and my work as a Trustee of the SUNY system and as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. I’ll offer these disclaimers at the start: I’ve never been a college admissions officer nor do I have inside information to offer; I also have never had children so haven’t gone through the college selection process with my kids. However, I have talked to a number of college admissions officers and have worked with many who have been fellow Trustees of the College Board. Given that exposure, I have some observations and advice to share.
First, it’s really important to understand that “a good college” shouldn’t be defined in terms of parent’s or grandparent’s generations ideas of prestige. The objective should always be: Will the student (I’ll call him/her “Stu”) get a good education there? Will Stu learn the important things needed to in order to start out well in life after school?
When you focus on the learning, you get into the more important questions: What does Stu want to study? What kind of learner is Stu? Is Stu highly self-motivated and a well-disciplined learner or not so much so? If the former, the resources of a large university, with its many choices of majors, minors, courses and activities, can provide a wonderfully broadening experience. If the latter, Stu may get lost and easily distracted in a big university; Stu may do better in a smaller setting with more personal and caring attention by the faculty and staff. Ultimately, chances for success are better when the student is happy with the campus he/she’s at. The big objective shouldn’t be getting INTO a college, it should be on getting OUT! Focus on success through college, not just getting in the door!
The traditional college experience of those fortunate to go away for a residential 4-year undergraduate experience from age 18 or so is about “formative education” (as Jim Duderstadt, former president of the Univ. of Michigan has said). It’s about growing, but not just the mind. When I went to Michigan at age 16, I knew I was pretty smart, independent, and hard working, but I needed to grow up socially and mature too. So I needed a campus where I could be learn through my extra-curricular activities as well as my studies. (Of course, my parents thought I spent too much time in extra-curricular activities, but that’s another story.) Amongst the Ivy, I’ve long said if you just want to study, go to Harvard or M.I.T. (technically, not an Ivy, but it’s elite); if you need to study AND be involved in other activities, go to Cornell. Cornell looks at activities as well as grades and admits students who excel in both. However, formative education is about stretching and growing, so just because Stu hasn’t been involved in extra-curricular activities in high school doesn’t mean Stu should pick a school where he/she’d just be studying all the time. College should be about educating the whole person and helping ensure development into a well-rounded individual.
So how to determine if Stu will be happy at a campus? If Stu’s school’s college counsellor really knows his/her students, listen to his/her advice. Campus visits — especially weekend ones where Stu can live with current students — seem to be very helpful. Talk to friends and students from Stu’s school who are currently there or have recently graduated. Some of the chatty college guides that give the straight poop from current students (like the College Prowler), might be helpful. (I met the fellow who started College Prowler when he was a student — a nice guy who saw a market need and looked to fill it!)
Getting to know a campus and making the match in Stu’s own mind will be helpful in the admissions process. Highly competitive schools such as Cornell are now getting 10 applications for every available place they have. The admissions folk at Cornell tell me that for every student they admit, there are 4 others who are virtually indistinguishable from the one admitted in terms of grades, class ranking, leadership activities, SAT scores, etc. One difference is that the admitted applicants have taken the trouble to learn more about Cornell and have demonstrated they really believe they’ll be happy there. At that level (after screening out those who just wouldn’t do well at their campus), admissions officers are really looking to make the good match between what a student may be looking for and is willing to work hard for, and what their campus has to offer. They want students to succeed, but they don’t know the applicants well; when the applicants have done their research and determined they will really be happy at that campus, they make the admissions officers’ jobs easier.
I’ve also been asked for advice on what kind of summer job Stu should take to improve his/her chance of getting into a good college. I look at the summer jobs as part of the formative education process. What would Stu like to learn more about? If Stu is fortunate enough that he/she doesn’t need the job mainly to save money (though learning about hard work and money is always an important lesson), that increases Stu’s options. Taking a job — even as an unpaid intern — related to Stu’s area of academic interest would be good. Working in a field in which Stu thinks he/she may have interest as a career would help him/her see the reality vs. the romance (I’m thinking of kids who think they’d like to help people as a doctor, only to learn much later that they can’t stand the sight of blood or being around a lot of sick people!). Broadening Stu’s perspectives by working in areas he/she’s less familiar with — for example, volunteer work with people in poverty — can be life changing. The breadth of choice in summer jobs is probably as large as the breadth of choice in colleges; alas, it’s one I have far less expertise with. Summer jobs might have some impact on college admissions, but I would think that the impact on the student of the experience is of far greater importance.
4/9/09: Just read an interesting blog with other helpful thoughts: http://www.educatednation.com/2009/04/09/college-admissions-panels-using-their-powers-for-good/