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Don’t Get Lost in the Numbers: The Art of Discovering the “Best” College

Sandra Moore

by Sandra M. Moore, M.A. (New York)

These days, parents seem more anxious than ever about the college search and application process. Many spend more time investigating options online and keeping up with the latest buzz in the college admission world than their kids. They can quote six-year graduation and first-job-out-of-college employment rates; describe the benefits of majoring in specific disciplines; and tell you where futurist gurus believe the “hot” careers will be found. In their quest to cut through all of the noise and confusion out there, they do their best to use logic and statistics to help their children “get it right.”

With this kind of numbers-driven analysis (much of which is appropriate and can be useful), is it any wonder that parents fall into the trap of becoming transfixed by the college rankings race, relying on US News and Forbes (among other magazines and guides) to ascertain which schools are leading the pack. They then often ask me to validate this data by confirming for them which colleges or universities are truly “best.”

As an independent educational consultant (IEC) who focuses on self-assessment as an essential first-step in identifying appropriate matches for my students, I remind these parents that what matters most is which schools seem to offer their children what they’re looking for: places that will provide the “best-fit.” And I reiterate the old saw that, ultimately, it’s what students make of their experiences in college, and not simply which college they attend, that will have the greatest impact on them—personally and professionally—in the long run.

Like their moms and dads, some of my students also get hung up on this whole “right” vs. “wrong” conundrum. Naturally, when we first begin our work together, they appear nervous and unsure of themselves. Asked to reflect upon their strengths and interests, learning style and college preferences (while I, of course, also note their “stats” and other pertinent data), kids typically are less than forthcoming. After all, most have never been asked to think and talk about this stuff openly (and with a relative stranger, to boot). Yet even much later in their journeys, as I urge them to tweak their final lists of schools, based on their first-hand impressions and experiences of those places, a few still ask, “But which colleges should I apply to?”

Unfortunately, try as we might to boil down this complex and multi-faceted process into a black-and-white proposition—to analyze every angle and use the wealth of information at our disposal to make thoughtful, informed decisions—it’s not as neat and tidy as we might want it to be. On one hand, with the Obama administration thankfully requiring greater transparency in how colleges communicate (including the way they list costs and enable consumers to calculate net prices), families are better able to compare apples to apples. And IECs like me, armed with expertise, patience and compassion, do our best to guide students and their parents through all of this, keeping kids’ well being foremost in our minds and actions.

With the May 1 National Candidates’ Reply Date around the corner, it’s essential for high school seniors to weigh carefully the pros and cons of each institution to which they’ve been admitted. And for juniors just beginning their search, keeping an open mind will expand their options. In the end, it really comes down to listening to one’s heart and relying on one’s intuition. Perhaps our society puts too much emphasis on “authorities” when the “right” answer to questions—like “Which college is best?”—can only, in truth, be determined by having confidence in our ability to think—and feel—for ourselves.

One Response to Don’t Get Lost in the Numbers: The Art of Discovering the “Best” College

  1. Joan Casey says:

    Thanks for you thoughtful and compassionate post Sandra. Parents get criticized but there is a great deal of anxiety about the future and that explains many of the reactions we see. I really relate to your points about the challenges (and rewards) of helping students reflect on themselves. Although this is hard for them, I believe it serves them well in the long run. Thank you!

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