The Top 1 Question to Ask in YOUR College Admission Experience

Listen to “The Top 1 Question to Ask In YOUR College Admission Experience – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

A few years ago, I wrote That One Thing. This blog opens with an embarrassing personal travel story (returning readers will note a pattern) and goes on to suggest that the most important thing you can do in the college admission experience is to listen– to counselors, parents, older students, teachers, and admission representatives.  

Well… it’s taken me three years, but I believe I’ve been able to finally isolate the one question you should be asking in your college admission experience… “Do I care?” Note: This is supposed to be an internal question, rather than one asked audibly, especially if it’s with your right hand on your hip, your left eye scrunched down, and your head tilted to either side. 

Do I care? 

Let’s give it a shot.  

Faculty: student ratio, list of alumni who are now in the pro sports, year of founding, number of benches (insert other object or animal here) on campus, style of architecture, or percentage of faculty with a terminal degree.  

Whether it be on campus or in virtual programs, you can expect admission folks and student tour guides are going to run through a litany of stats, dates in their institution’s history, and a variety of other bragging points. As you are listening or walking around, you’ll inevitably see other students or parents nodding their head or raising their eyebrows and pursing their lips as if to say, “Hmmm…impressive!”  

And hey, maybe those things do matter to you. Maybe you don’t want to attend a school that was founded in an even year or are dead set on no more than a 11:1 squirrel to student ratio. Maybe Georgian architecture is fine with you, as long as it was all sourced within a 100 mile radius.  

The bottom line is you’re already receiving ad nauseum emails with these kinds of data points in them—and that onslaught of information is about to multiply infinitely as the school year starts and the real push for applications ramps up. So, with every page you turn or building on campus you reach, you need to keep just one question in mind– Do I care? Is this information really substantive and relevant to my college search and selection process?  

Rankings  

Recently, on his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell has explored the advent, evolution, and implications of the US News college rankings.  This two part-series exposes their self-serving origin, highly subjective methodology, and the ability of colleges to manipulate their standing.  

As a student (or an invested adult) in the college admission experience, I highly encourage you to make time to listen to both The Lord of the Rankings and Project Dillard.    

Over the years, I’ve written extensively about the outsized place rankings can play in college search and selection. I won’t re-hash all of that, but if you are interested in digging in a bit more you can check out: The Rankings, Meh and Three Cheers for the Rankings.   

Ultimately, the choice to use commercial rankings (aka click bait, cash cow lifeline) is yours. But please, for the love of all things holy, take some time to understand the methodology on which these are based, and ask your one filter question—DO. I. CARE?  

  • If the President from one college looks favorably upon another…  
  • One school pays faculty on average $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) and therefore their ranking is inflated…  
  • One school is outside the Top 25 (50, 100) but has graduated lots of successful alumni in the field I’m interested in… 

As I’ve said, and will continue to reiterate, your college search and selection is just that–yours. Listen, I don’t hate the US News games makers per se. I just earnestly think you are smarter than they are. And I know with all confidence that you know you better than they ever could.  So is it crazy to suggest you should consider creating your own ranking system?

What do you value? What does really matter to you as you decide where to apply and attend?  (Yes. I’m really asking those questions to you.) If you were to create your own personal ranking system what are the first three to five factors you would use and how much weight would you put on them?  

I want to encourage you to take some time soon to actually write those down and consider using a Likert scale to rate the schools you are considering. I’m not going to prescribe this to you, so if you want to use 19 points or 100, go for it, but here would be an example on the 5-point scale.

5: Exactly what I am looking for

4: Pretty darn good

3: OK

2: Tolerable

1: This is a problem.  

Applying this to my family’s upcoming vacation this summer, here is that Likert scale applied: 

Factor:  

  • Distance from home (given cost, allotted time, arguing kids): 4 
  • Fun (mainly for kids but since I’m paying…): 4 
  • Hiking/Running nearby: 5 
  • Good food options: 2 (My opinion not theirs) 

What do you care about?  

Last week I had the opportunity to interview my friend Jeff Schiffman on The College Admission Brief podcast. He eloquently discussed how Covid was a rare pause that has allowed us to really stop and think about what we love, desire, and truly care about.  

I don’t know exactly how things are going to play out for you in the year ahead. I’m not going to try to “chance you” about where you are going to get in or try to predict if you’ll get a scholarship to your top choice. What I do know is that everyone is going to have an opinion about what you should pay attention to as you consider, apply to, and ultimately select a college. There will be incredible noise in your house, school, on social media, and in the darkest corners of the interwebs about how you should make your admission choices.  

So, yea, I still stand by my blog asserting the one thing you can do is listen. But that does not mean everything you hear has value or merit. The bottom line is that in the week, month, and continually through your college admission experience the one question you have to keep vigilantly asking and considering is… “Do I care?”  

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college