George Lucas Educational Foundation
College Readiness

Choosing a College: From Stressful Myths to Good Matches

Instead of aiming for big-name colleges, families should focus on the schools more likely to give students skills and experiences that are relevant to their future.
September 25, 2015
photo of a student in a mortarboard

Author's note: Please consider this a docu-drama! The student is fictitious, but he represents students all across this country, and all of the information is factual.

My story opens with a scene from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a book and film that my friends from high school and I all really liked.

Greg, the high school senior main character, is speaking with his parents about college admissions.

His mom says, "I was going through your stuff, and I saw you haven't even opened your college directory! So, please, have a look."

Greg: "Mom. Don't go through my stuff."

Greg's dad: "We discussed it, and she gets to go through your stuff."

Mom: "Just have a look! It's fun! It's like a menu for your future! What are you in the mood for? Could I interest you in Penn State? Pepperdine? Pomona? Ooh -- Princeton?"

Greg: "I'm not getting into Princeton!"

Mom (annoyed): "Well, not with that attitude."

Greg (rising to leave): "Mom. Is that it?"

This scene really hit home with me and my friends.

We're all freaked out about picking a college -- except our parents are freaked out more. I don't think we're going about it the right way, and I've heard a lot of stories supporting that. My teacher even read some books about how kids and parents pick schools, and those books say we're doing it wrong.

Just like in the movie, what our parents want and fear gets to be more important than what's best for us. I'm finding that one big problem is the beliefs about the colleges themselves. Why should Greg apply to Princeton? I think the problem is that we students and our families just don't do the right research for making the right decision.

Antidote to Mania

Here's one myth that we buy into:

The best path to a good career is through a prestigious college or university, and this should be the primary consideration in choosing a college.

I really believed that until my teacher told me about Frank Bruni's book Where You'll Go is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. OK, I was too busy to read the whole book, but as a short cut, I read Bruni's great New York Times op ed piece summarizing what he thinks.

Bruni documents how many parents and schools have turned college admissions into a damaging process of test preparation, tutors, and varied rankings. He talks about a mistaken, destructive belief among parents and students: students’ futures and worth are determined by which schools say yes and which say no -- and that's so wrong. This has been my life for the past year, and I need a break! I feel the way Greg felt in the movie.

Bruni gives us students and our parents a new perspective on the awful competition and a way out of the anxiety that it creates for all of us.

Excellent Sheep

One of my teachers gave me this book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz, and I suggest that you check it out. It's based on a lot of research and really skewers elite colleges, their brainy-but-kind-of-lost students, pushy parents, and admissions mayhem. As a professor at Yale, Deresiewicz became aware that his students, some of the nation's brightest, were missing out on the big questions: how to think critically and creatively, and how to find a sense of purpose. He says that elite colleges are turning out conformists without a compass. He also says that it's essential for college be a time for self-discovery, when we students can establish our own values and measures of success to forge our own paths. He exposes where the system is broken and offers clear solutions on how to fix it.

Bottom line: the goal of getting into an elite Ivy League college may be a mistaken goal.

Like Greg, I so don't want to be one of those students!

Raising an Adult

Finally, my parents have been reading How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims. They told me it describes how parental over-involvement and pressure about college and college choice can be really destructive. Like the other two books, this one describes how less high-profile colleges may be a better path for many students.

I’m glad they're taking this seriously!

One of my teachers told me about how he was admitted to Cornell, a really hot Ivy League school, but chose the University of Rochester because he'd felt lost in a 4,000-student high school and wanted a small college where he thought he'd have more opportunities. It's unlikely that Cornell could have given him the extracurricular leadership experiences he had at Rochester, or the close relationships with professors who helped him define himself. He was lucky, too. It was a different era, and his parents exerted no pressure or influence on his choice. I wish it were like that now!

For me, the key question is: whose needs are being served? If my needs and my friends' needs come first, the goal should always be the best match between us and the school. Some students may do great in large schools -- others, not so much.

Our parents and school counselors should have a good understanding of us, our personality, and our needs. Gathering information, not just relying on college catalogs or reputations, seems really important to me. Ideally this should include visiting the college and talking with students there. That's what I plan to do.

I hear that many of the best colleges are now placing far greater emphasis on student maturity, our independence of thought, and our breadth of potential talent than on test scores.

And I've also learned that most employers place little emphasis on what college a student attended. They're more interested in maturity, stability, dependability, flexibility, and the skills needed for the job. A Yale graduate will lose out to the Oberlin, Lehigh, or Pomona graduate who's stronger across all those variables.

But again, our needs as graduating seniors should come first, and the goal should be the best match between us and the schools that we apply to.

Thanks for listening. I hope many parents and counselors are listening, too!

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