Take your college ranking guide and burn it

Unless you happen to live next to a college ranking guide, the list you just paid for was put together by someone who knows absolutely nothing about your child

Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Parents of college-bound students, I get it. You want your child to have a good college experience — actually, you want them to have a great college experience. And with all the hype about choosing the right college, it’s natural you want some help making sense of the wide array of college choices. That’s why you bought the latest copy of the college rankings everyone talks about.

It’s also why you should burn it.

Don’t get me wrong — the hearts of the editors of college rankings are in the right place.  They think that if they collect data about how many students the college admits, how many books are in the college’s library, how many students return for their second year of college, and what the presidents of other colleges think of this college, they can create a list of colleges that will meet your child’s needs. Since we’re adults, we look at this fact-based approach towards college choice, see how it makes sense, and buy a copy.

The problem here is that this approach has nothing to do with your child. Unless you happen to live next door to the editors of a college rankings publication, the list you just paid for was put together by someone who knows absolutely nothing about your child — nothing about what they might want to major in, if they learn better in classes with lots of students or very few, if they want to study overseas, if they learn best by doing rather than talking, or if the idea of going to school in a major city just isn’t their idea of a good time.

Princeton is the top school in this year’s version of a college ranking. It has a great engineering program, and is located in the middle of a very cute little town. But why would that school even be on your list if you want to major in education (which they don’t offer) and spend your weekends with 80,000 fans rooting for the home team? Even if you wanted to major in engineering, is the experience you’d get at Michigan State (ranked #81) really all that different, especially if you want to live closer to home — and especially since you’d still be in small classes if you attend MSU’s Honors College, where you’d likely get a scholarship to go there?

If you still think a list of schools would help, you’re right — it’s just not this list you just bought. The key to building on that second framework involves an expert most parents overlook — your child. They may not know what they want in a college, and they may have no clue what they wanted to study. But there’s a really good chance they may have picked up some ideas about what they don’t want in a college, and that’s just as good a place to start.  

Throw in some parent visits to local college campuses, and you can start to get a feel for the way your child sees both college and themselves. Build on that with a weekly 20-minute meeting to make sure the nuts and bolts of applying are getting done, and you have the foundation for a solid plan.

Another source parents can use to help with the college process is your child’s school counselors. It’s certainly true that the average Michigan school counselor is swamped. As Bridge Magazine has reported, Michigan has the fourth highest student-to-counselor ratio in the nation, at 732 students per counselor.  At the same time, school counselors are in touch with more college admission offices than anyone else in your community, and most have had some training on how to help make sense of the college search.  You may only get one visit or two, but that can be enough to give you a framework to build a good search.

Of course, there’s also the Internet. A number of online resources can help students build a college list based on their interests.  Known as college guides or college search engines, these tools allow students to build lists based on different interests, save those lists, change them, and do in-depth research on a college, including admission requirements and scholarship opportunities. From College Board’s Big Future to Peterson’s, search engines can help reveal more options, and filter them based on your interests.

College can be a wonderful experience, but it means very different things to different people — that’s why there are so many different kinds. Using someone else’s values to build your college list is like using someone else’s tastes to decide the restaurant where you should dine. Unless what matters to them also matters to you, you’re likely to leave hungry for something else, and stuck with the check. There’s a better way.

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