The Old College Try
Which reference guides will help you find the right school?
A college search is like shopping for clothes. The entire experience varies radically depending on the tastes of the buyer. In the last 14 years, for instance, I have been through three college searches with my children. The first was easy: He had one school in mind, applied early, and got in—that quick, no-fuss shopping typical of teenage boys. The second child was more difficult. He is a golfer and a biker and announced that no matter how distinguished the institution, he would not apply to any schools where a flake of snow marred the landscape. Unfortunately, no college guides could help narrow his search—weather reports and listings of local green fees were more important to him than statistics and rankings.
We finally found college guides helpful when my third child began her search. She considered two dozen schools and visited 13 of them in the East, the Midwest, and the West. We consulted at least six guides during that marathon selection process. I can still see those books on the top shelf of her bedroom bookcase.
I liked many of those guides, but they were all large and pricey and have only become more so since. A cheat sheet of their virtues could have saved me some time and money, so to help streamline your college search, I've devised a rating system to evaluate which books in today's market offer the most insightful counsel.
I selected only guides featuring more than 100 schools. There was no way—short of a long stretch in prison—that I could read all 14,293 pages of these books, which made a 2-foot-high stack on my dining-room table. Instead, I sampled each using four criteria.
Depth of Information: Does the guide offer more than the basic statistics about average SAT scores and tuition costs—providing information about which departments have the best professors, or whether undergraduates can do original research? Verve: Is the guide interesting to read? Are the descriptions vivid? Detail: Is it up-to-date? Does it give leading majors and financial-aid info, as well as the football schedule? Student Perspective: Are opinions of undergraduates presented in write-ups? Does it address students' rather than parents' concerns? I awarded up to 25 points for performance in each criteria, for a possible total of 100.
I pored over each of the guides, and to give my sampling some consistency, I read everything in each of about 10 different but worthy colleges with which I'm familiar. Four are public (Alcorn State University; the Citadel; St. Mary's College of Maryland; and the University of California, San Diego) and six are private (Elon University, Harvard University, North Central College, Pomona College, University of Chicago, and Ursinus College). I subtract detail points for any guides that miss some of these schools, but if you are looking for books that feature more selective colleges, disregard that part of my assessment.
The results, from worst to best:
The Insider's Guide to the Colleges 2006 by the Staff of the Yale Daily News, 1,017 pages, $18.99
The Yale Daily guide is the smallest and lightest of these books. It also has some of the best student quotes. A student at UC-San Diego says, "I feel like I need a megaphone and binoculars to participate in class sometimes." A Johns Hopkins University undergraduate says the dining halls are "like eating at a five-star restaurant, except the opposite." But it is also the least informative. It rarely offers more than basic data and offers little insight into details such as which schools are affordable, which schools help you survive the trauma of freshman year, or which schools have the kind of extracurricular activities you crave. It reports on just four schools in my sample and is probably useful only to applicants considering the most selective colleges. In this era, getting into schools like Yale is akin to winning the lottery. Take a look at the bigger books—you might find something you like.
Jay Mathews is an education reporter and online columnist for the Washington Post, as well as the author of Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You.