Your College Search: The Ultimate Open-Book Exam

by
Dean of Admissions, Bucknell University

On the cover of Douglas Adams’s sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was not a subtitle but an admonition: “Don’t Panic.” If college guides had that phrase on their covers, followed by 400 blank pages, I daresay they would be worth just as much. And I think it’s the best advice about the college process you can get.

Of course, some people do panic over college, and with all of the searching, visits, lengthy applications, and the admission decision waiting game, it’s understandable. After all, it culminates in a life-altering decision. That’s a big deal, no question about it.

If you’re still feeling panicky, let me explain the college search process as something a little more straightforward and relatable: a test. And not just any kind of test—it’s open book.

Like so many people, I always loved hearing the words “open book” in my high school and college classes. When I knew a test was open book, I could literally feel the weight come off my shoulders.

Why do teachers give open-book tests? It’s a measure of your ability to take what you have learned (knowledge), incorporate what is easily retrieved (facts), and apply them in new and useful ways (wisdom). And if your teachers are like my college statistics professor, you have also been reminded that open-book tests are only a benefit if you already have an idea what the pertinent information is and can find it when you need to. The same is true in your college search.

Here are the five questions on the College Search Open-Book Exam. I won’t give you the answers, but I will offer several hints. Each question must be answered in order. Your answer to each question depends on the response to the previous question.

Question #1: Why are you going to college?

This question can be the easiest or the toughest . . . or both. Your answer could be, “I want to be a doctor, and medical schools require a college degree for entrance.” That’s an okay answer, but it’s incomplete at best. A better answer requires reflecting on what you want from your college experience.

This includes thinking about potential majors. If you already have a substantial interest in a particular field, start by looking for colleges offering it. But also figure out what kind of education you’ll need to succeed in that field, whether it’s a postsecondary certificate, an associate degree, a bachelor’s, or graduate or professional school.

If you’re not sure of your answer to this question—and even if you are—collaboration is allowed! Your school counselor, parents, teachers, and coaches are all good resources. Ask anyone who went to college about their experiences and recommendations.

Your school counseling office may also have guides and tools to help you match your strengths and interests to related careers. There are career exploration tools built into Naviance, a guidance tool used by many middle and high schools, and the U.S. Department of Labor has one on their website as well (www.bls.gov/k12/students.htm). Just beware when using any free online career tool: look at who sponsors it. It might steer you to a career program offer by a sponsoring institution.

As you’re answering this question, remember too that there is more to college than career training. First, there are jobs that will emerge after you finish college. Several popular careers now—including physician assistant and forensic scientist—didn’t exist widely as undergraduate majors 30 years ago. And some fields—photography and microelectronics, to name just two—are completely different than they were a generation ago.

Think about college as a place to grow and learn skills that will help you make both a living and a great life. Broad fields of study such as languages, science and mathematics, the arts, and social sciences can be very useful in understanding people, culture, organizations, and ways of thinking and changing the world around you. And they provide a foundation for practically any career. For example, if you like English and writing, you can still tell people, “I’m going to college to be the next Steven Spielberg.” (He was an English major, and it didn’t seem to hurt his career.)

Question #2: What colleges are you considering?

While this is an open-book exam, you will lose points if you use just one resource to answer this question, such as a book filled with college ratings. Those guides are written from a general perspective; the more specific and unique your reasons to go to college, the less help the ratings and rankings will be. As William Adams, the recently retired President of Colby College, wrote in the book College Unranked, “If a student knows she wants to study at a small college in California and is leaning towards a career in oceanography . . . no rating or ranking can tell her whether a college will suit her needs. Only careful research can do that.”

Consider life outside the classroom when answering this question too. If playing sports will be part of the decision, definitely talk to coaches, both your own and those at the campuses you’re considering. The same goes for performing arts and other extracurricular activities. If you’re active in your faith community, colleges with a denominational affiliation may appeal to you, but you may also find a great group of similarly interested people at campuses with no religious affiliation or a faith background different than your own.

Once you’ve started answering this question—probably resulting in multiple colleges to investigate—it’s time to do some hands-on research. Visit as many campuses as you can. Keep an open mind. A college that meets just some of your criteria may have a great campus “feel,” while one that seems perfect on paper may be less exciting in person.

Psst! I’m going to give you two hints to help you ace this question. First, make the most of your campus visits: Take the tour. Go to an admission information session. Walk around the neighborhood. Grab a bite to eat. Talk to a few current students and ask them what they like and don’t like. Second, stay organized! The information you gather on those visits—plus the data you get from college websites, Internet searches, and other sources—will quickly run together in your mind. (Which campus had the great cheeseburgers? The funny tour guide? The incredible labs? The long uphill walk from the dorms to the quad?)

Since your answer to this question will only improve with more research, it’s best to try to answer it a few times before you move on to question three.

Question #3: Where are you applying?

With plenty of research backing up your answers to #1 and #2, this question will be a relatively easy one. Just think about fit, feel, and choices.

The notion of college fit is the sum of your goals and attributes and how they mesh with what a school has to offer. Some goals and attributes carry more weight than others. For instance, you might be able to eliminate any college that doesn’t offer your intended major. Or your fit may also depend on a sport, location, size, religious affiliation, etc.

Academics certainly play a key role, and you should have a good idea of the typical admitted student’s profile (average GPA, test scores, etc.), often available on a college’s website. If you are applying to colleges that have many previous applicants from your high school, your counselor may have some data that will help assess your academic fit. Last but not least, ask the colleges for help. We are very interested in helping students determine their fit at our institutions. (Call us!)

Fit can also be related to feel, which is how students sometimes explain what appeals to them about a campus: “It feels right/good/like home.” That is absolutely a valid criterion when making your college application decisions; however, it’s based on the condition that you gave your brain enough data to make these subtle, qualitative judgments. In other words, if you felt at home on the first campus you visited and then didn’t visit any others, I would argue you didn’t give yourself enough chances to see if one place feels better than another.

Choices are what you will have (see question #5) if you have applied to enough colleges that fit you well and fall into a balanced ratio of “reach” (a challenge to get into), “target” (where you are a good match academically), and “safety” schools (where you are very likely to be admitted). But don’t apply to any college you wouldn’t actually want to attend. It is quite possible to find safeties you love, and if you find yourself lacking, go back to question #2 and look some more.

Question #4: Which colleges admitted you?

This is the one question you don’t answer directly. Instead, you will have another assignment: apply to at least one and no more than 20 colleges. (Six to eight is a good range.) Focus on making sure your applications impart the following three things to admission committees:

I can be a successful student at your college. You have all of the required and at least some of the recommended high school courses for admission. Your grades and test scores are comparable to previously admitted and enrolled students at that institution. If your grades and/or scores are below average, you have identified attributes you can bring to that campus (see below).

I can benefit from attending your college. You are prepared to learn and grow from the programs at that institution. You are aware of your own limitations and areas you need to develop to be a solid college student and successful graduate. Explain that the college has programs and activities that match your interests and goals.

I can contribute to the community at your college. Best of all, you can discuss and demonstrate how you can grow and be a positive addition to the campus through academic success, involvement in activities, and/or personal contributions to the campus and your fellow students. This includes being a good classmate to your peers, an active and positive participant in campus life, and a student your professors will want to teach and mentor.

If you’re applying to any college that admits roughly less than a third of its applicants—known as “highly competitive” or “selective” in admission circles—all you can do is put your best foot forward. The decision to admit you will be based both on your characteristics and how you stack up against other applicants.

No matter where you’re applying, enlist help from your friends, family, counselors, and teachers to make sure your application is complete. Have a counselor, teacher, or a trusted friend (or two!) proofread your application essay(s) and even the whole application if they can. Don’t assume you will catch all of your mistakes!

Extra credit on this question if you also apply for scholarships and financial aid on time. Meeting these deadlines is incredibly important, and they vary by college. Learn all you can about the process and what is required by your schools.

Question #5: Where are you going to college?

The last question. To be honest, your final college choice might be very hard to make. Or it could be a no-brainer. If you’ve done a good job answering the first four questions, you will have options you like—perhaps even several colleges you are truly excited about. If you are unsure about your final choice, and if you have the resources to do so, make a final field trip to see the colleges you’re considering.

Financial aid and scholarships may also play a part in your decision. Be careful when reviewing offers, and don’t automatically pick the least expensive school. This is for two reasons. First, the best college for you—the place with the programs, campus community, and out-of-class experiences you want—may not have the lowest cost. You will be a graduate of that college for the rest of your life. Do you want to remember it as the place you went only because it was the cheapest? Indeed, the best college for you may also be the best bargain, but sometimes the bargain isn’t the best experience. (If you’re concerned about making ends meet, you may also be able to get a re-evaluation of your financial aid offer, especially if your family’s financial situation changed since submitting your forms.)

Second, the best financial aid award may not appear to be the best at first. Review all of your awards carefully with your family. Put them side by side. Do they all cover your total cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board, fees, and meal plan, as well as books, travel, and other expenses? If not, figure out what is missing. Remember that even a “full-tuition” scholarship doesn’t cover the other critical costs of attending college, especially if you will be living on campus.

And that concludes your exam. The only one doing the grading is you, so make sure you earn that A—and an A+ college experience.

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