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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/14/2010

Choosing a college isn't about cachet, rankings

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Eileen Wilkinson, a college counselor for almost 25 years and former associate director of admissions at Marymount University in Virginia. She has also served as an admissions consultant for major colleges and universities and currently works in education counseling for PrepMatters.

By Eileen Wilkinson
T.S. Eliot opined, “April is the cruelest month,” but I offer in response: Au contraire, my somber friend. As a senior in high school, April can be the coolest month...or the most conflicted month, depending upon your perspective.

If you happen to be fortunate enough to possess acceptances from multiple colleges, don’t waste your time wishing you had been rejected by a few simply to make it easier on yourself.

This is the time to make your decision—in sharp contrast to those anxious months spent hoping that college admissions committees would find you worthy. Admittedly, it now would be tempting to demand that each college write a carefully crafted essay detailing precisely why they would be the perfect fit for you, but I wouldn’t count on that.

My first piece of advice: Throw away your copy of "U.S. News and World Report: Best Colleges."

The prevailing mindset in the Washington metropolitan area seems to be that one must follow the Holy Grail of college rankings in order to make this very personal decision. While I respect the guidance the Report provides in general terms, it cannot provide any real insight into how an individual student will be best served in his or her college years, and if a college meets those criteria.

Admittedly, when I visited colleges in northern California last August, I bought Stanford T-shirts for my children, and not the Dominican University apparel available in the bookstore. Dominican is a lovely little college, but it clearly doesn’t have the same cachet that the Stanford brand carries.

I, therefore, fully understand the temptation to be drawn to the most selective college one can get into, but I have to remind myself that this does not always serve the student well. It does not fully take into account where this young person will be able to develop his or her full potential, not only as a student, but also as a person.

As an example, I worked with “George” this past year, helping him craft a college list that would suit him well, which included both “safeties” and a few “reaches.” Fast forward to the March madness of college decisions.

While I was grocery shopping one day, I was greeted with a shriek of recognition as George’s mother raced towards me in the frozen food aisle, overjoyed because George had been admitted to his big reach school. Together we did a brief, but exuberant dance of triumph in front of the frozen waffles, basking in the relief that success brings.
Case closed. Right? Not so fast.

Later in the week, George and his parents sat in my office to discuss his college decision. In his heart, he knew that one of his “safeties” was truly the best fit for him.

Being a bit of a homebody, he wanted to be close to his family (not a plane-ride away like his “top” choice); plus at his safety he could play football and take advantage of the strong learning support system it offered and which he needed.

Yet, no matter how many “pros” we could pile up for his safety choice, the whole stack would crumble when we brought up the subject of college rankings. What would the neighbors think?

It was not the easiest decision, but eventually George decided to go with the state college. When he fully examined his reasoning, it was clear he had made the best decision—for himself.

As this story details, there are many important criteria to consider carefully, and it is not the same group of factors for each student. One simply needs to know oneself well, and understand what will be most important in the present moment, and also prudently assess factors that may have an impact in the future, such as which college has a solid alumni network, or an impressive percentage of graduates attending graduate school.

For some, the academic program offerings are by far the most important consideration; for others, it can be the proximity of the dining hall to the freshman residence halls (I try not to judge). Sometimes it will be the highest ranked college on your list, but don’t follow the Groucho Marx creed, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

My best advice is to choose the college that offers the most to you as an individual.

College is an incredibly formative time, where you get to decide for yourself what type of student you want to be, the type of people you want to surround yourself with, and the type of living environment where you will flourish. These are the introspective, sometimes tough, questions you should be wrangling with, not debating which bumper sticker will best proclaim to the word, “Success Rides Here.”

Unless you are choosing a college because your true soul mate is going there or because it has a really terrific Fish-Night Friday, you’re probably not going to make a terrible decision.

It can be challenging to decide on a college; but, continuing with our little April theme, if you have the right mindset, you are bound to “grow where you’re planted.”


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | April 14, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  U.S. news college rankings, choosing the right college, college admissions, deciding on a college, making a final decision  
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Next: College Tour '10: Villanova University


it's cachet, not cache.

Posted by: turtle1 | April 14, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Here's hoping that parents can actually let their kids go to the schools that are good for them and not the best "name" school.

Posted by: jeannineal | April 14, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Choosing the right college is very important.

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Posted by: Eplee87 | April 14, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

As a college consultant, I couldn't agree more with your advice. I am always thrilled when one of my students chooses a school that maybe none of his or her friends has ever heard of but without question, it is the right fit. In the end, it usually turns out to be a wonderful experience and provides tremendous opportunities to build on in the future.

Susie Watts,
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | April 14, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

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