Students shouldn't limit choices of college

Come the spring, many high school juniors will begin to rev up their college search. Some are new to the process; others, old hands who have been prodded and coached for years. ”How-to” college guides proliferate on a myriad of topics, presenting themselves as the ultimate authority on college admissions. Glossy seductive advertisements stuff mailboxes, presenting utopian versions of campuses and students; photographs right out of central casting.

These glossy public relations materials cost millions upon millions of dollars, surely adding to exorbitant tuition costs. The not-for-profit megalith College Board is a primary source of information about prospective students. Addresses and information are accumulated when students dutifully register for the SAT by requesting information from colleges. The ensuing deluge of mailings often mislead the uninitiated. First-time applicants often think receiving a brochure means a particular school is eager to accept them. The colleges, however, may be looking to raise the numbers in their applicant pool them in order to appear more competitive and creating high selectivity ratings in magazines such U.S. News and World Report.

The junior year is notoriously stressful as the college-bound continue to work very hard, participate in the requisite smattering of student-sponsored activities and achieve high scores on required tests. Yet they are anxious about being accepted to college, especially to the right college.

What constitutes the right college? Some set their sights — on sight unseen — on a very few colleges or fixate on the nine members of the Ivy League. Knowing only reputation, important questions are left unanswered, and the differences between schools go unnoticed. It often falls to college counselors to paint a more realistic picture of a particular student’s options, a beleaguering process. Perhaps they may suggest to those who have a clear career goals to seek out places noted for excellence in specific departments: the University of Missouri for journalism, Indiana for music and Wisconsin for Asian studies.

Smaller schools, likewise, have much to offer the goal-directed student: Susquehanna for music, Alfred for engineering, Quinnipiac for health sciences and Ursinus for pre-medical and law programs. This rational approach may lack the supposed glamour in the halls of Ivy, yet it may, ultimately, provide for the most satisfying and successful college career.

Each year, so many applicants are disappointed when they fixate on being admitted to a specific college and limit their options accordingly. Let’s speculate what type of student is granted entry to the Ivy League. Large envelopes with an admitted stamp most likely land in the homes of children of active alumni, outstanding athletes, extraordinary intellects, underrepresented minorities and scions of the rich and famous.

Outside of these students, from my observations, discussions with admissions representatives and other counselors, it is self-starters that are more likely to be accepted. These applicants have interests sparked internally that go beyond the obvious, have taken competitive classes and achieved outstanding grades and scores on standardized tests.

Intrinsic motivation and drive is difficult to manufacture, and such applicants stand out. One example of this kind of self-motivated student recently accepted to Ivy League colleges is a girl that became involved in Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, while in high school. Active in her local district, she soon assumed leadership positions in the statewide organization and participated in conferences in the United States and abroad.

Her interest was genuine, and in applying to college, one criterion was the school has an active branch of Hillel. The transition she made to college was seamless, and the organizational skills and commitment she developed during high school was what set this applicant apart. Another young lady began studying the violin as a child and, while attending high school, decided to organize a music camp for inner-city children. She solicited donations of instruments for the children, hired other counselors and taught. The camp continues and has grown since she departed, although every summer for the past three years she has returned to teach.

Then there was a student, who never made the honor society, was not Mr. Popularity and worked long hours through out high school to supplement his family’s income. His application was devoid of extracurricular activities due to a lack of time. Yet this student was a voracious reader and writer who had compiled a beautiful sample of his work to submit along with his application. How he found time to write while also bearing some financial responsibility for his family could not fail to impress.

Of course, many exceptions exist. Thus, it is so important to stress at the very beginning of the college search how many very fine options exist. Try not to eliminate a school because someone might not have heard of it. Careful research, visits to campus, contacting local representatives and e-mailing professors who teach classes of interest guide successful selections. A professor an applicant corresponded with even told the admissions office the particular student should be admitted. Besides, a professor who takes time out of a hectic schedule to correspond with a potential applicant is definitely a good sign.

So many students, once fixated on a school, particular the Ivies, are then disappointed. The next year, having accepted admission at a school that wanted them, they come back to visit and express how happy they are. Several years ago, I worked with a girl who wanted to attend Princeton, a goal since childhood. She had excellent grades, outstanding achievements outside of school and was a talented artist. Her application was thoughtful, recommendations outstanding — an altogether strong candidate. She was deferred and eventually rejected. Ultimately, this girl chose to attend a small college where she was one of a few honors students. Attention was showered on her, and she grew to love her school. A happy ending awaits the majority of applicants who broaden their horizons.