6,000 college choices. Who's #1? Your kid.

When you finally come down to, it helping your child choose a college is about helping them discover themselves. And letting go. It's about stepping back and watching them determine their own future. And stepping forward to give them a head start. After completing this rite of passage twice now, I figure it's time to share some pearls of wisdom.

Our children are unique, interesting people who deserve a perfect fit. And there is one out there. But here's the catch. You have to really look. Hard. And toss your stereotypes out the window. 

Your new mantra must be "it's their life not mine."

So here are my simple rules for picking the right fit. 

1. Selectivity is nothing more than overrated competition.

We're all subject to the competitive nature of college admissions. We're all somewhat inclined to live vicariously through our children. And we all have a tendency to want those bragging rights when a child achieves the near impossible by gaining admission to an Ivy League. So here's a dose of reality. The competitive nature of the admissions process to those most highly selective schools doesn't end when they enroll. It's just beginning. Those kids who ferociously competed their entire K-12 career to ultimately land a coveted place at Harvard or Yale? They will compete once again, ferociously, once matriculated. How fun does that sound? I've been around parents who shout with relief and joy... YES! They got in. Now we can all breathe a little easier. There goes the stress. Think again. For some kids, stress is like a fix. They're adrenaline junkies who thrive on the pressure. For them, those schools are a perfect fit. But they just aren't for everyone. 

2. Do your Homework.

So many schools, so little time. Forget the web proliferation of "perfect fit-o-meters". Just answer 223 simple questions and they can narrow it down to the perfect school. uh huh. Next thing you know your violin-playing son with the jet blue hair and spike shoes is being recruited by the Merchant Marines.
Start here: College Navigator. It's our esteemed government's fairly comprehensive college search and information site. No fluff, just the facts and a simple system to narrow down appropriate choices. No rankings. Got your list? Great. Now start digging deeper.  Admission rates are deceptive. Look at the criteria for admissions. Look at the programs and degrees that the students actually chose... not just offered. School says: We have a renowned biomedical science program. Survey says.... 1 degree conferred last year. huh. School says: We offer a full array of fine arts programs. Survey says.... 0 BFA degrees conferred last year. School says: Our diverse student body pursues a broad area of subjects. Survey says... 60% are business majors. If your budding linguist chooses to major in Japanese and finds themselves the only one, who are they going to speak it with? Again, College Navigator can give you the inside scoop.

3. Take off the rose colored glasses.

Regardless of what the flowery prose on their websites tell you, hard numbers provide some hard answers. Check the admissions data on those accepted. Is it all test scores? Class ranking? Activities? Is it well rounded? Where does your child fit now? Do they want to be surrounded by those less capable? Or more? Do they need to be challenged, or do they have their own challenges to deal with already. This is about your child and their future. Your job is to help them succeed, not push them over the edge.

4. Find their comfort zone.

How about personality. Is your son or daughter an introvert or extrovert? Do they enjoy loud noisy crowded places? Are they Urban or Suburban? Farmhand or Undersea explorer? Country or Indie? 

And yes, people, size matters. Not just overall, but in the classroom particularly. Does your budding scholar tend to lean more towards the back of the room, soak it in style or front row hands up shaking like there's ants in their pants to get attention? It matters.

How about family life. Close knit? Wants to be within shouting, or home-cooked dinner distance? Or like mine... up up and away on a personal adventure?

Personal beliefs. Not yours, theirs. Are they quite religious, attend services regularly? Look up when they need help? Enjoy prayer circles and vigils? They may be most comfortable at a school that is either affiliated with their faith, or a public school with large campus groups of faith. Is it just the opposite? Do they attend Church to appease you? Are they sporting a wiccan tattoo? Do they quote the Dalai Lama? Perhaps a different type of campus would suit them. This can't be stressed enough. Whether you want to or not, you won't convert them by sending them to Holy Cross. 

5. Ignore most rankings. (ok, so some rules are meant to be broken)

I know you won't ignore them. So use the right ones and use them wisely. I recommend Forbes. And if you look closely at their methodology, you'll see why. Ranking schools on the basis of alumni donations or reputation is silly. Ranking them based on outcome is everything. Where did they end up? Employed? Tons of school loans? Flippin Fries at Micky D's? Greeter at Walmart? Actually, I'm not even kidding here. If you send your child to the wrong college, FOR THEM, they will not be successful. 2011 Methodology

The Forbes ranking is based on sound criteria. Will they get the education you are paying for? Do they finish on time? That's essential. The average graduation rate in 4 years is rapidly declining. One constant complaint? Students can't get the classes they need in their schedule so they can't finish. It happens so often students assume they should plan on 5 to 6 years to finish. Bullshit. There are hundreds of high-quality academic institutions that will provide you that education in 4 years. Find them.
US News takes some flack on their rankings, justifiably so. They look too hard at numbers that may or may not be totally relevant. Or even true.  As we've been seeing lately. But they have some lesser known rankings that are worth paying attention to:
Best Undergraduate Teaching
Isn't this what you are looking for? An education? It should be.

6. Know who's teaching your child.

Knowledgeable Professors or TA's? Who gets to use the facilities? Undergrads or grads? What opportunities are there for research as an undergrad? Study abroad? Community outreach? Mentoring by faculty? Just who are the faculty? Consider this. There are probably 150 top notch liberal arts colleges where over 95% of the faculty have terminal degrees. Where research opportunities are enormous for undergraduates. So their education is just that much better. And if they want to go to Medical School, as mine does, they will be mentored and supported and given the tools they need to be ready. And they won't be competing with a thousand other pre-med hopefuls for the attention of a handful of advisors.
Head to the school website and check out the faculty. Google them. Facebook them. Linked-in. Know whose hands you are putting them in. For those hands will help mold and shape their life.
If you don't look carefully, your child may end up among the best and brightest students, on paper anyway, without anyone to guide any of them.

7. Athletics are important. So is reality.

If they participate in sports, reasonably assess the level. Are they Division 1 Material? Olympic-bound? Scholarship worthy? If so, are they meant for academia or are they meant for pro-sports? Not all kids are academically inclined. There are 2  year colleges that specialize in training young athletes to move on. Consider them. Don't assume that a scholarship means they will automatically turn into an A student. Pay attention to what they want. If they like to play sports, but aren't the star of the team, look for schools with club sports and intramurals. Or perhaps Division III. Remember that ultimately this is about them, not you. 

8. Reputations don't educate. 

I read an incredibly snooty post from a "professor" at an ivy league on a college search forum. She explained how of course the "top medical schools" admitted first and foremost from their own kind... other Ivies. Really? I have family in academia. Friends in academia. All who say it isn't so much the undergraduate school a student comes from, it's what they did when they were there. Their test scores, GPA, involvement with research and projects and a genuine immersion into their chosen field. Who they are when they apply. The person they've become and the knowledge they've gained. Is that individual going to be an excellent candidate for their program? That's what they seek. 

Some professions are different, true. Business schools often rely on networking. Who you are matters at the top of the food chain. Most of us aren't at the top. Most of us are the 99%. But a good education can put your child on even ground with the 1%. Perhaps not financially. Just intellectually. Morally. Psychologically. And if you accomplish that, you will be the parent you always wanted to be.

9. Campus visits do make a difference.

Sure we can't all afford to do them. But if you can, let your child go and be who they are at the place they want to go. They will know then. They will tell you. They will feel it. Because they are going to decide to devote 4 years of their lives, they may actually express themselves to you. And in more than a few single syllable grunts. And if you can make the visit with them, see them in their new environment, you can know for yourself. It's a parent's intuition at work. Some schools are great on paper. And the minute the tour is over you get a nagging sensation that something just isn't quite right. Listen to it. Or, you get this incredible sense of calm. And you know they have found their place.

10. Be their biggest fan... not their biggest foe.

If they tell you they want to study at Cordon Bleu... talk about it. Over a dinner they prepare for you.  If they tell you they want to audition at Julliard... and you are SURE they have two left feet... talk about it. Suggest some options. Whatever you do, don't mock their dreams. Don't discourage their desire to reach a little higher than your own comfort zone. More than likely they'll get a rejection letter or two. Wait listed as well. But if you don't encourage them to pursue their dreams, you are not lifting them up into the world, you're shutting them out. 

I am satisfied my daughter chose well. It's not the most talked about school. It's not all that famous. It doesn't tout itself as ranked above all others. It doesn't select students solely on ranking or test scores. What it does have is an immensely qualified faculty. An atmosphere of collaboration. And opportunities not often provided to undergraduate students. This is what we should be offering up to our children. This is honoring our unwavering oath to them to give them every opportunity to shine.
This is where my daughter will find herself.

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