Ignore the hype around college rankings and make an informed decision
The following is a guest article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies or positions of Shemmassian Academic Consulting.
When I was a junior in high school, I remember my father setting a copy of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges magazine on my bed. I then poured over it with hungry eyes, feasting on the Top 10 universities and liberal arts colleges that in my mind guaranteed my future “success.” Aside from targeting colleges that my friends’ older siblings attended, that was pretty much the most influential part of my “college search” process.
From there, I set my sights on the SAT scores and other requirements to get into those top schools. I filled my schedule with challenging AP classes and gave myself stomach aches and burnout fatigue as I stayed up late at night and worked through my weekends to maintain a high GPA. I took repeated SAT exams to try to achieve a score in the range of one of these schools—and basically drove myself like a white-whale obsessed maniac to get into the “best school” possible. I even isolated myself from friends who landed class ranks above me, because I couldn’t stand the jealousy.
If this sounds a little crazy, I assure you, it is. It was a very misguided effort that cost me years of crippling anxiety and aimless wandering through my 20’s to “figure my life out.” I didn’t get into my dream school (Stanford University), but I was accepted to my second choice (Northwestern), only to discover that “snow flurries” in April weren’t for me. I landed at UC Berkeley, where I loved the campus and proximity to San Francisco and my family in San Diego. I even essentially made up a major to meet my very unfocused interests, without any clear idea of what I would do with this major after college.
Sadly, this anxiety-laden approach is still a common route taken by many teenagers today looking to find the college that in their mind will set them up for smooth sailing into adulthood.
Student Trends in College Selection
If we can agree that choosing a college is one of the most important decisions a young person will make, it’s a wonder we let high schoolers make such wildly uninformed selections! In many ways, the college selection process has become more like buying an insignificant pair of jeans or make-up product rather than the carefully thought-out process it should be.
Think of how we make a similarly important decision, like buying a house. First, you put careful consideration into the specific criteria that affect your decision: you think about neighborhood schools, your commute to and from work, proximity to friends and family, community safety, etc. You spend time researching each of these factors to determine what is the best-fit area for you to look for a new home. Then, you outline your “must-have” features with regard to layout, yard, and design. Finally, you narrow down your search based on the reality of what you can afford.
This all seems like a very common-sense approach for a major decision like buying a house, which will also determine your monthly financial responsibilities for the next few decades. We know the home we choose will have a significant impact on our future lifestyle and well-being. And yet when choosing a college, which will similarly affect an individual’s future welfare, we most often leave kids to make “purchasing” decisions based on a slim set of subjective criteria without considering what really aligns with their needs in the long run. In essence, choosing a college for most students is much like choosing a class president: it simply becomes a popularity contest.
But, it’s not really their fault—or yours as parents. Between popular media and a broken school system, you just don’t have access to the right information, and the information that is most readily available is skewed and misleading. The powerful politics at play in the business of college and big media, like U.S. News and World Report, fill an unfortunate information vacuum for parents and students alike. When it really comes down to it, we as a culture have been massively deceived about college selection.
Many journalists have attested to the biases behind U.S. News & World Report’s influential college rankings. Yet the powerful reach of this ranking system permeates our culture. In her New York Times best-selling book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, author Julie Lythcott-Haims demystifies the politics behind the U.S. News and World Report college rankings and exposes the magazine as the root of our ill-conceived notion that students must attend “top universities” in order to succeed in life. Lythcott-Haims, who served as Stanford University's Dean of Freshmen for a decade, urges parents to look beyond the Top Ten and really dive into the features colleges provide that truly match with a student and his or her strengths and passions.
In many private high schools, parents pay a premium for their children to receive personalized guidance to identify colleges that fit with their interests and academic aptitude—helping students explore a wide range of lesser-known schools that are oftentimes much less competitive to get into, yet still usher their graduates into highly successful careers. This level of guidance is seen less often in public high schools.
While parents generally assume their child’s counselor will provide guidance to students on college and major or career selection, this is not always the case. College advising doesn’t have a place in many public high schools. Half a century ago, the position of Career Counselor was common in public schools, but it has been largely stripped away along with other student support services. Today, public high school counselors provide very little “counseling” and serve mainly administrative roles, dealing with discipline problems and making sure students fulfill all of their high school graduation requirements.
Thus, students are left to follow popular media and the buzz of lunchtime chatter to generate a college list. They apply to more and more schools with less and less insight into their bigger goals or how any of these schools will prepare them for a fulfilling future.
Selecting colleges based on rankings and other impersonal criteria sets off a domino effect of devastating results for young adults. We see a mounting crisis in millennials that is carrying over to Generation Z: aimless students select colleges and majors that “sound good,” accumulate student loan debt, and graduate college with little or no direction or immediate career options.
We are seeing increasing anxiety, depression, and suicide rates among teenagers and young adults, who are finding that the way they’ve been guided through their educations doesn’t serve their adult-life needs. Even when bright young people find jobs that meet their financial needs, they experience the let-down when they realize that while they were busy “shoulding” their way through school, they never paused to figure out what they were really good at or develop passions that placed them in a career field that could bring them a meaningful sense of purpose.
Choosing a College Wisely
It’s up to us, as parents and educators, to help students move past conversations around college rank and into a more meaningful discussion of important things to consider when choosing a college.
After seeing numerous high school students and their families in our offices for ACT or SAT test prep who were overly focused on getting the “highest-possible” test scores to get into the “best college” without any consideration of their end goal, I started thinking about how we might help students have a more enlightened college search process.
I thought about what our most successful and happiest students had in common. What I found was that they all had identified personally meaningful criteria for their college choices. They weren’t just targeting the top schools and aiming for the highest test scores. They came in talking about majors and naming colleges no other students were talking about. They had received help to explore their strengths, learn about different career fields, and research specific colleges that were a good overall fit. Based on their college lists, they knew a reasonable range of test scores they needed for acceptance and were motivated and confident in their ability to achieve them.
What stood out even more overtly, was that every one of our most successful ACT or SAT students had calm focus throughout the college admissions process where other students and their families were running wild in a whirl of anxiety.
So, I thought, “How can we help all high school students figure out personally meaningful college selection criteria that will ease the stress of college admissions and set them up for happy lives?” The answer was our Career Interest Coaching Program.
In our Career Interest Coaching Program, students are guided one-on-one by our educational coaches through an engaging set of exercises to identify their unique strengths and interests. The program then helps them connect their individual profile with a variety of career options that embody different combinations of their strengths and interests. The students explore the lifestyle and workplace environment of different jobs that intersect their profile, and even interview someone in a career that sounds particularly appealing to gain first-hand knowledge about the profession.
After completing the career-interest exploration, students have a set of personally significant factors to consider when choosing a college. They can answer the question of, “What should I major in?” with knowledge of what they want to do when they get out of college. Working with a private college advisor or just digging into some of the great online tools, students can then explore logistics of distance from home, school size, sports, and cost to find options that meet their full-picture needs.
I certainly don’t expect that every student who goes through our Career Interest Coaching Program will end up in the exact professions they identify through our program. But I do believe that they will be much better equipped to make a decision about college and their course of study than someone who has not been given the opportunity to experience this process.
With something as important as choosing a college and a specific field of study, it’s time to shift from a popularity contest to a personal, carefully guided process. Our children need to know what really matters to them before they even begin thinking about choosing a college. A student who looks at college selection through a lens that aligns with their personal strengths and career goals is more likely to graduate from college and enter adulthood with the skills needed to live a meaningful life filled with purpose and capable independence.
My adult life has shown me over and over again that attending an Ivy League or top 10 U.S. News and World Report college is not the determining factor for lifelong happiness and success. Knowing who you are, what you’re good at, and setting your compass on a path that serves those realities is the real formula for a happy, fruitful adulthood.
About Our Guest Contributor
Megan Trezza, M.Ed., is the CEO and founder of La Jolla LearningWorks, a private learning center based in La Jolla, California, that focuses on individualized 1:1 educational coaching to bring each student to his or her full achievement potential. They specialize in helping children who learn differently overcome blocks in learning fundamentals and find success and enjoyment in the educational process. Learn more about Megan’s work at www.LJLearningWorks.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LaJollaLearningWorks.