A 16 Year Old’s Guide to Colleges

April 16, 2014

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

Be sure to check out the first part of Lisa’s college road trip journey!

ElonWe were 5 minutes into the student-led tour and I knew the school wasn’t the right place for my son. Our guide led us down the hallway of a beautiful colonial building. The walls were lined with cork board and sheets of brightly colored paper framing announcements and pictures of professors and administrators. “No, no, no,” I thought. “He’s going to hate this.”

I was trying to think like a 16 year old boy, or at least, my 16 year old boy. I had promised myself that I would allow him to set his own criteria when evaluating colleges. I admired how he navigated class selection, extracurricular activities and the work/life balance in his high school. I would not substitute my values for his now that he was looking for a college. So I tried to see the college through my son’s eyes.

It turns out that I was right—he hated the school. While the environment looked warm and nurturing to me, he felt smothered by the level of support suggested by the cheerfully decorated hallway and confirmed by our tour guide. We made a hasty exit at the tour’s end, skipping the information session and catching an earlier train to New York City. On the way out, my son said that he was really glad we made the trip. “I didn’t know if I would recognize a bad fit if I saw one. Now I know. I can trust my instincts.”

Thus began my son’s search for a methodology to assess the colleges we were visiting. What follows are his indicators of college excellence:

1. Personal Freedom

My son is on a quest for autonomy. He wants support at college to be available and encouraged, but not conspicuous. He disapproves of schools with multiple student committees tasked to help freshmen with everything from writing to public speaking skills. If he wants help, he will ask his professor. Jesuit priests in your dorm? Minus 5 points. A campus policy that encourages students to ask professors to lunch and gives them the funds to do it? Plus 10 points.

2. Course Selection

My son asked one question at every tour: “Where can I get the course catalog?” Sure, you can get the same information online, but the sheer size of the book tells you something about the school. Once he got a hold of the catalog, he dog-eared pages and put stars next to interesting classes. Nothing says “I want to go here” more than a beat up course catalog.

Reviewing each school’s course catalog is necessary to counteract the “Quiddich Effect.” My son coined the phrase after hearing that his older brother fell in love with any school that offered Quiddich as an extracurricular activity. Later, he learned that EVERY school fields a Quiddich team (one school now offers PE credit). By reviewing the catalogs, my son found that classes that appear exotic at first glance become less extraordinary when they appear in multiple catalogs.

3. Campus Personality

Why would anyone want to go to a humorless college? Quirky behavior on campus indicates that the student body is creative, doesn’t take itself too seriously and has free time. Top marks went to the school with a pirate a cappella group named ARRR!!! This singing ensemble has a repertoire of sea chanteys and has been known to hijack other a cappella performances.

4. Weather

My oldest son is in college in Chicago. His professor came to class one cold January day with a very red eye. She said that an icy gust of wind burst a blood vessel in her eye—a gust of wind! I find this indicator perfectly appropriate. Flip flops in January will cause a college to rocket up in the rankings.

5. Diversity

My son took one picture during our trip. It was of two groups of students separated by about 20 feet. On one side was a banner with the words “Stop Israeli Apartheid” printed on it. Next to it was the Palestinian flag. On the other side was a banner with the words “Be Part of the Solution” printed on it with the Israeli flag next to it. Students passed back and forth between the two sides, standing in clusters around the speakers. My son was transfixed. He confessed that wants to debate social policy with a Log Cabin Republican and Middle East diplomacy with someone who lives there.

Here’s what isn’t on the list: a prestigious name, famous alumni, notable professors or expensive facilities. I tried to highlight these positive qualities at various times during the trip. At one point, I screamed “Look! David Brooks teaches a class called ‘Humility!’” He looked at me blankly.

We left the East Coast without finding a replacement for the number one position, currently held by a Southern California school. He said that he found number 2, 3 and 4, all interchangeable and clustered substantially below his first love.

I know that he isn’t done looking at colleges, and some of the colleges he’s seen may climb and fall in the rankings as he changes the weight of each indicator. The whole point of the trip was to gauge his interest in particular types of schools. In the end, he showed a preference for schools located in cities or large towns with around 5000 undergraduates in the school or nearby. Now that he has created a methodology to evaluate colleges, he can quickly get down to business adding and deleting colleges from his list.

Oh, and there was one more benefit that came from this trip: he found the graduate school he wants to attend.

That’s the funny thing about dreams. One almost always leads to the next.

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