How to Find & Choose the Right College

Archived Responses: 


How much influence should parents have over decision?

March 2012

I'm wondering what role other parents have played in assisting your college-bound student in his/her final selection of colleges. We are awaiting word from the top two choices. Our daughter has applied to eleven schools and gotten in to six to date, one wait-list and three no's. She isn't in love with any of the six, although of the six, I think some are better than others for her. There is no real stand-out, and everything feels like a bit of a compromise. We did the whole college tour thing, and she is drawn to one school because she loved the professor she met in the area of her particular interest. But it's not as strong a school as some of the others. One of the ones I really liked she didn't like at all, was in a rotten mood on the day we visited, and said she'd never go there so I should stop bothering her. It is her choice, mostly, but I am footing the big bill here and think I should have some say. But how much and what? I'm also not even sure which would be the best fit and don't know how to evaluate. Everyone's anectodes are so personal and there is so much contradiction among my friends (all the way from ''this school has really weak academics and the town there has no culture and my daughter couldn't leave fast enough'' to ''I have friends whose kids went there and loved every minute of it and are going back for grad school.'') I'm also dealing with my own feelings about her not getting into one of the more selective schools that we thought she had a great shot at. It feels like a complicated decision and I'm not sure how to support her and help her look at all aspects and long-term implications of her choice. All the schools are back East and we haven't been able to visit them all. Confused, wanting to help make the right choice

Here's my 2 cents. She's the one who will be going to class. She's the one who will be doing the work. Let her go to the school where the professors excited her. We had much the same issue a few years ago. Daughter (now a junior) chose the road less traveled (the less prestigious school). It was the right choice. Dad could not be happier (daughter too)

first, congratulations on having a daughter who has a particular interest and has met a professor whom she likes. i understand why that would sway her. realize she could get into a more impressive college and not like the professors and decide to leave. the most important thing is that she feels great about her choice and has a valid reason for going. liking a professor in a particular area is a valid reason.

if she isn't getting into any of her first choices, that will be sad enough for her, i think you should reassure her and hide your own disappointment. your job is to help her feel good about where she has gotten into and acknowledge how many places accepted her. a smart kid can stand out, get a lot of positive attention and really blossom at a less competitive college. if she had her heart set on somewhere else, she can always transfer after putting in a great year at another college.

big picture: sounds like you have a good kid who tries hard. you should celebrate that. judith

Whoa, slow down. I think you are forgetting that the choice is your daugher's, she is the one who has to go there, and your own feelings of guilt or sorrow about where she got in shouldn't really play a role in the decision.

If your daughter can rule out a few of the 6 schools, that would be helpful in narrowing in. If she really disliked a school, it is not wise to push it just because you liked it! You are not the one who will be attending, and being forced to go to a school that your daughter has emphatically ruled out could make her hate it (and hate you) if she was forced to attend.

Knowing that she could go to a school where there is a wonderful professor in her area of interest could be a strong plus for that school. But this is one factor among many and you can point that out to her as she makes out a list of pros and cons.

She should create a chart with the pros and cons of each school. You can have a row or two in the chart to put in info about the academic strength of the school or some other value important to you. But then she gets to evaluate the pros and cons and should start to rank-order the schools based on her opinions and how much she weights different pros and cons. When she is able to rank the top two schools, she should go visit them again if possible. Then she can make the final decision. I wouldn't consider a school that she has never visited.

You could tell her that you would love to hear her explain to you the pros and cons of each school and how she arrived at her top two rankings. That will help you see her thinking and perhaps allow you to ask a few questions.

The reason there are contradictions in personal anecdotes is because every person is different and some children love one school while others hate it. Also, what the child wants out of college may vary tremendously between children. So in the end, she has to decide.

Nothing is perfect, there isn't always one ''best fit,'' but rather several that would work well for different reasons. So if you can help her understand that, it will be beneficial. Good luck to her (and you)! Anonymous

I think you have to let your daughter make her own choice. Probably all the options will give her a good education, allow her to meet lots of people, give her that first opportunity for independence, prepare her for life, etc. I think her buy-in matters more than which particular school she chooses. And none of your friends opinions really matter--they don't predict her personal experience.

I remember my daughter's first day at UC Santa Cruz. Everyone was so warm and friendly...but then her roommate was a dud and she could never break into the friendships happening on her dorm floor. The next day we took her boyfriend to UC Davis. No one was very friendly. But he ended up making dozens of friends among his dorm mates. Ultimately, both have had perfectly good educations and enjoyed their respective schools. And now they're graduating and life goes on.

You really have no control over how things will go for her. She might fall in with great friends her first year, or none. She might have awesome professors or end up with a bunch of snorers. A university is a huge place and ultimately it will be the experience she makes of it. Give her the tools to make it a good experience and overall, it probably will be. wherever you go, there you are

Yes, it is your money, but it is her life. And yes, everyone's experiences are intensely personal, so it is impossible to predict how your child will feel at any given school. But these decisions are neither permanent nor completely life-altering. She can always transfer if it doesn't work out, and some kids can find things they like regardless of where they land whereas others will complain everywhere. Take a deep breath and just keep asking the right questions. What things are most important to her? Which schools will offer those things? What is the best and worst thing about each one? Ultimately, IMHO, it has to be up to them, unless you have the kind of kid who won't be resentful if you try to run their life or won't blame you if you pick a school that they go to and don't like.

I teach high school seniors and I know plenty of students who got into their dream schools, went there, hated it, and transferred. I know just as many that went to a second or third choice school and loved it. I think the worst thing parents can do is to make young people feel like this is the most important decision they will ever make in their entire lives. It is not. And unless your kid wants to be President and needs to write for the Harvard Law Review, they will probably be just fine regardless of where they go to college their freshman year. Even Obama transferred schools as an undergrad. --Feelin your pain, tryin to remain calm

Insight into college choices

March 2012

Our daughter has (thankfully) begun to receive her college acceptances, and I am hoping to help her make the very best possible choice. She has worked with a great college admissions advisor at her local private school, and this counselor has recommended that our daughter apply to some schools that are relatively unknown to us. Thus, I would so welcome any feedback on any aspect of the academic and/or social life at any of the following schools: Mt. Holyoke in Northampton, MA; Muhlenberg in Allentown, PA; Emerson in Boston; Evergreen in Tacoma, WA; Wheaton in Mass; and Drew University in Madison, NJ. How would you describe the values of the student body? What are the towns like nearby? Dorm life? Our daughter is interested in Theater Arts, Classics, Latin, History, English and Literature. Math, not so much. She's introverted, literate, smart, and absolutely not a party animal. She's applied to other schools I haven't listed because I have a better take on them (Brandeis, Oberlin, etc). I know I'm asking about a lot of schools but we're having a hard time getting to know these colleges despite reading things like College Confidential and making campus visits. Really appreciate any commentary. And if you know of a current student that would be open to chatting with a prospective student, that would really be an added bonus. We can be reached at jump at the sun at Thanks so much!

I can tell you about Mt Holyoke and Evergreen-would not go to Evergreen, unininspiring, lots of pot, lots of unmotivated kids who don't have any plan. Mt Holyoke is preppy, very east coast. They are in fact kind of polar opposites! Smith is great though, if your daughter applied there. parent

Hi, based on your description of your daughter's interests and her party personality, I would highly recommend she look at Mt. Holyoke. I worked with a young woman at Harvard who went to Holyoke and stayed there several times with friends who were teachers. It is in a lovely smallish New England town. Classes are on the smaller side and ore traditional. All schools have such good websites... she can get a good virtual idea.

To me, it seems like a waste of time to consider the details of every school seriously just because your daughter was accepted there. Pick the criteria that are most important for her--which could include being at a school with a strong academic reputation, having a strong program in the area she's most interested in, what part of the country she'd most like to be in, size of the school, reputation of the school, etc.---and then start making a list with the pros and cons of the top 5 or 6 schools. I'd say that she should spend her time thinking about the best contenders and compare them on the criteria she cares the most about. When she narrows it down to 2 or 3 schools, she should then see if it's possible to e-mail students at that school that someone knows so she can find out more about it. Visit the top 2 to make the final choice. Anonymous

Books about choosing a college

Aug 2009

I wandered into a large bookstore today thinking that I would buy a book about choosing a college. My son is only a junior but I like to read non-fiction and thought it would be sort of fun..... That was until I saw the shelves and shelves of books, each purporting to be THE book I need to narrow down the college search. I know about the college board website, but I'd like a paper and ink book I can curl up with. Can anyone recommend a good one or warn me against useless ones? Thanks, kate

We had about 5-6 books on this subject! I think the two most helpful were the Insider's Guide and the Fiske Guide. We also had Colleges that Change Lives, which was good, more focused on a few schools, not comprehensive like the others. What was most helpful in the end was visiting. We did that at Spring break Jr. year and over the summer. Lots of Luck! parent of a college student!

It's worth checking out several books, as each provides a different perspective. Here are some books we found helpful: Colleges that change lives (Loren Pope)--and other books by the same author Students Guide to Colleges (with real students' opinions) (Goldman and Buyers) Fiske Guide to Colleges 371 (or some #) Best Colleges (Princeton Review) college bound

There are big books that help with your search and have statistics on all the possible schools - for that matter College Board has a search program to help you narrow it down... but,for a nice curl up and read book I recommend ''Colleges That Change Lives'' written by a guy named Loren Pope, who spent his career as a college counselor. All 40 schools in the book do something different, and do it well. There is a website for the book and the schools -- Google CTCL.

When we read the book my daughter was planning to attend a Div I NCAA University. Two years later she was injured and out of sports, and transferred to a school she'd encountered in the book (Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, IA). She likes it there so much her brother decided to go there as a freshman this year. Yay! Heather

I was in your shoes a year ago (I just got back from taking my son to college in NYC...YIKES).

There are SO many ''pick me first'' kind of books. I bought a book that was about ''How to choose the right college''. It was a world of info about what questions to ask yourself (the student) about what you want in a college, where you want to be, what do you want to study, how much can you/parents afford, financial aid, etc. GREAT BOOK.

Along with that I got a book called something like ''The best colleges and universities in the US''...I know, there are many that say that. I bet they are much the same. Our book listed TONZ of colleges, large adn small, all over the US, and then it also had sections of ''best colleges for majors''. My son is majoring in theatre, so we looked for theatre colleges, big and small, did they have grad school, how competitive, etc. Hope this helps. I highly recommend the first book I mentioned. Good luck. You think THIS is hard...wait till he leaves!! mom of college guy

I previously posted about a book called ''Getting into the right college''...I just found that book in my house. It's the ''Fiske guide to getting into the right college'' It was really helpful for us. We also have the Fiske Guide to colleges. I think Fiske is a long time known publisher of these types of books. Ours is the 2008 edition, but I bet they don't change much. Good luck. If you want to look at these, let me know. june

''College UNranked:Ending the College Admissions Frenzy'' edited by Lloyd Thacker is a worthy collection of short essays and lectures by many college presidents and admissions officers who are concerned about the students welfare in this ''out-of-control'' college admissions ''contest''. I found many of the pieces contained very practical and insightful lists of questions to ask when evaluating a school; lists of questions that the student can ask of him/herself in evaluating what he/she wants; pieces aimed at the student to give them knowledge and, thus, power in what can seem to be an uncontrollable situation in which they have no power, etc. It helped me to put many parts of this stressful process into perspective so that I could keep my anxiety to a minimum which allowed me to be there for my son when he needed me. You can pick and choose which of the pieces seems interesting or appropriate for your situation. I highly recommend this book. Mom of a New College Freshman

Son wants ivy league - can that work?

June 2009

Our son, entering 10th grade, wants an ivy league (or M.I.T) education. I have no idea how hard it is to get into one of these schools or how hard it is once you get there. I would love any suggestions about how to figure out if our kid would get in and do well at a school like this. I would also love to know of resources for the ''inside scoop'' on colleges. Thanks anon

It is great that your son is motivated to aim high in his college choices. I have two sons who have gone from Berkeley High to Ivy League schools. I think that an important message from you is that if your son works hard on all the college entrance components (challenging classes, grades, test scores, extracurriculars, community service, etc) he will have a good chance of going to a great school he will really enjoy. However, I would try to defuse the expectation that the school has to be an Ivy. The admissions process is quirky, and lots of great kids don't get accepted every year. He should cast a wide net in looking at schools, and keep an open mind. He needs to work hard at all of those components for every school, whether an Ivy or not.

There are lots of great books out there for both of you to read about getting into college. Sit at the bookstore and browse before you buy, or check them out of the library. Again, cast a wide net to gain lots of information. A great book about the college admissions process is ''The Gatekeepers'' by Steinberg.

A timeline plan for both of you to follow is critical. A private college counselor can help a lot, but they can be quite expensive. There is a good book ''25 Months Until College'' by Judy McNeely that provides a step-by-step timeline. Good luck! Julie

How can my 'average' student go to college?

May 2009

My 10th grade daughter is an average student who tries very hard to get good grades. Her GPA is about a C. She has a few extra curricular activities but nothing major. She really wants to go to college. That being said, how will we find a college for her? She wants to go to a UC or State school but she tests horribly and I am certain her SAT scores won't help her cause. It seems that there are lots of counselors out there who help kids prepare their essays etc but it feels to me that these are more for the high achievers than for an average student. Does anyone know of a college counselor who works specifically with kids who don't have a 4.0 and tons of extra curricular activities? or do they work with everyone? also perhaps there is someone who finds colleges that are slightly off the radar/less competitive/more willing to look at the whole child? any help appreciated. thanks bpn'ers! mom of a great, average graded kid

Hi, I am a Berkeley/Oakland-based college advisor and I think I am representative of many independent counselors. We mostly do not specialize in the highest-achieving students, but welcome students at all levels of achievement who could use support for their college search and application process. I also co-teach summer essay workshops where, again, we welcome all rising seniors regardless of their academic records or college goals. I think that often it is families with their sights on one of the 50 most-talked-about schools who hire advisors, but as student-centered professionals we are often advocating for families to consider other excellent but perhaps less well-known options.

For your daughter, an excellent route to CSUs and UCs is the community college system, which is relatively inexpensive and does not require SATs or other tests for admission. There are some community colleges with dorms, too. Good luck! Susan Weber

I want to send you some encouragement. Just last week my daughter selected the college she will attend, out of 9 acceptances (she also got one rejection and one wait-list.) This is not because she has a 4.0 or is student council president. She had just below a B average, and virtually no extra-curricular activities. We had been worried about her options.

The couselor we worked with made a big difference, in two ways: first, she gave us a realistic picture of schools my daughter could probably not get into, so we could get over that and move on, and then she introduced us to a bunch of wonderful small schools she had a good chance at. The one she will be attending I had never heard of, but I've been there twice now and read up and it's a great school.

Second, she helped my daughter think about herself and present in the best way. In her case, we realized that, although she hadn't done classes and clubs, she does lots of cool creative stuff on her own. She prepared a photo portfolio of this work, even though she is not planning to major in art, and wrote a short essay about the role of self-directed creative activity in her life. Well, guess what? ''Self-directed'' is a very sought-after quality in a student! Though I don't have solid proof, I attribute this approach, along with well-chosen schools to apply to, to her really great experience in this process. So, above all, start thinking about what your student has to offer and how to express that. Never mind what they don't.

Counselors can also help suggest activities for students to participate in to increase their appeal, though we started too late for that. We did not do an expensive ''package'' with our counselor, but worked on an hourly basis, spending about $1200 over all. I'm not sure if all of them will do this, but it can't hurt to ask. Good luck! college mom now

My son was the same. He graduated from Berkeley High with a 2.6 GPA. He was really quite shocked when he realized he could not get into the CSUs or UCs. But don't worry - there is hope! Check out the community colleges - lots of kids go to very nice ones in Santa Barbara and so on, as well as in other states. And we learned that state universities in neighboring states have much lower standards than we have here in California! I suspect also that they are happy to get the out-of-state tuition from the California students who couldn't quite get in to our fine universities. It turned out for us that the overall cost of a university in another state was comparable to going to a UC. My son applied to several universities in Western States and was accepted in the first round of admissions even with his crappy GPA! He had a very nice 4 years at U. Arizona. (Of course there are many lovely private colleges too, if your budget will allow that!) Best wishes to you - average mom of average kids

My oldest son was the same way. He was torn between going to a Cal State or UC. We checked out all the -- to put it nicely -- lower level U.C.s (Merced, Riverside, and Santa Cruz). He started cramming for those awful subject tests that go along with the SAT and finally said, he didn't think he wanted to go to a school where he'd be at the bottom level.

He ended up going to Sonoma State and loves it. He has become so independent and is pulling in all As and Bs, taking a full load and working part time. For us, it's been wonderful. Plus, the classes are smaller and he actually knows his professors. He's really into school - I can hardly believe it.

Take a good look at a few of the Cal States - Chico is very nice too, as is Humboldt, for smaller schools that aren't really commuter schools. Good luck. The UCs have never been harder to get into.

Also, there is some western affiliation program where she could go to an out of state college in Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, etc. where she won't pay much more than in-state tuition. It's limited but there are some great schools like University of Southern Oregon.

P.S. We tried a college counselor too but they are really geared to getting kids into top UCs or Ivy League. Don't spend your money, I found they don't really have any ''secret'' advice you can't find on the web. Been there with average student

Yes, your average child can go to college, but it may not be at one of the more prestigious colleges. My two daughters, one a senior in high school and the other in her second year of college, were both average students with poor SAT scores and not a lot of extra curricular activities. I thought that neither of them would get into any college with their grades and testing scores. They didn't get into state schools and the more prestigious schools, but my oldest daughter got into two all women Catholic schools (less competition) where the class sizes are small and she is happy, and my daughter who is graduating was accepted into a few smaller private schools, but has decided that she wants to start with a year or two at community college first and work on her grades and then try to get into a better four year school, which sounds like a good plan to me. So, you have to be realistic - either private school or community college. Good Luck. RVF

I wouldn't rule out community college. They have specific tracks/course loads designed to get kids into UCs and Cal State schools. I know more than a few people who took that route to UCs.

I know there is a stigma attached to community colleges, but they do a great job of getting kids ready for the bigger schools. Also, if your daughter is struggling to stay at an average level in high school, she might benefit from an intermediate step such as this.

I have twins in high school, who each have several Fs on their transcripts. As a straight-A student who won several college scholarships, this was so hard for me to deal with... until I talked to an academic counselor last year. She told me about the number of kids who graduate from high school, do two years at a community college, and then transfer to a U.C. She said about 75% of kids who graduate from U.C. start at community colleges. Not only does this lower the stress for your kids, it is so much more affordable than a 4-year college. My brother is paying $28,000 for his daughter's freshman year at a school that isn't even considered that expensive. I understand wanting your daughter to attend a good school but maybe consider this option just to lower the stress all the way around. Mom of nonacademic twins

Your daughter may be getting ''average'' grades because she is not in the right high school for her. If she was in a small school she might get enough individual attention to get her gpa up to a 3.0 - enough to get into a Cal State without the SAT. I recommend Envision Academy in Oakland, although there are other small charter schools in the community where she will be seen as an individual and given extra time with those subjects she is struggling with.

There are some small colleges, most of them Christian, in the mid-west, that will accept a young person who has shown consistent grades and who really want to go to college. One of my daughter's friends is in her 3rd year at one of these schools in Iowa, and doing better grade wise than she did in high school.

She can always start at a community college. 2 years taking the basics, and taking advantage of the extra help they give there might be what she needs.

Good luck to you. Jenny

There is no ''average'' student. The job of an independent college counselor is to help students recognize and fulfill potential, and to inspire them to work on weaknesses so they are competitive in a hyper-competitive world. A good college counselor will reduce the stress between parent and child over the college process. A good college counselor should be able to work with most learning difference problems, and guide families to schools that will take over where a parent leaves off. A good counselor will also ensure that the student applies to colleges that will meet the family's needs financially as well as being a good fit for the student.

Regardless of whether or not your student works with an independent counselor, the school-based counselor must be good. The school-based counselor has access to student records, letters of recommendation, and teachers. The independent counselor can learn the desires and needs of the student and family. A counselor should go beyond what a parent can easily find on the internet or by talking to other parents.

There are many different kinds of college counselors. The most common are those who took a course. This provides them with a basic introduction to what resources are available for students. However, good counselors tend to be seasoned (but not burnt out). Some counselors are mothers who helped their children apply to college. There are those who are lawyers and are formal in their approach. There are those who are licensed psychologists and provide a therapeutic approach to college counseling. There are those who have doctorates and have done research on education and students. And there are those who can recommend colleges based on the faculty at those colleges because they have served on the faculty of major universities. Important questions to ask independent counselors include: Where did the counselor go to college, and what did they do before they became college counselors? One last bit of advice. The most important thing is that, when the process is completed, the student's self-esteem is intact and s/he feels proud of where they have been accepted. The worst case scenario is for a student to leave home believing that he or she has failed parents or self because s/he was waitlisted or not accepted somewhere else.

I hope this is helpful. I would be happy to answer any general questions. Wendy Walker-Moffat

I posted earlier on the positive experience my child had in the college application process, and how helpful our counselor was. I did not include her name in my original post because she has a part- time practice with very few openings, and I wasn't sure that she would want to receive that level of public referral. I have spoken with her and confirmed that she does not. While she did a great job with us, I'm sure many others could do similar work. Here is what I found to be her most valuable and helpful qualities:
* She knew A LOT about the schools, both in CA, regionally, and in some cases across the country. She travels to visit schools and keeps up with their news and stats. So she could give us a very realistic picture of how they choose and what they consider.
* She really likes kids, is enthusiastic, and radiates a sense to them that it is doable. She took time to really get to know my daughter, asked her a lot of questions, to help her figure out how best to present her strengths. She has since met with my younger child, and in both of them, she brought out a level of engagement and maturity that was impressive, which must be related to\x85
* She puts the kid in the lead. When we sat at the table, she faced the kid, asked her direct questions, subtly sent the signal that we were the advisors, the kid was the director of their own fate. Which is what needs to happen.
Good luck! college mom now

Is Ivy League worth it? or UCs?

March 2009

My high school senior has applied to a few Ivy League universities for next fall and I'm trying to figure out how to make an acceptance decision, assuming (fearing?)that he may be accepted at an Ivy school. He has been accepted at 3 of the 5 UCs he applied to and hasn't heard from the remaining 2 UCs yet, so he's got choices. Is Ivy League worth the extra money? Will a UC serve him just as well as an Ivy League education? He is a very academically-oriented student, he works hard and does very well in school. Like most college freshman, he really doesn't know what he wants to study other than he would like a strong science/math program. His other interest is music, he has no interest in organized sports.

We will not qualify for any need-based financial aid (have been to a financial aid counselor). We would have to go into debt to pay for an Ivy League school and I'm concerned about our ability to pay off that debt given the economy and the precarious state of our employment. Right now our only debt is a very small mortgage. And there is a sibling headed for college in a few years. So, what would you do? Was you or your kid's Ivy league education something that you could not have gotten at a UC? Did your student go to UC and had a great experience? in either case, in what way? Given that grad school seems to be a requirement these days, does one or the other make a difference? If you are also in this situation how are you deciding? I graduated from Berkeley, but that was long ago and much has changed. thanks so much UC or Ivy?

I get asked this question a lot by my students at UC Berkeley. I have found a lot more geographical diversity at the Ivies. It's nice to meet students from all over the world. At the UC schools, most of your classmates will be from homes a few hours from your own. On the other hand, there's a lot more socioeconomic diversity at the UC schools. Though all the Ivy colleges try to even the playing field, most of the students there come from families that I don't think would be considered middle-class even if they identify themselves that way.

The academics are a push, especially as an undergraduate. The faculties are just as good, the facilities are just as good, the available courses are just as diverse. There may be a bit more negotiability for custom majors or individualized programs at the private schools. For undergraduates intending on foreign study as a graduate student, I suspect an Ivy degree has better recognizability. But not in the USA--the UC diploma is just as good. Not being burdened by debt as an undergraduate, however, will provide a lot more options for graduate study.

That's my opinion, of course. I talk with a lot of UC students applying to graduate school. But I have personally seen a lot of Ivy: Cornell, Harvard, Columbia, Yale. Wolffe

I attended both UCSB and Harvard, granted in the late '70's to mid 80's. UCSB was big (14,000 undergrads at the time). I was in a sorority which I detested, but at least I was able to make some friends in a smaller group. I also had many other interests which helped making friends. I felt like hardly anyone was working seriously (which helped me to be ''the top of the class'' since I knew I needed top grades and recommendations for grad school). Had I been unmotivated, I could have just drifted along like many students. I did have some very good teachers. I had to be very pro-active to get into the classes I wanted. Some classes were monstrous in size (Intro. to Cultural Anthro. had 900 students in the lecture). Harvard had wonderful traditions, a chance to experience East Coast life with its somewhat difference cultures, weather, etc. The students were bright and wonderful to interact with. There were always long interesting conversations after dinner. I wished I had applied to Harvard as an undergrad. I didn't have money for college and didn't realize that they admitted ''need blind.'' Even if you don't qualify for total financial aid, they will do what they can to put together loans, workstudy, etc. to help the student be able to go. I have interviewed for Harvard in the Bay Area since 1990. If you want to talk further or email, please contact me at my email. kathryn

I got my B.A. from Princeton in 1977, and my PhD. from Berkeley in 1992. Questions of cost aside, I would recommend Princeton (and here I can't speak for the other Ivies) for the following reason: Princeton has a long and proud tradition of encouraging their world-class scholars to work directly and closely with undergraduates; this is not just P.R., but, in my experience, was one of the best things about my education there. As a Classics major, after a few large lecture courses as a freshman and sophomore, the largest class I had in my final two years consisted of about 10 students. This was an amazing and wonderfully enriching experience, and has left a deep impression on everything I have done in my life since. That said, one downside of the Princeton experience (at least for me) was the preppiness and snobbism which in my day was still a part of the Princeton tradition. However, it is entirely possible that this aspect of Princeton may have changed in the more than 30 years since I have been on campus. For the above reason (its wonderful academic environment), I think a school like Princeton might offer a very valuable alternative for your son to going to a UC School, where, in my experience, some students can seem lost in its big, impersonal environment.

Another reason to recommend an Ivy League school is the provinciality issue. I don't mean to sound snobbish about this, but I have found that many students in California seem to have a somewhat limited world view. I think this (beyond the quality of the education itself) is perhaps the best reason to send your son to college out-of-state. Ten or twenty years down the road, he might be very grateful for your having had the initiative to have sent him away from home to experience a wider (and very different) world.

Regarding the last point: New York City is only a 40-minute bus or train ride from downtown Princeton: many undergraduates take full advantage of its cultural resources for personal enrichment. Please feel free to contact me if you would like any further information about Princeton or the Ivy League. Jim

I am an advocate of people leaving their home state to go to college. I teach at Cal, and by far most of the kids I teach come from California. They are wonderful, marvelous, smart, and I love teaching them. But -- here's an irony in a community where diversity is so strongly supported -- there is very little diversity in terms of how they were prepared for university. They have read the same lists of books, have all had California history (and are pretty weak on other American history), have similar cultural expectations, etc. It is part of an education to move outside one's comfort zone and experience other cultures, which include other parts of this country. Though I went to undergrad and grad at two different Ivy League schools, I don't think that these schools are ''worth it'' per se -- any good out-of-state school would fit the bill, like Oberlin or Grinnell or U of Chicago or U of Michigan, etc. Still, the experience of meeting the other students at the out-of-state schools would be very valuable. At the same time I recognize the financial burden of sending a child to the Ivy League. I would suggest to your child that if he wants to go to an Ivy school, he will have to help with the expenses. If he doesn't qualify for a scholarship, he should work part-time and take out some loans to help you pay for his costs. If he goes to grad school for a Ph.D., most programs will support him. If he decides to go to a professional school, he will be able to pay back loans himself, for the most part. It is undergrad that is tougher in some ways, and I would put some of the responsibility on his shoulders. I worked throughout school, though I did qualify for needs-based aid. supporter of distant learning

Don't assume if you don't qualify for financial aid in the UC system, that you won't qualify for FA at the Ivy's. I have a daughter at UC Davis, we couldn't qualify for FA. My freshman son, at Brown, was offered $7K initially but it was raised to $12K after we spoke to the FA office directly. Having two kids in college helped and privates seem much more willing to listen to your individual situation. Also, they seem very responsive to changes in your financial situation. For example, when the economic meltdown occurred last October, they announced that they would accept mid-year FASFA forms. If your son gets into a private school, they will work with you to keep him there. Good luck to your son. college mom

We're not in the same position (my son did not want to apply to either UCs or Ivy League colleges) but I have found the website to be invaluable in sorting through options. Generally the threads on that website discourage excessive debt for a college education. Good luck to your son in making his decision. Anon

I got my BA in English at UCSB and attended Stanford as a graduate student. I had a great experience academically and socially at both places, although I remember saying at the time that I felt that the English classes I had at Stanford were of the same quality as the ones I had at UCSB (engaging, provocative, challenging). And in fact, I never had an upper division class at UCSB with more than 30 people in it, although I did have a traditional lecture class in an American Lit. class at Stanford (a few hundred people,w/ a grad student-led discussion section etc...) Of course I had the big lectures for some of my general ed. courses at UCSB ( geology, physiology, history, psychology, econ), but I think this is standard at any college that has more than a couple of thousand students.

Now, this was back in the 80s, so I can't speak to the cuts the UCs have experienced since then ( or are experiencing now). And yes, I'll admit that OTHER people seem to care that I went to Stanford... although in general, names seem to matter more for grad. schools than undergrads anyway.

Where I went to school doesn't make one bit of difference in my job, however. They only care about my performance, and I suspect this is true most places. - still a public school girl at heart, I guess

My siblings and I did this experiment--for undergraduate, two went to UC and four went private--Harvard, MIT, Swarthmore, Oberlin. All went to graduate/professional schools--two Harvard, three UC, one Penn; subsequent lives, careers, social activities don't seem related or constrained by undergraduate option. Of course this was a long time ago--my son is now at Penn and my niece is at UCB--major difference apparent to me is ridiculous amount of money Penn undergraduates appear to have for disposable income; the diversity at an Ivy mentioned by a previous responder is there--including a lot of international students--but most of them are from very privileged families.

Of course, the most important issue is knowing your individual child, and what environment is likely to be best for them. And also considering realistically the appalling cost/debt burden private college today represents. I would say my family of origin, which valued education, but was not at all wealthy, did just fine at UC. not-sure-it's-worth-it tuition payer

Is Ivy League worth it?

I meant to respond earlier and no longer have the original message but--I have one daughter who went to a UC and one who recently graduated from an Ivy. They have very different temperaments, educational interests, social needs, etc. The one who went to the Ivy (Brown) had to contribute to cover some of the costs (loans), we had to take a loan out on our house, and she didn't come home for Thanksgiving/Spring breaks (some). That said, this is the school she really wanted and she thrived there; academically, socially, etc. The classes were exciting--she was exposed to so much. There was a real love of learning. Her experiences were very rich, made terrific friends, knew her professors well and had many opportunities to do research, volunteer, and receive guidance from her advisors. She developed many leadership skills. She worked minimally on/off campus. Paying her loans back and some of her financial restrictions were a bit tough for her (some of her friends didn't have to think twice about spending $) but she would do it over again in a flash. I am happy we were able to give her this even tho it was financially hard for us also.

My daughter who went to a UC was happy she graduated without debt(we were able to cover her costs). She didn't necessarily chose the right UC for her--it was too large, too academic, not located in an area conducive to doing internships/volunteering, but that said, she feels she got a good education, made good friends, had good opportunities. She had to find her own way more, only got to know one or two professors. She pretty much knew what she wanted to study so she wasn't lost in terms of what to major in. She is now in grad school and working, paying her own way.

In our case, the Ivy was well worth it for one daughter; the UC was fine for the other. If we couldn't swing it I think the Ivy daughter would have also done well at a UC but she definately had an experience that couldn't be replicated. I wouldn't have done it if the financial repercussions were too great for us and I hate the idea of debt for her. Good luck--not an easy decision.

Following up a bit on my previous comments about Princeton, I would just like to add that, when I was there, there were ways around the preppiness which was part of the Princeton WASP experience. I joined a kind of ''counter-fraternity'' right around the corner from all the other eating clubs on Prospect Street. This place was full of all the students who didn't fit into the eating club scene: artists, musicians, counter-culture types, serious scholars, just outright misfits, etc. So there was definitely a way to mitigate the prevailing preppiness of the place, and now Princeton has a residential college system, which may have also have made a significant difference in the campus atmosphere.

I would also like to add that any small, high-quality liberal arts school would serve the same purpose of enriched education I mentioned before: places like Oberlin, Amherst, Williams, Bryn Mawr, Reed, etc. I seriously considered going to Amherst instead of Princeton for just this reason (an enriched small-class environment), but am glad I ended up choosing Princeton, since it was a little bigger, and perhaps slightly more diverse, than Amherst might have been.

Finally, I would not necessarily go by what a college counselor says about the lack of financial assistance. It is my impression that in recent years, top quality private colleges have been making a lot of efforts to make their schools more accessible to middle-class parents who are not super wealthy. I would recommend contacting the school directly, and seeing if you could negotiate something with them, or at least get more information on possible financial assistance. If your son is as talented and smart as you say he is, then you actually have bargaining power, since top Ivy League schools are always competing with each other for the best students. Good luck with your college search! Jim

Ask me in four years if it was worth it. What I can say right now is that two Ivies understood the realities of California living expenses and offered very reasonable financial assistance despite our having an AGI that would look astronomical to someone in, say, Missouri.

A Yale diploma was certainly worth it to me. I'm not sure I actually learned more but it has always been a ticket to ride for me job wise and socially. When I've applied for jobs the ivy league credential impressed people. They never needed to ask for a transcript. As for cost it is a sliding scale starting at free for low income folks. Ivy

Two things to consider:
1. Private universities with big endowments can often offer students much better financial help than public universities. In the past year there have been articles about how Harvard and some other ivies can actually afford to let all students attend tuition-free and in fact it is more economical for them to do so.
2. A degree from an Ivy League school can give you an advantage in getting your foot in the door at the start of your career. Once your career is going, job experience and performance become more important. So there does seem to be a benefit for at least the first few years. On the other hand, a degree from Berkeley or UCLA is pretty darn attractive to future emplyers too!

How to find out more about colleges he's considering

Oct 2008

Looking ahead a few months, I am wondering how to locate local students (such as Berkeley high grads), who have gone to a certain college to find out more about their impressions and experiences. My senior is considering a number of colleges that we have no personal connection with (such as Macalester and Scripps) and we would like to talk to current (or recent) students, if possible. Soon to be empty nester

This type of research is best done from the OTHER end - that is, contact the COLLEGE that you're interested and ask them for students who come from certain high schools (or the East Bay in general), and the admissions office will generally be more than happy to have the college students contact you. My daughter, for example, goes to Macalester, has loved every minute of it, and would be happy to talk to your student. You can contact me through the moderator, or contact Mac and ask for referrals to students from the East Bay. Colleges are VERY proactive these days about having their students call/email high school students. mom of 2 seniors (college, h.s.)

I'd go on Facebook and look up the colleges you're interested in - they'll probably have a group, or just people who list that they go to or are alums of that school. You might find people who list BHS also. gotta love the internet

If your child wants information about a college, the best way to check may be through the online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Check out listings for Class of 2012 at the different social networking sites. That would get you in touch with the freshman class that was last year's high school seniors. For example, if you went to Facebook's Chapman University Class of 2012, you would find my son, who loves his school (he's a Theater Performance major). You can also check (you need to register, but it's free), (registration required, but free). Most kids are very happy to discuss what they do or don't like about a school. Chapman Mom

One of the best ways to find the right college is to examine the trade-offs between: going pre-professional on one hand and liberal arts on the other and between getting one degree or going on to grad school. Here is a good rule to use:

One Degree and Pre-Professional
If student is only going to get one degree--then possibly a pre-professional major might matter. Choosing a school which has a good business or engineering program and one that is respected in the student's area of focus may be important. A good measure of quality would to see how many employers interview on campus--these numbers are published by the college.

Graduate Degree Oriented
On the other hand, many students these days wish to attend graduate school. What most people don't know is that liberal arts colleges are the fastest route to JD, MD, MBA and Ph.D programs. The only catch is that most liberal arts colleges are private. The good news is that many offer merit and need based financial aid. So if you feel that you cannot afford $40-50K a year but your student is in the top 10% of their class and has significant academic or athletic talent you may wish to consider these colleges. The main reason I recommend these is that graduate schools prefer liberal arts colleges because of the great job they do in preparing students to write well, think critically and express their ideas in oral argument. If you are able to call your professor by their first name or do research as an undergraduate with your professors it makes a huge difference on your student's resume. For more information about top undergraduate feeder schools here is a link: David

Oct 2007

Parents and students can begin their search online for excellent, often affordable (with merit and need-based aid), but largely unknown colleges.

The first website to explore is - Colleges That Change Lives, from Loren Pope's book of the same name.

The second is - a project of diverse administrators, alumni, and students.

Finally, those exploring in-state schools can look beyond UC's and CSU's at - The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Remember, no web search can substitute for a campus visit, but it can at least broaden your awareness and start you in the right direction. Eion Lys College Counselor

Colleges close to home or away?

Sept 2007

The time has come to apply to colleges. From what I hear, the kids generally want to move out and go to an out of area college. The problem is that I'm not so sure I want my daughter to go far away. She has her sights set on CAL, but it seems there is a lot of pressure at school from friends and even teachers, that it's not cool to stay close to home. What do think?

Does your daugher prefer going to a college close to home or to go away? If financial factors make it feasible, I think it should be your daughter choice rather than anybody else's. I have met kids who wanted to go away, my daughter for example, and others who were interested in staying in town. While I surely miss my kid, I think that the independence is a good experience for her, and one that help her build confidence in herself and prepare her to be on her own. Interestingly enough when she was in high school she often talked about her desire to live in places other than the Bay Area, but now she has expressed an interest to coming back to Berkeley once she's out of school. From a different prospective: would you want your daughter to be in a college where she doesn't want to be if you have the possibility to send her where she wants? College takes adjustments, so it's best to have a kid enthusiatic about the istitution in which she's enrolled. And the other UC are not that far from Berkeley either, for example it would take you 1 hr flight to LA to visit. gh

The college application process is truly barferoneous these days and part of the problem is the confusion caused by the wide variety of opinions and ideas about what you should do. I will have more to say about this later. I do think the various ideas that have been posted so far are good!

I am a professor at Cal and my daughter decided to go there. Actually it was the best of the affordable schools that she got in to, though if she really wanted to go somewhere else she had a choice among several fine UCs (I have absolutely NO influence on admissions, let's get that out of the way! and I get no break of any kind). She got in to some private schools and that was grand but way way too expensive. We did not qualify, at any public or private school, for financial aid or interest-free loans. We were offered loans at what I consider a high interest rate and we did not take them. We are unfortunately in a sandwich between being wealthy enough to pay our way to a private school, and ''poor'' enough to qualify for financial aid. The living expenses in the Bay Area, 177% of average, did not seem to impress the various schools we applied to. This does not mean that YOU will not get aid, so try. Most colleges say they are ''needs blind,'' or ''practically needs blind.''

The community college option with a two-year transfer is a good one--really saves money and there are some really good teachers in small classes in the community colleges.

To get back to your question, not only is my daughter close to home, but she is at my place of work, admittedly with 30,000+ other people. So far, this works for us. She lives in the dorms and I stay out of her business. She comes home when she wants to, and I love to see her. We love to see each other once in a while for lunch or snack on campus. I could not be happier, but I have to watch myself. I have to NOT GET INTO HER STUFF. That is hard, as I want her to do well in school and she has had some periods of doubt and unhappiness. She has questioned her choice because it is such a ''BIG' place, but at the same time has wonderful opportunities to do things. She is also outrageously happy with what she is doing at times, and is very involved in extracurricular activities and has lots of friends. So I think she is at the normal for her general personality. She's a homebody and a bit moody.

Do what seems right for you and your child, and accept that once they are off to school, they are adults and should be given privacy with responsibility. I do ask my daughter to prepare a budget for me every semester and I would do that wherever she went.

My second daughter, applying for college right now, is adamant that she wants to go AWAY for college. It is pretty clear in this case what her preferences are and I think we accept that. But I think 100 miles is AWAY, and the east coast means a lot of flight delays. We will see where she gets in and at what price. I really wanted to get AWAY and found that 100 miles was perfect for me. I guess what I am trying to say is that the away vs. close problem pales compared to where the kid gets in and at what price.

I think we need to transmit some crucial info to our kids as soon as possible, and this gets lost in our worries about college this or college that:

1. live within your means (bankrupting yourself for some big name school is not setting a good example).
2. don't borrow money. Start a car fund now. No weird mortgages.
3. save money and live on a budget. Understand compound interest. (and you can start with 10.00 saved by getting a book used, etc.)
4. you are not entitled to anything, you have to earn it.
5. learn about investing your savings.

As to the application process, it is well known that it is the major your kid picks is more important than the college. I know that the kid who is going to Cal Poly in engineering is going to do very well financially compared to the kid who goes to Stanford in drama (and don't get angry with me if drama is your kid's thing--that is just the way it is and who knows they could get lucky but it will be harder with a lot of debt....). What if they went to Cal in engineering and the competition was so fierce they changed majors, while at Cal Poly they are supported and in a more reasonable peer environment? At Cal, to do engineering you have to be in a different college so your choices for alternative majors require a transfer--and if you are in another major and want to transfer into engineering it is very difficult. Perhaps a school that made it easier to choose would be more reasonable. Keep these things in mind. I don't think it is reasonable for a high school senior to know exactly what they want to do. So find a school that has a lot of choices, unless your kid is very focused (and I know one of those this year who has already changed her mind, after 4 weeks of freshman year).

My greatest fear for my daughter is that at Cal, the sciences are so packed with highly competitive students that she may give up, while at a smaller school she might stick with it.

Now for the application process: what has happened???? It is such a drag. We did not take this nearly so seriously when I applied to college. You need to try to get good scores, good grades, and for some schools, good recommendations. AP classes, if your kid can do well in them, are good. Some evidence of public service (though not so much and so diverse that it looks contrived) is good. Faking things does not help your kid, who will wind up somewhere he or she does not belong. You need to help them find a school that is going to be right for them. So get some of those books on colleges, or go to spark college on the web, or do several of those things and have the kid look through them and see what is of interest. You will be able to get some idea of the likelihood of your kid getting in from the GPA and scores of students accepted. Look at some college websites. Try not to let all the ''noise'' about xy and z's perfect SAT scores get to you. Just focus on finding a place your kid likes, and put ''away or close'' way down the priority list, unless is it really a big deal for your daughter. Be frank with your kids about what you can afford, but don't let them stop them from applying to places, because you may get an offer that makes it affordable.

It is helpful if you have them take an SAT prep course, I think. My daughter took a week long prep course offered through her school. They need to get used to the test format.

I have used a consultant for 2 meetings per kid, just to reduce some of the tension that gets built up when parents try to do all the advising. The consultant made my daughter aware of where she was likely to get in and where she would not get in, and recommended some schools to her. Your kid should write her OWN essays, and proof read them a lot. You can help with proof reading, but lay off.

There is my 2 cents. local mom

To ''local mom'' who is a professor at Cal and took the time to write the extensive, thoughtful, and honest essay about the college application process and home-vs.-away issues-- You did an EXCELLENT job of putting everything into perspective and telling it like it is. For those of you who *read* her posting-- Listen to her! I speak from recent experience, having just dropped one daughter off at college in August and will be starting the whole thing again soon with my other daughter, who is a high school junior. another local mom