Beyond the Numbers: Digging Deeper in Your College Search

My parents are foils of one another. Introvert vs. extrovert, mountains vs. beach, butter on everything vs. butter only in coffee (I never said they were normal). Their preferences vary in weather, food, colors, sports—and that is just scratching the surface.

Perhaps the area in which they are most diametrically opposed is politics. My mom is an unabashed liberal and my dad is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  As a kid, my sister and I were acutely aware (and frequently entertained) by these divergent political leanings and opinions. In fact, we found great humor in listening to them comment and quibble about every story covered on the evening news (a thing people used to do in the 80s).

An advantage to growing up in a home like mine is it taught me not to accept any one opinion as absolute truth, but rather to think for myself and seek additional information and perspectives. It also reinforces the need to question any number, percentage, or statistic, because while one of my parents would criticize a candidate’s 43% approval rating as “suppressed due to skewed polling,” the other and would complain it was “laughably generous.”

So, with both the election and admission season upon us, I hope you’ll embrace these critical lessons from the Clark household.

Never take any number at face value.   

Admission people aren’t dishonest, but I admit we’ll always put a rosy spin on numbers. We omit the ones that don’t make our school look good and find various ways to frame those that, if displayed differently, may not look as favorable. You should read our numbers the way we read your application: holistically. Dig deeper and seek context.

College Costs. You would think this would be a number you could take at face value… and if you think that, you’re wrong. In many cases, the price is not really the price. Remember, you can’t trust the numbers, so lean instead into the letters. Say what?

Take the time to understand how your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is calculated. That will  lead you to the learn more about the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid), and potentially CSS Profile. The truth is many people do not ultimately pay the price you see on the college brochure or university website. In fact, it’s common that your COA (cost of attendance, which includes tuition, housing, meal plan, other fees) will not be the same amount to attend the same college during the same timeframe as a classmate/teammate/roommate. What the…?! Told you not to trust the numbers.

Dig Deeper. I just gave you a bunch of acronyms and links above, so start there. Then look into Net Price Calculators (NPC). Before you apply to any college, you and your family should plug in your most accurate financial information to determine the approximate cost you will pay based on your specific circumstances. Doing this will facilitate a robust and honest conversation about affordability, loans, working during college, or financial conditions and expectations.

  • Don’t rule out a school based on their published price.
  • Do talk to your counselor, contact college financial aid representatives, speak with current college students, and even venture into some dark recesses of the interwebs to piece together a more complete picture of financial aid packages at the schools you’re considering.
  • Don’t expect to receive a financial aid package and exclaim, “That’s incredibly generous. What are we going to do with all of our unspent savings?” Could happen but you’d definitely be the exception rather than the rule.

Beyond the Numbers: Evaluating Rankings.  

Not a fan (But again you need to think for yourself here). I’ve written about the questionable methodology of these before. Just like you would expect a college to view your GPA broadly, accounting for your high school, grade trends, rigor of curriculum, and other circumstances, I am imploring you not to draw firm lines in the sand (or in an Excel document as it were).

Every year we hear stories from students who say they were discouraged from applying to schools ranked below number 25; or decided only to apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school from which they received on offer of admission. No!

Dig Deeper. Do your homework. Understand the methodology and ask yourself if you agree with how these rankings are determined. Consider questions like:

  • Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)? The fact that these rely at all upon surveys is preposterous. Surveys?!
  • Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
  • Knowing that the rankings makers (think Seneca Crane) are under pressure to sell more ad space for vitamins and Audis, am I really going to choose to apply or attend a school based on this year’s number?

Others numbers I want to strongly encourage you to to dig into and not accept at face value: graduation rates, retention rates, test score bands, admit rates.

Perspective is critical. Ask lots of different people YOUR questions to gain confidence in your decisions.

Seek multiple perspectives.

Think about your own high school or hometown. If you only talk to the science department, the mayor, the basketball coach, or someone who moved away 10 years ago, you will get a very narrow take on what makes your school or town interesting, terrible, unique, or completely broken. Ask all of them and you can begin to see a fuller and more balanced picture.

The same is true for the colleges you are considering. Don’t take any one person’s opinion as gospel truth. I am the Director of Admission at Georgia Tech, but I am not the expert on all things Georgia Tech. And the same is true for any alum, tour guide, advisor, or current student. They have their perspective and lived experience, which is valuable, informative, and instructive on some level. But what is really relevant for you?

Your job is to listen closely to a variety of opinions and perspectives, so you can identify themes, trends, and the real culture or community. Be honest about what you really want or need to know, and then be proactive and diligent about asking YOUR specific questions.

Think for yourself.

If you remember nothing else from this blog, please keep in mind this fundamental truth about the college search and admission experience—it is YOURS.  YOU are ultimately the one who will be going, regardless of how many times you may hear a parent say, “We are looking at UC-Davis,” or “Our ACT was canceled last month.”

The next time you hear a friend or teacher say, “You should go to X College” or “You need to consider Y University (Go Y’ers!),” thank them for their suggestions. Continually value and solicit the advice, opinions, excitement, and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, and others. However, don’t lose sight of your real goal and true success, which is not getting into a particular college (something completely outside of your control), but rather feeling confident about why you are applying to and ultimately choosing to attend a particular university.

Moving Forward

I hope you’ll apply these critical lessons in your college admission experience (and life in general): 1) never take any one number at face value, 2) seek multiple perspectives, and 3) think for yourself. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly in an election season, I’ve come to appreciate another lesson my parents always modeled—you can vehemently disagree with someone and still love and respect them.

The college admission experience is a pre-cursor to the actual college experience. I hope you’ll consider that last lesson as a key part of your preparation for your next four years and the years well beyond.

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Author: Rick Clark

@gtadmission