June 22, 2007

Avoid College Selection Hysteria

Posted in Saving for College, Student Loan News, The Financial Aid Process at 8:21 AM by Joe From Boston

I’d never heard a name put to this before, but I do remember vividly what he’s talking about!  Parents and Teens should read this very interesting article from the Capitol Online – HometownAnnapolis.com website.

Teens, parents should avoid College Selection Hysteria

by Dr. Scott Smith

There is probably no concern that is more potent or palpable for many teenagers and their families than the experience of College Selection Hysteria, or CSH. While it is not yet an “official” psychological diagnosis, CSH is an often-observed phenomenon that starts to grip many adolescents and their parents around the beginning of their junior year of high school. This amplified form of anxiety is based in concern or worry about finding, being admitted to and paying for the “right” college.


Symptoms of CSH can include mental confusion, sleepless nights, worry, difficulty concentrating and irritability. If left untreated, it can lead to conflict between parents and children, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and despair. Fortunately, CSH is treatable and even preventable.Like so many other mass phenomena, CSH is partly driven by the media attention that has been paid to the issue of college selection in recent years. It is further amplified by the rising number of college applications that are occurring nationwide. This surge in applications and the resulting increase in competition for the “top” schools are expected to remain high until 2014. As a result, CSH may be at an all-time high due to increasing fear that a college-bound student won’t be able to get into the “right” school and that this will place him at a significant life disadvantage.

Stoking the fires of this hysteria are the numerous publications which purport to be experts at rating or gauging the country’s “best” colleges. This American penchant for rating and categorizing things only serves to amplify another predisposition – competitiveness – which contributes greatly to the development of CSH. In truth, there are many great schools out there to attend and there is likely to be a good school to match just about anyone.

To help with CSH, my alma mater, Washington and Lee University, runs a program for alumni titled, “Finding Your Way Through the College Admissions Maze.” One of the benefits of thiskind of program is that it helps students and parents realize they are not alone in their bewilderment and that many others feel much the same way they do: confused about the college admissions process.

The program, which features notable college admissions specialists, points out that there is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about the admissions process. Trying to glean what I could from the wealth of information provided, it seems there are certain prevalent myths about getting into college which are in need of debunking. Some of the most harmful myths that exist with regard to the college selection process include the following:

If it’s not ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, it isn’t a good college. This belief is simply wrong, wrong and wrong. It is important to remember your grandfather’s old adage not to believe everything you read. Unbeknownst to most people, the college rankings done by a variety of publications, including U.S. News and World Report, are blatantly speculative, unscientific and inherently flawed.

Often using years-old data and random bits and pieces of information, a significant percentage of these ratings are simply based upon how well known a college has become. There is little or no actual information or insight into the college itself or how well it may fit an individual student.

Searching for a college based upon this type of information is like choosing shoes because of their glitzy brand-name advertising, regardless of how they feel on your feet.

If I don’t attend a “name” college, I will be at a disadvantage my whole life. Again, this myth is wrong on many fronts. Research has consistently shown that the most important educational factor is whether or not you attend college and how you do when you are there – not the name of the college that you attend.

There are thousands of colleges and universities all over the United States, yet people tend to look at the same ones over and over again because their names – or more likely, their football teams – are familiar. This is not unlike the sad truth that many people choose elected officials on name recognition rather than their philosophies or proposed policies. It is important to know that there is a multitude of great colleges out there that fit almost any person, budget or educational goal.

I should get a scholarship, or at least get a discount on my college tuition. This is another myth that is fed by the media, which seems to imply that discounting is routine. Although prices vary widely and depend on a variety of factors, most people actually have to pay for college, and the availability of scholarships or even financial aid is much lower than people seem to realize. Colleges run like businesses, and if their customers aren’t paying for the product, they are unlikely to stay in business very long.

While there are some funds available, particularly for disadvantaged individuals, many people who fill out the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) find that they are not eligible for much of anything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to reduce costs, but be realistic about how the system really works.

If my SAT scores or GPA aren’t high, I shouldn’t bother applying. If you like the school and you feel that it fits you well, go ahead and apply. Most of the “good” schools use a “whole person” concept and look for students who are motivated to attend college and who are active in their worlds.

Students who sit around and resume-build or stoke their GPAs and SATs without being truly involved or committed to meaningful activities are not as desirable as one might think. Colleges look for people with a unified theme of interests, activities and service in addition to working hard to get good grades.

For students, you might compare the process of selecting the right college to that of choosing which of many different parties you want to attend. No two parties are alike, and while they may have certain similarities, they are ultimately defined by their differences. It is impossible to compare them directly because they all have their own unique feel. Your party choice would most likely depend on who is there, what activities are offered, what food will be served and what music will be played. If you go to a party, simply because you think all the “in” people will be there, you are likely to end up totally bored and miserable.

To prevent the development of CSH, it is important to realize that there are many great schools out there and that the real challenge in college selection is finding the school that best matches you. This approach makes looking for a school an exciting adventure rather than a stressful competition. Instead of focusing on getting into a “top” school, try researching and visiting a variety of colleges to find out which ones you connect with.

After coming up with a general list, consider applying to two “reach” schools (difficult to get into), two “comfort” schools (schools that you have a good shot at) and two “safety” schools (schools you would expect to get into). After all the results are in, simply select your favorite available college and go have fun! And remember that it is more important to attend a school that matches you and facilitates your intellectual and personal growth than going to a school that looks good on paper.

Dr. Scott E. Smith is a licensed clinical psychologist with Spectrum Behavioral Health in Annapolis and Arnold. For services or ideas regarding this column, call 410-757-2077 or write to 1509 Ritchie Highway, Suite F, Arnold, MD 21012.



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  2. […] College Selection Hysteria Avoid College Selection Hysteria I’d never heard a name put to this before, but I do remember vividly what he’s […]

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