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For College Success, Forget the Rankings and Reputations

Finding the right college “fit” is mystifying for parents and students. With almost 3,000 colleges in America, even college consultants struggle to know the best options for each student. First-generation families tend to rely upon the reputation of a college as being all-important, and countless media outlets publish “best college” rankings based upon endless criteria. To make matters worse, each high school has a culture that suggests the same “good” colleges every year, and the colleges themselves spend incredible amounts of time and money trying to convince students to apply. The college selection process is mind-boggling to the uninformed.

There is a better way. Finding the right colleges requires an unconventional mindset. Forget what you think you know, don’t listen to what you hear, disregard rankings, and focus on one thing: the environment that best inspires the student.

The truth is this: as long as a college has reasonable resources (and as long as the student cares about getting an education), the available academics are highly likely to be more plentiful than any student can exhaust. It’s not how “good” the curriculum or the professors are; it’s how well the student will learn. The supposed caliber of a school doesn’t really matter if a student isn’t inspired or is misdirected.

In education, environment is everything, and each college has a drastically different educational environment. The teaching methods are different. The availability of professors and counselors differs. The ways students interact with each other can support or challenge a person’s ability to learn.

Take four Ivy League colleges as an example: Princeton, Columbia, Brown and Dartmouth. At all four schools, students choose their majors or concentrations after two years. For the first two years, the colleges provide curricula designed with the best possible outcomes in mind. However, those schools differ dramatically on how to train freshmen and sophomores.

Princeton guides its students via general education requirements that give a supportive tour through a wide array of subjects that provides a broad-based educational foundation. Columbia employs a “core curriculum” that runs students through classes that have been proven to be successful starting points over the decades; it’s more like boot camp than exploration. Brown, however, provides an “open curriculum” that allows total freedom to select whatever classes they wish for the first two years. Dartmouth has distributive and world culture requirements and, unlike the other three schools, uses an academic calendar based upon quarters, not semesters. Obviously, each school’s underclass curriculum works well for some students but not for others.

Add in the differences in assets and influences between small-town New Jersey, upper Manhattan, the mid-sized Rhode Island capital of Providence, and the “middle-of-nowhere” locale of Hanover, New Hampshire, and it is readily apparent that even high-reputation Ivy League colleges provide excellent, or suboptimal, educational environments depending upon the personality, maturity, and individual learning style of each student.

The starting point for finding the right college is understanding each student’s needs and inspirations. Once you identify the attributes of a college that fits the student well, then you can find multiple colleges with similar educational environments. High school counselors and college consultants can help provide options that you likely won’t identify on your own.

Start the college search by understanding the student. Worry about “which college” only after identifying the environment that will help the student grow properly. Once you have a reasonable understanding of the student’s learning needs and strengths (not their academic or career preferences), then you can use all of the information that is thrown at you to find the right schools.

Finally, when visiting a college, worry less about what they tell you (everything that they say in the information sessions is available online) and more about what you see. Walk the campus and evaluate the environment: look at the human spaces, not the buildings, both on and off campus. Even before visiting (and especially if you cannot visit a school), take official and unofficial virtual tours online.

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