The college promotional fliers are piling up in high schoolers' mailboxes. Families are sketching out summer campus tours. And the highest achievers are preparing for the June SAT and early acceptance bids to Ivy League schools.
Planning ahead is great, say experts, who also offer this advice: Don't rush into a decision. Cast a wide net and keep an open mind.
"Not every kid would be happy at Harvard," says Donald Asher, author of Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming and Just Plain Different. "If some kid somehow got in by miracle or accident, it would be a torturous hell for them to go to college there."
Miracles or accidents of that sort are unlikely, as Harvard accepts barely 10 percent of undergraduate applicants, generally drawn from their high schools' best and brightest.
Even for such advanced students, college advisers say much more should be involved than just gunning for the most elite schools — a point they hope is not lost in an era of increasingly competitive childhoods, when early acceptance applications to Ivy League schools are surging.
"If families set that up as the only acceptable option for academic success, then they're setting themselves up for failure," says Matthew Greene, educational director at Howard Greene Associates, an educational consulting firm in Westport, Conn.
Nevertheless, guidance counselors at high-achieving high schools say there always have been parents who insist that their kids are Ivy League stock, and kids certain they are destined to attend such schools.
"I think it's the same top 12 or 13 percent who have always been interested at an early age in the Harvard, Princeton or Yale choices, and what does it take to get there," says Vivian Saatjian-Green, director of guidance at Beverly Hills High School in Los Angeles. "When you mention some of the other fine institutions there's sort of another look of, 'I don't think so.'"
Get Out and Look
Choosing a school ideally is a personal matter that takes time, research, lots of legwork, and involves lots of questions asked of college students, graduates, counselors and yourself, college advisers say.
Greene tells students and their families to "forget about the [published college] rankings … be open-minded [and] hit the road, visit the college."
"A student has to ask themselves, 'Where can I be happy, successful, graduate in the top third of the class [and] feel comfortable?'" says Greene, who also is a co-author of college guidebooks, including The Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence. "Fundamentally, it's knowing oneself. It's getting to know the colleges and it's trying to make that match."
The right choice often is not the best school a student can get into.
"For a student that somehow finds himself in a wrong environment, it's not going to be a very happy place … any place where they're in over their head," Greene says. "No study has shown, that I know of, that a degree from an Ivy League school is that much more valuable for job prospects than is an excellent degree from a smaller college where a kid did really well."
Personal factors also should figure in.
"We've had kids go to Cornell for a year and then come back and go to the University of Wisconsin at Madison," says Mark Kuranz, a former president of the American School Counselor Association and a college counselor at at J.I. Case High School in Racine, Wis. "They say it's just not the same as living in the Midwest."
Something for Everyone
Asher says there's a college out there for most students, regardless of their academic record, income or social clique. They just have to take the time to find a culture that suits them.
"[They] can read books about colleges," Asher says. "They need to talk to people. Funny thing about college culture is that it doesn't change much over the years. If you can find somebody who went to Oberlin 20 years ago, it's not that different today."
Asher wrote his book for freethinking, questioning, nonconformist teens — basically "everybody who isn't happy with the cheerleading and football culture at their high school."
"Give them a place to go where they belong," he says, "where they're respected, where they get faculty attention, where they get laboratory access, where they may get an opportunity to do original research as an undergraduate, where they can get taught by real professors and not [teaching assistants], and where they can get into the graduate schools of their choice."
Finding a Match
Greene says families might be able to narrow down their college candidate's choices through some honest assessment.
"If you're a student that does better in smaller classes, if you like a sense of community and you like to know most of your classmates and most of your teachers, you would probably do better in a smaller, campus-oriented school," Greene says.
"If you're a student that's more mature, wants more social opportunities off campus, wants greater research facilities and programs associated with a university, then you're probably looking at least at a midsize university, preferably near a city," Greene added, "and that's most of the Ivies, by the way, as well as the some of the 'hidden Ivies,' such as Vanderbilt, Emory and Washington University in St. Louis.
"If you are a more outgoing student willing to take on a larger system with a more diverse student body, larger class sizes and even greater diversity of programs and resources, you may do well in a larger university," Greene says.
"Within that, you've got urban/rural, liberal/conservative, you've got so many ways to cut the pie," Greene says. "We recommend seeing one school in each category to get an idea what they're like."
Ivy League Pressure
Asher and other critics of larger research- and graduate-oriented schools — including many in the Ivy League officially classified as "doctoral" institutions — believe those schools may not give enough attention to undergraduates, whose less developed maturity levels often require more hand holding.
Even so, Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist in New York City and Connecticut and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, believes hard-charging parents of young kids sometimes book strict regimens of soccer practice and piano lessons with an ultimate goal — the Ivy League brand name. Such pressure is unhealthy and unnecessary, he says.
But it can be hard to resist. Rosenfeld, himself a Cornell graduate, confesses as a parent he is not sure even he would be able to resist the Ivy League allure.
"If my kid got into Princeton and Williams, would I really be able to guide them into Williams and not to Princeton?" he says. "It would be very hard for me. I don't know what I'd advise my kid, because I'm chicken. But I know if my kid went to Williams, let's say, or a similar school, they're likely to have an excellent education [in smaller classes]. … At Harvard, they're likely to be taught by graduate students."
Of course, the most elite schools have plenty of advocates for their undergraduate programs. According to The Princeton Review, the well-known college preparatory company, those advocates include the students themselves. Princeton University's undergraduates' raves in a survey earned their school a top ranking for "overall academic experience," and Harvard students' reviews earned their students a No. 3 ranking.
"Look at the most competitive schools in the country if that's what your parents have wanted, if that's what you've wanted … but ask the question of why you want to go to those schools," says Robert Franek, who runs The Princeton Review's publishing division and edited the book, The Best 331 Colleges. "Your personality should match with the school."