Tempted to throw up your hands in confusion over the multiplicity of colleges to choose from? Feel like throwing darts at a wall papered with all those brochures stuffing your mailbox? In that case, you already know that narrowing your wish list to a mere handful of target, reach, and safety schools is tough.
But wait. Did someone say a "mere handful"?
Yes. Despite anecdotes of anxious students' applying to 20 schools or more, a recent survey of 600 high-achieving high school seniors conducted by the research and marketing firm Lipman Hearne found that the average number of colleges they applied to was just under four.
Surprised? It's true that over the past 10 years, the number of students applying to more than two colleges has increased with the advent of the common application and online access. But narrowing your list to a reasonable number can yield benefits that go beyond financial savings (those application fees do add up). Although some students believe they're raising their odds by applying to a dozen schools, they may end up shortchanging themselves by diluting their efforts rather than concentrating on getting to know — and making their interest known to — a smaller number of schools.
So forget the darts. Get the facts, then break down the process step by step.
STEP 1 — Don't get bogged down in where you "should" apply.
Rather than searching for a perfect match that meets your preconceived notions about college life, reframe what you're looking for as "one of many good matches," advises Michael Popkin, a family therapist and author who runs the Web site activeparenting.com. "There are many colleges that [students] will be happy at and will prepare them for a successful life."
Those schools aren't necessarily the most prestigious or famous, or the ones all your friends are looking at, either. Although his father encouraged him to apply to his alma mater, Dartmouth, one student from a public high school in central Pennsylvania decided the Ivy League wasn't for him; he preferred a lower-pressure academic environment. Another public high school student, this one from New York, felt so strongly about supporting American troops in Iraq that he applied only to schools that offered ROTC.
Keeping an open mind frees you to think about possibilities, says Popkin--which, after all, is what college is about.
STEP 2 — Know thyself.
For the majority of high school students, even familiar-sounding names (Big Ten, Ivy League, mom's alma mater) "are just names they've heard or pictures they've seen," points out Mike Riera, head of Redwood Day School in Oakland, Calif., and the author of "Staying Connected to Your Teenager."
By contrast, they do know about themselves. Students who take "a few hours to think, talk, and write about" the places, activities, and settings they enjoy, the learning styles that suit them best, and the subjects that motivate them begin to develop what Riera calls "an internal map" of what they're looking for.
The challenge, then, is to find schools that value those strengths. Maybe your learning style is better suited to a work co-op program than sitting in a lecture hall. Perhaps you need a school that lets you explore different areas before you commit to a major, or your long-term goal is to work in government and you want a school with strong political science and economics. As to school size, Riera suggests thinking about whether you like to know most of the students whose faces you'll see or whether you like being surrounded by lots of faces you may meet or may never get to know.
Career counselors and online assessment tools can further help you articulate your interests and needs. And as you explore your interests, you may discover that what you originally thought you were looking for isn't what you wanted, after all.
STEP 3 — Identify a place to live.
After looking inward, look outward, to imagine the environment in which you'll want to spend the next four years.
Think about where you live, where you've traveled, areas of the country you've enjoyed — or did not — Popkin suggests. Do you want the urban energy of a city or a small-town atmosphere? Is climate a factor?
Are there outdoor activities you long to pursue and be near? A hiking and mountaineering enthusiast from Connecticut, for instance, applied to schools in Colorado to be close to western national parks. A New York student limited her applications to schools with access to riding stables.
Another aspect to explore: How closely, or not, do you wish to replicate the atmosphere of your high school? Did you thrive at that very large — or very small — school? Is it time for a change, or do you want more of the same?
Distance from home matters to some students more than others. "Why go across the country when there are fabulous schools in close driving distance?" Joy Silberg and her husband, Richard, of Baltimore asked their three daughters during their college search. All three ended up in a different type of school in a different geographic area, one in a southern town (University of Virginia, in Charlottesville), another in New York City (Barnard), and the third in the Pennsylvania countryside (Franklin and Marshall).
STEP 4 — Information, please.
Getting facts about colleges is probably easier now than ever before. So graze through the guides and the Web sites, says Popkin.
But brochures or virtual tours are not a substitute for a campus visit. Indeed, visiting the college campus was the most commonly cited factor in determining where the students in the Lipman Hearne survey applied. (Seventy-four percent mentioned it; factors such as talking with a student at the school, brochure, friends, and mom's advice were mentioned by 52 to 59 percent. Dads were close behind at 49 percent.)
The reason that "college visits can be real helpful for discovering what's comfortable, where you feel at home," says Popkin, is that "until you put feet on the ground, you won't necessarily know." Riera similarly recalls many students who returned from a college visit and said, "'I know I want to go to that college' — because the comfort level is there. It feels familiar, what they had actually described as wanting." Even preliminary visits before you decide where to apply can help crystallize types of schools by size, location, or departmental strengths. Pay attention to your own response, not your friends' or parents', Riera advises. "If the school resonates with you, there's probably a decent shot that you will resonate with the school as well."
STEP 5 — Be realistic while maintaining perspective.
Look at your high school profile from the point of view of a college admissions officer, suggests Holly Thompson, a former college admissions officer and high school college guidance counselor who is now a high school teacher in Palo Alto, Calif. For the most selective schools, especially, she says, "it is useful to step back and say: 'Well, there are 22,000 applicants,' and rather than letting that paralyze you, view it with a cool eye and evaluate more objectively."
Just as important to achieving a realistic perspective is putting the admissions process in a larger context — your life. Shortly after her own son was born, Thompson says, she remembers reading the "great recommendations" for a young man applying to Stanford, where she then worked, and asking herself, "What more could a parent want for a son in terms of his qualities?" But the applicant "didn't have all the pieces pulled together" that the college was looking for, and it rejected him.
The lesson? Colleges apply "a very narrow test, with a very specific set of criteria," she says. Rather than letting the list of colleges to which you apply define you, define for yourself who you are, and let the list follow from that.
Look on the bright side: 84 percent of all colleges accept more than 50 percent of the students who apply to them, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
By Diane Cole