Don't Worry: There's A College For You

Jeffrey MacMillan for USN&WR
When Taylor Corbett, 18, of Lake Forest Park, Wash., got turned down by his first choice - Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine - the Corbett family was on Day 4 of a weeklong power outage. Bowdoin, with its mix of serious but friendly students, seemed the quintessential college to Corbett, and at first he couldn't envision himself anywhere else. To make matters worse, with no TV, computer, or video games to distract him, he was left sitting in the dark with his anxieties.

In a less literal sense, Corbett's plight is familiar to many high school students searching for a college. The fear, of course, is that they won't get into their dream school, and life as they know it will be over. That's not all bad. "A little anxiety is OK," acknowledges Marybeth Kravets, a college counselor at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, Ill. "They're sending out an application to people they don't know, and every school has its own agenda and way of assessing students."

Among the nation's 2,533 four-year schools, however, hyperselectivity is the exception: On average, the college acceptance rate is above 70 percent. "That statistic alone should suggest that there's a spot at a four-year institution for anyone who wants one," says David Hawkins, public policy director at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Each May, on its Web site, NACAC lists schools that still have spots in that fall's freshman class. This year, more than 300 colleges responded.

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No room at the top. Even so, getting in can seem daunting. Part of the difficulty, says Arlene Ingram, a guidance counselor at Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, Va., is that "the majority of the kids want the minority of colleges."

Martha O'Connell, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives Inc., a nonprofit based on Loren Pope's book by the same name, agrees: "There are still many colleges being underenrolled just because people flock to name-brand colleges."

Adds Maria Furtado, admissions director at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.: "We're quick to judge that if we know it, it must be good."

In fact, statistics don't necessarily bear out that assumption. An annual survey by the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University finds that more selective institutions don't guarantee a more satisfying collegiate experience. Rather, what students gain from attending college has less to do with where they go than it does with such factors as student-teacher involvement and the activities they do while they're there. You'll find a lot of college students at the No. 75-ranked school outperforming those at the No. 5-ranked school, says center director George Kuh.

Choosing a school based on its pedigree was easier when there were fewer students in the mix. But the number of graduating high school seniors is expected to peak at 3.3 million in 2009. In 1974, the last time the country had roughly the same number of young people finishing high school, only about half pursued a college degree. Now more than two thirds do so, and enrollment at four-year institutions is projected to grow by about 165,000 a year through 2015. One thing the children of baby boomers share, says Walter Robinson, director of admissions at the University of California-Berkeley: "They recognize the value of higher education."

The more students worry about getting in, the more colleges they apply to, which, in turn, can lower everyone's odds at any given school. Forty years ago, 43 percent of incoming freshmen applied to only one college. Now more than half of all students apply to at least four schools. Corbett applied to 12. "I wanted options," he says.

So what's the answer? A better college list, says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, admissions director at Harvard. Says Robinson: "At the end of the day, it's like buying a pair of shoes or a suit; it has to fit you."

Introspection is the first step in finding that fit. College counselors advise that you take time to identify who you are and what characteristics you're looking for. Do you like being an observer or a participant? Are you religious? Do you want to stay close to home or go somewhere new? Do you see yourself at a liberal arts college or do you prefer the comparative anonymity of a major research university? Do student-teacher ratios matter? Do you plan to join a fraternity or sorority? What's your budget? "Then, only then, do you begin to identify the individual colleges that meet those criteria," says Mary Lee Hoganson, NACAC's current president.