kitchen table math, the sequel: Selecting Colleges

Friday, March 16, 2012

Selecting Colleges

Can I get advice on selecting/evaluating colleges to look at in more detail? I know that KTMers have recommended some web sites, but I didn't make a list. I'm still trying to figure out what criteria are important, including big school/small school, country/city, and whether the college is the town or whether the town has it's own life. I have a lot of preconceived ideas about different schools, so I was surprised when I started looking at the average SAT scores for different colleges, not that that is the main criterion one should use. Does anyone like some rankings better than others? How about the rankings of particular departments? How about intangibles such as opportunities that aren't necessarily related to the college? Are some colleges known for having their students go home on weekends? How did your views change as you got to know schools in more detail? How did your kids' views evolve? Were there conflicts between where your kids wanted to go and what might might be best for them academically? I suppose there is the pressure of picking the highest ranking school because that will sound best to others when they ask.

I thought it would be good to put together a list of tangible and intangible factors to go over with my son. When we go to a school to visit, I want him to have a lot of background knowledge first. I don't want him to accept or reject a school based only on what he sees while getting out of the car on the first visit. I went to the University of Michigan having never been to Ann Arbor before.


Jen said...

*I don't want him to accept or reject a school based only on what he sees while getting out of the car on the first visit.*

Good luck with that!

If you figure out how to crack this nut of having teenagers make a huge decision about something that they know next to nothing about, but are convinced they know a lot about, while their parents have a lot of knowledge, but much of it isn't as up-to-date as it could be, and while the parents' and kids' ideas of what's necessary and what's to be avoided may be entirely different even though the kid may nod along with you...

Can you tell I've done it twice?

We've decided, in the very end (not at the beginning to weed out), based on price. Once the options were in and any that ended up being less appealing as time went by were knocked out, we sat down and crunched the numbers alongside a list of pros and cons like location, programs, perceived fit, etc.

Seeing the costs in black and white helps clarify the mind.

Bostonian said...

I have been reading the book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Kahneman. When you have such a multi-faceted decision such as which college to attend, he suggests it is helpful to break the problem into smaller parts. Have your son list his criteria, for example

(1) strength of program in his intended major
(2) strength of general education program
(3) attractiveness of campus
(4) cost

give weights to them, and then give each college a score on each criterion (on a scale of 1 to 5, say). Then compute a total score for each college. This could be done in a spreadsheet. The method forces to look at each college along many dimensions.

SteveH said...

Thanks for the feedback Jen.

"Once the options were in ..."

How did you select the schools in the first place? Did you just send out lots of applications?

My son is analytical and would probably love a spreadsheet approach with weights assigned to different factors, but what are the factors? How do you not skip over potentially good schools because you don't know anything about them?

I didn't have much of an opinion about Tufts, but I was surprised that it was ranked very highly. And then there is Williams College way the heck out in nowhere, MA. One of my ancestors went to Amherst College, but I have no idea why it's ranked so high. What makes one school special over another academically? Do they really offer more academically, or it it just reputation and a self-fulfilling SAT population?

SteveH said...

"... give weights to them, and then give each college a score ..."

I saw this after my last post, and it sounds like my son. I just need to know what the columns should be, but I'm sure that the campus/town feel weight will grow over time. In the end, he might throw the formula out, but at least he will have considered the other factors.

Anonymous said...

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There is no way to find out everything about all the possibles. Aim to identify several that are good in the fields he is interested in, and that you can afford with financial aid. Then slice and dice with respect to small/big, city/country, near/far, extracurriculars, campus feel, etc.

Grace said...

I cobbled together a spreadsheet of factors, similar to what's been described. Here are how I defined the 1-5 score criteria:

College Selection
1 = Deal breaker
2 = Don’t want, but could deal with
3 = Don’t care or unsure
4 = Nice to have but not critical
5 = Must have

The factors were many(over 100) because I had a child who was not limiting himself geographically and never expressed strong preferences on the typical criteria.

Here are just a few of the factors, some mundane and some not:

Ranked high nationally
Campus is in a flat part of the country
Campus is in a hilly part of the country
Campus w/ natural beauty
Chance to study abroad / overseas / do exchange programs
Diversity; not just students like me
In a big city (Chicago, Boston, NY, LA, Phila, SF)
Mostly small classes
Must live on-campus all 4 years
Near a big city, less than an hour away (Chicago, Boston, NY, LA, Phila, SF)
Really good programs in Arabic
Really good programs in economics
Really good programs in finance
Requires me to study abroad / do exchange programs
Research / interact / work for faculty
Sports to watch
Student body is a mix of all income levels
Students can easily go off campus / into a town (like Evanston)

Grace said...

In the end, he might throw the formula out, but at least he will have considered the other factors.

That was my feeling, too.

Grace said...

The CollegeBoard has a nice matchmaker tool that lets you narrow down a list based on geography, size, admissions stats, etc. I found it to be a great starting point.

I know other sites have similar tools, but I have not used them personally.

nancy john said...

nice post about Selecting B Schools

SteveH said...

Thank you for your factors, Grace. The live on/off campus is one that I forgot about.

How about the college schedule, such as when you start and how much time you get off at the Christmas break? I REALLY liked it at U. of Michigan, where finals get done by Dec. 23, and the second semester starts on Jan 3. This means that summer starts by May 1st. Do some colleges offer any special programs if they have a month off in the middle of the year?

I forgot about the College Board college selection help. I'll go take a look at it.

Jeff Boulier said...

I am very fond of, which provides a handy interface to the data coming from IPEDS. It allows for easy comparison across multiple schools.

Extra bonus: they show 4, 5, and 6 year graduation rates, which is awfully helpful for your own financial planning. There's a big difference at certain state schools between 4-year and 6-year graduation rates, which in part is is due to students having difficulty getting into the classes they need.

ChemProf said...

I like for looking up college profiles. I also would recommend against considering cost as an upfront criteria (at least if you are already considering privates) since you don't know what it will actually cost YOU until you get the financial aid package.

I'd also recommend you consider schools in tiers rather than worrying about the details of rankings. There is very little difference between the educational opportunities available at any of the top 20 or 25 liberal arts colleges, for example, and very little difference in their reputation.

There absolutely are colleges where many students go home for the weekend (mine is one of them), and you want to find that out because if you aren't one of them, you may find yourself alone in the dorm.

If he knows the major he's interested in, I would suggest looking at the size of the department and the breadth of their offerings as part of your calculation. Look at the actual online schedule, not just the catalog (which can be embarrassingly out of date). In physics, for example, how many upper division electives are actually offered in a semester? This can vary a lot from one college to another, even if they seem the same in terms of SATs, cost, majors, etc, and is also a pretty easy thing to research.

Also, you should as parents be aware that rankings have changed a lot over the last twenty years. Some top ranked schools weren't terribly good then (I still can't believe how highly ranked Pomona is, for example), and some schools that were top ranked then have sagged.

SteveH said...

I just went through the CollegeBoard tool and came up with 89 colleges, and that was just the greater Northeast. Well, it's a starting point and will help us look at some colleges we might have skipped. You can also see what they have for options or factors.

ChemProf said...

There are some schools that offer "January term" courses if there is a month or so off (but it is less common than it used to be -- we used to for example, but it relied on faculty teaching courses for free). Oberlin, for example, is unusual in that they actually require three credits of "winter term" credit.

SteveH said...

Thanks for the links to:

I think my first step is to get a feel for the tiers, as ChemProf says. It was a surprise for me to see Tufts in the top tier. I was also surprised to see how low some other well-known colleges were ranked. I can also see that some rankings might be better than others.

It's the hidden gems that I don't want to overlook in the first cut selection of schools. I assume that most students first target a tier based on GPA and SAT scores and then go from there. Is there a tool that takes SAT scores and gives you colleges in a range around those scores? The CollegeBoard has something like that in its tool, but it's a very coarse selection.

ChemProf said...

It is going to be coarse. Most schools in a tier have very comparable top 25% numbers (and remember to be competitive for aid, you want to be in the top 25% of the entering class -- I'd argue you want to be there anyway to be more likely to stand out and get good letters of recommendation).

ChemProf said...

If you poke around on, you can find some interesting tables. I was looking at the 25/75% numbers for the top 10 liberal arts colleges, just to make my point about how similar they look, and found this page:

You can find more SAT comparison charts at the link. As well as lists by state (here is Massachussetts' list):

SteveH said...

On a related topic, how does a student explain why she/he wants to go to a particular college?

1. It was in my tier and I was at the top 25%?

2. I like the town/campus?

3. I'm very interested in (make up) something the school is looking for (known for)?

4. This is my backup school, but I really, really want to go there? If I miss out on HYP, Tufts looks pretty good.

Maybe they just want to test your creative writing abilities.

Are we supposed to do some kind of homework to figure out what a school is all about and why it's different than another college in the same tier?

It seems to me that the best you can do is to pick out some departmental specialty. But what if you don't know exactly what you want to do? What if you want a good liberal arts education so that you can decide what you want to do?

I suppose that they're just looking to see if you do a little bit of homework and don't sound clueless about the school. What are some of those things that a college wants you to know about them?

I went to a Harvard admissions open meeting in September, and they showed a film about how their students are just regular people who come from all sorts of backgrounds. Right. They said nothing about how Harvard is different than Yale or Princeton.

They explained how they didn't necessarily want well-rounded students. They wanted "oblong" students who they could put together into a well-rounded community. They said NOTHING about what that community looks like or how it might be different than one at a competing school.

I think the most realistic explanation is that you want to go to a school that offers you the most opportunities and academic challenges. But do colleges like to hear that their offerings are equal with many other schools; that the choice comes down to much smaller factors?

Grace said...

Steve - if you'd like to see a complete list of my factors to jog your thinking, you can contact me at costofcollege and I'll sent you a copy.

Grace said...

An initial coarse sorting is probably good, as it will help you find those hidden gems. And it's necessary to look behind the numbers, of course. For example, schools that are test-optional will have scores that skew high.

I'll just say that the selection process becomes more tedious and time-consuming the less restrictive you make it. In my experience, most kids have limiting factors that are built in - geographic, size, financial, etc. I had a kid who was indecisive and open to going just about anywhere, so that made it more challenging for us.

Grace said...

One suggestion about the "why do I want to go there" essay is to make it about the kid. After you cover some basics about the school, take the opportunity to reveal something about the applicant. And I will repeat something I've said before - branding yourself in a particular way that is consistent throughout your application can help you stand out in the selection process. Are you a "political activist" kid, for example?

"My years of interest in politics makes XYZ college stand out. I look forward to participating in your very active Young Democrats club on campus, especially during next year's Congressional election.... blah blah blah"

Allison said...

I would work hard to see what your son thinks before you start sorting through 89 schools.

Not everyone is crazy like I was, but young adults have a lot of fixed notions in their heads, and you might as well cut your losses early in the process if your son really isn't open to considering all of these places.

I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to go to MIT because I'd read Feynman's autobiography, and he'd gone there as an undergrad. I'd also categorically rejected caltech (where he had been a prof) because it was within driving distance of home. Nothing could make me apply to caltech, nothing. I barely considered any colleges but MIT. I visited Notre Dame (my parents had the (*very wrong*) impression that it was a college where a young woman would be safe/looked after more than an urban school like MIT) but I never considered it--standing on the campus was just me humoring my parents, and I never read one piece of paper to even find out what the place was really like. It was not worth the visit.

It's worth realizing that you may not have a fixed rule for cost, either. My parents really made an emotional decision that "she got into MIT; how can we not pay for it?", a decision that many other parents feel that way about too, while an equally expensive 2nd tier school may not have triggered that response. You should try to be honest with yourself and your son about these possibly non-rational reactions to price--that's not just the price tag, but other measures of value for that price.

Last: Williams was (and I would bet, is) a fabulous school for science. When I was at MIT, I knew many folks at Williams who were the hs friends of kids who'd gone to MIT. They were the happiest physics majors I've ever met from any school, and they knew more physics than us, their MIT counterparts.

Per capita, more of the physics/CS/math folks I knew in grad schools/research labs and the like came from Williams than from MIT or any other of the top schools. I believe it's because they had been nurtured to succeed rather than left to sink or swim on their own. They were actually taught their course material, and they were taught to work a research problem.

I don't think that well of most of the science programs in the top rated liberal arts schools outside of the Ivies, but without a doubt, Williams was terrific. Assuming it is still so, I would do everything in my power to encourage a family member to go there rather than to Princeton, Harvard, or Yale for science. Certainly rather there than Caltech or MIT if they wanted to go into physics. (for CS, I might give different advice.)

Allison said...

re: other dumb decisions teenagers make: I rejected even considering applying to Stanford because a good friend from high school, who was a brilliant young man, 750+ on each sat and achievement test, excellent at math but a literature major in his heart, had applied there and been rejected. I thought since Stanford had rejected him, I would reject them.

My husband rejected applying to Stanford for an equally dumb reason. His uncle had gone there, and done well, and he didn't want anyone to think if he got in, it was because of his uncle, so he didn't apply.

I never told my parents why I refused to apply to Stanford, and my husband never told his parents his reason either. Perhaps you will have better luck ferreting out the truths about these things. :)

SteveH said...

"They were the happiest physics majors I've ever met from any school, and they knew more physics than us, their MIT counterparts.?

These are the schools I want to find. I value your opinion, but if one goes to a place like CollegeConfidential, it can be hard to sort out the conflicting ideas and agendas. Then again, my son would probably go crazy being stuck out there.

I want my son to define a process and not just go with the flow. We live in the HBYCPP corridor and that has a great influence on many students. The "B" is for Brown and my son sees some of his friends go there.

I think he has to define his factors and start digging. It's complicated because his science/math versus music decision hasn't been made. It probably won't be just a conservatory, and dual degrees are neither here nor there.

What do you think of Tufts for physics - or anything?

Jen said...

Just checking back in on this discussion. (Feel compelled to add that I'm a Tufts grad and have a degree from Michigan too ;-D)

The truth is that there is NOT a perfect school, though. There are likely 50? 100? more? schools that would be a great fit for a kid who likes to learn, has good scores, etc.

Be careful not to 1) give them the idea that this one decision will determine everything about the rest of their lives and 2) take over the process to an extent that they don't feel they've made any real decisions, but merely chosen between your options.

Easier said than done! There are so many moments of serendipity (or of the opposite) that will occur during the process that you really can't control. You can't control that the professor your kid meets that one day had garlic for lunch and his/her office smelled -- but that's something that *will* affect decisions!

So, I'd worry much less about doing the most comprehensive search than about just searching, asking people for impressions, asking younger people you meet where they went to college and what they did and didn't like, etc.

I'd personally recommend staying as far from college confidential as a gauge as possible -- not that the information is bad, but it can make you crazy!

SteveH said...

So, what did you like about Tufts? As a 13th generation New Englander, you would think I would know something about the school. A short while ago, I couldn't even guess at the rankings of colleges like Tufts, BU, BC, Northeastern, and UMASS. At this point, we are nowhere near the crazy level. I'm trying to figure out a plan that maximizes effectiveness and minimizes craziness.

Jen said...

Well, my Tufts experience was a long time ago...but I did find that the professors really were accessible. They not only made themselves very available, but they also would at times seek kids out if they realized that you weren't taking advantage of something that was out there and would be good for you.

I liked the (at the time at least) fairly high percentage of international students. Excellent and easy way to expand your own opinions and ideas about the world inside and outside of class.

It was big enough to have lots of options in terms of clubs, groups, sports, part-time job opportunities and the like, but again, small enough that you knew people doing all those different things and not just the people studying what you were.

And I liked that it was close to Boston -- at the time people didn't go in to Cambridge or Boston all that much (to date myself, the T finally made its way out there as I graduated), but just knowing that you could was worth something too!

Jen said...

PS At the time I went, the only people who had definitely heard of it were...dentists! The Dental school and the Vet school were the things that a few people outside of Massachusetts knew about, neither of which has anything to do with the undergrad campus/experience of course!

Anonymous said...

Yes ... dentists.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Test comment

Anonymous said...


You can download data directly from IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) to make your own college ranking spreadsheet with just the data points of interest to you (e.g. retention rates, graduation rates, out-of-state-tuition costs).
IPEDS website:

It won't have finer points like "Campus is in a flat part of the country" or "strength of program in his intended major", but it is a start and you can add your own data points to the spreadsheet as you do more research.

There is a tutorial on how to do this at the following website. This woman sells a spreadsheet that you can customize, but she freely admits that you can do this for yourself and thus the tutorial. (She sells her spreadsheet to people who can't be bothered with doing their own download.)

My other comment got eaten by Blogger, thus my "test comment" above.