A LESSON PLAN FOR THE COLLEGE-BOUND
Ask Cornelia Hahn about her college search, and she recalls a frenetic period during the fall of her high school senior year when she was wading through an ocean of brochures and ''writing three essays in a week.'' Hahn's whirlwind search worked out for the best--she's now a freshman biochemistry and business major in the honors program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But it left her with some sage advice for students and parents facing the college quest: ''Don't procrastinate. Too much of your future depends on it.''
Indeed, unless you're considering only your local state university or the institution where four generations of your forebears earned sheepskins, selecting the right college is more complicated and time-consuming than many families expect. The looming expense, which can exceed $80,000 at even a modest private school, only heightens the stress. That's why it's best to start early, when students and parents can ease into the search and have plenty of time to set realistic academic and financial goals.
From the start of your child's first year in high school, think about her transcript. Make sure she pursues a college-prep schedule, including at least two years of science and two years of a foreign language. And make sure she begins early with math and science. Someone who starts late will never make it to honors or advanced-placement courses that top colleges look for.
TAKING STOCK. Sophomore year is the time for serious self-assessment. The more a student understands his interests, weaknesses, and strengths, the better the chances of picking a college that matches his needs. The high school guidance department can conduct skill-assessment exercises that give insight into career fields and college majors that suit a student's interests. Also check out the careers section of the Princeton Review Web site (www.review.com). Its online version of the Birkman Career Style Summary divines a student's work style and interests from answers to 24 questions.
Increasingly, high schools are encouraging sophomores to become familiar with college admissions testing by signing up early for the PSAT. This preliminary version of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) also doubles as the qualifying test in the National Merit scholarship competition. The PSAT is normally taken in October of the junior year.
Whenever your child takes the PSAT, be sure she checks the box to let her name and interest profile be given to colleges seeking students of similar interests. That should start a trickle of college brochures to your mailbox. Augment that with phone, mail, or E-mail requests for information to colleges that sound interesting. Or visit school Web sites.
Remember, at this point, you're going for breadth, so try for a mix of large and small schools from around the country. Stretch a bit, even toward schools that aren't a natural fit. If your child finds a school particularly interesting, flesh out the reasons for the attraction. It will help focus the search.
While brochures and high school college fairs can provide lots of facts, a campus visit is the best way to take a school's pulse. Most colleges hold tours and information meetings when school is in session. The info session is your chance to get the skinny on admissions requirements and programs, plus have questions answered by staff. Tours, often led by students, offer a candid assessment of campus life, school spirit, and class difficulty.
But don't just judge a school by its affable tour guides. Hang out at the library and observe students. ''I tried to eavesdrop on their conversations, to see whether they were talking about nuclear physics or parties they'd been to over the weekend,'' says Kathleen Flynn, a Mamaroneck (N.Y.) High School senior who visited Pomona College and Stanford.
DEBATABLE WORTH. By now, you should be keeping a list of colleges to which your child may want to apply. Collect detailed data on each school to see how they compare. There are lots of measures, many of debatable worth. Rugg's Recommendations on the Colleges in most libraries rates majors at various schools based on student surveys. Magazines such as U.S. News & World Report grade schools on overall academics, while Sports Illustrated highlights top schools for would-be jocks. Princeton Review even rates the best colleges for partying.
Also, check that your student fits into a college's locale. If your son is uncomfortable around crowds, a busy urban campus like Columbia University or the University of Pittsburgh won't be a good match. Likewise, the bucolic pleasures of a Bennington or a St. Olaf are lost on teens anxious to spread their wings. ''When I stayed with a sophomore at Princeton, it seemed there wasn't too much to do in the town,'' says Ricky Thompson, a senior at Pasadena Polytechnic High in California. Thompson was also turned off by the environs of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which he considered ''a pretty ugly city.''
Next, look for intellectual compatibility. A student who enjoys debates about the recurring allusions to political repression in the first movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony might thrive at a scholars' haven like the University of Chicago. That same student could be miserable at a jock school where dorm discourse revolves more around B-Ball than the Big Bang.
To further winnow down your list, examine how your child compares to the average student accepted at each of the remaining schools. A college usually will provide a profile of its previous year's freshman class, including average SAT scores, grade-point average, and details on geographic and racial diversity.
A student might still be a viable candidate with a below-average profile if she is an underrepresented minority or athlete, the child of an alumnus, or an applicant to a less rigorous major. At the University of Illinois' highly rated College of Engineering, an applicant with a 1300 SAT score would usually still have to be in the top 10% of his high school class. However, if that same student applied to the College of Fine and Applied Arts as an urban planning major, he'd only need a class rank in the top 30%.
Use a school's acceptance rate as a reality check on your child's chances. Some Ivys take less than 20% of applicants, so an average student with an undistinguished extracurricular history may be wasting her application fee chasing a Harvard. But it's not just Ivys or the Seven Sisters that are highly selective: Elite public universities like those in Virginia, North Carolina, and California accept only about one in three applicants--and the competition is stiffer for out-of-staters. That's why savvy shoppers target top-tier schools that seem to have higher acceptance rates, such as Carnegie Mellon and the University of Wisconsin.
When it's time to mail applications, choose a range of schools. Include at least two you're almost certain will accept your child, one she could attend with no financial aid, and at least two more-selective schools where she seems to have a solid chance. Also include at least one ''stretch'' school, where she may not fit the profile but feels she could blossom. Targeting five to seven schools should give most students the right mix.
Just make sure each school on the list is considered a winner. ''Every college you apply to should be one you'd be happy to attend,'' advises Seppy Basili, director of pre-college programs at Kaplan Educational Centers. ''Then there's no disappointment if you're accepted by both Stanford and Berkeley but discover that you can't afford Stanford.'' Indeed, when smart planning yields choices like that, the college search is a truly win-win situation.
Updated Oct. 30, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.