No surprise, the entire college process is big business. There are testing giants with a choke hold evaluating students and the thousands of test prep companies and tutors to help you boost your scores. A quick Amazon search will result in hundreds of books about writing your essay, and how to find the school that’s right for you. And of course the colleges themselves spend millions marketing directly to you and hiring vendors that help them target their prey even more effectively. Families are often unaware of just how little control they have over their college search. It can be hard to find what you’re truly looking for with all that background noise.
If you’ve got a high school student at home all you need to do is open your mailbox to prove me right. How many trees have met their maker in service of wooing your child one way or the other? Or better yet, take a look at your inbox. I’d bet that if you filtered out your emails to exclude those with the word “college” you’d be left with less than 50%.
Many aren’t aware of how this insidious process starts. The heavy volume of communications will often start after a student’s first testing experience, usually the PSAT’s. While unable to sell individual score reports, College Board is able to make boatloads of money selling the data of students within “score bands.” For example, Sample University could ask to buy all the names of students living in the Mid-Atlantic states that scored between a 1000-1200. All those students are now treated to a steady diet of marketing materials whether they asked for it or (as is more likely) not.
Colleges also pony up to show up in your college searches. A search program will naturally want to include all available colleges in their results but did you know a college can pay to be a “priority” search school? This can mean they either will list as matches for more students or higher up students’ match lists more frequently. While those first searches on your computer can be a great place to narrow down choices you’re being led in a certain direction from the very beginning.
Of course much of the same can be said for all those college ranking models. Before you look at Princeton Review or US World’s publications take a look at the fine print sections on how rankings are compiled. Can’t make sense of it? That’s by design. These rankings are often arbitrarily based on incomplete student reports or out-of-date data. They’ve already decided how they will rank institutions before the data has been reviewed based on advertising dollars.
And then of course there’s the more well-intentioned but just as insidious influences on your college search. Think about all the rumors about schools you hear in the hallway. Or the one your uncle won’t stop talking about at family parties. Or the list your guidance counselor suggests for you. I need to include myself here as well. While I do my best to offer a wide range of college options to my clients I’m of course biased by colleges my past students have had good experiences and those I’m more familiar with. There’s over 4,000 colleges in the continental United States, it would be impossible for any admissions professional let alone an invested family member to provide a completely unbiased opinion.
My purpose in sharing this information is not to give birth to conspiracy theories or to encourage families to go to great lengths to insulate themselves but perhaps with an awareness of all these factors weighing on the process it will be easier to tune out some of the noise and focus on what’s really important in your search. Try not to feel pressured or closed in to a particular list of schools or way of searching. Talk to lots of people, search on a variety of sites and books, and visit visit visit! The more schools you see with your own eyes the clearer and more accurately you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for! Don’t forget: all of this money and pressure is spent to woo YOU. At the end of the day the power is in your hands. Feel free to leave the tin foil hats at home and happy hunting!