The First Five Colleges (Part One)

We’re behind! We’re behind! Steve said with more than a hint of panic.

A couple of months ago, Steve and I divided up the evening meetings. I went to a special ed meeting, and he went to the high school junior parents’ college meeting. At that point, Jonah (and our) college preparation consisted of one tour. We visited SUNY Binghamton last summer, because it was sort of on our way to Cleveland. He took the SATs a couple of times. And that was about it.

We hadn’t made a list of schools. He definitely hadn’t hired a college counselor. Steve came back from this meeting completely freaked out, because I guess other parents have already done all that, plus taken their kids on a dozen tours.

The guidance counselor told Steve that college tours are now mandatory. And we’ve done one.

Behind! Behind!

Colleges applications to schools have skyrocketed, because most kids now apply to schools using the Common Application. Remember filling in those forms with a little bottle of WiteOut? Yeah, that’s no more.

The Common App is actually a great thing. It has lowered the obstacles to getting into college. And anything that increases access is a great thing.

However, colleges hate it because now they are swamped with applications. It means that they have to hire more people to read all those bloody things. People are needed to keep track of declines, accepts, and wait lists. It means that they may not know exactly who’s going to their college until mid-August. And it fucks up the college rankings, which uses the ratio of applications to admits as a variable in determining selectivity.

So, colleges want to make sure that they are accepting people who are likely to attend. They do that by keeping track of the kids who call the admissions office to ask questions and the kids who go on the tours.

On College Night at the high school, about 50 schools set up tables in the gym. Kids walk around with their parents whispering in their ears, pick up applications, and fill out cards to request more information. (Don’t even get me started on the money spent on marketing to kids and parents.) My niece’s private school recommended arriving at College Night with preprinted labels w/name, address, phone, and e-mail. That way, the kids can hit all the tables, and not waste time writing out that information by hand at all 50 tables. Because the colleges are keeping track of who fills out those forms.


10 thoughts on “The First Five Colleges (Part One)

  1. We live parallel lives. I’ve spent some time this afternoon talking with my soon-to-be HS senior about this stuff. We have done zero tours, but we have one scheduled for tomorrow. I am so uninterested in going on college tours. It’s all bullshit being peddled to the students, and I can see through it all too easily. I guess the benefit for the student is seeing the place and getting a sense of whether this is a physical/geographic location where she wants to be for 4 years.


  2. Our kids’ college counselors recommended having the Common App ready to submit by the end of August. You don’t have to submit the apps at that point–there’s a lot of stuff the high school has to do, such as transcripts and recommendations. However, senior year is often a very busy year for the students; it alleviates the stress to have a lot of the form-filling and essay writing (at least a good first draft) done by the end of the summer, before classes begin.

    Some public colleges and universities have in the past closed their admissions early, once they received enough applications.. I seem to recall the University of California system did this. So it’s a good thing to be prepared, rather than hoping the application can be submitted on midnight of the last day. (A surprising number of students do this.)

    If you can’t fit in a tour and an information session, drop the information session. Most of the information can be found on the college’s website. An information session is an opportunity to ask questions–but those should be student questions, not parent questions. The information sessions are so crowded, and they run so many, I don’t think they note who asked what question. We did come out of some sessions rolling our eyes at some of the parents. Especially the parents who wanted to emphasize how advanced their children are in comparison to the hoi polloi.

    The tours can be useful. They are more useful if the tour guide is a volunteer. Some of the schools drill the tour guides in talking points too much.

    Don’t panic about demonstrating interest to every college Jonah might want to apply to. You and he will figure out the most interesting colleges through the visits, studying the websites, and common sense. Then make sure Jonah (not you) contacts the admission rep for that college, if he has any meaningful questions. The visits are very useful to find out which colleges are NOT interesting, which is handy. They all look the same in the marketing materials; nevertheless, Brown and the University of Rochester feel very different on campus. (We preferred the University of Rochester.)

    Make sure the email from the colleges gets opened. The colleges can track this. They do track this. If there’s a college on the list that practices selective/holistic admissions, it does not hurt to attend any college information nights in your area.

    Take pictures when you visit to keep them all straight. Nothing fancy–a few shots on your phone will help. Grab a copy of the student newspaper, if there are any available. I liked checking out the student message boards. Be aware that many colleges run summer academic sessions. Some of the students you’ll see on campus are “real” students enrolled at that university, some are local students taking courses during the summer.


    1. Hypothetically, you could get a bunch of kids with good scores/grades and have the threaten to apply to a school and not go there unless they paid you off. It would only work for the right school, as a crappy school could tell what’s up with 5,000 kids with 1,400 SATs applied one year after only 2 applied last year.


  3. I kind of liked the college tours. Pleasant green campuses, full of eager young people–what’s not to like? But it is true, the only thing you actually learn is the nature of the built environment. There are four basic types:
    1. Campuses in the middle of nowhere (e.g., Colby).
    2. Campuses that are self-contained, but adjacent to an urban area (e.g., Vanderbilt).
    3. Campuses integrated into an urban environment, but quadded off (e.g., Yale).
    4. Campuses that are open to the city (e.g., B.U.).


    1. Our campus is mixed in with the city. It’s kind of nice because it keeps you close to lots of businesses and the buses, but I keep having to punch* cars that don’t yield on crosswalks. The tours have been going on since spring. They hire students who have a remarkable ability to walk backward while talking.

      * Slap really, because I don’t want to break my fingers.


  4. This was totally a wakeup for me. I seriously could not figure out why tours are so big nowadays. In our day we applied and basically visited after you got it. Now I get it and it is another example of how this discriminates against poor or lower middle class kids. I’m definitely checking out my state’s honor’s program (assuming my kid lights a fire under her butt in the next 5 years).


  5. That’s the first I’ve heard about tours, but makes sense. However, I do think you have a leg up because you’re out of state for these institutions. Most state schools are desperate to admit out of state students because they keep more of their tuition. For example, there was a front page article in the Globe about how UMass Amherst offers bigger financial packages to out of state students (as compared to in state students) because even with more aid, they get more money from those students. Because of this, I think he’ll still be an attractive student to many state universities even if he doesn’t attend tours.

    Finally, have you thought about any of the non-flagship campuses in these states? Not sure I’d recommend mine (depends on what he wants to study), but UMass Lowell generally does pretty well by some measures. For instance, it’s ranked 10th nationally for return on investment – partially because it has a big engineering school. Even if you’re not interested in one of those programs, the non-flagships often don’t have graduate programs in every department, and as you know, those grad programs can really shift focus away from the undergrads.


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