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Applying and Attending: The Two Faces of the College Experience

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By guest blogger Ariel Mond

When it comes to applying for college, students have an overwhelming amount of information to consider. From deciding between the SAT vs. ACT, small colleges vs. large universities, cheaper public schools vs. expensive private liberal-arts programs, and college towns vs. urban campuses, students are burdened with choices that all at once seem irritatingly minute and potentially life-changing.

Luckily for those feeling the heat in the application pressure-cooker, there is no shortage of guide books dedicated to helping students untangle the complicated web of applying to college, covering every step from thinking about thinking about applying to a school to sending in a confirmation of enrollment. Two recent releases address that topic head-on.

Joie Jager-Hyman, an author and former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College with a doctorate in education policy from Harvard University, divulges insider knowledge on winning admissions practices for "B+" students in her new book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application: How to Present Your Strongest Self, Write a Standout Admissions Essay, and Get Into the Perfect School for You (Ten Speed Press, 2013). She identifies strategies for how high school students can select the schools that interest them and provides a detailed guide of what tests to take, how to write a unique application essay, and ways that applicants can stand out to an admissions officer. Jager-Hyman also includes tips for students with special circumstances, advice for students with learning disabilities, information on financing college, and a section for how parents can help (and hurt) the process.

Throughout the entire book, Jager-Hyman makes her mantra well-known: "Just because your transcript isn't perfect does not mean that you can't find the 'perfect' college that will allow you to thrive." In the very first chapter of her book, she identifies six different types of students, all of whom have different priorities for their higher education experiences. There's the "brand-name shopper" who cares about the reputation associated with a school, the "special agent" who is focused on a specific major or program, the "atmospherist" who prioritizes schools based on their environments, the "sizeist" who looks for a big-school feel or a small college setting, the "chill pill" who values a school that allows for a more relaxed lifestyle, and the "bargain hunter" who wants the most bang for their buck. Just by establishing these different types of students, Jager-Hyman makes it clear that there are multiple so-called "ideal" options for every type of student interested in a college degree.

Another recently released college-application guide book, however, takes a more specialized approach. In Open the Gates to the Ivy League: A Plan B for Getting into the Top Colleges (Prentice Hall Press, 2013), author C.W. Henderson exposes "back gateways" for getting into 25 prestigious schools, seven of which are hallowed-hall Ivies. Henderson's audience is Jager-Hyman's "brand-name shoppers," who would find stock in Henderson's assertion that the name recognition and well-connected alumni networks of elite universities give students "a significant, sometimes even a dramatic, edge over everyone who earns a diploma elsewhere." So, if students fail to get into a top 40 school, Henderson says try and try again—and shows applicants how to do so, sometimes for less than they would pay otherwise.

The unconventional gateways Henderson suggests include extension programs and schools of continuing studies, such as the Harvard University Extension School and University of Pennsylvania's College of Liberal and Professional studies, which are designed to cater to adults who have decided to continue or start their studies later in life. Henderson also cites back entrances to elite universities through transfer programs with less-elite universities, such as completing junior and senior year at Emory University after spending freshman and sophomore year at its satellite Oxford College or transferring to the University of Virginia from any one of the state's community colleges.

Most of the information Henderson presents in his book seems like it would best-suited for adults looking to go back to college; unfortunately, this is not the audience he seems to be addressing. Messily lumping advice about how to get into a prestigious university through programs designed for adults into a book marketed for high school students casually overlooks the fact that a college education is not just about coming away with an impressive, brand-name degree. Focusing only on how to get into the Ivy League sends the message that college is merely a brutal competition, and not the academic and social learning experience that it actually is.

Of course, attending a top 40 school is nothing to scoff at. But is that coveted degree worth the costs that often come with these back-door entrances? Is having a degree that says "Harvard" worth trading in living in a dorm and experiencing college with peers for a lonely off-campus apartment and extension classes where the average age of students is 35? Do the bragging rights that come with graduation from a top 40 school merit the difficult process of entering a new social setting as a transfer student? Henderson seems to think so. As a college student myself, I'm not convinced.

Henderson prefaces his specialized book by saying that an Ivy League education isn't the perfect fit for everyone. Jager-Hyman, with advice that can apply to a broader range of college applicants, acknowledges that different types of schools are better suited for different types of students. But what these authors ignore in an attempt to simplify the college application process is that, like college itself, choosing schools and applying to them is not a one-size-fits-all experience. While Henderson gives one definition of a college-seeking student's identity and Jager-Hyman gives six, the reality is that students shouldn't have to feel pressured to fit exclusively into these categories or forget that the college experience is at least as important (if not more so) than a degree.

Ariel Mond is a student majoring in French Language and European Area Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

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