Youth Radio: How To Choose A College That Fits

Aug 10, 2015

Samantha Lanevi, 19, is a recent graduate of Durham Academy. She is currently a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

College students head back to school this week, and for incoming freshman, it is the end of a long and stressful application process. As a part of our on-going series of stories from the WUNC Summer Youth Reporting Institute, Samantha Lanevi looked at what goes into choosing the right college or university.

I went to high school at Durham Academy just down the street from Duke University, where about 10 percent of my classmates ended up. Principal Lee Hark said that my classmates and I had pretty skewed perspectives.

"They’re growing up in a college town with two world class universities. Funny enough, these world class universities are most of these students’ second choices when everyone else in the country is climbing over each other to get in them," Hark said.

Many of my classmates did tend to overlook Duke. They’re talking about Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Brown, and about a half dozen more.

Lanevi with her parents at her high school graduation
Credit Samantha Lanevi

"We tend to know the names, we can chant them in our sleep of the places that are the most highly selective," Kathy Cleaver, Durham Academy's College Counselor, said. "But that is actually a very small percentage of the 3,500 four-year colleges and universities in the country."

This narrow focus not only warps students expectations, it creates some tough competition to get accepted to these elite schools. Derek Brown, a recent Durham Academy graduate, felt this in high school. He had a kid tell him he wouldn’t get into a  "good school."

I think there’s almost a kind of hierarchy of, ‘You got into a top school’ and ‘Oh, you didn’t.' They kind of created this value structure without being able to see the end result where they’re all really going to end up in the same place," Brown said.

Principal Hark said the college process does get really personal for students.
“When they see it, wrongly I think but unavoidably, as a reflection of who they are and of their self-worth. When you’ve got that much wrapped up in the decision, you don’t want to talk about it," Hark said. "They can sense when they’re listing out their colleges. They can sense someone’s sizing them up and figuring out if they’re going to get into those schools or not.”

This increased social pressure is not just among students, but it is pervasive for parents as well.

Michael Ulku-Steiner, Durham Academy's Head of School, said parents can view college admissions as a reflection of their parenting. He said he sees this dynamic all the time.

“Parents too, we can get wrapped up in the anxiety that college is a stamp of certification of our quality of a parent," he said."

I talked to my mom’s friend, Maria Arias. Her daughter’s a college junior. Maria’s proud of her, but she said it’s easy to get caught up in the mom gossip.

“Inevitably the conversation instead of what is going on in our own lives, it’s always about the kids. You know 'My kid’s on this, my kid’s going there' and I think that’s not healthy for grown-ups and parents to be living their lives through their kids," she said. "I’m not saying it’s all bad. I’m just saying there needs to be a balance.”

While there are no rankings for parents, there are certainly ones for colleges. The U.S. News and World Report is one of the biggest. Ulku-Steiner said these rankings have a negative effect on the scope of students’ college search.

“The tyranny of the U.S. News and World Report where you really imagine there might be 10 great schools in the country, or maybe 20 or 50. You know there are 2,000 institutions, and you could probably thrive in hundreds of them," he said.

The notion that you have to be at a top-ranked school to be happy is completely false.

“My mantra and that is, college is a match to be made, not a prize to be won," Cleaver said.

When I chose to go to Wellesley College, everyone around me had an opinion. “Why’d you pick a women’s college? Does this mean you don’t like boys? Why didn’t you go to Duke or Carolina? Long after the application process, I was still being questioned about my college choice. But I’m happy with my decision and that’s all that matters.