Choosing a College

A Guide for Parents and Students

by Thomas Sowell

Chapter 8: Getting Started


Test Scores
College Guides and Rankings

Organizing what you are going to do is the key to keeping your sanity while trying to cope simultaneously with the problems of choosing a college, finishing high school, and taking care of many other details and problems that come crowding in on you all at once. There is no point trying to think through all the issues and possibilities together. Simplifying what you have to do into steps can help you turn your attention to one complication at a time. The easiest way to do this may be to make a list, showing what you need to do, and in what sequence. Among the things on that list should be:

  1. Taking a college entrance examination, whether the Scholastic Aptitude Test (S.A.T.) or an examination from the American College Testing program (ACT).
  2. Buying several college guides of different types.
  3. Determining what general kinds of institutions best suit you: colleges, universities or institutes of technology, for example.
  4. Consulting with high school teachers and counselors-after you have already gotten some preliminary ideas and information on your own.
  5. Determining what special personal requirements you may have as to geographic region, campus atmosphere, financial arrangements, and the like.
  6. Sending for college catalogues (from perhaps 10-20 places) after you have begun to narrow your choices.
  7. Attending high school meetings at which representatives from various colleges speak.
  8. Making campus visits to some of the institutions you are seriously considering, if that is practical.
  9. Applying to several colleges and then making your choice among those that accept you.
Let us consider these steps in turn, in this chapter and in the chapters that follow.


There is so much to do during the senior year of high school-and so many deadlines to meet-that the long process of choosing a college should begin during the junior year, if possible. Some college application deadlines are as early as November 30th (for the University of California system), which gives you very little time for all the things that must be done between the opening of high school in September and the time when test results, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other material must be on file with colleges. Most selective institutions have application deadlines somewhere between January 1st (at Harvard and M.I.T.) to March 1st (at Whitman or at Dickinson). This might seem to be a comfortable amount of time, but often it isn't.

A couple of months can elapse between the time a student applies to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the time when the results are tabulated and sent out. For example, to take the first S.A.T. examination of the academic year, usually held in early October, the student must apply to the College Board in early September-which is to say, shortly after school opens. Until the results come back in early November, you are missing a key piece of information needed to decide which kinds of colleges it would make sense to apply to. If the whole process of investigating colleges and deciding where to apply begins at that point, it can be quite a scramble to make a decision and get all the transcripts, recommendations, and other material sent off to these institutions before the Christmas vacation begins, so that this will all be in their hands in time for January deadlines. Seldom does every detail go exactly according to plan. If you have to go back and remind someone to send a letter of recommendation, or keep after the high school officials to put your transcript in the mail to the colleges, it may be tough to make even a February deadline.

It will take a lot of needless pressure off if you first take the S.A.T. (or the A.C.T.) during your junior year, to get some idea where you stand scholastically. The results will enable you to compare yourself to national norms, as the colleges do, instead of trying to guess how the grades at your high school compare to grades at other schools elsewhere. An early test also allows for unforeseeable events. You may have the flu or some other problem on the day the S.A.T. or A.C.T. is given, and not do your best. Taking the test in your junior year allows you to schedule another test later on, when you are feeling better. But if you wait until your senior year, and then take the last test that will make the college application deadline, whatever goes wrong on that test will be set in concrete. Even if all goes well on the S.A.T. or A.C.T. test during your junior year, it is still a good idea to take it again in your senior year. You will have learned more by then and will be more familiar with the exam as well. What the first set of scores does is to give you a fix on where you stand. It also gives you several months in which to start thinking things over and talking them over with parents, teachers, and others, before the senior year begins. Many things besides test scores must be taken into account before a final decision is made, either by you or by the colleges to which you apply. But the foundation, the bedrock, on which all this sits is your academic performance and capability. Since nobody can get inside your head, the next best thing is to look at high school grades and test scores. That must be your starting point as well.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to say that test scores don't "really" matter that much. In exactly the same sense, some people say that height isn't "really" that important in basketball and "speed isn't everything" in a wide receiver in football. For that matter, "money isn't everything"-but no one who is destitute is likely to kid himself that it isn't important. Test scores matter, even to many who say they don't matter. They can matter catastrophically to those students who ignore them in choosing a college.

This is not to say that test scores are the be-all and end-all. In fact, they are just the beginning of the process of weeding out possibilities. But they are a necessary beginning.

Once you have determined which colleges, universities, or technical institutes are within your scholastic range, you can then begin to weigh the other considerations which will determine how many of these institutions are worth further investigation. At this point-hopefully, before the senior year of high school begins-you can sit down with a piece of paper, perhaps parents and student together, to write down some of the many factors to consider and discuss. At this point, some college guides may be very helpful.


Kinds of Guides

Perhaps the best kinds of general college guides to begin with are those with brief descriptions and opinions about 200 or 300 colleges, universities, and technical institutes. These are usually easy reading, sometimes entertaining, and often have a telling sentence or two that will either excite your interest in a particular college or let you know that this is a place you want to avoid like the plague. Usually these kinds of guides also include a very few key statistics, such as the average S.A.T. or A.C.T. score at each institution, the total number of students, and the tuition.

For those primarily interested in the more selective institutions, the best of these kinds of college guides are The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, published annually by the Yale Daily News, and Selective Guide to Colleges, written by Edward B. Fiske, education editor of the New York Times. Another guide written by Fiske is called The Best Buys in College Education. As the title suggests, it concentrates on institutions whose tuition costs are not as horrendous as others. Although the colleges listed in the latter overlap with those covered in Fiske's other book, the guide to lower-cost institutions not only includes top rated places like the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley, but also more modestly ranked institutions like Rockford College and Hillsdale College. In fact, given the large-scale financial aid available at most expensive institutions, for many students the principal value of The Best Buys in College Education is that it gives descriptions and insights into a wider academic range of colleges. Another kind of college guide is that chock-full of statistics and other information of a sort that means nothing by itself, but which can be very valuable after you have some framework to put it in. These guides may cover 10 times as many institutions as the descriptive guides mentioned above. The College Handbook, published by the College Board, lists information on more than 3,000 four-year colleges. Guides of this sort are strictly reference books-no one in his right mind would try to read through them-and become useful only after you have already developed an interest in particular institutions and want to dig further into the facts about them. Since even these huge guides are usually available in paperback editions for less than $20, it is probably a very good investment to get at least one. When you consider the high cost of a college education, buying half a dozen guides to help you make your choice would not be an extravagance.

My favorite among the big blockbuster type of guides is The Comparative Guide to American Colleges by James Cass and Max Birnbaum. However, a lot could be said for Barron's Profiles of American Colleges or Lovejoy's College Guide. What strikes me about the Cass and Birnbaum guide is that it doesn't go to the extreme of the "just-the-facts" approach. For example, in the midst of its statistics, it characterizes the student body at Whitman College as "overwhelmingly scholarly and intellectual" and Lafayette College students as "primarily oriented toward occupational/professional goals." Many colleges, however, it doesn't characterize at all. The amount of attention and space it gives varies with the academic standing or visibility of the institution-not how many people are likely to go there. The University of Chicago, for example, gets almost twice as much space as Southern Illinois University, which has three times as many students.

The huge guides in general tell you things that the smaller descriptive guides simply do not have space for. The Cass and Birnbaum guide, for example, tells you what percentage of the entering freshmen at various colleges come from what regions of the country, how many freshmen return for their sophomore year, what percentage graduate, and what percentage of graduates go on to medical school, law school, etc. Even though these and other facts may not all be significant in every case, it is significant when a guide reports that 37 percent of the freshmen at Bennington College do not return for the sophomore year and only 41 percent graduate. Conversely, it is also significant that only 8 percent of Muhlenberg College's freshmen fail to return for their sophomore years, and that 82 percent of the students graduate. Some will find it significant that two-thirds of the students at Skidmore College are women while a similar percentage at Union College are men. To those thinking in terms of marital prospects, these are more than dry statistics.

In general, the numbers in large, heavily statistical guides will mean something only after you have clarified in your own mind just what it is you are looking for. Reading the smaller descriptive guides can help bring you to that point, as will discussions with parents, teachers and others. For those who are confining their search to some of the higher-rated or better-known colleges, a smaller statistical guide that can be very useful is Peterson's Competitive Colleges.

Among the more specialized guides, The Black Student's Guide to Colleges has an obvious constituency, despite its shortcomings. Lisa Birnbach's College Book has a very different constituency-the affluent and "with it" crowd. Her comments on drugs and homosexuality at various colleges, however, may be of interest to many parents and students who are not with it, as well as to those who are.

Conservative parents may be reassured by Lisa Birnbach's comments on "the gay situation" at some colleges ("No gays that anyone knows of" at Wabash College or at Sweet Briar) or the favorite drugs ("Vitamin C" at Oral Roberts University). They are less likely to be reassured after reading what is said about drugs at Reed and Bard or about homosexuality at Smith, Mills, Yale and Chicago. Still, they may be glad that they found out sooner rather than later-and on paper rather than in real life.

While some college guides are better than others for some purposes, the only one that should be condemned outright is America's Best Colleges, which is easily America's worst college guide. What makes this guide special are its lists of the "best" institutions in various categories, reprinted from U.S. News & World Report magazine, which is also the publisher of the guide. Widespread criticism of the shabby way these lists were compiled have come even from presidents of universities rated in the top 10 by this publication. Usually, only the losers criticize rankings, but when the winners also criticize, you know that something is seriously wrong. At Stanford University-ranked number one by U.S. News & World Report-both the president and the director of admissions publicly questioned the way the rankings were done.

Instead of getting your own college guides, catalogues, and brochures, you may be able to read those in public libraries or in the offices of high school counselors. However, these may or may not be up to date. Those in some public libraries may be several years out of date. Most colleges and universities don't change that much in a few years-except for tuition, which is no small exception. It may be useful to check out the dates of the catalogues and brochures in your high school counselor's office, as a way of checking out the high school counselor. Any counselor who hasn't made the small effort required to get up-to-date material from the colleges may be bad news in other ways, and it is better to discover that early on.

It may seem cheaper to read college guides in a public library, rather than buy them, but it is a false economy. If you start out with a long list of "possible" colleges and proceed to reduce it to a small list of "likely" ones, then there may be a significant amount of reading to do and it should not be crammed. Too much is at stake. Guides that are in your home can be read whenever the time and the mood are right, over a period of weeks and months. Special things about particular colleges can be underlined and comments put in the margins, to be looked at perhaps months later, when you are ready to decide where to send applications-and still later again, when making your final choice among the colleges that accepted you. Reading college guides in libraries, or on loan for a few weeks, means giving up these advantages and relying on memory. Unless your memory is phenomenal, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to save a few dollars like this on as big an investment as a college. Even if someone else pays for college, it is still a very big investment of your time, emotions, and future.


Because there are many useless and misleading rankings in print, it is worth exploring what is wrong with the lists in America's Best Colleges, so as to have some idea how to evaluate the validity of other rankings. The lists were based on selections by college and university presidents who were each asked by U.S. News & World Report to name his or her own "top ten" in one category or another. The criteria suggested were "cohesiveness of the curriculum, quality of teaching, relationship between faculty and students and the overall atmosphere of learning fostered by the campus."

These are good criteria, but it is completely unrealistic to expect busy college presidents to be able to apply them to other colleges. Presidents of huge universities with 30,000 or 40,000 students might have trouble applying these criteria on their own campuses. How many presidents of colleges or universities on the east coast have ever set foot in a classroom at Berkeley or U.C.L.A.? For that matter, how many presidents of Harvard have ever sat in on classes at M.I.T, two subway stops away?

To their credit, 40 percent of the college presidents did not reply to the questionnaire sent them by U.S. News & World Report, and some took the trouble to write the magazine to object to the whole procedure. The president of Middlebury College, for example, wrote: "I seriously doubt that any of us had anything more than a superficial knowledge of most other campuses." Other college presidents also refused to send in their rankings on similar grounds. Those college presidents who did send in their rankings may well have found it easier to list 10 institutions off the top of their heads than to explain why they would not do so.

Unfortunately, many parents and students may have taken such rankings seriously. What each person really needs is his or her own "top 10" or top 5, as the case may be. The list of the best colleges or universities for one individual will seldom be the same for another, even if they are brothers or sisters.

Some rankings, however, are based on much better knowledge. Rankings of specific departments usually have a much more solid basis than the rankings of whole colleges or universities. When chemists rank chemistry departments and economists rank economics departments, they are in a position to know what they are talking about. They may know the professors (either personally or through their writings or participation in professional conferences) and they may know how well prepared the students are when they go on to post-graduate education. Even without setting foot in a particular college's classrooms, a graduate school professor who always finds the students from a particular college thoroughly familiar with their subject knows that there is good teaching going on there.

When little-known Davidson College is ranked among the top dozen in the country by law school deans for the quality of its students who go on to law school, the deans probably know what they are talking about-and this is valuable information about the college, even if you have no intention of going to law school. Similarly, it is probably a well-informed judgment when the deans of graduate schools of engineering include Rose-Hulman Institute and Harvey Mudd College among the top 15 institutions in the quality of their engineering graduates. Their assessment may be particularly valuable if you have never heard of either of these schools before.

Most rankings of departments are rankings of graduate departments of universities, and these may be of limited value to undergraduates. However, there are also rankings of colleges according to the number or percentage of their graduates who continue on to receive a Ph.D. Some of these have already been indicated in earlier chapters, though for a limited number of institutions. A much fuller list is available in the November/December 1986 issue of Change magazine.

An even longer list of several hundred private, four-year colleges, ranked by the absolute number of doctorates received by their graduates, is available in a publication called Baccalaureate Origins of Doctorate Recipients: A Ranking by Discipline of 4-Year Private Institutions. It is issued by the Office of Institutional Research at Franklin & Marshall College. Like other statistics, these are useful to the extent that you remember their limitations-in this case, that there are no adjustments for institutional size and that universities and state colleges are omitted. Even with these limitations in mind, however, you may find the large number of colleges covered to be useful to you, especially if you are considering a college not likely to be on shorter lists. It can be very enlightening, for example, to discover that Middlebury College graduates received far more doctorates in a decade than the graduates of Bennington College received in more than 60 years.

If you would like the same data for all colleges, universities, engineering schools, and military academies-total and broken down by sex of students-and are prepared to pay $100 for it, you can get elaborate print-outs of this data from the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. Probably only some professional guidance counselors or university research scholars would want to go this far. But, if you have the curiosity and the money, just ask for the bound volume of print-outs called Baccalaureate Origins of Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities. The title is similar to that of the smaller compilation by Franklin & Marshall College because they are drawn from the same source. Incidentally, it should not be surprising to discover that Franklin & Marshall usually makes a very good showing in these lists.


One of the most elusive concepts appearing in various college guides is "selectivity." Supposedly, it refers to how difficult it is to get admitted to a particular college. Phrases like "competitive," "highly competitive" or"non-competitive" are used to rank colleges by their selectivity. Unfortunately, different guides rank the same colleges differently. Chapman College is ranked above the University of California at Davis by The ARCO Guide: The Right College, Chapman being "competitive" and UC Davis being "non-competitive," according to them. But Cass & Birnbaum give just the reverse ranking in their Comparative Guide to American Colleges. Chapman receives no selectivity rating, while UC Davis is rated "Selective +." Barron's Profiles of American Colleges rates Chapman "Competitive" and UC Davis "Competitive +."

These are by no means the only inconsistent rankings of the "Selectivity" of the same institutions by different college guides. Georgia Tech ranks above Harvey Mudd in The Right College, but they are ranked just the opposite in Cass & Birnbaum. Whitman versus Antioch, or Brigham Young versus Arizona State, would also turn out to produce opposite selectivity rankings in these two guides. As you expand the number of institutions and the number of guides, the inconsistencies multiply.

The underlying problem is that "selectivity" often has no concrete criteria and changes meaning as readily as a chameleon changes color. If half the people who apply to a given college are admitted, that tells you very little by itself, without further investigation. College A and College B may both admit half their applicants, but if college A is a high quality institution, whose courses are very demanding, then highly qualified students are likely to apply. If college B is an easygoing party school, it may attract so many applicants with very poor qualifications that it has to turn away half of them. If "selectivity" is judged on some purely statistical basis, A and B are the same-even though any given person would find it harder to get into A than into B. Location can also affect how many people apply, and therefore what percentage are accepted. A college located in the heart of New York City or Chicago is almost certain to be noticed and applied to, just because it is so near to so many people. But almost no one applies to Whitman College because it happens to be nearby-because it is not nearby to anything, except the small town of Walla Walla, Washington. People apply to Whitman because they have heard good things about that particular college. Because it accepts most of its applicants does not mean that it is easy to get into, since it tends to attract serious students with good academic records. Clemson University accepts a smaller percentage of its applicants than Whitman does, but the Whitman applicants have higher test scores. What really matters about any college is how easy it is for you to get in, not what percentage of other people got in.

Opaque rankings of "selectivity" or "competitiveness" in admissions can be misleading as far as the practical question of your own admisions chances is concerned. Trying to determine whether your SAT scores and high school grades are about what the other students admitted had is likely to give you a better idea of your chances. Barron's Profiles of American Colleges explains the basis of its admissions rankings in these terms, so as to facilitate such comparisons. However, even the best estimate remains only an estimate, because of the large element of chance in the admissions process.

What a good estimate can do is show a range of colleges where your chances of acceptance are good and where most of the other students come from the same general range of academic capabilities. This is important not only for getting admitted but also for doing your best afterwards. Professors tend to teach to the level of their students, whether intentionally or by a process of adjustment of their expectations. There is no point finding yourself in a situation where you are always trailing the pack-or in the opposite situation, where you must endure an agonizingly slow pace and repeated explanations of things you understood long ago. The practical purpose of trying to understand a college's admissions standards is to try to make the right match, not to rank institutions in prestige or in some other abstract sense.

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