An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

Parents/guardians frequently ask two important questions: When should their student start the college process? What is the best way for their student to choose a school?

We’re always happy to answer these questions in our coffee talks and other events. In addition, there are detailed answers to these and other questions on our resources page, accessible from Veracross.  

However, over the past few years, the college counselors have heard myths circulating among families — and families basing decisions on those myths. Below I discuss three of them, why they’re incorrect, and what we actually recommend.

Myth 1: Because “the early bird gets the worm” our students needs to start extra early.

I’ve written before about the advantages of Early Decision (ED) programs, which usually have early November deadlines (find “The early bird gets the worm ... if they choose their worm wisely!” in the college counseling blog on the resources page, linked on Veracross). Six years ago, we began working with juniors in winter instead of spring, creating a timeline that prepares students to meet the early deadlines.

Separate from the early-decision process, though, I’ve noticed families researching and visiting colleges earlier every year. While some families cite ED as the reason for beginning sooner, many say they worry that their student is disadvantaged if others are ahead in the process. Understandably, all parents/guardians want to ensure their student has the same opportunities as others.

Yet I can say confidently after 18 years in the profession — three in admissions at Haverford College and 15 in independent schools as a college counselor — there is not a correlation between starting early and being admitted. Each year, I see students who only began thinking about colleges in winter of 11th grade admitted to their top choices. I also see students who visited colleges before junior year denied from their top choices.

We often don’t see a correlation between starting early and success. I see students write papers the night before they’re due and get As, and others start two weeks prior and earn Bs. When we search for faculty at Lakeside, I’ve seen applicants hired who applied on the deadline, and others who applied weeks earlier not even interviewed. When I applied to Lakeside, I submitted my application so late in the year that I called the school to confirm the position was still open. Seven years later, I’m here. All the candidates who applied before me aren’t.

I understand why the rise of ED and the fear of being behind would make families consider beginning sooner. But it’s important that fear alone does not drive decision-making. The college process is both exciting and stressful, especially for younger students still learning the norms around being a teenager and articulating their own values and desires for a post-high school life. Starting sooner only adds unnecessary stress.

Myth 2: Planning college trips before winter of junior year is beneficial for students.

The counselors believe there is value in exposing students to college in general. For instance, if a family is traveling for other reasons and there is a college nearby, taking a tour offers the student an opportunity to learn generally about the variety of collegiate experiences available in the U.S.

However, the college counseling office recommends that students begin researching and visiting specific colleges (if visiting is possible) no earlier than winter of junior year. Yet we have seen an increase in students visiting colleges summer after 10th grade, and even during sophomore year.

Our students experience significant physical, emotional, and mental growth during their junior and senior years. Their perspectives from 10th grade almost always shift by the time they are seniors.

In addition, visiting a college more than a year before applying — and two years before they’d enroll — means that students often don’t remember details of their visits. These students can become paralyzed in the college process: they feel pressure from parents/guardians to make choices informed by faded memories of being on campus.

As adults, it’s unlikely any of us would choose a new job for which we last interviewed two years earlier or choose a new house or apartment we barely remember. Taking students on visits before junior winter forces them to make choices like these.

Myth 3: Students need to attend a college that will position them for success in all job fields.

It’s understandable that parents/guardians want their student to attend a college where they will get a great education, explore new fields (academically and professionally), and have strong job or graduate school prospects after commencement. Unfortunately, there isn’t a college that will universally position students for success in every profession.

Sometimes, families express that attending one of the most well-known schools (e.g. the Ivies, MIT, Stanford, Pomona, etc.) would achieve this. From my experience over the years, it never does.

There are some fields and companies that target these institutions when recruiting. Years ago, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, speaking as the keynote at a conference for college counselors, said that Microsoft typically recruits from well-known schools (though it’s uncommon that Microsoft hires many students directly from college). Perhaps attending an Ivy, MIT, Stanford, or Pomona would be beneficial for an aspiring Microsoft employee. (Though recently, after sharing this anecdote at a coffee talk, a parent shared that Microsoft was currently recruiting at Arizona State, so “well-known” is a relative term.)

But would those same schools be as beneficial for a student hoping to go to a top-tier medical school? There’s research that suggests “no.” When applying to U.S. medical schools, the two largest factors are the grade-point average (GPA) and MCAT results. Context is rarely considered when reviewing GPAs. Students who attend the schools above arguably face more competition in earning high GPAs, which in turn, makes entry to the most competitive medical schools more difficult.

When choosing a college, students should consider where they will learn to be nimble and exposed to different opportunities. Their goals will change over time, and there is no way of determining now what those changes will be. It’s important that the college they attend teaches them to adapt and chart new paths, along with the skills to navigate the many unexpected twists and turns they’ll encounter in life.