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Paul Marthers, Ed.D.
Noodle Expert Member

September 02, 2019

The college admissions frenzy has led tens of thousands of students to focus almost exclusively on selectivity. Find out why that leads to poor outcomes, and what students should do instead.

In this era of acceptance rates below ten percent at America’s most selective colleges, predicting who will get in where is next to impossible.

That much is clear.

What is less clear is whether it makes sense for students to let admissions selectivity dominate their thinking about the college search process. Worrying too much about acceptance rates can make students believe that good choices are scarce. That belief in scarcity can, in turn, heighten anxiety and breed undue stress. Want to see for yourself? Just step into any competitive high school for a few days.

The hype over selectivity leads many students to approach college admissions from a strategic, win-or-lose perspective. “Winning," in this case, means getting into a coveted top choice. “Losing" means settling for a backup.

When acceptance rates are below 25 percent at the 50 to 100 most selective colleges (and below six percent at schools like Stanford and Harvard), the vast majority of applicants to those colleges will invariably end up in the “loser" category.

But, of course, they are not losers. They are students who may be playing the wrong game.

After all, do we really want students and their parents to think of college admissions as a process in which most applicants end up on the losing end? Is that good for the image of higher education? Is that good for society in general? Even more importantly, does this approach help ensure that students will end up at the schools where they’ll be most likely to thrive?

I, for one, do not think so. There has to be a better approach — one that frames the college search process in a more affirming way. But unfortunately, two key realities often get lost in the frenzy to gain acceptance to ostensible top colleges.

Reality number one: There are hundreds of excellent (and potentially transformative) college options available. I know this firsthand because I work for the State University of New York, where we have world-class programs in the performing arts at Purchase; in the STEM fields at Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook; in fashion design at FIT; in music at Potsdam and Fredonia; in athletic training at Cortland; in government and public policy at Albany; and in technical and agricultural fields at Cobleskill and Farmingdale. I could go on and on, because SUNY offers a multitude of great choices across dozens of campuses. Students actually have an embarrassment of riches among higher-ed institutions in the U.S.; many, however, are so caught up in getting into a particular college that they lose sight of the scores of fantastic schools they could consider — many of which, it is worth noting, might be better fits for them than the handful of schools with the highest rankings.

Reality number two: Finding the right academic and personal fit is more important than obsessing over the sorcery of the college admissions process. A school like Columbia, for instance, can be a great fit — but not for someone who wants to major in agricultural studies or landscape architecture. If a college, even one of the most sought-after schools, doesn’t enable its students to cultivate their passions, benefit from mentorship opportunities, and launch fulfilling careers in their fields, then it isn’t the right fit for those students.

In my many years of experience in and around college admissions — at places such as SUNY, Rensselaer, Reed, Oberlin, and Boston College — I have observed that students who grasp these two basic realities gain more control over their college searches, and over the outcomes of those searches. As mental health research tells us, having a sense of personal control over situations tends to alleviate anxiety and lead to mastery.

To that end, I have a radical proposal: Why not reframe the college search process in a more affirming way, one that emphasizes that students have as much power to choose colleges as colleges have to choose them? Why not recast college admissions as a quest to find the best place to explore and study academic passions? Once we do this, then next steps for students are clear: If they follow their interests to find study options that they’re passionate about, then they can find colleges that genuinely excite them. After they do that, they can turn their attention to figuring out how to get into those schools.

It turns out that expert opinion supports this approach. Studies by organizations such as the ACT and UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute show that many prospective students in fact do organize their college searches around academic programs that interest them. These researchers have found that students benefit when they actively explore the vast range of college types and program options available across the globe — rather than remaining hemmed in by a handful of schools that meet a set of rankings criteria that do not apply to every student.

When students don’t attend schools that are strong fits, they often enter college with the expectation of transferring. According to the 2014 CIRP Freshman Survey{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, while incoming students at less selective schools report intending to transfer at significantly higher rates than their counterparts at more selective schools, the latter group remains sizeable: According to the survey results, 11.8 percent of students at the most selective public institutions and 17 percent at the most selective private institutions “express a strong intention to transfer." Those are startlingly high proportions for apparently coveted institutions.

These numbers could be reduced, I expect, if more students turned existing expectations on their heads: Rather than wondering about (and trying to emulate) the types of students a handful of schools want, they should think proactively about which schools they want — and start their college preparation from there.

Taking a cue from the experts at the ACT and UCLA, I spent five-plus years working on a new type of college guide called “Follow Your Interests to Find the Right College{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }." From my research and experience, I can offer college hopefuls advice that may help them rethink their college searches, strategically apply to schools at which they would be happy, and launch stimulating and fulfilling college experiences — and ultimately real-world careers. Here are four tips to consider.

# 1. Consider the kind of college you’d like to attend.

Venturing beyond liberal arts colleges, students may find exciting future paths at state university honors programs, tech schools, and even at institutions outside of the U.S. — in Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Asia.

# 2. Think about how your career goals align with the resources available at your prospective colleges.

For instance, not all selective colleges have strong — or any — academic programs in fields such as business, environmental studies, fashion design, hospitality, international relations, journalism, musical theater, public health, or pre-med (and especially expedited entry into medical school). A school could be fantastic, but if it doesn’t have sufficient offerings in your chosen field, then it probably won’t be fantastic for you.

# 3. Be wary of uniformity.

Everyone talks about name-brand colleges. And certainly the super-selective name-brand colleges are great places to study. But the most selective and prestigious colleges often offer (to a certain extent) a uniform set of programs. Some of those stratospherically selective colleges lack undergraduate programs or depth in areas such as architecture, communications, engineering, environmental studies, fine arts, nursing, performing arts, pharmacy, or teaching. Students who fixate on selectivity rates can end up cutting themselves off from study options that might serve them best.

# 4. Remember that selectivity is not necessarily a proxy for quality.

Numerous excellent academic programs do not have ultra-selective admissions, meaning that great options exist at all ranges of selectivity. And this is a good thing. It means that abundance — not scarcity — best describes the high-quality study options waiting to be explored.

The Bottom Line

Students are best served by following their passions and searching for college options that match their needs. The world of college admissions would be changed for the better if more students took the investigate-your-interests-first, figure-out-your-admissions-chances-later approach. Fewer students would leave high school feeling like they had somehow failed even before starting college. More students would approach the college search process with enthusiasm. And that would be better for students and colleges alike.

Looking for the college that best suits your interests and aspirations? Check out the Noodle college search tool, which will help you find amazing schools — at all levels of selectivity — that are perfect fits for you.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at news@noodle.com, or leave a comment below.