Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Helping Your Students Spend $80,000: The College Search in Your Classroom

Shannon Reed is an award-winning playwright who teaches high school English to a large pack of bright young women at a private school on the beach in Queens, New York. She graciously contributed this column:

If you're a teacher, you've no doubt already have made the following observation: the two emotions that truly motivate a student are genuine interest... and fear. Many of us no doubt experienced this phenomenon ourselves when we were in school. I remember being motivated to do good work in three classes in high school: English and History, which I genuinely loved, and Earth Science, where the fearsome Mr. Colsun looked ever-ready to explode into a hellish ball of flame that would singe my eyebrows and ruin my complexion if I mislabeled the periodical table one more time. Mr. Colsun, I wish you ill, but to this day, I still know were mercury goes.

I was reminded of this during the first few days of the school year. For the first time, I am teaching seniors, and I quickly realized that there was one word that combined both of the above emotions and guaranteed an attentive, hard-working, enthusiastic (if alarmed) class. And that word is: college.

For many of my students, the search for the right college is a terrifying quest. There is so much to be decided: where to apply, who to ask for recommendations, how much financial aid is needed, how important are the SATS, where to go, what to major in, to live on campus or at home, to begin at a community college and transfer, to seek out or avoid a Greek-friendly college, and so on. I know all of these questions matter to them because I have heard them spilled out at lightening speed by overwrought young women.

Perhaps you find yourself in the same situation. If so, you know that, like me, you cannot take the time to personally counsel each student. So what to do? Well, here are some tips, along with online sources, that can help.

For Number 2 Pencil Aficionados
The first inkling students tend to have that choosing a college isn't going to be a picnic is taking the PSATs and SATs in their Sophomore and/or Junior year. (Some of them may decide to take or retake the SAT or ACT in the Senior year as well). I would rather endure another 20 hours of Mr. Colsun's lectures than do hours of test prep in my class. We review test-taking strategies, work on vocabulary, and do a few practice questions in class, but for real preparation, I send the girls to do ACT prep at Kaplan's website. Kaplan's promoting their product, of course, but there are free quizzes and a good overview of the test on the site as well. The ACT Test Prep site is, although redundantly named, very helpful, too. By the way, I recommend to students who excel in English that they take the ACT. I believe it is better suited to those students gifted in English, as it includes three sections of Language Arts-related fields -- writing, reading and English, and one each of Math and Science.

For SAT prep, the Princeton Review's online demo is queen. Here, students can take a practice SAT and learn about the test itself, all for free. Again, they'll be urged to sign up for the Princeton Review's test prep courses, but it's not an oppressive sell. At the Princeton Review site, there's also information about the PSAT, the SAT subject tests and prepping for AP tests. By the way, if you haven't thought about the SAT since you toiled away, number 2 pencil in hand, in your high school's auditorium back in 1982, it's worth your time to learn how it has changed. The SAT is now a three-part test, with sections covering Critical Reading, Math and Writing. The new scoring goes up to 2400. That 1140 I was so proud of back in the day? Not so impressive anymore!

The World's Most Difficult Myspace Survey
Testing out of the way, it's now time for students to think about college. Tackle some of students' biggest questions with the help of NPR. This archived article from last February was written by Martha O'Connell, who heads up Colleges That Change Lives which is a great source for students who are looking for a certain kind of warm, inspiring school. The article clearly presents eight steps in the college search, in a casual tone. Why not assign reading this as homework for your sophomores or juniors while you're at it?

In my class, I next give the girls a survey, and lots of time to complete it. I do this to help them focus on what's important to them. I'm sure you can come up with better questions for your particular class, but here are the ones I posed:

  1. What are you interested in studying in college? Why?
  2. What do you think you might major in? Why? (Note: Many of the students have not before considered that they can study something in college that does not turn out to be their major.)
  3. Which colleges are you interested in? Why?
  4. Do you want to commute to school or stay on campus in a dorm?
  5. Do you intend to go to a religious school? (Note: I teach at a Catholic high school, so this is important to my girls.)
  6. Do you want to go to an all-girls school, or to a co-ed school? How important is this to you?
  7. What size classes do you want to be in, generally?
  8. What are the extras you're looking for in your college: internships? A great football team? Competitive ballroom dancing association? Amnesty International?
  9. Do you want to go to an urban, suburban or a rural school?
  10. Do you want to go to a liberal or conservative school?
  11. How do you feel about Greek life? (I get quite a few "I don't care's" about this one -- so I try to explain how Greek life overtakes any other social life on some campuses which may be thrilling or appalling, depending on the student.)
  12. How far away from home do you ideally want to go?
  13. What are money issues you have about college? (I emphasize that I am not trying to probe into their family's financial life, but that this is a major factor in decision making. Responses are usually something like, "Oh, I dunno. I should ask this." So at least I feel I've initiated an important conversation in families.)
  14. What is your biggest anxiety about college? (Most popular answer: "Everything!!!!")
  15. What are you most looking forward to about college?

I do take the time to read and respond to these and I do spend a bit of time answering any frequently asked questions to which I know the answer, such as, "How many majors can I have?" and "Do I have to major in Pre-law to be a lawyer?" But this is mostly for the students' use. It forces them to begin to focus on what they want in their college experience, and to consider some very important factors in it.

I Want to be... a... a... Lumberjack! (Anything to Avoid Choosing a Major!)
Now we come to the chicken or the egg question: should a student choose her school first, or choose a major first? It's a fairly simple answer if a student knows what she wants to do with her life. It's also a fairly simple answer for students who are jonesing for a particular college for some reason... we may well quibble with a decision to go to Dad's alma mater, or to the school a boyfriend is attending on a sports scholarship (Friday Night Lights shout out!). But that's the student's decision.

Trickier are the students who claim they don't know where to go or what to study when they get there. I feel that very few students truly have no idea at all what they want to do, and that virtually none have no requirements for a college at all. So I encourage students to use some aspect of their survey to help them focus. For example, if they know they want to go to a Catholic college within two hours drive from New York, that does narrow the field somewhat. A student who wants to go Greek and live in Florida may be living in a hazy reality-TV influenced dream world, but her choices are easier. Even the student who knows she wants to ride horses and go to a school in Ohio with less than 3,000 students has something to go on (and I recommend my alma mater, Otterbein College).

College Data's College 411 is a great online source that can help students narrow their focus. The website asks a series of questions (some very similar to the ones I posed above) and offers students a selection of colleges that meet their criteria. Again, the more focuses the student, the more focused the results. Once students receive a list of colleges that fulfill their preferences, they can click on names for more information, or go directly to the college's website. They can also store this information at the website to return to on another day.

The Princeton Review offers a similar service. They start with more information about the student -- class rank, GPA, "exceptional skill" on an instrument -- before proffering some college choices. Students can choose up to 10 majors that they're interested in, a boon to my lawyer/dental hygienist/singer students. Warn your students that they need to know this kind of information before they sit down. It takes more time than College 411, but is well worth it.

Someday You'll Ignore Alumni Fundraising Letters from This Place
With a few colleges in mind, it's time for college visits. Unless you are the world's richest and most dedicated teacher, you will not be going on these. The wonderfully named National Survey of Student Engagement has a helpful website, along with a downloadable PDF pamphlet entitled, "A Pocket Guide to Choosing a College: Are You Asking the Right Questions?" Have your students take a look at this before they set off on college visits (and please do encourage them to visit the colleges that interest them. Skipping this step is a recipe for disaster!). By the way, I make my students practice talking to strangers at the colleges. Seriously. It's like Emily Post's dream world in my classroom for one day, as we practice shaking hands and introducing parents. Do not assume your students know how to do this. Mine certainly do not. Nor do the majority of people on the planet, I believe.

I tend not to worry as much when a student isn't sure of her major. She still has time to decide, and rushing into something that doesn't fit is no help to anyone. But it's a good idea for students to think about the variety of occupations available to them. Left to their own devices, my girls will all supposedly become nurses or fashion designers, so I anticipate being very healthy and dressed in couture within 10 years. Sadly for my closet, the truth is that very few of them are truly good matches for these careers. They need to think about who they are and what they'd really like out of their lives.

In the "Find a college" section of the "Students" page of www.collegeboard.com (Don't add an "s" to the "board" part), there's a wonderful section on "Careers and Majors." Students can look at majors or careers that they might be interested in pursuing. Under majors it poses questions. For example, they ask Creative Writing majors, are you ready to read contemporary writers? Revise your work based on comments made in class? Put together a senior portfolio? There are also helpful things to consider about the college itself. There's a list of typical courses, related majors and related careers (to which one can go for more information). The careers section works the opposite way, pointing students into what majors they might pursue based on their career of choice. This site is so helpful!

Eliminating "This Essay Will Be About..."
With some idea of a school and an inkling about what to maybe, someday, perhaps major in, students should now be working on their applications. The essay is a huge part of it. We write, revise and rewrite three essays for college in the fall of the girls' senior year in my class. For a general overview of college essays, as well as some examples of questions and good essays, check out Essay Edge. This site promotes itself as an essay editing service, which I am not endorsing, and I do NOT tell my students about this site. It's just too tempting to copy away. But I appreciate the sample essays and questions.

One final aspect of the college search must be addressed, and that's financial aid. I generally try to stay out of this realm with my students. It's too personal, and I can't rely on my students to have the whole picture of what they'll be able to afford. But I do direct them to two wonderful scholarship sites: FastWeb and CollegeNet's Mach 25: Breaking the Tuition Barrier site. Both are comprehensive and helpful.

With all of these sites and tips, you should be well on your way to helping your students with their college search. But I would be remiss if I didn't offer one last piece of advice, which was just about the only thing my parents said to me before leaving me to search on my own (with their occasional help and constant support). They said: Study what makes you happy. I did -- a major in theatre and a minor in writing -- and I've never regretted it, even though I do not make my primary living in either field. Don't let your students lose track of this critical part of the college search.


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