The Ivy Coach Daily

July 20, 2023

Different Criteria When Researching Which College to Choose

Students walk across the Quad at the University of Washington, under purple-flowering trees.
We at Ivy Coach encourage students to not select a university based on a major.

When researching which top colleges a student should apply to, many students rely on criteria we at Ivy Coach would strongly discourage them from weighing so heavily. And often, these same students overlook the criteria that should matter the most to them when selecting colleges. So, today, assuming cost is not an issue, let’s dive into the common pitfalls of selecting colleges and discern which criteria should matter and which most certainly should not.

Many Students Overemphasize Major and Location

Overemphasizing Major in College Selection

A common refrain we hear from parents of prospective clients (our clients at Ivy Coach would never make such a mistake!) is that they want their child to attend the best school for computer science or the best school for foreign languages. It’s misguided for two key reasons:

  1. Students change their minds and their majors. Even if you know your child loves computer science today, it doesn’t mean they’ll want to major in the discipline when they get to college. Just about every top-ranked university in America is a liberal arts college where students can generally change their major every Tuesday during their first year. Are there exceptions? Yes. Suppose a student, for example, is admitted to a specific school within a broader university. In such a case, they’ll have a little bit less leeway to change course (although, in our experience, colleges make a big deal about how difficult it is to change schools within a university when in fact, it’s not as tricky as they make it seem because these universities ultimately want their students to be happy – hi, Wharton!).
  2. It will better serve them to attend the best university possible — not the best university for a particular discipline. While you may have perused the 2023 US News & World Report rankings of best universities for computer science, and you may know that the University of Washington ranks #5, most people — especially those outside the state of Washington — aren’t as familiar with UW’s strength in CS. In that same US News ranking, Harvard University tied for #17. Does that mean a student should attend the University of Washington over Harvard? That would be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. And we’ve never met a student who has made such a mistake. Similarly, many parents of students interested in BS/MD programs will tout the benefits of these combined programs, which save students from applying to medical school after college. But, ultimately, would you rather receive brain surgery from a doctor educated at Harvard or Northeastern University? We know your answer.

Overemphasizing Location in College Selection

A refrain we hear more often from students than from parents is that they wish to attend a college in a specific geographic location. The students who fit this bill above all others tend to be students from Los Angeles.

For some reason, students from LA so often want to go to college in LA. They may want to attend the University of Southern California or the University of California – Los Angeles. But they need to keep their options open and spread their wings.

It’s not like USC or UCLA offer binding Early Decision anyway — so students should reconsider limiting their college choices to their present geography. And it’s not like USC and UCLA, both phenomenal schools that are among the best in our nation, are Harvard and Stanford. There’s a world outside of LA; in our experience, parents want their children to open themselves up to these possibilities. Because they love them, they’re willing to set them free!

Many Students Underemphasize Getting into the Best College Possible

And what’s the factor that we find many students underemphasize? It’s simple: getting into the best college possible. When students set restrictions on their college list, including judging schools based on a particular major or eliminating schools because they’re outside of a specific geography, they don’t set themselves up to earn admission to the best school possible.

If, for example, a student — in one fell swoop — ruled out all colleges in the South, they’ll never know if they could have earned admission to Duke University. But what if Duke would have been the student’s first choice school had they only visited? What if Duke significantly outranked the best school they ended up getting into?

It’s why we strongly discourage students from limiting their school list based on their intended major or location. While so many high school counselors, private college counselors, and people who read Ivy Coach’s blog and opine on college admissions so often suggest that location, major, and other such factors should influence a college list, we say nonsense.

How to Devise a Great College List

A school list should be decided by a student’s grades, the rigor of their coursework, their activities, the quality of the high school, the high school’s relationship with various colleges, and other critical factors.

Yet so many parents and students either don’t do this kind of research, think it doesn’t matter all that much, or roll the dice. For instance, parents of prospective clients of Ivy Coach often blurt out that their child has a 4.2 GPA and a 1590 SAT. They then ask what schools they should set in their sights.

But we have no idea as we’re missing critical context. Did the student get top grades in rigorous coursework? Did the student go above and beyond BC Calculus? Did the student continue their foreign language all through high school — even if their high school ran out of courses, leading them to have to take courses outside of school? Did the student attend a high school with a strong relationship with Duke, Dartmouth, Yale, or Princeton? What do the student’s Naviance, SCOIR, or Maia Learning data and scattergrams suggest? Did the student pursue activities that present them as well-rounded, or are they singularly focused in an area that will interest top colleges? Context matters!

Ivy Coach’s Assistance with Devising a Great College List

Because context matters, devising a student’s college list requires extensive research, thought, and strategy. After all, we at Ivy Coach want our students to earn admission to the best college they can get into with our help.

You see, we don’t believe in “college fit.” It’s an expression we believe is a cop-out used by high school counselors and private college counselors who aren’t adept at helping students earn admission to the most selective school possible with their unique profiles. Sure, we understand if a student wishes to avoid attending a vast university like the University of Michigan. We understand if a student doesn’t want to attend a small school like Haverford College.

But, outside of size, there should be few restrictions on a college list because any such restrictions run counter to the goal of earning admission to the best possible university for the student.

So if you wish to learn about Ivy Coach’s services, including how we help families devise college lists so students can maximize their chances of earning admission to the best possible school, fill out our consultation form, and we’ll be in touch.

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