David Treadwell

David Treadwell

Here’s the letter I recently sent to my granddaughter Karis about the college admissions process. Share if you wish.

Dear Karis,

As a mid-year sophomore, you might begin to think about finding the right college. Here are my thoughts, based on nearly 50 years of experience working at (or writing about) colleges and universities around the country. Use them as you will.

On selectivity. There are over 2,400 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Only about 50 of them could be considered extremely selective; that is they admit less than 20 percent of the applicants. Perhaps another 100 could be considered somewhat selective; they admit less than half. So the mania about how hard it is to get into a good college is way overblown.

Getting into an “extremely selective” college. In addition to a straight A average (or close to it), high SAT (or ACT) and AP scores, the successful applicant must have something else: athletic prowess, say, or musical talent or leadership ability. It definitely helps to be from a distant state or country. Or to be a member of a minority group. Legacies (one or both parents went to the college), get a slight edge. The competition is fierce and the results often seem unfair. But there it is. (Incidentally, extremely selective colleges give a much bigger break to athletes in the admissions game than they will admit.)

The “name brand” is over rated. Many parents spend tens of thousands of dollars in an effort to get their kid into a name brand college — independent counselors, SAT prep courses, even summer admissions camps. That’s ridiculous! Find a place that’s best for you, the one that will best help you find and grow your talents.

Look beyond the sticker price. Some parents (and students) think, “I could never afford College X or Y because it’s so expensive.” Actually, it can turn out to be cheaper to attend a private college than a public university given a good financial aid award. That said, don’t take on too much student debt. Incidentally, hundreds of private colleges below the top tier offer fairly sizable “academic” or “merit-based” scholarships today. And you don’t even have to be a top student to qualify. (It’s a form of discounting, but they won’t tell you that.)

Private colleges aren’t necessarily more student-oriented than public colleges. Some major private universities put more emphasis on their graduate schools and on research than on the undergraduate experience. On the other hand, some public institutions offer fine scholarships to join honors programs, which feature small classes and good personal attention.

Don’t sweat the “What do you want to major in?” question. Most young people don’t really know, although they might pretend to know in order to appease their parents. Also, most students change their major at least once. Moreover, many adults change careers during their lifetimes so don’t worry if you have no fixed ideas at this point. Be open. Be flexible. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.”

Listen to your heart. Some campuses will feel right. Others may not. Talk with everyday students if possible, not just the carefully trained tour guides. Are the students really happy? What do they think of their professors? What do they do on weekends? What advice do they have about choosing a college? Visit a class or two. Spend a night on the campus. Just as people do, colleges have different personalities and quirks; like families they have different cultures and traditions.

Most of all, be true to yourself. Don’t try to please a parent, a friend or a grandparent (even me) as you explore options. And as you go through the process, show them who you are — not what you think will sell. That’s important when you’re having interviews or writing application essays or talking with people on campus. Come to think of it, that’s what’s most important in life!

That’s it for now. Let me know if you need a sounding board or someone to review your essays or whatever. Best of luck, Karis. You will do fine.



David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary or suggestions for future “Just a Little

Old” columns at [email protected]

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