Know your child in choosing a ‘good’ college

Parents often ask me what they can do to get their child into a good college. They ask the question as if it was a secret pass code, and as an insider I have the answer.

When I’m asked this question my typical response is define “good.”

Most people define a good college or university by the acceptance rate. The more difficult it is to get in, the better it must be. Given this philosophy, it stands that Harvard would be a “good” college to attend. But that doesn’t make it a good college for everyone.

If a student isn’t comfortable in a city environment and wants to study agricultural science, then Harvard may not be a “good” school. When was the last time you heard someone say Harvard wasn’t a good school? Of course it’s a good school — just not for every student.

There are over 3,700 colleges and universities nationwide. Most of these institutions are very good schools; they just serve different audiences. Unfortunately, many times people get caught up in the “rear window” phenomenon. This happens when parents become concerned about which college’s sticker will appear in the rear window of their car. This tells the world where their child is attending college and may be perceived as a reflection of the family’s status within society.

Another source parents use to determine if their child is attending a “good” school is U.S. News & World Report, which annually attempts to determine which colleges are the “best” institutions to attend. The annual publication certainly sells a lot of magazines, but can it really determine which college or university is best for your son or daughter? The answer is no.

The magazine’s ranking system is based on select criteria put into a computer spreadsheet. People put a lot of emphasis on these rankings and treat them as a standard bearer for determining a “good” college, but this data doesn’t make a college better or worse for a particular individual. It only includes a few of the variables you should consider when selecting a college.

But consumers see these rankings and suddenly parents are asking about SAT scores and GPAs. They want to know what the cutoff is for SAT scores and should they have their child take them again. Students want to know if 200 hours of community service is enough to make an impression and get an acceptance. Or if a B in Algebra II keeps them from being accepted.

What’s the secret?

Grades and SAT scores are aspects of getting into college, but the most important emphasis should be on encouraging students to maximize their ability, whatever that ability may be. It is certainly true that good grades will lead to more options, but grades aren’t enough.

The truth is, most Ivy League schools can fill their freshman class with straight-A students and valedictorians. However, taking all AP courses and getting a 4.0 GPA won’t necessarily guarantee a spot in the freshman class. Colleges seek students who have a desire to learn and grow. It’s not as important to know the number of hours they put into a community service project as it is to know a student believes in its value and has learned from the experience.

Not everyone gets straight A’s in high school (including this dean), but there is a college for everyone.

So what’s the secret to getting your child into a “good” school? A “good” college is one that matches your student’s needs and profile. Parents should start by talking to their son or daughter. Don’t start the search by trying to determine which college is better and then applying to that college. That’s like putting the cart before the horse. Start by asking your son or daughter what they want to study, what size institution would they feel most comfortable in, where they picture themselves going to college (a city, suburb or rural location), what kind of courses have they taken in high school and how well have they done? Don’t push them to attend your definition of a good school. Push them to attend a school that is good for them. The best college is the one where your child feels the most comfortable, and will gain the most confidence as they grow into young adults.

Joe Bellavance is dean of admissions and financial aid at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., and editor of “The Dean’s Desk,” a free monthly newsletter for parents of college-bound students. To subscribe, send an e-mail to

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