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5 ways to navigate the agonizing college admissions maze without going crazy

Take a deep breath — you're going to be okay

The college admissions process can drive you mad.

As a veteran educator and mother of two sons who recently graduated from high school, I've watched firsthand as what used to be a somewhat-stressful, nail-biting handful of months evolved into an agonizing, massively anxious, never-ending Youth Achievement Derby beginning years before high school even starts.

I'm hardly the first person to note the absurd extremes to which some students — and (let's be honest) their parents — will go in pursuit of acceptance to an elite school these days. Educator Michelle Gilman's recent Huffington Post rant on the subject has gone viral, while others, like Salon's Thomas Frank, paint the entire system of higher education as a bloated, corrupt racket preying on the hearts and wallets of American families.

This blame-laced attitude isn't very helpful, though. Yes, Tiger Parents who put their toddlers in Ivy League onesies are ridiculous. And it helps no one for a struggling family to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars just so their kid can pursue a Dream Diploma that doesn't neatly translate into a high-earning or massively fulfilling job. But we also aren't doing our children any favors by not encouraging them to stretch toward their full potential.

Applying to and attending college is very important. "Getting in" to a certain, specific school is not. The key is understanding the difference between those two things. So here are some simple rules to follow as you begin navigating the college admissions maze.

1. Explore your options — early. "The United States is the envy of the world in terms of its stunning array of great colleges and universities," says Anne Love Hall, a counselor who has been advising students in elite independent college preparatory schools for 33 years. "There are so many outstanding ones, big, small, urban, and rural. See as many as you can and open your mind wide to the possibility of a college you or your parents have never heard of!"

Hall sees much that is positive in the changing landscape of the college admission process. Where the previous generation may have had knowledge of or exposure to just a handful of colleges or universities, today's students can research thousands of schools online. Americans are also traveling more than ever. Beginning from the time a student is 13 or 14 years old, families should think of every vacation as an opportunity to casually visit a college or university in the vicinity. Not every family can afford the luxury of a "college trip" … but everyone can make the effort to see as many types of schools as possible — or at least research them online.

You've got lots of choices, kids. Get to know and appreciate them.

2. Be introspective. Who are you? What do you want to take away from college? Those aren't easy questions for a 17-year-old to answer, but they are critical.

Are you a self-motivated type who doesn't need a lot of structure and guidance? Someone with long-term career goals already in mind? Then that large, urban research university might be just the place for you; you can benefit from exposure to groundbreaking faculty and eager graduate students without worrying about getting lost in the fray. However, if you're honest enough to admit that you have no idea what you want to do with your life, and that you still rely on your high school counselor (and your mom) to remind you when it's time to do your homework (and your laundry), you might want to consider a smaller four-year college, or even start with two years at a junior college close to home. Both are places you are more likely to receive more personal attention while you grow your wings.

Another key question: Are you truly ready to take this next step in your education? Gap years between high school and college, always popular in Europe, are becoming increasingly common in America … and for a good reason.

"Think hard about the value of a college education," says Hall. "Are you ready to take full advantage of it? The four years of undergraduate education are a significant period of your life and they won't come back to you. College is also a big investment in time and money. The return will be there if you are focused enough to really take advantage of the education and time with great faculty and new friends."

"But not all high school seniors are that focused. Perhaps you'd like to take a year and do [community] service, or have a job, or travel the world before college. Colleges appreciate students who want to be older and wiser and more prepared to take advantage of the four years they are offering them."

3. Build a life, not a résumé. What about those students who spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and money developing an array of achievements outside the classroom — and sometimes only because they think it will "look good" on a college application?

"Extracurricular activities reflect depth, experience, team effort and maturity," says Hall. But you shouldn't do anything just because you think it will look good on your college application. College admission officers are actually a little wary of applicants who claim to be able to letter in two varsity sports while being active in student government and starring in the fall play and running the afterschool tutoring program and wailing on sax in the jazz band and volunteering in a lab on weekends. Admissions officers start wondering whether applicants are really committed to those activities or just checking off items on some contrived list. You're better off being sincerely dedicated to a small number of things you actually care about.

Of course, many families cannot afford the lessons, club coaching, travel, and other expenses associated with lots of extracurriculars. Hall says not to worry.

"Colleges appreciate different students' circumstances. They value a student who might have to work in order to help pay for education. Jobs offer a student depth, experience, team play, and maturity. These are the qualities a student can acquire outside of the classroom; it doesn't matter whether it's in a job or in extracurricular activities."

4. Figure out your finances. This is a time to be extremely realistic, and cautious. As you narrow down the list of schools to which you plan to apply — and that really shouldn't be more than eight to 10 at most, say our experts — think about how you would plan to pay for each, should you be accepted. Few families can afford the upwards of $60,000 a year charged by many private institutions.

Financial aid is a consideration, even for families who may not think they qualify for more traditional need-based aid. Many colleges and universities, especially older ones, have significant endowments to provide tuition assistance across a range of socioeconomic circumstances. Do your research. See what kinds of grants the schools you are interested in offer, both on the basis of need and merit. Then apply for aid.

But don't stop there. Look for outside scholarships for which you might qualify; these can add up. Whatever you do, be very, very cautious about accepting loans, either from the federal government or a private lender. Too many young people, blinded by the vision of attending a "dream" school, assume debt that they and their families will simply be unable to pay. It is not unreasonable to assume some debt to pay for college, but that amount should be no more than could be reasonably paid off by a young person making under $50,000 a year and taking responsibility for her own living expenses.

Students aren't the only ones who need to be wary about making bad financial decisions based on the desire to attend a certain school at all costs. Often, parents dip into or even deplete retirement savings to pay for tuition. This is a bad idea. Despite our desire to make our children happy in the short term, paying the tax penalty on those savings in addition to losing the savings themselves increases the likelihood we will be financially dependent upon those same children just about the time they will be wanting to start families and buying homes of their own.

If paying for college is a concern for you, then consider the incredible value offered by state universities and community colleges. Tuition and fees for in-state residents at these schools can be a fraction of those charged by private institutions — and just because they're less expensive doesn't mean you're going to encounter less qualified faculty or make less prestigious connections.

"Higher education needn't be 'high cost' education," says Calhoun School's Jonas Hamilton.

The University of California at Santa Barbara's Dr. Shuji Nakamura just accepted this year's Nobel Prize in Physics … making him the sixth Nobel laureate on that state-funded university's current faculty. And the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, didn't attend M.I.T. or Princeton; he pursued his graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the University of Chicago. Similar opportunities abound for students who are open to them.

5. Maintain your perspective. It's too easy to see college admissions as a process with an end goal: getting that acceptance letter from a "school of choice." That puts a lot of pressure on a young person to achieve something that is, as one Harvard University admissions officer admitted to me many years ago, "an impossible decision to make. Sometimes it just comes down to luck."

With so many qualified students applying to college these days, and an entire industry and mythology built up around the process, there is absolutely no way to guarantee admission to a particular school.

And that's OK. Finding out where you've been accepted isn't an end. It's just the beginning. If you want a college education, you will get one. And if you are truly mature enough for college, you will find faculty and friends — maybe at Stanford or maybe at your local city college — to fire your intellect and help you decide the next steps of a life that will, I promise you, present challenges and opportunities far more meaningful and important than the name of the school on your degree.

So relax. Engage in and enjoy the process with honesty about who you are and integrity about what you want. And good luck!

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