It's about the journey: the myth of a first choice college

Posted by Joseph Freeman - 22 November, 2013

A November sunset illuminates the spire of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. A November sunset illuminates the spire of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

November is an exciting time in Randolph’s College Counseling Office. At this point, each member of the senior class has made an application to at least one selective four-year college or university, and many are anxiously awaiting decisions on priority, early action, and early decision applications.

While some students might agree with Tom Petty, who noted that “the waiting is the hardest part,” the stress of deciding where to apply, composing and revising essays, sitting for standardized tests, and negotiating the endless well-meaning but incessant questions from parents, relatives, teachers, and other adults about college choices is waning for seniors.

One of the most frequent questions students hear is “what is your first choice?” This is a perfectly valid question to ask a high school senior, just as many prospective families who look at Randolph should wonder: “Do these students get into their first choice colleges?”

At Randolph, we counsel students and families to think about the college search process in a different way. Many students enter the process hoping to find true love—to happen upon that one college that is just “perfect” for them in every way. Admissions recruitment and marketing strategies increasingly talk about “fit” and “match,” and these are words that we use every day in our discussions with students and families as well.

At the same time, our students’ desire to find the “perfect match” should not be dictated by the monogamous mindset of “one true love.” Given the selectivity associated with college admissions and the increasing unpredictability of the process—both for students and for colleges and universities—the notion of a “first choice” college is increasingly problematic. A significant element of our counseling is designed to work against the notion of “top college choice.”

The college process is dynamic. A student may have an idea of a school being a good match or their dream school, but this may be based on the whiff of reputation, a family tie, or name recognition. Through the process of learning about what they want, students should find multiple schools that fit their criteria. Their list – and their horizons – should broaden. Research, a campus visit, interviews, and discussions with college representatives will all play a part in determining fit. By the time a student applies to college, he or she should have a number of colleges that can be defined as “first choice,” and these colleges should represent a spectrum of selectivity based on a student’s academic profile.

Randolph’s College Counseling program is individualized. The college counselors are nationally recognized leaders in their field, professionals dedicated to the college admissions process, and, with a low counselor-to-student ratio (1/10th the ratio of other area schools), the counselors spend hours with students and their families, one-on-one, engaging in a process of academic and personal discovery. The counselors also travel frequently to colleges, universities, and conferences, sitting on advisory boards and attending formal tour programs. These programs educate the counselors about the variety of distinctive colleges and universities available to students, and they also give us the opportunity to tell the Randolph story to admissions deans both near and far, helping to maintain Randolph’s reputation as a regional and national leader among independent schools.

Our goal is to devise a list of colleges that provide students with a variety of choices. These choices are designed to align with a student’s academic and personal strengths, for our goal is not for a student to be admitted to college, but to be successful in college. Their list is an outcome of this process.

Many Randolph students gain admission to the most selective universities and colleges in the United States, yet each student’s story in the college process is unique. We take great pride at Randolph when we hear of how our students become engaged scholars and leaders on their college campuses. Those stories come from around the state and across the nation, and each one serves as an affirmation, for it is that engagement and discipline—and not an acceptance or matriculation list—that become true testaments to the quality of a Randolph education. Randolph enjoys a strong reputation at colleges and universities across the country for the rigor of its academic program and the high value it places on character and integrity. Our graduates are difference-makers and leaders on college campuses, and those colleges in turn become keen to recruit more Randolph students.

Often, high school students fall into a mindset that places an outsized emphasis on where they apply, where they are admitted, and where they ultimately attend. So much of our culture—films, television, social media, and college recruitment marketing—reinforces this mindset. At its most pernicious, this mindset causes students (and occasionally parents) to base their sense of self-worth on admissions outcomes, or to decide that their college choices will be the primary determinant of success and happiness in their lives. When so much, then, is riding on an outcome of a process, students and families become extremely risk averse. Every essay, activity form, and interview can be seen as an opportunity for failure and rejection. This paranoia is only magnified when students subscribe to the “one true love” theory of college admissions. We want students to envision their success at a variety of strong colleges and universities. We also want students to see the application process not as a mine field fraught with potential annihilation but as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Ultimately, a college application allows a student to articulate who he or she is, where he or she is going, and how he or she hopes to get there. Articulating this message requires deep reflection, a willingness to embrace vulnerability, and an ability to accept the possibility of failure. Having a variety of choices allows for this learning to happen in a much more healthy and positive fashion. It keeps students saner and parents happier. More importantly, it transforms our conception of college admissions from an outcome—a prize—to a nurturing process of growth, development, and self-realization.

So we celebrate November, for it represents for so many of our students the culmination of years of preparation and reflection. Our students are clear-eyed and self-aware as they eagerly await results for all of their applications—and not merely their “first choice” college.

You can find the College Counseling Office on Twitter @Randolph_CCO.


Topics: 12th grade, Academics, Admissions, After, college, college counseling, High Expectations, My favorite place, Off-campus, the world, Upper School, People

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