Willard Dix , CONTRIBUTOR to Forbes

This list is not something you want to just throw together hoping for the best.
The verb “to curate” shouldn’t be used outside of museums or specialized collections of valuable objects, especially when applied to mundane things like coffee, magazines or interior decoration. A curator has esoteric knowledge gained through years of education and experience. It cheapens the word to apply it to Target’s summer furniture offerings or a display of running shoes.

But when putting together a college list, the word fits. It’s a challenging activity designed to be comprehensive yet focused, detailed yet broadly-based and strategic yet appropriate. Ideally, it should be carefully put together by students, families and advisors who have explored options and made careful decisions about its makeup. This list is not something you want to just throw together hoping for the best.

Recent posts on the College Counseling Facebook page commented on a high school that pressured students to apply to as many as 100 colleges in pursuit of a million dollars in scholarships. I once had a student who wanted to apply to 32 institutions (I managed to get her to whittle it down to 18). Needless to say, these numbers are way out of bounds, representing a combination of carelessness, lack of imagination and a willingness to abandon oneself to the mercy of the admission gods.

A well-curated college list should come down to about eight schools with several different characteristics. Any more than that tells me students haven’t really done their job, which includes considering what they want out of college and gaining some understanding of who they are. Add to that the strategic necessities of admissibility and every list should have at least one school, hopefully more, where the student will likely be admitted and want to attend. While these aspects can remain nebulous to an extent, some curatorial expertise needs to be developed if that’s to happen.

To be a good college list curator, a student should have the following things.

An understanding of him/her self. Not necessarily in a deep philosophical way (not expected at this age), but as a general self-awareness about one’s personality, desires, possible major/career interests and so on. Students need these qualities to help propel their search to find the “match.”

A sense of how the college admission process works. Nothing in college admission is entirely straightforward. Admission policies vary among institutions. Students can look different to different schools. Knowing a lot of fluidity exists in how an applicant is seen can make a difference when assessing which schools should be on your list.

A realization that you’ll be in a large applicant pool with others similar to you. While this situation applies most egregiously to “elite” colleges and universities, it’s a very good reason to be sure your college list has schools with varying acceptance percentages, clear “mid-50%” listings and a diverse student body.

A good search platform. As you start to consider colleges, have an online helper that can gather and collate information. Many high schools use platforms like Naviance, but others like the College Board’s Big Future or the National Center for Education Statistics’s College Navigator are openly accessible, free and easy to use. The ability to compare colleges side by side as you look at them is a big plus.

A good advisor. Even though there’s an ocean of information available about colleges and universities (or maybe because of it) online, a good human non-algorithmic advisor can direct you through it. He or she can help with the first four items here by providing a way to articulate your thoughts and refine priorities. I think of the early stages of the process as being like a tennis match: I lob some ideas at you, you return them and we advance accordingly.

Flexibility that helps determine your priorities. With parents I use the analogy of buying a house: We start out with an ideal house in our heads. We may not have an articulated vision but we “know” what we want. As we see real houses, though, we realize we’ll have to give up one thing to have another or compromise. We develop priorities: One thing, let’s say a chef’s kitchen, is a constant; it’s a priority we’re not willing to sacrifice. That knowledge focuses our search. Eventually, we settle on a property fitting our ideal as closely as possible. It’s the same for colleges. One of my students once told me he wanted a “small liberal arts college in the woods” with a “big research library” like one at a major university. A great ideal, but these were two incompatible things; he had to decide which one was more important.

A consistency of outlook. If a student comes to me with a list of colleges, I check it to see if “one of these things is not like the others.” Is there a mix of small liberal arts and large technical schools? Is it all state institutions with two small schools peeking out from behind them? I want to know how those anomalies got there. Maybe they’re not anomalies, but often they’re listed because a friend went there or someone tossed out the name and it sounded good. If the student doesn’t know why they’re there (it happens more often than you’d think), I challenge him or her to do the appropriate research or take it off. One way or another, some threads/themes should connect all the schools on a list: certain majors, sizes, social aspects, locations, and so on. Naturally, variations will still be present, but good curators will be able to explain each school’s presence in a way that fulfills the goals developed in the process.

A strategic mixture. It’s not good to have eight schools on a list with acceptance rates below ten percent. A careful balancing of students’ records with schools’ admission rates is critical to ensure success. Stellar students are rejected all the time, often for unfathomable reasons. Once a list begins to come together it’s time to look at the mid-50% figures colleges publish to see where you might fall in the applicant pool. That plus your other characteristics provide a rough idea of the likelihood of admission up and down the scale. If the list is curated properly, each school should meet the applicant’s expectations while offering varied entry prospects.

“Realistic aspiration.” Determined to apply to a college with a 95% rejection rate? Be my guest; it’s a free country. But consider that figure before assuming you’ll be one of the 5%. (Would you opt for a surgery that had a 95% failure rate? I didn’t think so.) Maybe that university is your ideal; with good curation, however, you’ll have other schools on your list that have what you want but with a more forgiving selection process. And ask yourself, “What am I aspiring toward, simply getting into that school or having an exceptional college experience?”

Open-minded acceptance. Not a college acceptance, but yours, of your fate. Students often say, “I have my state school here as my safety but I won’t go there if they take me.” Then you’ve wasted an application. If you’ve curated your list the way the Art Institute of Chicago curates its collections, each school on it should be one you’d be happy and proud to attend, meaningful in some way. Sure, you may have a hierarchy in your head, but by the time you get to submitting applications, you should feel a Zen-like calm knowing you’ve done what’s needed.
Taking this curatorial approach can actually be eye-opening. You begin to see the many variations among colleges and universities the way an art expert compares Degas and Manet or Picasso and Klee. Becoming an expert sharpens your eye at the same time it teaches you something about yourself.

Willard Dix covers the college admission process and how it affects families.
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. See his blog at collegeculture.net for essays about the college admission process itself.


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