A friend who is intelligent, highly educated, and a wonderful parent recently called me in a meltdown panic over whether to give white or manila envelopes to their teenager's teachers for college recommendations.
My anxious friend has lots of company. Every year this is the season when tree leaves turn color and drop, while common sense about college admissions heads south. Aside from the uselessness of self-inflicted pressure, important decisions by college prospects are often based on inadequate information and worse advice. So I can't resist offering some food for thought.
Apply to the Colleges You Want to Attend Pretty basic, huh? Yet how many times have you heard advice such as: "You need some 'reach' schools." Or "Where's your 'safety' school?" In other words, you're often encouraged to think about schools in a way that ranks their desirability according to the difficulty of being admitted. This approach will make you feel like you are "settling" if you decide to attend anywhere but one of the most selective schools.
According to Peterson's Annual Survey of Undergraduate Institutions, in the United States there are almost 2,000 accredited, public and private four-year colleges and universities. They vary tremendously.
Find a handful or so of colleges out of this very large number you would be enthusiastic about attending. Then, once you've got your working list together, turn to the issue of how to be admitted to your favorite schools.
The Early Application Program
If you're considering participating in an early application program because you are very, very sure that a college is your top choice, then go ahead. If you're not sure, then don't do it. Think about it. What if you succeed and are admitted to a place that you are not sure is your first choice?
If the early acceptance is nonbinding, you're going to apply elsewhere anyway. If it is binding, then you are stuck. You are not going to find any college that will tell you it's relatively easy to be admitted at the early stage. But you'll tell me you are worried that some colleges admit so many students early that there seem to be very few places left if you wait.
Keep your head. Those people who are so well qualified that colleges are sure they want to offer them a binding offer at the early stage are taken out of the pool of applicants. They are not filing multiple applications to schools that may interest you. You even may appear to be a relatively stronger candidate in the remaining pool come spring, especially after your strong academic performance this fall.
And, remember, many, if not most, college applicants are not accepted at the early stage. Are you sure that you want to go through the angst of applying to college for the first time, and then suddenly finding, without any counter-balancing good news, that your hopes have been dashed and you must apply in earnest to several other colleges?
You and Your Guidance Counselor
Your job is to learn enough about yourself and about colleges to think clearly about where you would want to attend, and then for you (not your parents) to take the lead applying for admission.
Many high school college advisers act as if their job is to make sure that you and all your classmates have been admitted somewhere, anywhere. Also, understandably, they are concerned about managing the bureaucratic demands of processing a large volume of college applications.
It's not necessarily a bad thing if your list of favorite colleges makes counselors nervous. Maybe they'll pay a little more attention to your file. The best high school counselors help you match your preferences with colleges. They also can assist your campaign to be admitted where you want to go. That takes a lot of time and dedication.
Make the Process Fun
Think about what it's going to be like to be on your own and to live, study and goof off in a new place, meeting new people. Take advantage of the need to pause, to make a detailed report about what you've accomplished in this first part of your life. In this way the college application can be more than a chore. It can be a satisfying inventory of positives and promote honest self-evaluation of how you want to grow or change or improve.
The application process doesn't have to be nerve-racking. If you only apply to schools that really turn you on, then you really don't have to worry about being accepted to the wrong place.
In the unlikely event that you do not gain acceptance to any of your favorite schools, maybe you should take another year and do something that interests you or prepare yourself to reapply to colleges after spending some time better equipping yourself for college.
The dirty little secret is that there simply is no single school that will make or break your future.
Be a 'Smart Shopper'
You are in the market for one of the most expensive, most valuable things you will ever acquire: a college education.
Have you talked to people who have recently attended the colleges that you are considering? What have you read about the colleges? Have you visited colleges that you are seriously considering, alone, without your family?
The traditional family summer tour of colleges is a nice starting point and often can be very helpful in eliminating college choices. But in terms of getting a good feel for what it's like to be a student on campus during a term, there is only so much you can learn by staring at bricks and mortar from the outside of empty buildings, while trying to act as if you are not actually part of your family entourage--how embarrassing.
Thump the melon, test-drive the car, try to get, on your own, to the few colleges that most interest you. Bring a sleeping bag, arrange to stay, if you can, in the dorm room of a friend or somebody who graduated from your home area high schools. Attend class, find out how bad the food is in the dining hall, attend an athletic event or concert, go read in the library and work on some homework in the midst of other students doing the same thing.
If you're already in your senior year and haven't done this, it's not too late. And, of course, after you are accepted at a college you certainly have the opportunity to visit before you make your decision.
When you're applying to college you certainly want to put your best foot forward and present an accurate and compelling case for admission. But above all things, remember to be yourself.
Suppose, if by some miracle, you actually were able to gussy up your application and essays to come across as a different person or convincingly act out a role in an interview. Would the college be accepting the wrong person? More practically, it just often doesn't work to try to be someone else. Phoniness is difficult to maintain, and in most cases it's transparent.
This also means that the application form that you complete should be your own work. Relax; take the task seriously; do the best job you can and don't forget: Parents, teachers and consultants who have too large a hand in preparing applications leave very visible fingerprints.
The Interview Process
Colleges generally do not require interviews but, if available, they provide an opportunity to learn more about a school and to supplement your written application.
If you have an interview with an alumni volunteer, remember they are not decision-makers. Their task is to collect information and pass it on. They can be very good or very bad. Count on this: Whatever they report to their alma maters will be taken with a full shaker of salt. Their views will not outweigh the record you have built over time, the evaluations of professional teachers who have seen you in a class context or your own words on your application.
Still, alumni interviews can help uncover or reinforce strengths and corroborate the profile that appears in the written application file. Again, be yourself, and be prepared for a variation of the inevitable final interview question: "Is there anything else you would like to tell me?"
Also, if you're wondering about what to wear to the interview, the acceptable range of attire is very broad. On matters of dress, and all such questions about your application, let your own good judgment be your guide.
Don't Worry About Other Applicants
It is simply not true that somebody else in your school or your neighborhood is competing with you for a spot, that they might take away your space at a college that you want to attend.
At the very most selective colleges you are not competing against the person sitting next to you in a classroom, you're competing against the national pool of applicants.
In colleges that are less selective, if you make a compelling case that satisfies its requirements, you have a very good chance of being accepted. Your case for acceptance is not diminished, it is not less compelling, if other qualified candidates in your community are accepted.
In any event, know that any information you hear about other candidates for acceptance is suspect: What somebody's board scores supposedly are or aren't; whether or not a particular college has a quota for your high school; what a college has supposedly communicated to a candidate; what athletes have been told; whether students with learning disabilities get a fair shake--it's all unreliable.
None of it helps you make your case and it will get your stomach juices roiling if you pay attention to such gossip.
Have confidence in yourself. Focus on what you can do something about, which is your own application, and at the end of the day things will work out just fine. Be happy if people you know also are accepted to a college of your choice. You'll already know people to embrace or avoid when you get to campus in the fall.
Making Your Decision
Don't torture yourself about the choice you make. Remember, you've carefully compiled a list of schools that make sense for you. Be liberated in the idea that you can't make a wrong decision.
Attending college is expensive. Whether or not you receive scholarships, take out loans, or get a part- time job, it's likely your college education is going to cost a lot. Talk this over with your family and determine your realistic options.
In the end, after you carefully weigh the different factors that are important to you, it's probably going to come down to a gut reaction. Trust your own instincts. Make up your mind and then get excited about it. Also, make sure to thank your parents, other family members, teachers and advisers.
I'm not a professional admissions officer or an educator. I don't know any particulars about you or your situation. I just suggest you think about the questions I raised.
Don't let hopes about college become a black cloud over the best year of high school.
Oh, either white or manila envelopes are fine, but don't forget the postage.
Nick Allard, a Washington attorney, has been interviewing college applicants as an alumni volunteer for 25 years.