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.'"
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."