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Common Conundrums: an excerpt from "The All-in-One College Guide"

By Marty Nemko

The following excerpt is from the book "The All-in-One College Guide: A More-Results, Less-Stress Plan for Choosing, Getting into, Finding the Money for, and Making the Most out of College" by Dr. Marty Nemko.

Common Conundrums

Here’s how I typically respond to my clients’ most frequent concerns about choosing a college. Of course, how I respond depends on the particular student I’m talking with, but I hope these generic responses can help you.

All the colleges seem alike.
They do tend to be quite alike. Most college offer similar classes, extracurriculars, and residence halls, and have pretty campuses. Their key differences usually boil down to two things: the student body and the location.

  • Student body. Some colleges have mainly A students, others B students, still others C students. Most colleges have a mix of all types of students, but other colleges have predominantly artsy, jocky, preppy, activist, and/or studious students.
  • Location. Some colleges are in the tundra; at others, you can wear shorts in February. You also need to decide whether you want to be within laundry distance of home or move to the most far-flung place on the continent.

    Unless there’s something unusual you’re looking for in a college, such as vegan cafeteria food or a major in entomology, chances are, if you choose your college based just on student body and location, you’ll be satisfied with your choice.

My girl(boy)friend is going to XXX College.
Romance is a powerful motivator. It can even make a student go to an inappropriate college just to be with Snookums. Of course, if your honeybunch is going to a college that’s also well-suited to you, okay. But fact is, most high school romances don’t last beyond a semester or two of college—there are too many new people to meet and new experiences that make one of you realize that you weren’t so perfect for each other, after all. It would be a shame if you risked your college experience on a relationship that ended soon after you got to college. If your relationship is that perfect, even if you attend different colleges, frequent visits, e-mails and big phone bills will keep the relationship thriving.

My parent is pushing College X.
The question is why are they pushing College X? Because it’s their alma mater? Because they would like to go there? Because they want you close to home to avoid their being lonely? Or because they have a rational reason for thinking it would be a great fit for you? Don’t accept nor reject their recommendation without seriously considering their rationale. Perhaps they’re right—after all, they probably know you pretty well.

(For parents) I feel guilty about pushing my child toward low-cost colleges.
There really is no reason to feel guilty. The research shows no correlation between college cost and quality. Focus on finding a low-cost college that is well-suited to your child. When the college is selected, urge your child to read Chapter 5 in this book on how to make the most of college. Following that chapter’s advice will do more to enhance your child’s college experience than spending money on a pricey college.

I still have no idea where I want to go.
If you’ve tried to figure out where to apply and still are utterly confused or overwhelmed, this list of my personal favorite colleges can be a useful starting place.

I chose them based on quality of undergraduate education, quality of life, true diversity of ideology encouraged, prestige, and a sticker price that represents good value. (Low-income applicants may get enough financial aid to make the sticker price less important.)

Small Liberal Arts Colleges

A students: Amherst or Haverford
B students: Mt. Allison (Canada)

A students: University of Chicago
B students: Grinnell

A students: Davidson
B students: Mary Washington if money is an issue, Rhodes if it is not.

A students: Pomona
B students: Santa Clara

Large Colleges

A students: Harvard
B students: Penn State

A Northwestern
B Indiana University, Bloomington

A students: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
B students: University of Florida

A students: UCLA
B students: University of Washington

Many Studious Students

A students: Swarthmore
B students: St. John’s (MD)

A students: University of Chicago
B students: Carlton

A students: Davidson
B students: Rhodes

A students: St. John’s (NM)
B students: Occidental

Many Unconventional Students

A students: Brown
B students: Sarah Lawrence

A students: Grinnell
B students: Earlham

A students: New College (FL)
B students: Guilford

A students: Reed
B students: Evergreen State


**** 95% of colleges need you more than you need them—because most colleges never fill all their slots. Be choosy!

The best ways to learn about a college:
Read about them in one or more of these guides:

  • The Best 351 Colleges (Each college’s profile summarizes what 100+ of its students say about their college.)
    -- The Fiske Guide to Colleges
    -- Barron’s Guide to the Most Competitive Colleges
    -- Barron’s Best Buys in Higher Education.

    Read some issues of the college newspaper—often available at the college’s website or at Newspapers.
  • Ask the college to send you a copy of their most recent student satisfaction survey and visiting team accreditation report. (My favorite tools for evaluating a college.)
  • When visiting to check out a prospective college, never leave a campus without talking with at least seven students that the admissions office did not put in front of you.
  • A good way to assess the quality of teaching at a college is to walk down the halls of a busy classroom building and stop in front of five or ten open doors. Would you like to be in that class?
In making your final choice, yes, a brand-name college offers advantages, but lesser known colleges also have advantages. Pick the college that is right for you. Ultimately, you will be happier and more successful.

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