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Book Author: Elite Colleges Aren't Be All, End All

The fixation that some Americans have with getting into highly selective colleges has made the college search process unnecessarily stressful and expensive, according to Frank Bruni, the author of the book, Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be, released this spring.

"The system is broken," said Bruni, an op-ed writer for The New York Times, speaking to an auditorium of parents at a Bethesda, Md., high school Monday night. "When you turn a phrase that is so electric and exciting, 'going to college,' that meant you had this incredible world opening up before you and you were setting out on a grand adventure and we've replaced it with 'applying to college' which is a chapter of greatest dread in a young person's life."

Too often, students gravitate toward colleges they've heard of with the mistaken impression that going to a prestigious school will guarantee them success, maintains Bruni. 

However, Bruni points to recent Gallup surveys of employers who say they are more interested in students' skills and what they do on campus than where they go to school. He also highlights research that shows students who attended elite colleges virtually had the same long-term success in their careers as peers from similar backgrounds and achievement who applied to highly selective schools but went elsewhere.

"More than anything else, I wish we'd take all this energy that goes into discussions about how to get into college and instead redirect it to discussions about how to use college," said Bruni, whose book is full of anecdotes about students who found success at lesser-known colleges or leveraged their undergraduate experience to get into elite graduate schools.

Parents overwhelmed by all the college options should not feel they need to outsource the process and hire expensive tutors and private counselors, said Bruni. Rather, he encourages students to use the expertise of school counselors and research options on the Internet to help keep the process more low-key.

High school students should pursue things that truly interest them, rather than viewing every activity or accomplishment as something to add to a college application, suggested Bruni. In his presentation, Bruni shared stories of many students who pursued their passions, reflected on what they wanted, and were happiest when they chose colleges that met their criteria, rather than outside rankings.

Bruni encouraged high schools to provide students with alternatives to U.S. News and World Report's Best Colleges list and introduce students to Washington Monthly's list of colleges that contribute to the public good, or The Times' College Access Index that ranks colleges based on the economic diversity of their campuses.

Bruni says his reporting suggests: "An elite, exclusive college is not as much of a be-all-end-all, make-or-break thing that too many of us buy into."

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