Friday, March 9, 2012

Sorting through Options for College

If you’re the parent of a high school senior, getting through March may be somewhat like stepping on eggshells. Soon enough, the fate of your son or daughter will be sealed with a click of the mouse – to be followed by feelings of elation, relief, despair or uncertainty.

Many students, especially those here in the competitive Northeast, learn in a heartbeat that their master plan for college won’t be happening after all. That, of course, is how the world sometimes works. Your student may have to make a choice between two options that weren’t at the top of the list. Barring financial issues, what will help your student make the big decision?

Take advantage of visitation days. These give your student the opportunity to mix with other accepted students while picking up the latest vibe on campus. When my son was weighing his options a few years ago, we ventured to see the only school he hadn’t visited, a last-minute addition to his target list. The journey through endless Upstate New York farms, along with the panel discussions on campus, convinced him to go with his gut and to attend a city school instead. These quick visits to campuses have similarly helped many of my students; in fact, they have eliminated options based on conversations with matriculated students and the “look and feel” of the dorms and campus buildings.

Encourage your student to join social networking groups for prospective students. In this case, be glad he or she can harness the power of the Internet to meet and greet. It’s the next best thing to a visit (and for some students, less nerve wracking).

Reassess access to internships at each college. Often internships are invaluable resume credentials; in some cases they are a source of inspiration and stimulation that classes may not able to provide. Some colleges, by virtue of their reputation or location, have greater reach into the marketplace than others (even though student accomplishments and initiatives help seal the deal).

(Re)consider the location. This is huge! Remember you get to pull away in August or September, leaving your student in a new environment. Before sending in a deposit, he or she may once again wish to weigh the need for a city, community or downtown. During my Upstate New York visit, my son and I sampled local pizza and a movie. While we felt safe and comfortable, we realized that the downtown had only a few streets – far fewer than he needed in a college town. (Snowflakes in April didn’t help either.) I recall a similar story from a neighborhood student who had been admitted to an Ivy college. He called his mother from the visit and said, “Send that deposit to _____. There’s nothing to do here!”

Don’t forget the elite factor, which often goes hand in hand with size. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this to many of my students who thrive at being around smart students. Does your student want to be one of many intellectuals, or does he or she want to be the star?

Consider the prevalence of Greek Life. The significance of fraternities and sororities is another deal breaker. Do they dominate the campus and weekend activities, or are they off to the side? I currently have a student evaluating this factor at a good school in a rural setting. If he’s not a frat man, will he be happy?

For Those Thinking About Waiting Lists and Future Transfers . . .
For my College Counseling practicum with UCLA, I researched elite-school transfers. I learned that in most cases, the chances of gaining admission as a transfer are even lower than those of freshman applicants (with a few notable exceptions). So be cautious when advising a disappointed student that he or she “can always transfer” to that sought after elite university. (The same is true of getting off wait lists, even though I have had students be successful in that regard.)

If you think you may have a prospective transfer applicant on your hands, note that colleges look at GPA first, so students who are thinking of transferring need to be proactive and upbeat with their academics. That means studying far in advance of exams, creating original and insightful written work, and really impressing professors (even if the school was not their first or second choice.)

Most importantly, remember that barring financial issues, the choice of colleges should be the student’s – not the parent’s. Most likely, your student will emerge from his or her freshman year more responsible and mature than even you thought possible.

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