To Find Right College, Do Your Homework

In making a choice, don't rely only on a magazine's `ranking'

FOR the eighth year in a row, the US News and World Report's mid-September issue was a bestseller.

The magazine's annual report on ``America's Best Colleges'' captures the nation's attention. Students snare it, parents preach from it, guidance counselors despair, and college presidents have been known to panic.

In a mere 33 pages, US News and World Report attempts to evaluate and categorize more than 1,400 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

While interesting and somewhat informative, the ``1995 Guide to America's Best Colleges'' is, as the title says, a guide - not an ultimate pronouncement of absolute truth.

As a former college counselor at one of our nation's most prestigious independent schools, I always cringed when the ``best colleges'' edition surfaced. Within days, the students that I had counseled for months would suddenly arrive with a new college list in hand. Gone would be the colleges we had carefully researched and come to see as a nice fit. Gone were colleges that were an excellent match between the offerings of an institution and the student's interests. Gone were a set of colleges that presented students with a range of options in terms of admissions selectivity. The new list usually would contain only those schools mentioned in the report and often only those in the top 10 of a particular section.

The most blatant case came when I received a fax from Saudi Arabia from the father of one of my favorite students. Vic was a strong student, but not at the very top of his class; involved in the life of the school, but not in leadership roles; loved sports, but on the intramural level.

After months of dialogue, Vic had decided to apply to a number of colleges that were strong in his academic area of interest and provided him with an array of extracurricular activities and a diverse community. But the fax message was clear. Vic must apply to colleges ranked in the top 10 of the national university category. All others were simply not acceptable. Come April, Vic was denied admission to all of those colleges.

Fortunately, Vic had applied to a college that was a good match and today he is a senior at Cornell University. While it's true that not all parents respond the way Vic's father did, the fact is that articles like the one in US News and World Report create a pecking order that may or may not be accurate, yet which influences thousands of students. Attendants of the recent national conference of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors expressed concern about this report. The methodology used has changed yearly as have the categories to which colleges are assigned. Statistics are often reported differently from institution to institution. Colleges have been known to exclude certain populations when determining SAT ranges or to count part-time faculty so as to lower faculty-student ratios. The result is, as the president of Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., said, ``reminiscent of Faust's selling his soul to the devil; some of us in higher education are peddling our souls in exchange for rankings in a magazine's promotional efforts.''

Colleges named at the top of a given category already have begun to flaunt their status. Brochures proclaiming ``Ranked No. 1 by US News and World Report'' abound, and prospective students are inundated with T-shirts, bumper stickers, and key chains proclaiming a college's No. 1 status. The number of students applying to these colleges will increase, but very often they are not the best colleges for a particular student.

In my nine years as a college counselor, I saw it happen over and over again. Swayed by a carefully crafted image, by name recognition, or by the allure of an ivy-covered campus rather than by what the college really has to offer, students enroll at the wrong institution.

If you are a high school junior or senior, you and your parents should use college rankings only as one guide toward finding the college that's right for you. Ask yourself question after question and stretch and struggle to find the answers. Read a variety of guidebooks but be sure to read the viewbook and the catalog and departmental brochures that the colleges send. Find out what the statistics really mean but keep in mind the central issue: What experiences are really the most important to you?

Visit the campus, whether it's in your own backyard or 500 miles away. Talk to students, faculty, and staff. Eat in the cafeteria, sit in on a class, watch an athletic practice. Listen to your inner self and be true to what you hear. Is this college a place where you will be challenged to be all that you are capable of becoming? If it is, it just may be the best college for you - no matter where it ranks in the US News and World Report special issue. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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