A Matter of Choice

by and

When the various college rankings were released this year, they sent some students and parents into a tizzy, boosting magazine sales within the already jumpy college-bound population. With so many great schools vying for their rightful place in the top spots, we asked ourselves, as we do every year, what does it mean in real life, for our own students?

The best school vs. the best fit

Last spring, Loren's enthusiasm for post-expressionist art and multivariable calculus, a shimmering transcript, and heartfelt teacher recommendations resulted in an acceptance letter from Stanford against the impossible odds of a 7.1% admit rate. Loren's ecstatic mother quietly ordered notepads embossed with GO CARDINAL in red ink.

Three weeks later, Loren flew home from Admit Weekend feeling awkward in her oversized T-shirt emblazoned with its giant letter S. Despite Stanford's smart and earnest kids, expansive grounds, and intellectual intensity, she felt unmoved by the quirks and traditions of The Farm. Instead, she dreamed of frozen winter afternoons, drafty studios, and charcoal smeared hands. Loren wanted to go to art school.

Wisely casting her net wide and far, Loren had also been accepted to the dual degree program at Brown, with its intriguing affiliation with the Rhode Island School of Design. Bucking the pressure of her high school dean and her relatives and ignoring subtle differences in the schools' rankings, Loren followed her heart to a world-class art school and a degree in applied mathematics.

How to define "better" and "best"?

From the trenches of college counseling, there are variations of this story every year. The boy who chooses a tiny, eccentric, rural school over Pomona College because he developed an interest in comparative religion and lambing. The aspiring architect who prefers Syracuse to NYU. The students who carry weathered copies of college guides like Bibles.

College decisions emerge from a complicated matrix of financial considerations, temperament, opportunity, achievement, and intuition. We have students who feel lost among the crowds at UCLA or claustrophobic at Kenyon, determined to star on a Division III volleyball team, or anxious to find generous financial aid after a job loss at home. It is tempting to advise students to "attend the best school you can get into and can afford," and nearly all of us in this business have said exactly that. The trouble is, how does one define "better" and "best"? If Richard has both an intellectual and practical interest in forestry and environmental studies, is USC really better than Oregon State, with its emphasis on ecosystems and society and 14,000 acres of verdant forests?

As high school seniors tease apart what "better" and "best" mean for them, they picture themselves crunching across fall leaves on their way to Big East football games, or immersed in 2:00 a.m. dorm debates on whether the Democrats have lost their way. The most pragmatic 17 year olds easily recite the top 20 schools in America, along with their admit rates and the 25/75 spread of standardized testing for matriculated freshmen--creating nostalgia for the days when eager applicants memorized the words to the Michigan fight song.

Explore the road less taken

Today, it takes effort to imagine a world without rankings, but what about our ballerinas with 3.2 GPAs, or those late-blooming bench warmers? Our jobs as college counselors in Los Angeles sometimes mean encouraging students and their families to travel to schools slightly off the beaten path. We marvel over Champlain's Upside-Down Curriculum, which weaves together hands-on internships with academics beginning freshman year, and Muhlenberg's test-optional application process and its rich, picturesque college experience; we are impressed by the student-faculty research labs at Kalamazoo.

Whether students land in the lush mountains of the Berkshires or in Berkeley's free-speech epicenter, one can only hope they will find a nourishing environment, room to explore, and a community where they will thrive. As for all those college rankings? There are better ways to choose a school.

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