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Articles / Applying to College / The College Selection/Rejection Mindset

The College Selection/Rejection Mindset

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | April 29, 2014

Now that the May 1 enrollment decision day looms large for this year’s crop of college-bound high school seniors, we can turn our attention to high school juniors. They will soon be so-called “rising” seniors as they enjoy their summer between junior and senior year. As I’ve mentioned before, when I hear the term “rising” senior, I picture bread baking. Somehow, the word “rising” doesn’t seem to jibe with the image of a high school student on summer vacation. Those of you parents out there who have had to blow a compressed-air boat horn to get your rising senior to rise out of bed will know what I mean.

Anyway, let’s talk about the process high school students use to select the the colleges to which they will (or won’t) apply. I have found some interesting data about that. One particularly interesting set of comments comes from social architect David Porter, who shared with me his theories about why high schoolers may need to rethink their rationale for selecting a first-choice college from among all the candidates they are investigating.

As I discuss every spring, tens of thousands of high school students receive their college acceptance letters in April. It’s an anxious time. Students and their parents want to believe that the schools from which the good news has arrived hold the promise that attendance will be their ticket to eventual financial success in a life’s work. So, if they are trying to get from the here and now to that hoped-for financial independence, how do they select the one school that will deliver that return on their investment?

Porter says that young people tend to quickly fall in love with a school, and that parents tend to just as quickly wear their son’s or daughter’s acceptance as a badge of honor, or at least as some kind of validation as a successful parent. I have seen this many times in my work as an independent college admissions counselor. Porter goes on to note that students and parents should be skeptical, and consider all of what a college has offer, and how it will deliver on the implicit promise of financial independence. Which school will nurture and grow the prerequisite face-to-face problem-solving skills required to secure gainful employment and financial independence upon graduation? These are reasonable questions.


According to the most recent study from the UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, only 58 percent of the surveyed 204,000 college freshmen enrolled at their first-choice college, the lowest percentage to do so since the question was first asked in 1974. Let’s take a look at some of the chief reasons for this.

The major factors behind the decline are cost and financial aid. A 2012 study by the research group Ipsos and the student loan giant, Sallie Mae, indicates that roughly 70 percent of families are ruling out colleges based on cost. That seems to be an obvious, predictable conclusion.

First choice or otherwise, Porter says students and their families should consider a variety of factors in estimating the most value to be had at a campus. Some are more relevant than others:

– A school’s ranking: According to one of the world’s leading public intellects who regularly weighs in on academic issues, Malcom Gladwell, the national ranking a school receives doesn’t necessarily reflect the needs of individual students. Just like an expensive sports car is valued, in part, from an arbitrary, expensive price tag, so too are colleges. The various needs a young adult will have are by no means fully represented by the seven variables used by the U.S. News rankings, run by Robert Morse. The variables include undergraduate academic reputation, financial resources and alumni giving.

– On-Campus culture and community: In addition to academics and the rigors thereof, a college offers (or fails to offer) a unique on-campus college experience. Will the environment foster success (post-graduate financial independence) or, will it essentially be a few more years of high school under the guise of “college”? Look for safe, wholesome campus venues, like a student union or a next generation dining learning commons that invites student interaction, collaboration, problem-solving, and dining 24/7. “Social architecture” is the conscious design of an environment to encourage social behaviors.

– Parent-student understanding: Move out and stay out (because you can). Moms and Dads, your children want a nice home, a nice car, nice vacations, nice stuff, nice meals, and so on. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per year to attend most colleges. Whether or not a student assumes massive debt to follow his/her dreams, or a parent shares that burden should be moot if the student can identify, pursue, and secure gainful employment upon graduation. Having debt is an enormous burden at any stage of life if you are unemployed. Choosing a school is a great opportunity for parents to lead by example on how to make a purchase decision for any “big ticket” item. Do your homework. Buyer beware. Coach them using some of the same skills you would use to buy a house, purchase a car, or invest in a new business.

Wise counsel, indeed, that can have a significant effect on a high school student’s creation of a list of candidate schools to research, visit, and eventually apply to. But, beyond these practical and logically applied maxims, what are some of the flip-side approaches to choosing — or dismissing — a college during a search for candidates?

One of the best places for insights into issues like this is the College Confidential discussion forum. I discovered a wonderfully informative thread that allows us a deep peek into the thinking of some high school students’ mindsets about what does not turn them on about colleges. The thread is entitled Stupidest reason child won’t look at a college. Ha! That title alone is good for a laugh. Wait until you read some of those reasons. Here’s a sampling:

– Son replied that he would not look at Minnesota because he does not like the Vikings because they prevented the Saints from making the playoffs one year.

– My daughter refused to apply to Duke because she said she can’t handle southern accents!

– Son refused to visit/consider a school that is named after a toothpaste.

– My son did not consider a school in Pittsburgh because he is a diehard Ravens fan and cannot stand the Steelers.

– My D wouldn’t apply to a school cause the tour guide wore high heeled sandals and a sundress.

– My S refused to look at WashU because an older friend who goes there told him that the entire student body has bad music in their I-Pods.

– D will not consider Skidmore because of the name.

– [From one parent about his/her child’s “preferences”] —

* Pitt, Goucher, Skidmore – the names were “ridiculous”

* Emerson – young man at desk looked too “arty” – wouldn’t proceed another inch

* St. Mary’s – sounded as though it is all girls (although it is not!)

* St. Johns – would not get out of car – students looked way too alternative

* University of Richmond – the kids from our HS who apply are not smart enough

– S would not consider Bard because the tour guide said the word “vegan” way too many times!

– D attended the information session but would not go on the tour at an Ivy because an obnoxious boy in the front row was wearing a suit and, kiss of death, his mother was wearing a puffy hairband.

– D hated Vassar because she got a bee sting on her foot while wearing flip-flops during a summer tour of the campus.

– My S said all Maine colleges remind him of a Stephen King novel…and thus he refused to apply to any Maine Colleges.

– My D had a low tolerance for schools with lots of girls wearing Uggs, even less if they wore them in summer and even less if they wore them with mini skirts.

– My D wouldn’t apply to Michigan because the squirrels were too big.

– My son eliminated one because he didn’t like the kids on the tour he was on and the parents asked inane questions like “Why would someone prepare Ramen in their room when they are on the full meal plan?”

– D stopped looking at Reed because the people in the brochures looked too much like hippies.

– our son refused to go on the Columbia tour because the guide looked like he just fell out of bed and had bad breath.

… and so on. Feel free to peruse the (currently) 76 (!) pages of weird reasons why not to apply to a college (or, heaven forbid, not to choose it as a “first-choice” school).


So there you have it — some reasons why some first-choice colleges end up being last-choice and, also, why some high school students reject colleges without even thinking much deeper than surface level about it.

Never underestimate the power of a first impression — for better or worse!


Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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