I’ve been getting a lot of questions from parents this month and I’ll share some of them with you in posts this summer.
I’m starting with an email from a mom from North Carolina whose son has his heart set on the sort of schools that top students tend to dream about. If you have some suggestions for this teenager, please comment in the box below. Lynn O’Shaughnessy
A Mom’s Email
I have a question for you for my youngest son who is a rising senior in high school. We are at odds with him on what type of school he should be looking for. He seems to think only the best will get him where he wants to go in life. Here is a little about my son:
He is first in his class, current GPA is a 4.99 out of a 4.0. He has taken 3 SAT Subject Tests, Math 2 (720), Physics (750), and Chemistry (800), he has a 32 ACT and a 34 ACT SuperScored. He has taken all the math and science classes available to him in his high school.
He will graduate with 10 AP classes and AP honors. He completed AP Calculus during his sophomore year. He is attending the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics online program. He finished up Calculus 3 just this past May from that program and he will be taking 4 classes from them during his senior year.
He is interested in biomedical genetic engineering and he already plans multiple PhD’s. How do you select an undergrad school with a big picture goal? So far we have looked at Duke, Georgetown and his favorite, UVA. We will also look at Carnegie Mellon, Columbia and MIT.
His father and I want to do what is right for him and right now, we have no idea what that may be. Kyle thinks he knows what he wants, but it may not be what he needs. We have no travel restrictions on him for schools, we just want him to be where he needs to be.
This overachiever enjoys a huge number of options. That’s why it’s unfortunate that he appears to want to limit his search to the schools that the brightest students assume that they must attend. Schools like MIT, Columbia, and the most prestigious state institutions like University of Virginia and University of Michigan.
I’d suggest that this teenager broaden the list of schools that he is considering for a variety of reasons. Here are some of them:
1. Even if elite research universities are the best option for him, the odds of getting into some of the private universities — even for valedictorians — is remote. Here are some acceptance rates for schools on the teenager’s wish list:
- Columbia 7%
- MIT 9%
- Georgetown 17%
2. This teenager shouldn’t expect an admission advantage even if he is the valedictorian. The most competitive schools aren’t going to be impressed with the designation as more and more students earn the distinction. In a New York Times article in 2010, William Fitzsimmons, the admission dean at Harvard, noted that some schools now have 100 valedictorians!
In the article, Fitzsimmons had this to say about the valedictorian designation: “I think, honestly, it’s a bit of an anachronism. This has been a long tradition, but in the world of college admissions, it makes no real difference.”
3. While it should be easier to get into the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia for this stellar student, the price could be sky high.
Michigan, like other public flagships schools, love smart nonresidents but the reason is because they can slam them with high out-of-state tuition.
As you can see from the chart below, the most expensive state universities for nonresidents are the nine University of California campuses, but trailing right behind are the University of Michigan and University of Virginia.
The University of Michigan gives out lots of modest scholarships ($6,800 is the average), but that won’t go far. Even though this teenager has high financial need (I discovered this in a different email), his family could only expect a modest scholarship. Flagships universities have positioned themselves to be attractive options for rich families, who will pay any price for their children to attend prestige universities.
As for the private schools on this child’s preliminary list, Carnegie Mellon would also likely be expensive. The Pittsburgh school is on the list of the 5% of schools that charge the highest net price after typical scholarships are deducted.
4. Too many students treat elite schools that are huddled at the top of the college rankings as if they are all alike. They aren’t. They all have their own distinct personalities.
UVA, for instance, is quite different from Columbia, which requires all undergrads to complete its renowned core curriculum. It’s important that students explore what kind of academic environment they would experience at each school.What’s the student body like? What access do undergrads have to the professors? Is there a cut-throat environment at the school or a collaborative one among students.
Not long ago, I was talking to an elite SAT prep tutor who told me that one of this students, who attended MIT, ended up leaving because the institution’s competitive environment. Study-group options were limited because students did not want other students to enjoy an advantage. The tutor said that some wealthy students at MIT were hiring their own tutors so they wouldn’t have to study with any of their peers.
The MIT student ended up transferring to Washington University in St. Louis where he didn’t encounter the same fierce competitiveness.
5. If this student limits his list to schools with impossible admission odds, he could end up with unsatisfactory choices.
This happened to a bright girl I know from Pennsylvania. She applied to several Ivy League schools – thinking wrongly that if you apply to many, you’re more likely to get into one of them. She also applied to the University of California Berkeley and Chapman University in Southern California where her dad lived. She only got into Berkeley (which she couldn’t afford) and Chapman.
She is attending Chapman. She could end up getting a good education at Chapman, but would that be the school that anyone would have suggested as a first choice for this teenager? Hardly.
I have a bit more to say on this subject, but this post is already long. I’d like to write another post later in the week and I’d love to include some of your comments.
If you want to give advice to this family, please use the comment box below.