Choosing a College: The X Factor

This year, for the third time, I am doing the college tour. That is, like hundreds of thousands of families across the United States—and, increasingly, the world—I am loading the car with snacks and take-out coffee, arguing over whose music will dominate the sound system, and dragging an occasionally petulant teenager toward the college of her dreams. The only problem is that we don’t know where that college is, exactly, and her dreams have a tendency to change.

Searching for a college—and applying to college—has never been easy. But I suspect that it has become increasingly more fraught over the past few decades, as more and more kids (that’s the good news) are scrambling for a relatively stable number of places (that’s the stressful part) against a dizzying backdrop of ratings, rankings, and massively heightened expectations (that’s what makes you crazy). For me, of course, the search process is compounded by my day job: as I’m shuffling dutifully behind my daughter, deferring, as all good mothers should, to her questions and concerns, I am biting my tongue to keep from asking the tour guide what I really want to know: What percent of your students are on financial aid? What’s the six-year graduation rate? And how do girls fare in your computer-science classes?

My dual personality during these visits has no doubt caused a certain amount of frustration for my children. But it’s also given me some perspective on the massive round of anxiety that inevitably accompanies the college search.

Here is what I’ve learned. First, try as best you can to ignore all of the rankings—whether they be media-driven, value-based, or crowd-sourced. Because while any ranking system captures some elements of a school’s unique culture and environment, the metrics they employ are by their very nature static and self-reinforcing. Well-endowed schools score consistently high on everything connected to resources; schools with historically strong reputations see those reputations echoed over the decades. Your kids don’t care at the end of the day about an abstract entity’s grading system, and you shouldn’t either.

Second, take your school guidance counselor’s advice with a grain of salt. Most guidance counselors are wise and well-intentioned professionals. They can do a fabulous job of helping your child navigate through the morass of forms and programs and options. But remember that the counselors’ interests are not necessarily the same as your kid’s. They need to get lots of students accepted at a wide range of schools. So they may be inclined to push toward “safer” options for your child, or for schools that don’t put him or her in direct competition with other students from the same class. So meet with the counselors, listen to their advice, but be sure your child feels ownership over his or her own preferences.

Third, be aggressive with regard to financial aid. Most schools now offer a rich array of scholarships, loans, and work-study programs. At Barnard, fully 54 percent of our first-year students are receiving financial aid this year; for those receiving a grant directly from Barnard, the average annual amount is $41,560. For talented low-income students, the cost of attending an elite college (once financial aid is applied) is actually often less than the cost of a state or community college. To calculate, or at least estimate, just how generous a school’s financial aid program might be, families can use the financial-aid calculators that are now available at all college Web sites. (You can see Barnard’s at These are powerful devices that give a quick but accurate picture of what it will actually cost for a child from a particular family to attend a particular school. Use them, and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance.

Finally, the best way of evaluating the fit between your kid and a specific college may well be what we call in my household the “tingle test.” It comes from the time when we dragged our son to a school he didn’t really want to see; a school that happened to be on our driving route that day. He got onto campus, and grudgingly agreed to take the tour. Thirty minutes later, my 6’2”, usually solemn boy was grinning madly. “Mom,” he said, “I feel tingly all over. This is the place for me.” And so it was. He applied early, was accepted, and has been blissfully happy ever since.

Not every child will get the tingles. But most, I’ve discovered, do. They walk onto that one campus and it hits them: this is where they were meant to be. Maybe it’s the signs they see plastered around campus with activities that excite them; or the subtle clues that emanate from the students who somehow look as they imagine themselves to be. But when the tingle hits, I suggest, go for it. It’s probably where your child was destined to be.

This year, during Barnard’s orientation, I was struck by hearing more families than I ever recall describing their own first moments on campus. “We just knew,” said one dad, “that Barnard was for her.” “She wasn’t really interested at first,” said another. “But she got onto campus, and BAM. It was over.”

I know. They got the tingles.

Latest IssueSpring 2021