Status vs. Substance: There IS a Choice

August 19, 2012


by Robert J. Massa


(Adapted from a chapter written by the author in College Unranked, Lloyd Thacker, ed., The Education Conservancy, 2004)


I have worked in an around college admissions for almost 40 years at some excellent schools—Colgate University and Union College in New York, Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and Dickinson and Lafayette Colleges in Pennsylvania.


I also had the parental experience of going through the college admission process with my two children, nine and eleven years ago.  Neither of my children took SAT prep courses and neither were uptight about the college admissions process.  So why did I not pressure my kids to the max, to strive for the “top of the top,” and to position themselves to the so-called “best” colleges?  Because I know that of the 2400 four-year colleges and universities in this country, there are at least 50 schools that would be great places for my children – where they could grow and develop; where they can engage; where, with the help[ of a caring faculty, they can find a voice that will serve them well in their future and where they can do so in an environment that encourages risk without the fear of “blowing it.”  And these schools do not necessarily coincide with the top 10 as ranked by US News and World Report.  My childfree and their parents were more interested in substance than in status.


By the way, my son taught me the importance of substance early in his college search when a scheduling conflict forced him to make a decision about AP vs regular calculus.  His SATs and grades were strong, and even though I knew colleges would prefer to see the AP class, I encouraged him to make his choice based on what he wanted to do.  Ultimately, he chose to take the class that conflicted with AP calculus.  “Look, Dad,” he said.  “If a college isn’t going to admit me because I took regular calculus rather than AP, then I don’t want to go to that college!”  Case closed.  He was “walking the walk,” and I was pleased.


When I speak with high school students and when I read press reports of the angst surrounding college admission, I sigh with an insider’s knowledge of the process at some pretty selective schools.  There is absolutely no reason for parents and students to be nervous about the college admission process unless the student decides to apply to a college for the wrong reason—because its “hard to get in,” or because every one will be impressed.  What a terrible way to pursue a higher education, and what a misguided definition of success we have developed as a society!  Is it more important to look impressive than to be impressive?  Is it more valuable to have a “wow” window sticker than to make the most out of a college experience that actually fits your personality, learning style and educational objectives?


“To be, rather than to seem,” was the family motto of John Dickinson, the 18th century Pennsylvania governor for whom Dickinson College was named.  I fear that too many students and parents are concerned about “seeming” rather than “being.”  I do not think they even realize this, but their behavior – stressing admission to the “best” colleges, prepping for the all-important SAT, pushing grades, AP classes and activities as a means rather than an end, applying undue pressure to win the “prize – belies the fact.


US News is not the cause of the problem, though their ranking system that has become the quick fix of the admission world is partially to blame.  Rather, we as parents reinforce the image of success in our children that results in an obsession with name brands from cars to clothes to colleges.  How can we halt this?


Know yourself first


So obvious, yet so often overlooked, self-knowledge is really the first step in the college selection process.  While there are several good learning style inventories on line (see one for free at ), simply asking and answering a few key questions will help get a student started on this essential step.


1.  How do you learn best?


Are you an independent learner or do you need direction?


Example:  When your history teacher assigns a paper, do you prefer a general topic that lets you explore and go in any direction you want?  OR, do you prefer specific instructions such as, “ the introduction must be at least a page long in which you state your thesis, followed by three pages of developing your argument, three pages of defining your thesis, and a one page conclusion?”


*Are you inquisitive or accepting?


Example:  If a teacher makes a statement in class, or describes a mathematical formula or proof, do you write it down and move on, OR do you prefer to think about it and question the teacher if it doesn’t make sense to you?


*Do you prefer to work alone or in teams?


Example:  Do you find that working with a lab partner, where you can learn from each other (but where you are graded by your joint work) is more productive than studying and memorizing lab notes?


*Are you an active or passive learner?


Example:  Do you learn more by being engaged in the process, where you have to think and are often “put on the spot” by teachers?  OR, do you prefer the teacher to simply tell you what you must know to do well on the exam?


*Do you prefer a structured or an unstructured learning environment?


Example:  Do you need the teacher to tell you exactly what to do and when, in order to pace yourself and learn?  OR, do you learn best when the teacher gives you a broad overview of what the class objectives are and leaves it to you to figure out how to get there, asking for direction only when you must?


2.  How do you interact with others? 


*Are you an initiator or a follower?


Example:  If you are interested in the martial arts, but your school does not have a club, will you start one by getting support from other students and the school?  OR, will you be content to join the wrestling club?


*What causes stress in your life and what results in enjoyment and productivity?


Example:  Are you fulfilled when there are not enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, or does that stress you out?


*Do you prefer to interact in organized groups with a purpose, or informal groups to “hang out?”


Example:  Would you rather be with a few friends and figure out what to do together, or do you prefer organized activities?


*Are you open and tolerant of differences, or do you prefer to be with “people like me?”


Example:  If you are a “heavy metal” fan, are you likely to go to an orchestra concert just to experience it?


3.  What are your general objectives?


*You don’t have to know what you want to major in, or even what you want to do after college.  You should, however, know what you enjoy learning about.


Example:  Are you more verbal, enjoying more subjective areas such as literature or history, or do you prefer the more “concrete” or quantitative areas of study?


*Who (not what) do you want to be?


Example:  Who we are is determined long before we go to college, but we have a chance to further develop that “who” in college.  Is service important to you?  How about an appreciation for the arts?  Do things international excite you?  Knowing who you want to become makes it easier to find a college that will fully help you to become that person.


Answers to these three simple questions — how you learn best; how you interact with others; what are your objectives – will help you understand yourself, and represent the first step in selecting the right set of colleges or universities.


Get to know a college’s “personality”


 Colleges and universities have “personalities” like we do.  Among the typical characteristics:


Small or large / public or private


Residential or commuter / rural, urban, suburban


Teaching or research focus


Undergraduate or graduate student focus


Nurturing or competitive environment


Hands on learning, small seminars and community engagement, or lectures


Diverse or homogeneous population


Big-time athletics or emphasis on varsity “student athlete”


Large fraternity/sorority presence or predominantly “independent” campus


These are obvious enough, but it is legitimate to ask, particularly with so much being sent to students by colleges, “How do I discover a college’s personality?”


1.  Use multiple sources


            Example:  Never rely exclusively on one source, particularly shortcut siources sources such as rankings, guidebooks, word of mouth and college review web sites such as “College Confidential” and “College Prowler.”


2. Counselors and teachers


            Example:  They can help you develop a list of possible colleges that fit your interests, your style and your academic profile.


3.  Use the College’s Website 


            Example:  Among other things, the Web is a marketing tool, so be careful.  Glean all of the information you can from the main levels of the college’s website, but to really discover a college’s personality, drill down to the academic and social departmental level. Learn what the English faculty are doing in their classes and what students majoring in public policy do as their projects.  See how faculty and students do cutting edge research together.  Get a sense of how teachers teach and how students learn.  And learn about how students run their own organizations by visiting the actual websites of those organizations.


4.  Use email to your advantage 


            Example:  After searching the college’s website, email some faculty and students who are doing things that interest you.  Also use email to contact your regional (or academic major area) admissions representative and introduce yourself by asking a well researched question.


5.  “Like” the college’s Facebook pages


            Example:  Follow events on campus and what students and prospective students are saying about the college, its programs and its people.  Just like reading the student newspaper on-line, experiencing the college through Facebook can give prospective students a real sense of what it is like to be on campus.


6.  Once you have done your homework, VISIT


            Example:  After you have a reasonably good picture of how the personality and the program of a college or university matches your style and the needs, get yourself to campus.  Stay overnight, talk with students about their experiences, speak with faculty about their expectations of their students and how they involve students in their work, and of course, speak with your admissions counselor.   If you go to a program sponsored by the admissions office, take some time to speak with students and faculty who are NOT a part of the program.  This will help you determine whether what you are seeing from the program the program translates to reality on campus.


7.  Be subjective in your assessments


            Example:  Don’t include or exclude a college from your list because of a good or bad tour guide, because of what your friends say, or because your uncle “never heard of that school.”  You must look at the college or university as a whole  — looking at all of its resources – to see how it meets your objectives.


8.  Choose six to eight “first choices”


            Example:  One of my good college counseling colleagues advised her students that they should not select a college until a college selects them.  It makes little sense, therefore, to rank order your applicant group.  Instead, select the colleges to which you will apply knowing you would be thrilled to attend any one of them if you are admitted (and if it is affordable). There is plenty of time to rank order after admission, but if you select your colleges right, you can’t go wrong when the final decision is in your hands.


A final word


 Nation-wide, only about half of the students entering a four-year college or university graduate.  While the rate is typically much higher at highly selective colleges, it nevertheless tells us that many students select colleges for the wrong reasons.  The substance of the experience, and how a particular institution fits student needs, should be of paramount concern.  For example, so many students never consider a small liberal arts college (vs. a large university) because even the “best” of these smaller institutions are much less visible than their university counterparts.  These schools aren’t for everyone, to be sure, but they would undoubtedly benefit far more students than ever apply.


I did not discuss Early Decision in this essay – that is a topic in an of itself.  For  comments on ED, see my recent New York Times op ed piece at . Suffice it to say that if a student does what I have recommended, a number one choice could certainly emerge early.  If it does, ED may be appropriate – but only if the student has been thorough in his or her work.


The college selection process does not have to be stressful if students and parents focus on what is really important.  In fact, while the “top” universities may be the right match, you are unlikely to know that for sure unless you embark on a fearless path of self-discovery and a probing assessment of institutional characteristics.  Once you have done this well, your application set will not only make sense, but you will find that your choices in April are broader and more acceptable than you would ever have imagined.


Good luck!





















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