As college attendance has become a foregone conclusion, almost a rite of passage for today’s youth rather than a rarely attainable privilege as in the past, the stress and anxiety over tuition, admissions and choosing a university has grown steadily with each subsequent generation.
“Nobody thinks the college search process is going to be fun,” said Marty O’Connell, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives at their college fair, held at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City on two consecutive nights. “We hope what we can do is get you to reframe your search process in a way that you look forward to it and in a way that you have confidence with it.”
Based on the book of the same name by former New York Times Education Editor Loren Pope, the nonprofit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, was developed to aid prospective college students who are often bewildered by the admissions process. Colleges That Change Lives’ fair featured 44 smaller sized liberal arts colleges that appear to go under the radar during most students’ college searches.
O’Connell spoke to over 500 high school students and their parents in the Hilton’s Sierra Ballroom about changing their mindsets as they approached college admission deadlines, warning against being dissuaded by “horror stories” in which even high school valedictorians cannot be admitted into their college of choice, or any school for that matter.
“Those stories don’t represent reality,” O’Connell said. “The really good news is that the average admission rate for four year colleges and universities is close to 70%. The second piece of good news is that there are fewer than 100 colleges [that] reject more students than they admit.”
Maria Furtado, director of Admissions at Eckerd College (one of the 44 featured colleges at the fair), explained the process that admissions officers undertake when analyzing a student’s body of work.
While Furtado did say that a student’s ACT and/or SAT test scores are evaluated if those tests are taken, she did encourage students to go to www.fairtest.org, which features universities which are “test optional” within their admissions process, “if you do not wish to be judged by your test scores.”
But Furtado emphasized that the personal part of the application, which focused more on the student and less on their accomplishments, weighed more heavily.
“We want to understand who you are, what you care about and what you bring to campus. We want to counteract the idea that ‘you must have done everything that you could possibly do to be at all competitive.’ What we want to remind you is that you already do all these things.”
In an exercise termed “admissions aerobics,” Furtado listed off nearly every extracurricular activity possible, having the students raise their hands for each activity, ranging from robotics to sports to music to simply “raise your hand if you think you are an interesting person.”
Whatever a student’s interest was what Furtado suggested they write about in their applications.
“If you join something because you think I would like it, well, I already had my chance. Join the things you love.”
As with Pope’s book, the organization emphasized that looking for a college that fits the student is more important than simply assuming the more prestigious school is the right one. According to O’Connell, this mindset is what leads to many of the “horror stories” she alluded to.
“If we hear of somewhere, we assume it’s great and we want to go there. We don’t bother to ask the questions to make sure that it is a good fit,” O’Connell said.
Many of the schools featured at the fair were in Pope’s book, but the organization has expanded on that list since the book’s publication and O’Connell stressed that the list of colleges at the fair was not meant to be an exhaustive list.
As the students prepared to talk with college representatives in the next room, O’Connell reminded them to look for the school that was the best fit and to not let external pressures weigh on their decisions, including parents who may push them to pursue a particular major and subsequently, a particular school.
“You don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to do for the rest of your life,” O’Connell told the students.
To prove it, O’Connell had the parents who always knew exactly what they were going to do raise their hands. Seven brave men and women out of 500 raised their hands.