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Oregonian: Choosing your dream college: Admissions advice for finding the right fit
Author: Oregonian staff
Posted: September 21, 2018

Read the original story in the Oregonian.

Perhaps the single thing all prospective college students have in common is that they want to go to a “good” school. How, then, do you define “good”? Is it media rankings or athletic team wins? Graduation rates or faculty awards? Is it a beautiful campus far away from home or a familiar environment nearby?

“Yes, it’s all of that and more,” said Yohlunda Mosley, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Portland State University. “Some students want large schools with strong athletic programs, some want urban environments, some want to go a school where all their relatives attended. Then there is the influence of peers and the expectations of parents.”

Milyon Trulove, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College in Portland, simplifies the relativism of concepts of “ideal” and “good” in picking schools.

“Ultimately, students want an institution where they feel they will be successful and where they feel they will make friends,” he said. “They also want to know that the classes they are taking and the education they are receiving will get them to their next place. They want to have options after graduating.”

From the perspective of higher education institutions, Mosley said they encourage students to focus on fit — both academic and social — in selection.

“We want to students to consider where they can thrive and be their best selves, so they find a setting to develop their minds and interpersonal skills for that next opportunity,” she said.

Telling transcripts

Though many factors go into making that final decision, the first hurdle is getting accepted to the college or university of your choice.

“Doing well in high school is the difference between hoping a school chooses you and choosing which college you attend,” Trulove said. “Put yourself in the driver’s seat.”

Becoming a marketable college student begins in high school.

“When admissions officers look at transcripts, can they tell a story about students’ experiences in high school?” Mosley said. “Is a student taking challenging courses? Is he or she exercising their analytical thinking, problem-solving and critical thinking through their classes?”

“Challenging” is another relative word, as it will mean different things for different students. In some schools, that may mean taking a selection of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or Honors classes. But it’s better for a student to find the appropriate level for achieving exceptional grades, especially in core classes, than to overemphasize rigor, the experts caution.

Admissions officers are also looking at trends in transcripts.

“If a student starts weak but grows in GPA and rigor of courses, that speaks volumes,” Mosley said. “It can demonstrate how that student hunkered down and focused, so now grades are trending up. That speaks as much about his or her academic record as a stellar academic report for all four years. It shows perseverance.”

At more selective or rigorous schools, the strength of courses may be more of a factor. Dennis Galvan, interim vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene, recommends students apply to a range of universities — some that are a stretch for them, some that seem readily well-matched, and one or two that are a safety or backup school.

“Doing well in high school is the difference between hoping a school chooses you and choosing which college you attend. Put yourself in the driver’s seat.”

  • Milyon Trulove, VP and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College in Portland

Variables beyond grades

Higher education institutions also look beyond the transcript to get a sense of students’ interests and involvement. Mosley said admissions personnel are generally looking for balance of schedule; academics, but also outside recreational or community service activities.

Trulove said the emphasis and interest colleges place on extracurriculars varies widely. If there is a trend, it is that quantity of activities is not necessarily as impressive as authentic interests. Trulove also said that some schools, including Reed, have joined Turning the Tide, a Harvard Graduate School of Education initiative, in recognizing valuable contributions beyond athletics or clubs to caring for family, working a job and other community engagement.

Vibe visits

The experts emphasized the value of physical visits to students’ top choices. They recommend students visit widely, but when possible, visit their top choices more than once. Also, try to coordinate visits for when current students will be on campus.

“The life and energy of any campus is predicated on the students,” Mosley said. “Every campus has tour guides who are current students and are excellent sources of information. They have a level of credibility with prospective students different from an administrator. The current students are interacting with faculty, involved with clubs and organizations, yet they aren’t far removed from the application and admission process.”

Though students and parents can sign up for official tours, there are multiple ways to visit a school, according to Mosley and Trulove. Some institutions host open houses or fall visit days for high schoolers. Some have summer camps or seminars for high school students. Some even offer overnight visits for seniors. If physically visiting a campus isn’t possible, the next best option is to talk to alumni and current students about their experiences in addition to admissions officers.

Trulove encouraged taking notes during and after each visit to remember the pros and cons, as months may pass before you make a final decision.

College planning timeline

Milyon Trulove, vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College in Portland said the following is a typical timeline for planning purposes:

  • Begin campus visits in the second half of junior year.By end of junior year, narrow choices to a top 10 list.
  • In fall of senior year, continue campus visits, get questions answered.
  • Complete financial aid application in October.
  • Begin application process to top school preferences.
  • In January/February, apply to newly discovered or second-choice of schools.
  • Acceptance or rejection notifications will arrive in spring.
  • The National Reply Date is May 1 to commitment to a school.

Financial factor

There’s no denying that the cost of attendance is critical in decision-making, but Trulove says it should come late in the process rather than at the beginning.

“Sometimes people decide where to apply based on price tag without getting the true financial package,” he said. “Instead, you should make these financial judgments in April, sitting with your family and weighing your decisions based on value and real cost.”

The financial aid, scholarships and personal contributions will look different for each student at each institution.

“Even the more expensive schools will, if the fit is good, provide financial aid that offsets what might look a big sticker price,” Galvan said. “One should be mindful of what is realistic for a family in financial terms, but not close off possibilities at the application stage. “

Once students have acceptance letters and financial package offers from institutions, they can begin to compare and decide.

 “For example, you may think this school is a better value and you like it about the same as the others, or this school costs more but based on what you know, it’s absolutely worth it,” Trulove said.

Undecided is OK

Mosley reassured that many students come into college uncertain of where they want to focus, though it’s helpful to have some sense of purpose. She says some students know exactly what they want to do — engineering, for example — and start that path right away. Others can work with an academic adviser to discuss aspirations and create a roadmap for success and timely graduation. Schools recognize that students coming from high school are still navigating the experience of who they are, Mosley added, and are not expecting students to have all their plans perfectly made.

Galvan adds a caution not to spend high school planning a college application.

“Make the most of that educational experience, in the full sense of education — classroom, sports, clubs, community service, exploring outdoors, connecting with peers,” he said. “Come into college with a sense of interests and possible direction, but don’t pick a major too soon. It can result in winding detours. Take advantage of general education requirements to explore in the first year as much as possible. You’ll best develop core analytic, information processing, communication and leadership skills in a topic area about which you are passionate, curious, engaged.”

While this article is sponsored content, Portland State University did not pay The Oregonian's Media Group for participation in this story.