I have talked with other parents of high school students about what I know of the college search process. They all sound grateful for the information. But really, what do I know? Sure, I give links to several of my sources. But maybe you’d like to know where I am coming from.
This post is more personal, and not filled with much actionable information. You have been warned.
First of all, “hello.” I am Jim from Milwaukee. My working-class parents sent my brother and me to the Catholic high schools of our choice. My mother had attended a few semesters of a local college before she landed a job in her field and quit school, and my dad got a job straight out of high school. They promised to pay for our high school educations, but college was up to us. A year after my brother went to the co-ed school a short bus ride away; I started at the all-boys school with the reputation of being the best high school in the area. I wanted to know how I measured up.
From there, my college search was guided by what I could glean from my friends and college recruiters that visited my school. Up to that point, most of what I knew about schools was the strength of their football and men’s basketball teams. I had no idea what to make of the brochures that came in the mail. I was surprised to learn that there were so many colleges in Iowa. I was lost.
My brother had decided to live at home and attend UWM, but I felt I could do better. But I’m not sure what “better” meant to me.
Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I decided to turn the choice over to the colleges. I applied for school specific scholarships. I stopped working on a scholarship application to Notre Dame because the University of Dallas gave me a 50% scholarship. The search was over… temporarily.
I first set foot on the campus a few days before class started in the fall of 1984. I felt that I wanted to major in psychology and become a clinical psychologist. It was only then that I discovered that UD had few course options for students. We all took US History, Math, Philosophy, English, and a foreign language. Not only was English required; but specifically all freshman took Literary Tradition I in the fall and Literary Tradition II in the spring. When they said Literary Tradition, they were serious; we read the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid that first term, and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the second. Not only wasn’t I interested in these books, but with all of these requirements, I was only expected to take one psychology course before my junior year. And it was in that course that I learned that the UD taught a particular strain of psychology called “phenomenology.” The only school that offered a Ph.D. in phenomenology was Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. If I can’t get in there, then what can I do?
So I was at the wrong school, but I also made a financial aid mistake. I was presented with a financial aid package that included a small scholarship, a grant, a work study job and a loan. I looked at the money that I had saved and fearing debt, I rejected the loan. My second year’s package was identical to the first. But now my savings were gone, so I would have needed twice the loans to meet my expenses. I moved home and transferred to UWM.
There I learned what I needed to do to get into a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology. I decided to double major in psychology and sociology; I got good grades; my test scores were good too. I was able to work on a research project in the department, and this not only gave me experience but allowed me to get better letters of recommendations. I took a leadership position in the honor society for psychology students. I also learned that I would need to apply to many schools in order to get in to one.
I applied to a dozen. I can’t remember them all. I got an interview at the University of Houston. It didn’t go well. At least I learned that that Texas school was a bad fit before I enrolled. None of the schools accepted me right away, but I made a few waiting lists. The University of South Dakota finally found a place for me, but the thought of living in Vermillion, SD didn’t appeal to me so I held out. On the final decision day, at 10:30 in the morning, I called the schools where I was on the waiting list. I got through to a professor at Kent State who checked her list and found that they had an opening. I don’t think I was the next person on their list to offer it to, but there I was on the phone, so she decided to save herself some phone calls and offer it to me. I was given free tuition, but I didn’t get a research assistantship (an ok paying, departmental job) until my second semester.
Two years later when I applied to grad schools in Sociology, I was told that they weren’t as selective. I applied to three of the top 20 programs, and received three letters of acceptance. I was in at three Big 10 schools; Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern. I was able to visit Northwestern and Wisconsin before I had to decide. I loved Northwestern. It was small, homey, and the facilities were great. Wisconsin was ranked #1 in the country, but it felt like a sociology factory. The professor I met with at 10am didn’t know the professor I was meeting at 11am and wasn’t even sure how to direct me to the appointment. But in the end I chose Minnesota because they were the only school of the three to waive my tuition and give me a job (as a teaching assistant.)
In my grad school days, I learned that many of my classmates when to small liberal arts colleges while others went to large state schools. They had different experiences and yet we wound up in the same place. I did feel however that most of them had a better idea what they were doing in graduate school than I did. The liberal arts kids in particular had worked side by side with professors and most had headed a research project “senior thesis.” I had pretty much just gone to class. I know I mentioned the research project I worked on as an undergrad, but a graduate student was in charge of the project’s day-to-day operations - and it was that graduate student who wrote my letter of recommendation and then got the professor to sign it.
To sum up… I have attended 5 universities (including two classes at MATC) and I have been accepted into 5 Ph.D. programs. I complete the course work for a master’s in psychology and a Ph.D. in sociology, but only earned a master’s degree in sociology – and it only took me 11 years to do it. I made mistakes by not applying to enough schools, not visiting schools to assess if I fit, rejecting loans that I would need to complete my studies. I learned that a good liberal arts education would have been beneficial, but also that large state schools can take you where you want to go. So the #1 question to answer is “where does the student want to go?” But remember that our 16 year olds may not specifically know where they want to go, so get them to experience some of their options (schools or careers.) Let them figure out what feels right for them, and find a situation where they are free to become who they want to be.