A guest blog from one of our favorite people

Marty O’Connell is a force of nature… and a college search Zenmaster. As the Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, she has been serving up anecdotes as antidotes to the high-stakes, high-pressure, win-at-all-costs college admission game that repeats itself year after year. We have the good fortune this week of traveling with Marty O’Connell and nearly all of our fellow Colleges That Change Lives as we make our way up the East Coast this week at a series of information nights. We will do the same in August all over the country. (For locations and dates, visit CTCL.org.)

In the meantime, we’d like to share Marty’s perspective, in her own words, about how to approach the college search. It’s a perspective she recently shared with our friends in the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling, and one that we invited her to share with you. (Thanks Marty! ihrtluhc)

We trust you will find it equal part wise, calming, and invigorating. You may even find some surprises in it.

If I made a bumper sticker for how to approach the college search process it would read: College: It’s About the Journey, Not the Destination. Too often, students will race through their secondary school years, compiling tallies of courses and AP credits completed, joining activities to lengthen their resume, taking and retaking SAT and ACT tests and always keeping one eye on the prize of the college destination. These same students arrive at college only to repeat this process with a goal of admission to graduate and professional school or the perfect first job. We live in a goal-focused society where becoming a mindful, life-long learner, instead of an educational trophy hunter is not an easily achieved state of mind. If I had the magic wand for education, my wish would be that students might approach the college search, as well as their day-to-day learning, with a greater appreciation for the long view: it is not about the race to the end, but instead what you learn from each step in the journey to get there!

Too often the college search begins with a flawed approach by using ranking lists that tout the entering class statistics, rather than focusing on what happens during the four years students are enrolled. The late author Loren Pope, of Looking Beyond the Ivy League and Colleges That Change Lives, often known as the “Ralph Nader” of college admissions, said that choosing colleges based on the entering statistics of the freshmen class is like choosing a hospital based on the health of those in the ER—it’s the treatment that really matters; in the case of college, it’s what happens between the first year and graduation. Researching colleges based on student outcomes will highlight many colleges that outperform the Ivies and Name Brands but don’t have the benefit of name recognition. The research from the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium on the Undergraduate Origins of Ph.Ds finds lesser known colleges listed in the top ten in various categories of producers of future Ph.Ds, often ahead of the usual suspects.

If you had to choose a spouse or partner for life, would you like to use a publication ranking them by income, IQ scores, and reputation as reported by others who have never met the person? As a culture, we love consulting consumer guidebooks and lists for a shortcut method to choosing electronics and cars; the college search requires a more thoughtful, personal and time consuming approach. It can’t be reduced to rankings with numerical values when it requires starting with who the individual student is and why they are going to college, their needs and desires, and learning styles and interests. This self inventory is the start for finding colleges that “fit” for the individual, instead of starting with the assumption that only the “Top 20” on the USNWR and other rankings lists have any value. These ranking guides sell big, but their value (or lack of it) in the college search process can certainly be diminished if students, parents and counselors go after fit, rather than name recognition. Students and their anxious, hovering parents would do well to add some lesser-known colleges to their search process, where the chance for gaining admission is greater and the outcomes the same or better than those colleges admitting a fraction of applicants.

NSSE: The National Survey of Student Engagement is a wonderful resource for gathering information about college outcomes and provides a list of the right questions to ask during the college search. Most importantly, how quickly students engage in the academic and co-curricular life of the campus will make the difference, not only in their early success as an undergraduate, but in on-time degree completion and in reaching their goals beyond college.

The current weakened state of the economy and worry over the cost of attending a four-year college has made the option of attending community college and transferring to complete the bachelor degree a very appealing one. It can be a positive experience if a student chooses it because it is a good fit for them and not just because it will save them money. Community colleges have changed dramatically since their rapid growth in the 1960s, when because of their “open admissions” policies, they were too often erroneously labeled as options only for those with no other college choice. This is a much different case today when community colleges attract top high school students with honors programs that rival those at competitive four-year colleges. If students apply the same investigative process in considering a community college as they do with four-year colleges: visiting campus, sitting in on classes, eating a meal, meeting students and professors, they are less likely to feel like they “settled” instead of chose…

Perhaps the Irish poet Yeats had a better idea for that bumper sticker with this quote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”…

[So, too, we will add, should be your college search.]

 Martha “Marty” O’Connell’s 35-year college admissions career includes posts at large and small colleges, beginning with Rutgers University in New Jersey and ending with McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. In July 2006 she began her role as Executive Director of the non-profit organization, Colleges That Change Lives, Inc., which has a mission to advance and support a student-centered college search process that looks beyond the college rankings industry.

(For the record, we think she is awesome.)

Turning our sights to 2013, we kick off with an endorsement

Since 2009, New York Times education writer and author of The Gatekeepers, Jacques Steinberg, has been curating and contributing to a blog called “The Choice: Demystifying College Admissions and Financial Aid.” As a Lawrence-centered blog that has styled itself as “The Demystificator,” we are of similar minds most of the time.

Today’s post, “Counselor’s Calendar | August Checklist for Rising Seniors,” written by Chris Teare, the director of college counseling at Antilles School in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, provides some great tips for those of you college-bound seniors who want to start off your year—and your college search—right. As one of the Colleges That Change Lives, a group of colleges that focus on student-centered admission, we heartily endorse the advice Chris offers in this post; it’s good, smart stuff:

If you’re a rising senior who plans to apply to college, you might be a little nervous right now. Then again, you might be avoiding the issue completely — and appalled that someone like me would intrude upon your summer. If you’re anxious, you’re normal, because you have a big year coming up. Your nerves indicate that you care. That’s good. College is worth caring about. On the other hand, if you’re ignoring the calendar, you’re passively saving a lot to do with less and less time to do it.

Here is some advice to keep you on track:

Do the Summer Reading

Over 30 years, the students I’ve seen get the best results out of the college process are the ones who take care of business one day, one class, one assignment at a time. They’re not flashy; they’re steady. When I coached lacrosse, I said, “Pick up the next groundball.” Little things add up. Stop texting, log off Facebook, turn off your cellphone — and read. Not the SparkNotes. The book.

Pick the Right Courses

Selective colleges often start their review with your transcript, and strength of program is the first criterion of selection. Make sure your final transcript will include four years of the “five basic food groups”: English, math, history, science and foreign language. If you substitute from elsewhere on the curricular menu, select a course of equal or greater rigor in an area that better suits your abilities and interests. Make sure senior year is at least as challenging as junior year.

Keep Testing Under Control

By now, I hope you know whether you like the SAT or ACT better. Focus on the exam that works for you; if you prepare well enough, you’ll be likely to receive your highest score on the first or second attempt. Take your SAT II Subject Tests, if you must, whenever you’ll know as much as you can. Then forget bubble tests. Your scores are what they are. Stressing won’t raise them. Say the Serenity Prayer. Go test-optional. Focus your energy on classes, activities, and applications.

Keep Extra-Curricular Activities in Perspective

Remember that the hyphenate is extra-curricular. Even if you are being recruited for a talent in athletics or the arts, you must find a good deal of time to hone that skill set. You are no good to anyone if you run yourself into the ground by trying to do too much. Breathe. Eat. Sleep. Chill now and then.

Start Your Applications

If you haven’t already done so, create accounts. Use the Common App. [Lawrence note: we use the Common Application.] Invest increments of time early on: When you have a little time, fill out the simple stuff. When you have a little more, add your activities and work experiences. When you can carve out still more, start drafting your activity paragraph and essay. Start on the supplements. Good writing usually takes time. Accept advice. Show what you have to your counselor or best teacher.

Create a List of College Fits

Shop for value: Figure out the program, size, type, location, personality, and likely final cost of the colleges that best suit you. Then list colleges that you might get into, some that you should get into, and two that you will get into.

Make more decisions up front. Be realistic. Make sure you can cover the cost. I like lists of six colleges. I understand nine. Beyond that, you’re denying reality, deferring decisions, and making the spring harder, via too many rejections or too many offers. Save yourself time, angst, and your parents’ money.

When it comes to life decisions, choosing a college is the first one in which most young people play a significant role. But it’s not the last one. Life has more in store. Pace yourself. Stay calm and sail on.


Like non-fiction horror stories? Then you’ll love college admissions news stories.

Early-rising daffodils have given way to lilacs and apple trees, which are now in full blossom. And while the sweet scent of spring is in the air, we must pause to hold our noses over the proliferation of college admissions stories that focus on the occasionally  sensational world of highly selective colleges.

Consider this one from the New York Times blog, “The Choice,” which ran last Friday (which—coincidentally?—happened to be the 13th):

…we present our third annual listing of college admissions statistics at a range of institutions — a listing based on figures supplied by those colleges and universities that responded to a survey from The Choice over the last few weeks. This year, for the first time, we have included the number of students who were placed on waiting lists, as well as a more in-depth look at acceptance rates.

If you were to believe that the approximately 70 colleges on this list were representative of the universe of American colleges (which is about 1,600 colleges) you might think that most colleges have admission rates that read like the average January low temperatures above the Arctic Circle (which, you should know, is not where you will find Appleton, Wisconsin).

  • Stanford: 6.63%
  • Yale: 6.82%
  • Harvard: 5.92%
  • Really?

Of the 70 colleges featured on the list, 87% have admission rates lower than 50%.

However, if you were to include the universe of American colleges, the preceding statement would read just as accurately by changing the word “lower” to “higher“. (For the record, Lawrence University, which admits about two-thirds of its candidates, was not asked to complete the survey.)

College admissions, with so many cases of students failing to “get into their dream college,” abounds with drama. Drama is what makes for good storytelling. But the rest of the story when it comes to college admission is really not all that dramatic: most students apply to colleges that are good matches with their talents and aspirations; and most students get into those colleges. Not much to write about there, so, at least for the sake of interesting journalism, we find ourselves confronted with more tales, often breathlessly told, of deflated aspirations.

And we wonder why students are so stressed out about getting into college… and why they spend so much energy doing so many things—quite often too many things—to try to make themselves more “interesting” to colleges, as if we are panelists on American Idol.

There are a lot of colleges out there—many of which are not household names—that are perfectly good fits for students and which offer admission to more students than they deny or wait-list. The Colleges That Change Lives, of which Lawrence University is a proud member, are a great example of such institutions.

If one of the purposes of this blog is to demystify our college admission process, another is to demythify (pardon the made-up word) college admission.

Myth demythified: It’s not as hard to get into college as you may have been led to believe.