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Posted at 9:13 AM ET, 02/15/2010

The college hunt: It's enough to drive a mom crazy

By Valerie Strauss

I promised myself I wouldn’t worry about my daughter’s college search ever -- and certainly not until she was a senior (she’s still a junior). Besides, as an education reporter, I’ve authoritatively told many a parent that becoming obsessed would be annoying and unseemly, not to mention unproductive.

But without permission, my mind started analyzing everything in terms of the college hunt. A trip my daughter took to Boston to see her aunt? Why not check out colleges? When she showed me her latest writing, I heard myself say to myself, "Now THAT would make a great essay, tweaked ever so slightly." My neighbor said something nice about her and, I thought, "Tell that to the admissions office."

To avoid becoming pathological, I sought advice from Susan Coll, an author who chronicled the college admissions process in her hilarious novel “Acceptance” (which was made into a TV movie with Joan Cusack) and who is soon publishing her delicious new novel called “Beach Week.”

Susan not only did extensive research on the college admissions process for her book but she’s also a three-time veteran of the college admissions process with her own children.

“Acceptance” follows a group of kids at a highly competitive high school go through the admissions process. It was the result of an amusing thought she had several years ago:

What would happen if, by dint of a statistical error, a small hidden liberal arts college suddenly was placed high on the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

Research, including a cold call to U.S. News, persuaded her that the consequences would be significant. The school would immediately be flooded with applications because of the rankings, just one of the many absurdities of the admissions process about which she wrote. Experts on admissions said she nailed it.

As it happened, a short time after the book came out, there was an “error in data output” and U.S. News’s 2008 guide to graduate programs elevated two schools into the top 10 for electrical engineering when their rankings were really extremely low.

“Error in data output”--another reason to avoid rankings.

So I told her about my worries--and she told me to stop obsessing.

How? I asked.

Just stop it, she said; it really works out fine in the end, really.

“It’s almost like childbirth, especially when you are going through it the first time,” she said. “You’ve spent all this time focusing on the process and that’s not really what it’s about.”

Then I asked her to tell me what had driven her crazy when she was working on college apps with her three kids (two went to Tulane; one the University of Maryland at College Park). She gave me an answer I wasn’t expecting: “Scattergrams.”


A scattergram is essentially a charted college application history of seniors at a specific high school. Each students is anonymously entered by grades and test scores, and the computer program shows you where your kid fits into that high school’s application picture to specific colleges: How many kids applied and were accepted, rejected, wait-listed, taken off the wait list, etc.

Parents can get a password and see exactly where their kid fits in.

When you see someone outside the graph, with really low scores who was nevertheless accepted to the Ivy League, you think athlete, or legacy, or major bucks.

“Now you can spend more time making yourself insane,” she half-joked but then warned, “It was too much information. It was crossing the line between helpful information and too much information.... It can be a useful tool, but it is just another thing to obsess on, even if you think you aren’t obsessive.”

Great. Just what I need.

After doing a little of my own research I've decided that in the interests of my own sanity, I am going to (try to) believe what college admissions folks say about scattergrams: They are in no way predictive because the information can be badly skewed in many ways. So if your school wasted money on it, don't waste your time worrying about it.

Sure thing.

I’d be interested to hear from those of you who have experience with scattergrams. Please write in the comments or to me at

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 15, 2010; 9:13 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Scattergrams are a great tool, but like much else in a pressure-filled process subject to second-guessing, potential fuel for excess anxiety. Here's why they're useful: a good app strategy involves targeting reach schools, good prospects, and safety schools -- say, 2 applications in each category. Since acceptances are influenced by one's zip code, and even, possibly, one's high school, having the high-school level acceptance data really helps inform the selection of which schools fall in which of the three categories on a very individualized basis. If one is prone to be frozen by anxiety, I doubt that scattergrams are the real cause.

Posted by: rboltuck | February 15, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

My kids' high school had those scattergrams and the kids found them extremely useful. Instead of feeling as though everything were a "crap shoot" as people sometimes insist, the scattergram allowed them to look at how kids fared who had their same scores and came from their same school. I know that it led my son to scratch some schools off his list as hopeless reaches, and feel confident about others. If anything, it was a wonderful, unbiased dose of reality. Median scores published are so meaningless when there are 20,000 kids applying to a school that will accept about 3,000-4,000. Knowing how that college views kids "just like them" was really helpful, especially in winnowing down the list of possible schools to those for which they had a good shot at admission.

Posted by: person123 | February 15, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

One important thing to keep in mind as a parent -- do not even think of beginning the process until spring break junior year. A full year of thinking about this topic is more than enough for any teenager, and there's nothing to be done before then anyway.

Two: the mantra to repeat at home is that there is no one school for any student -- there is a list. Help your child develop the list and do not get locked into ranking a first or second choice. It's too hard to get in to any one school. If by the following fall, the student has a clear favorite, and your child is the type who will stick to that and not change his or her mind by April (which is VERY common), then early decision and a first choice is an option.

Don't be surprised if your student has absolutely no idea where he or she wants to go. The first trip should include a variety of options: big university and small liberal arts college, urban and remote, etc., and you will be surprised how much snaps into place after they have been on campus. Also, do not worry or be surprised if they take an immediate dislike to a particular school for no reason that you can discern. It happens. You can't undo it. And it doesn't matter -- there are thousands more!

Most important thing to remember? It's his or her college process, NOT YOURS!

Posted by: fmjk | February 15, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

There's a wonderful nonfiction book by David Marcus called "Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges---And Find Themselves." It's an inspiring and useful book.

Posted by: dottie_b | February 15, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

My daughter is in the middle of the process, rejected from two, accepted by one, and waiting on three. What really helped us was college visits. Not anything specific about any one college but the message we received from each. It got us thinking about the whole acceptance process, the essay, the eventual major, etc. Not to mention living on campus and the college locale.

What surprised me was how straightforward the public schools were (UMD, Towson, etc) about costs, and how weird the private schools were. Like Drexel telling us that the tuition was $36K but no one pays that. They have a discount for almost any reason; alumni, others going to college, grants, endowments, etc. So when it comes to funding we realized outside the public schools you really don't know the final cost until its time to make a decision on the offers you receive. As a parent I think this is insane, but that seems to be the way things are. A high tuition cost makes a school look attractive for some reason, then when you get a 30% discount off the price you feel special. This is no way to run a noble institution and more like selling cars.

The scattergrams did help in seeing whether a school would likely accept or not. We decided to apply to the ones we thought were good even if we were on the edge of the scattergram or worse, because the scattergrams are just averages, and acceptance levels are decided year to year based on who applies. We used it as a guide, not a definer on which college to apply to. That was based on the school's attributes, it having the major we were interested in, cost, locale, etc. For example, majoring in engineering may be great at both UMD and VA-Tech, but which is close to places where the student can work in the summer or intern? UMD is surrounded by engineering institutions such as NASA, NIST, etc. Those were our considerations, not just scattergrams or advertised cost.

But what was not mentioned in the article is the insanity of scholarships. Maybe another article or book on that crazy subject.

Posted by: Fate1 | February 15, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

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