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Looking Beyond the Rankings to Find the Right College Fit

In searching for colleges, the parent looks to the U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings. The son looks at where he can play ultimate Frisbee.

Who's right?

Marty O'Connell, executive director of the nonprofit organization Colleges That Change Lives, maintains that unless the parent plans to go to school with the son, it's his choice. And finding a campus where he can do something he loves might not be such crazy criteria.

I heard O'Connell speak last night to a roomful of parents, and a few high school juniors, eager for advice about how to survive this angst-filled year of college tours, applications, and, ultimately, decisions. One way to ratchet down the anxiety, she suggests: Stop racing after the brand-name schools. Instead, have an open mind and consider schools that might be off your radar, but a good fit for your child.

I know, my blog yesterday said students and parents don't think the college process is too complicated, at least according to a College Board poll. Yet, for many, it's plenty overwhelming. It's a huge investment, and there are nearly 4,000 colleges and universities out there.

O'Connell steers families away from deciding where to apply based solely on rankings. Too much emphasis is on selectivity, which can be manipulated by glossy brochures that lure in bigger and bigger applicant pools. The list is determined by factors that others decide are important, not your child, she maintains.

A better approach: Come up with your own criteria and search based on the student's interests, values, ambition, and learning style. O'Connell suggests using the National Survey of Student Engagement as a first step to look at student outcomes. Students may find colleges they've never heard of that have outperformed the Ivies and name-brand schools.

Too often, families think if they haven't heard of a school, it must not be any good. One way to find out if a school is the right match is to to ask the right questions.

The NSSE website has a pocket guide with questions to ask potential colleges to get at the heart of what matters to a student. O'Connell suggests avoiding broad questions, such as: "Is your psych department good?" And instead ask about specifics that give students a sense of what it would really be like to study at that school.

Some examples of probing questions that might yield helpful answers from Colleges That Change Lives:

On the academic environment:
How much time do students spend on work outside of class?
Do students work together on projects?
What type of exams/papers do faculty members use most often?

On the campus environment:
What kinds of activities are students involved in outside the classroom and how accessible are these to first-year students?
How easy is it to be involved in student leadership?
How many students study abroad?

On campus resources:.
What types of financial aid and academic scholarships are available—and are they renewable every year?
How accessible is the library and technology resources?
What career planning, job placement, and internship experiences are available?

The CTCL website has resources to help in the college search and get families thinking outside the box at the many possibilities out there in higher education. Despite the buzz about the rejection rates at top schools, O'Connell notes that most schools let in most students who apply. "There is not one perfect college," she said.

Thinking more broadly about the options can help reduce the stress and bring some "joy" into the process, said O'Connell. Joy? Well, at least realizing there are lots of schools out there can cut out some of the anxiety.

I liked one of her final thoughts: "It doesn't matter where you go. It matters that you do."

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