We've all read the articles, bought the books (The Dummies' Guide to Choosing a College, etc.); been lectured by guidance personnel, college counselors and other parents. Just as we once pored over information about potty training, soccer skills and orthodontia, we Baby Boomer parents are now cramming our heads full with the language of college admissions.
You've heard the how tos. Well, this article won't give you that kind of information. Instead we will focus on the how not tos. Based on my own unscientific research with my own children (including one who is now happily in his second year of college) and a few of their friends and parents, these pointers will, I hope, help other parents who are bleary-eyed from reading all those glossy college catalogs and weak-kneed from all the parental advice.
Do not start the process before your child is ready to start looking at schools. One parent informed me that her son felt he didn't belong at a liberal arts school because he couldn't dance, sing OR paint. (He was in ninth grade at the time.) While being dragged along to her older brother's college visits, my then 13-year-old daughter kept asking if we could visit the college "gift shop" (the ONLY thing that interested her at that age was the shopping).
Do not choose a college based on its school colors, mascot or fight song. My son had a thing for the University of Richmond for a while because their mascot was the spiders...understandably, he was in sixth grade at the time. And I know people who didn't like Northwestern because they didn't look good in purple. I am personally very fond of Cornell's alma mater...but that's beside the point. Not to mention the odds of our son attending, based on their mean SAT scores.
Do not choose a school based on its appearance in the summer or in a catalog. We toured several campuses on our way to summer vacations, and they all looked barren….and hot... and boring... and absolutely empty. And, having worked in college admissions, I know that those catalog shots can be (and often are) staged. Better to visit on a weekday when classes are in session and there is life on campus.
Will, Peter and Bill Strome at Ohio University where Will is a sophomore
Do not choose a college based on its non-essential yet appealing amenities. One of my son's favorites, for a while, featured a Taco Bell in its student lounge. Another entranced him because they did the students' laundry. (Personally I've always felt college was a time to learn HOW to do laundry. And yet another school shone because they were part of the Big Ten football conference. (Unfortunately, his dad rooted for this one). I was impressed with the Starbucks in one school's student union, but fortunately my son's not a coffee drinker, so he didn't even notice.
Do not select a school based on seemingly important (yet highly volatile) mathematical criteria such as male/female ratios. I know someone who did this, and to his dismay, learned there were way more men than the numbers indicated. Luckily, he is now happily married to a non-alumnus and I can tell you that it didn't really matter in the end. Right, honey?
Do not -- repeat -- do NOT encourage choosing a school because you attended it, your grandmother attended it, or their favorite teacher attended it. It will be their school, their experience, their four years, and frankly, the rest of us won't be there anyway. The legacy thing is way overrated.
Do not choose a college unless it feels like the place your child wants to be. I learned from experience that children will know the answer to that question much sooner than you think. Let them make that choice.
By Alison Strome