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How to Pick a College: College Admissions Advice from Author Frank Bruni

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has an insider understanding of the college admissions game. We got a chance to ask Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, some questions of our own. Like how to help high-school seniors pick a college? What’s wrong with early decision? And do teenagers really need to know how to cook meatloaf? Enjoy.

Q: Many high-school seniors are now trying to figure out where to go to college. What would you say to them?

Bruni: Don’t choose based solely on a sense of the college’s prestige. Don’t let your ego do the talking. This is an education, not a handbag. Think hard about which school is going to challenge and amplify you, while fitting in with your finances and the emerging design of your life.

Q: You write about the bias of early decision (ED). How do you think this can change?

Bruni: Well, it could change overnight, easily, with colleges deciding not to have early decision or not to admit such a significant percentage of their freshman class this way. I don’t think it will change, though. There’s too much upside for colleges, which can get a better, earlier sense of the freshman class that they’ve locked in, and there are too many students and families who’ve come to bank on this aspect of the game as well.

Q: With all the changes to financial aid—parents can complete the net price calculator to get a sense of the family burden, schools provide financial aid decisions together with ED—does your criticism of ED still stand?

Bruni: Yes, it does, for several reasons. There’s a whole financial component beyond the aid you’re talking about. For some middle-class families who aren’t going to get much need-based aid but in fact depend on so-called MERIT scholarship money, weighing what different schools are going to offer as lures is important, and they can’t see a range of options unless they apply to and hear from multiple colleges. Also, early decision moves the timetable forward for all students, even wealthy ones, incentivizing them to start worrying earlier in the high-school process and to DECIDE on a school at the start of senior year, before they may yet learn a whole lot more about themselves.

Q: You wrote the piece, The Dangerous Safety of College, about the stifling of certain viewpoints on college campuses. What do we need to teach our adolescents about listening to differing viewpoints?

Bruni: Teach them that they aren’t always right. That you aren’t always right. That sometimes there is no right. More importantly, model for them the kind of behavior we need more of in a democracy that’s dangerously polarized and partisan. Make sure your news diet isn’t monochromatic. Have political discussions, not political pronouncements, over dinner.

Q: Are there activities that foster open-mindedness?

Bruni: Any activity that collects a diversity of people fosters open-mindedness. It’s more a matter of realizing that our communities and our schools are increasingly homogenous, certainly in terms of income level, often in terms of political perspective, and making choices about counteracting that with where you spend time, whom you spend it with, that sort of thing. It’s more important than ever to push back at the silo-ing of American life online and in reality.

Q: You’ve been talking to parents about your book, Where You Go. What are you hearing?

Bruni: I think we’re reaching a breaking point. More and more people are realizing that it doesn’t serve them or their children to be drawn too fully into the admissions frenzy, because it’s an arena of fickle judgments, crushed confidence, and warping anxiety. They see that the risks of attaching too much importance to what happens during the admissions phase outweighs the exaggerated, sometimes imagined benefits of getting into a particular kind of elite school.

Q: Should we teach our teenagers to cook meatloaf?

Bruni: No. You must start MUCH younger than that, ideally when they are toddlers, so that by the ninth grade, they can cook at least two dozen meatloaves. That’s still fewer than half of the varieties that you will find in A Meatloaf in Every Oven, which is as indelible to a proper American education as The Great Gatsby. (Editor’s note: Bruni’s book, A Meatloaf in Every Oven, is a collaboration with veteran New York Times correspondent Jennifer Steinhauer.)

Q: What’s your biggest worry for today’s high school students?

Bruni: That we are creating a future for them that’s not as bright and secure as the future that was created for us. But I desperately, desperately hope I’m wrong about that.

Q: What are you optimistic about?

Bruni: I’m optimistic about the talent we have here in this country and around the world. There’s SO much talent, so much creative energy. And that’s a source of boundless hope.

Q: Final words?

Bruni: Yes. Education is about so very much more than the onramp to college or than college itself. It’s an ongoing, all-encompassing, lifelong thing. The people who flourish over time instinctively know that or behave in a way that recognizes that. They keep asking, they keep pushing, they keep expanding. One of my great worries about the college admissions mania is that it perverts the true meaning of education and collapses the true scope of it into a transcript that’s just an artificial snapshot of one moment in time.

Another article on keeping a healthy perspective:

Susan Borison

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.