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Balancing Fit and Prestige During the College Search

By David Toomer, Director of College Counseling
This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

College counseling at independent schools such as Tower Hill is a precarious balancing act. Social scientists might characterize the whole process of helping students find their way to college as a set of tradeoffs and incentives. The trade-offs can most succinctly be described as fit and prestige. As educators, we are obligated to help each student find the set of colleges that will allow that student to thrive academically, socially and professionally. This would be fit. Meanwhile, many parents want their children to attend the 25 or so colleges and universities that Gregg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution refers to as the “Gotta-Get-Ins.” The Gotta-Get-In colleges and universities represent prestige. 
For students with high grades and high test scores, fit and prestige may be closely correlated. For those with more modest grades and testing, fit and prestige may have an inverse relationship. Independent schools and affluent suburban high schools are under intense pressure to have as many Gotta-Get-Ins on their school list each year. Chasing prestige for the sake of prestige appears to be among the most significant causes for stress and anxiety among students, parents and high schools. 

Easterbrook’s article reviews a report written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Mellon Foundation researcher Stacy Berg Dale. Their report, in quantitative and qualitative terms, demonstrates how people tend to overvalue the Gotta-Get-Ins and undervalue other high-quality schools such as many flagship state universities and mid-tier liberal arts colleges. Easterbrook’s article, Who Needs Harvard, is worth a read and can be found at www.brookings.edu/articles/who-needs-harvard/. 
In the college admissions process, it appears that the colleges have all of the power. However, students and families have the ability to make smart choices regarding their day-to-day lives and with deciding for themselves which colleges to pursue based on research—and not purely by rankings. At Tower Hill, we seek to help students find the right balance between academics, co-curricular and extracurricular activities and athletics. Moreover, we want to provide them with the skills to make wise behavioral and lifestyle choices. 
Parents, students and academic advisors should work together to select classes that are challenging, but not overwhelming. It is important to find activities based on interests and not to impress someone at an admissions committee table. Another excellent resource is the Harvard Graduate School of Education Making Caring Common website, mcc.gse.harvard.edu/collegeadmissions. I strongly recommend reading Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions. It is endorsed by the deans of dozens of the top colleges and universities and available on the Harvard GSE website. Turning the Tide provides a better understanding of what top colleges are looking for and should ease some of the mania around AP classes and unmanageable lists of activities. 
Tower Hill is committed to helping each student select colleges that will allow them to reach their full academic and professional potential. We accomplish this in a number of ways. We begin by talking to the freshmen to help them understand their part in the journey to college. Beginning in the fall of 2018, there will be a Freshman Seminar Course. College Counseling will have the opportunity to provide greater context and preparation for the ninth-graders. We continue the conversation with the tenth-graders and help begin with the formal process of preparing to take the SAT or ACT (or both) beginning in 11th Grade. Many high schools offer the PSAT to tenth- and eleventh-grade students. Beginning this year, Tower Hill is adding the Pre-ACT so that students and parents can make a more informed decision about deciding which test to take. The second half of junior year and the first quarter of senior year are crunch time for our students. In the junior year we will have a series of seminars designed to prepare students for essays, interviews, creating résumés, identifying colleges and making an appropriate list. In the fall of senior year, students will put the finishing touches on their applications and essays. Students and families will work closely with the college counselor to maximize the opportunities for positive results with the decisions from colleges. 
Tower Hill is making wise investments in College Counseling. Our College Counseling Suite located across from the Upper School Office is more conducive to our work than the previous offices upstairs between the Language and History Halls. The combined sets of skills and experiences of the College Counseling staff are a huge benefit to our students. We have attended or worked at a number of highly competitive independent schools, colleges and universities. Not only do we provide excellent guidance for our students, but also the fact that we have assembled the team that we have speaks volumes about the quality and visibility of Tower Hill. 
Our students are achieving excellent results. Although I like to avoid speaking in terms of the Ivy League, it may be useful to consider the eight Ivies to illustrate our success. There are approximately 13,500 freshman slots across the eight Ivies. Dartmouth has the smallest freshman class at roughly 1,100, and Cornell is the largest at around 3,200. There are approximately 4 million 18-year-olds in the U.S., meaning that roughly one-third of 1 percent of high school students attend an Ivy. There are approximately 28,000 high schools in the United States. If evenly distributed, each high school could send the equivalent of half of a senior to an Ivy each year. Tower Hill has at least six students in the Class of 2018 admitted to Ivies. Not only are we well-represented among the Ancient Eight, but at many other high-quality colleges and universities across the U.S. Most importantly, all students will attend a college or university where he or she will thrive, graduate and move on to productive and rewarding lives. 
Academic and professional success is built over many years. As parents, we can and should encourage our children to read, to be curious and to pursue healthy participation in athletics and other activities that enhance their lives. Students need to develop age-appropriate organization, communication and self-advocacy skills. Tower Hill provides a challenging academic program that is well-respected by colleges and universities. We should also help students to enjoy the years that they spend at Tower Hill. Much of the learning and development occurs in those informal moments in the hall, lounge or dining hall. Students who succeed here are well-positioned to do well in college and in life.