Opportunities Through Education
Marcy Hamilton
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Destination College

For many years, books of this nature were merely concerned with "getting in." As a col­lege counselor, it’s my hope that my counselees not just get in, but stay in, be happy, and graduate in considerably less than a decade. My wish for the family is that parents can afford to pay the price for educating their kids, and that these kids might consider returning the favor by footing the bills for their par­ents' extended and peaceful old age.

Where Do I Go?

How Do I Get There?

Going to the wrong school can be very costly— educationally, emotionally, and financially. Transferring can be a nightmare; you can lose cred­its, friends, and sleep. How do you avoid this predicament? You should begin by not letting any­one else determine what it is you're looking for in a college. Look inside yourself and understand who you are first. This, of course, isn't easy because most high school students are works-in-progress. Even if you know all the right questions to ask yourself, the answers to those questions may not be instantly apparent.

The Road to College proposes to help you look at who you are and what you might want in a college. It's a workbook, so do the work. It will give you insight, and you'll begin to be a prudent buyer of your own education. You should also find out what your parents might want you to do and what they can afford. Most parents are flexible when it comes to your future; they ulti­mately want your happiness. You, however, need to know what will make you happy so you can make a strong case for it when you get to that important conversation. Remember this phrase:

"It's not about just get­ting in. I want to stay in, be happy, and graduate."

What are your educational hopes, dreams, fantasies? How realistic are your goals? What are your interests, and do your skills and/or tal­ents match them? What does drive your ambitions? Is it money, power, prestige, learning for learning's sake, doing good? Be truthful. If you see yourself driving a Porsche, wheeling and dealing and delegating, don't major in Minor British Poets. What are your politics? Colleges can and should be a forum for ideas. What are yours? If you are vocal and very liberal, you certainly wouldn't be comfortable at a conservative college. What's your learning style? If you learn by doing, you'll be miserable at Mega-State, attending classes taught by a "sage on the stage." Instead, find schools that offer work/study, externships, and study-abroad programs. Are you a cooperative or com­petitive learner? Whether you're a team player or an engine who drives yourself may well determine whether you can handle a pressure-cooker school. Core requirements and school calendars should also influence your school choices. College quarter systems are deadly if you're not a quick study. And if you can't handle people telling you what you must do to get your degree, there are plenty of schools offering alternative ways to educate you.

Look, too, at your own high school experience. What kind of school do you attend? Have you been happy there? What would you change about it to make it a better place for you to thrive? Take that infor­mation with you when you look at colleges. Visualize the "Perfect U. for You," even though that place may not actually exist.

Lastly, what is your parents' economic situation? After all, they'll pay for some or all of your college and should have some say in the matter. How committed would you be to an expensive, private college if financial aid were not a possi­bility and you had to work your way through? Both the process and politics of financial aid and economic neces­sity have made the this century a much different educational climate than last.

Talk to recent grads and listen to what they have to say about their college choices. If they could do it again, what would they do differently and why? Most of all, ask questions, first of yourself, and then of others. This book wants to help you own the process of college selection, admissions, and financial aid. The idea is to find a set of schools that are appropriate to your very special and individual needs. Spend as much time researching your "safety school" as you do that “reach”. You’ll be amazed how stress-relieving a visit to a safety can be, if you love the school and don't think of it as settling for sixth best. You also won't upset your family by threatening suicide if you don't get into your number one choice.

Viable is the key word here. It's a buyer's market. Pick schools that are viable for you, and you'll get into these with ease. The rule is: "Choose; don't be chosen."

This book also presents a whole bunch of schools that might meet your needs given who you are. Remember, except for a few highly-selective schools, most schools will take you if they feel you're an appropriate applicant. This means if they think they can educate you, make you happy, and get you out in a decent amount of time with a diploma, they will accept you.

Okay—The "Getting In" Part

While there are no magic potions around to woo the Deans of Undergraduate Admissions at Stanford or Swarthmore, here are some insider tips on how the system works and how to work the system.  Listen up!

  1. Pump up your stats! Your GPA, rank in class, and standardized test scores (ACT, SAT ) are the "givens" in your college admissions profile.
  1. Give your academic life the priority. Study hard. Take a challenging course load; consult with your high school counselors about the courses and credits needed to get into college, especially if you're heading for your state's university system where the numbers really count.
  1. Prepare for the standardized tests. Nobody likes the SAT or ACT, but they're the only tools admissions officers have to compare your performance against the teens at other schools across the country. Take a course if you can afford it—prep courses do work!—or study at least 30 hours on your own. Timing, strategy, skills, and stamina are all nec­essary for success. A good score can maximize the number of schools that will find you an attractive candidate for admissions. Don't take the tests "for practice." Plan a test- taking calendar and complete all tests early enough to send scores to colleges in a timely way. If you're applying early deci­sion, note that you'll have even earlier deadlines.
  1. Don't be a walking "activity list." joining every club is not the way to impress admissions officers. Your after-school and summer activities do count, but only to the extent that they validate your true self. If you like business, develop a hobby into a money-maker. Do you love sports and helping others? Try a job shadow at a physical therapy office. If you become an interesting person, admissions officers will find you interesting.
  1. Realize that the admissions process for selective schools can be particularly frus­trating. Competition is quite fierce and often seems to be unfair. All applicants have stellar "stats." Princeton, for example, drafts a freshman class of 1,130 each year and receives 22,000 applications, of which more than 2,000 are valedictorians of their high school graduating classes. At this level of competition, what would be the advice for getting in? It would be pretty much the same as for any school:

Let your application reflect how important it is for you to get in to that particular school. Let them know you believe you’re an appropriate admissions candidate by using your essays to reveal your special strengths, talents, or commitments; know enough about the school to tell them specifically why you would be an asset, why you are a good fit.

Visit campuses. Admissions officers love to know you've taken the time to visit the campus, sit in on classes, and spend the night in a dorm. Campus visits—including class visits and overnight stays, in particular—are best made before writing applica­tions, rather than after acceptance. If you don't like the place, don't apply! If you love it, tell them why with details; they will believe you.

Don't just write a "creative" essay. The essay is a potent way of revealing your best self, use it to influence and evoke. Admissions officers read thousands of them; make yours authentic. Read it aloud. If it sounds like nonsense, it is. Start again and refocus or reframe, prune and proofread, but most of all let them know, in a positive and humble way, what the numbers cannot possibly tell them—just how special you really are. If you're a fine artist, accompany your application with a portfolio of your work, or if you are a performing artist, make a videotape. Admissions for the learn­ing disabled and athletic admissions have their own special rules and guidelines. With these, and other special needs groups, the earlier you get going the better. Visiting with the coach or head of the specific department is crucial. Listen hard and follow the advice given; observe the rules and deadlines.

Think about demographics and economics. Often you can be a more attractive candi­date if you travel outside of your home turf for an education. For example, if you live on the West Coast, be aware that there are some dynamite and cosmopolitan private schools in the South, such as Tulane and Emory, that have large endowments and are eager to attract top-flight students from outside of their region. As the price of a state university education has increased and the number of years it takes to com­plete an undergraduate degree has risen (4.9 years on average in the University of California system, for example), out-of-state schools have become more popular. Often the public universities of states other than your own welcome out-of-staters, and the cost even of out-of-state tuition may be lower than that of your home state.  Also, you can and should negotiate financial aid packages with schools that have awarded you money, so applying to several academically-similar schools for which you are a very appealing candidate is quite important. It's not uncommon for a student to go to her number one choice with her best offer from another school and see if that financial aid officer will meet the other schools package.

I always caution my counselees that it's never wise to read the last page first, so I encour­age you to begin the process of college selection now. Turn the page. The Road to College will help you travel toward a successful college life.

Marcy Hamilton has a private practice in college admissions counseling called Op/Ed—Opportunities through Education in Greenbrae CA.


Counseling Conundrums Solved:

Expensive Lesson

Kim sat in my office holding back the tears. The local JC was full of middle-aged re-entry women and next-career men. Classmates her own age seemed to be in a “holding pattern." There was little sense of camaraderie because most of the students were commuters. Sure, the teachers were okay, and the price was certainly right, but somehow this wasn't what she had in mind when she envisioned college life. Actually. Kim hadn't envisioned anything much at all during her high school career. A lackluster student, she couldn't quite get it together to think beyond the moment. When it came to applying to college, she opted to go to the local community college. She had been told that if she did her work, she could transfer easily to the state's prestigious university system. Now, of course, more mature and motivated, the realized that if she were to major in the field she now wanted to pursue, it would take almost straight As to transfer. Although she had finally found commitment, Kim was still no honor student. Anyway, she now wanted to get away from home and attend a small, but lively campus rather than attend a large public university Had she given more thought to her future when she was in high school. Kim might have avoided this difficult situation.

Reality Check

John loved to draw but recognized that he had no discernible talent. Art school wasn't for him. Taking art courses as electives or even majoring in art history or arts management would be just the thing.

The Long Run

Bob, another of my counselees, is a very bright business major. He picked Notre Dame, even though he knew he'd never start on the football team. An excellent high school  linebacker, Bob recognized that his athletic skills did not quite measure up to his passion for the sport, so he based his decision on where to attend college on longer-term ambitions.

Finding the Perfect Fit

Peter was a prodigy. Destined for the Ivy League, he and his family came to me to help

research and distill all that information coming in the mail. Gifted kids don't always have an easy time of it, and Peter's parents wanted him to be happy above all else. The top schools all share the luster of prestige, but they are very different one from the other. A talented musician and singer, Peter was planning to major in astrophysics. We spent several hours talking, identifying the intangibles as well as the knowns. He wanted a school where he could temper his scientific side with some artistic pursuits, especially a place where he could sing a cappella. Princeton seemed to be the perfect fit for him. and they said "yes." Peter will be very happy there indeed.

Money Matters

Theresa wanted to study pre-med. but she also hoped to find a really small liberal arts college where she could study music and learn science in a broad-based core curriculum. An excellent Chinese-American student, Theresa also needed financial aid. Several colleges came across with generous offers. I have counseled her to look carefully at the details of her award letters so that she and her family can make an informed decision.

Destination College, by Marcy Hamilton, first appeared as the Foreword to the Newsweek book, Road to College. The piece was addressed to student applicants but parents have enjoyed its advice as well.