The following excerpt from an article, which was written by Marty O’Connell, the Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives, provides common sense advice to everyone navigating the college admissions process- especially in today’s ultra-selective climate.  It provides validation for Northcoast Educational Consulting’s College Planning Curriculum, which begins with a student’s self -assessment rather than the immediate formation of a college list.  Enjoy Marty’s sage advice:

If I made a bumper sticker for how to approach the college search process it would read: College: it’s about the Journey, Not the Destination. Too often, students will race through their secondary school years, compiling tallies of courses and AP credits completed, joining activities to lengthen their resume, taking and retaking SAT and ACT tests and always keeping one eye on the prize of the college destination. These same students arrive at college only to repeat this process with a goal of admission to graduate and professional school or the perfect first job.

We live in a goal-focused society where becoming a mindful, life-long learner, instead of an educational trophy hunter is not an easily achieved state of mind. If I had the magic wand for education, my wish would be that students might approach the college search, as well as their day-to-day learning, with a greater appreciation for the long view: it is not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey to get there!

Too often the college search begins with a flawed approach by using ranking lists that tout the entering class statistics, rather than focusing on what happens during the four years students are enrolled. The late author Loren Pope, of Looking Beyond the Ivy Leagueand Colleges That Change Lives, often known as the “Ralph Nader” of college admissions, said that choosing colleges based on the entering statistics of the freshmen class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the ER—it’s the treatment that really matters; in the case of college, it’s what happens between the first year and graduation. Researching colleges based on student outcomes will highlight many colleges that outperform the Ivies and Name Brands but don’t have the benefit of name recognition. The research from the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium on the Undergraduate Origins of Ph.Ds finds lesser known colleges listed in the top ten in various categories of producers of future Ph.Ds, often ahead of the usual suspects.

If you had to choose a spouse or partner for life, would you like to use a publication ranking them by income, IQ scores, and reputation as reported by others who have never met the person? As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars; the college search requires a more thoughtful, personal and time consuming approach. It can’t be reduced to rankings with numerical values when it requires starting with who the individual student is and why they are going to college, their needs and desires, and learning styles and interests. This self inventory is the start for finding colleges that “fit” for the individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the “Top 20” on the USNWR and other rankings lists have any value. These ranking guides sell big, but their value (or lack of it) in the college search process can certainly be diminished if students, parents and counselors go after fit, rather than name recognition. Students and their anxious, hovering parents would do well to add some lesser-known colleges to their search process, where the chance for gaining admission is greater and the outcomes the same or better than those colleges admitting a fraction of applicants.

NSSE: The National Survey of Student Engagement is a wonderful resource for gathering information about college outcomes and provides a list of the right questions to ask during the college search. Most importantly, how quickly students engage in the academic and co-curricular life of the campus will make the difference, not only in their early success as an undergraduate, but in on-time degree completion and in reaching their goals beyond college.

As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars; the college search requires a more thoughtful, personal and time consuming approach.“This was the most challenging year I’ve ever experienced in my career. I hope it gets better soon, but it doesn’t seem like that will happen.” Last year, I heard this statement or something similar from college admission colleagues all over the country, on both sides of the desk; from those in the profession for five years to people who are nearing retirement. On the college side, the stress of yielding a class and hitting both the enrollment and net tuition goals, while at the same time keeping an eye on rankings, is taking a toll on colleagues who entered the profession as “admission counselors” and feel that counseling role slipping away. Similarly high school colleagues are challenged with being judged by their students’ college choices and scores in AP classes, used for ranking guides, on the school profile and on “Walls of Fame” displayed outside their college counseling office. The downturn in the economy, coupled with a demographic decline of high school graduates in many regions of the country, and layered on top, unrelenting questions about the value vs. cost of a college education, has created a perfect storm of stress that isn’t being held at bay by yoga, running, libations or the dwindling vacation get-away time.

Perhaps the Irish poet Yeats had a better idea for that bumper sticker with this quote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” All of us in college counseling can agree on that sentiment and maybe it can serve as a reminder of why we began our journey in this profession and why we continue to help students toward their destinations.



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2 Responses to What is truly important in the college experience?

  1. Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! “This is obviously one great post.

    • Barbara Pasalis says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Check back frequently for more articles and information on the college admission process.

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