Picking the Right College for You Might Help You Get In

Expand your college options.

Families tour the campus of the University of North Carolina.

Families tour the campus of the University of North Carolina.

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Conversations at summertime gatherings this year seem gloomier than in years past. Whether people talk about the economy, the Middle East, or the other challenges that will be faced by whoever wins the upcoming presidential election, discussions are marked by frustration and angst. But when friends visiting from out of state asked me about the college selection process, their anxiety was palpable. Because I've worked in admissions and enrollment at six selective institutions over the past 30 years, the topic is a frequent one when friends and family are in town.

Our former neighbors' oldest, a boy soon to be a senior in high school, was beginning the college selection process, and the whole family was almost paralyzed with anxiety. The crux of their worries? Their son is not a straight-A student. They read U.S. News, and because so many of the stories there focus on the increasing and incredible competitiveness of admission to Ivy and near-Ivy institutions, this family seems nearly in panic about the son's chances of getting into the right college.

But as I sat and talked with this young man about his achievements, interests, and talents, I saw a very different picture develop. As we chatted about his academic career, you could see his tension: A C in algebra in his freshman year seemed to him to pose an almost insurmountable obstacle to admission to a good college, even though since that time he has been taking solid courses and earning all A's and B's at a very fine public high school.

When we started to talk about politics, however, this student visibly relaxed. He knew the issues of the current election inside and out, including where each candidate stands on major issues, and could recount many details of the previous presidential election as well. He loves studying about international relations and reads the Economist and the Financial Times. His knowledge of global geography compares favorably with most students' knowledge of their own hometowns. He writes well and even writes letters—by hand!—to friends and relatives. He seems to have a glorious hunger to learn.

When our conversation all too soon switched from presidential campaigns and the strength of the dollar back to the college search, I was pleased to rattle off to him a few dozen terrific colleges that would read his application for admission carefully. Looking beyond the C in algebra, these schools would focus on his ability to contribute to their institution's sense of community and how he would make that college a better place through his interests, skills, and talents. The smile on his face broadened with each college I mentioned.

Stand tall. That conversation reminded me that there are many—too many—families who agonize over the college selection process because they focus too much on what their students lack, as if an A in freshman algebra magically opens doors that otherwise must stay closed forever. These families could instead focus on what their sons and daughters have to offer first-rate institutions. Many families do not investigate, for example, Colleges That Change Lives, a must-read book by Loren Pope, or U.S. News's own "A+ Options for B Students" to discover the truly wonderful places that love those B+ students with a passion for learning and combinations of interests that might even be called unusual. Too many families base their understanding of the competitiveness of the college admissions process on the few stories that the media publish, even though those stories typically feature only those ultraselective schools that represent just 1 or 2 percent of undergraduate enrollment.

I hope, in this season of college tours, that families will explore broadly the many first-rate colleges to be found across the country—and that, rather than mourn a C or worry about whether their son or daughter will "get in" one of those ultraselective schools, they will celebrate their child's accomplishments and strengths and find the college that will welcome them with open arms because it is the right fit for both the student and the institution.