In the past few decades, colleges have expanded their recruitment efforts and used technology to reach out to prospective applicants around the world. Simultaneously, the amount of information about colleges available to prospective students has exploded, as media outlets have seized on admissions as a hot topic and myriad websites offering all types of advice, opinion and video tours of colleges have emerged.
Faced with more choices (which, as psychologist Barry Schwartz points out, is not an overwhelmingly positive thing) and more information to process before choosing which colleges to apply to, students understandably seek shortcuts. Like those car buyers who make a purchase decision without a test drive, students come to feel familiar enough with a college after surveying the available online information that direct experience of a school or contact with one of its representatives before applying seems unnecessary.
High school students, eager denizens of the online world, are often comfortable relying on the information they glean “remotely.” Many students are stressed and busy during the senior year of high school, so substituting online research for more time-consuming contact with a college admissions representative or a potentially costly (and also time-consuming) visit to a campus is undeniably efficient. Additionally, the anxiety students feel about the future in general makes them crave the security of a decision — any decision — to give some shape and structure to the great unknown that is life after high school graduation.
It isn’t easy to live with uncertainty, and sometimes any decision can seem better than no decision. But students who succumb to a faux familiarity with colleges engendered by the wealth of online information undermine their chances of achieving satisfying outcomes. As high school seniors enter a new admissions cycle, the adults in their lives can do much to help them develop good decision-making skills.
First, we can encourage students to have a healthy skepticism about the sources of information they employ. Much has been written about the limited reliability of the many college discussion websites, where the posted opinions of a disgruntled few can lead one to think that they represent an entire student body. Similarly, we’re right to question college rankings and ratings (recent revelations of colleges falsifying the data they submit to the ranking agents further diminish the utility of these rankings).
In addition, concerned adults can help students make a timely shift from information gathering to information processing. That tendency to check “just one more” website or blog can prevent students from moving forward with the decision process.
For most students, choosing the colleges they apply to (and eventually attend) will be the first major decisions they have made in their lives. It is therefore an opportune time for adults to help them become discerning consumers of information, and to let them know that we have confidence in their ability to choose wisely.
Nancy Donehower is an independent college counselor in Portland.