Planning for College Admissions, Part Three: Ranking College and University Ranking Guides


As college admissions gets more complicated, and menus and links on college websites spin your head, you may want to resort to the old-fashioned resource: a printed guide. Below are three top encyclopedic volumes. They are all user-friendly and comprehensive in different ways.


The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges


If you are looking for succinct summaries and honest student comments about the schools they attend, a great book to purchase is The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges.


For more than 40 years, this Yale Daily News guide on more than 330 U.S. colleges and universities–organized alphabetically by state–has provided high school juniors and seniors the “down low.” Nowhere else will you find so many direct quotations from students on topics such as  on-campus culture, the types and frequency of parties and the substances consumed at them, Greek life and clubs, food, and living arrangements. Student contributors also share their opinions of faculty, location, and fellow students.


You’ll also find the typical admissions data on recently admitted students (GPAs, average standardized test scores, diversity, and the like), as well as information on majors, international and other special programs, class size, retention rates, alumni, and, yes, tuition and fees.


The downside: The most recent edition was published in 2014, so beware the “list prices”: they’ve increased significantly (many by 20% and more). Yes, sticker shock is a thing outside the world of auto dealerships.

The Insiders Guide to the Colleges

41st Edition published 2014, $24.99


The Fiske Guide to Colleges


A staple in any college guidance library, this hefty tome by former education editor of The New York Times features stories associated with every one of the more than 320 US, Canadian, and UK colleges and universities covered and is packed with straightforward information you won’t find on college websites.


The book starts with a quiz that helps students identify what they are looking for in a school. (Think Facebook quiz telling you which Disney character you are, only more useful.)


Once students have found some appealing geography, size, majors, and programs, the book presents overlaps that help them locate similar choices with different types and levels of admissions requirements. Think, where students plug in their dream aspects of a college, and are presented with results, except that in this case, in order for the book to work, students must first bring aspects of their personalities, talents, and goals to the fore. A little bit of self-reflection and conscious research never hurts a teen.


The book also includes ratings of reputation, including academic, social, and quality of life, plus every imaginable type of data; it provides parents and students all the answers they are seeking short of an in-person tour.


There is also a special section on “Best Buy” schools.

Fiske Guide to Colleges

2017 edition, $24.95


The Best 381 Colleges (Princeton Review)


Editors of this guide have it down. After decades of interviewing college students via paper surveys, a few years ago, they finally launched an online student survey that now reaches from 125 to 350 students on most campuses reviewed, and as many as 1,000 at large universities. The methodology is statistically sound, and the guide’s 62 ranking lists based on different criteria are incredibly comprehensive and helpful: unlike the U.S. News and World Reports rankings,  there is no reshuffling of “the best 100 colleges in the U.S.” Instead, schools are ranked by everything from politics to professors, hours students study a week to town life, prepsters and fire safety to alumni indebtedness. No kidding. It’s that good.


Each entry provides information from the Admissions Office as well as the student input. One of the most helpful five pages in the entire guide is how to plan from 9th grade on, including what to do with your summer. A great book of any kind opens dialogue, and this comprehensive guide does just that for students and parents alike.

The 381 Best Colleges Princeton Review

2017 edition, $23.95


P.S. Should you want a book with no rankings or judgments of any kind included, check out The Complete Book of Colleges 2017 edition, another Princeton Review publication. The “mega-guide” covers 1,355 colleges. 2017 edition, $29.95 (You get your money’s worth; a lot more paper went into this one!)


Students: If you can’t find somewhere that interests you in this guide, consider taking a gap year!

Planning for College Admissions, Part Two: The College Tour

April vacation is a popular time for college visits. If you are about to go on such a jaunt, you have researched colleges, given much thought to a good fit for your son or daughter, and made travel arrangements and hotel reservations. You have combed through college websites and you may even have contacted admissions officers regarding interviews or more. But have you thought ahead about what you will ask in admissions presentations?


College admissions officers report that after their formal presentations, which cover everything from admissions rates to class size, access to faculty, and alumni involvement, they encourage questions, and usually hear the same three: What improves my student’s chances for admission, Early Decision/Early Action or Regular Decision? (Unanswerable.) What is the most important aspect of an application? (No one piece.) Are the campus and surrounding areas safe? (They always say “yes.”)


College is an enormous investment of time and money. Don’t waste this opportunity to consider some of the serious issues many students find themselves unexpectedly confronting long after they celebrate being accepted. Here are 12 areas of importance, from A-Z:


Academic rigor and supports: How much time do students typically spend on reading and other class preparation? Are students graded on curves? Do you have a writing center to support first year essay and research paper writing? Do you offer learning disabilities support? General tutoring?


Careers and further education: How many employers visit to recruit seniors? Do you provide help with summer placements? What percentage of students go on to grad school? Is there a list of these schools?


Dining (if your son or daughter has special preferences or requirements): Do you offer organic, locally grown food? Are there vegetarian and/or vegan options? Do you have nut, dairy, gluten, or other allergen free kitchens?


Financial aid: What does the typical financial aid package look like? Is financial aid need-blind? How much student loan debt does a student graduate with, on average?


Gender and minority support: Is there an LGBTQ center? What kind of supports and activities are available for gender, religious, and racial minorities?


Housing: Are first-years guaranteed housing? Second-years? What does the typical first-year living arrangement look like? What percentage of upperclass students live on-campus? What is the average per student cost of off-campus housing?


Internships: What percentage of students get academic year on-campus and community internships? Do you help students find meaningful summer internships? If so, how many employers participate?


Mental health services: What confidential student-run and professional services are available, and how do they coordinate? How many students partake of these services? (Great indicator of how stressful the environment is.) Do you offer meditation, yoga, or other stress management programs?


Research opportunities: Do students have the opportunity to engage in meaningful research supervised by faculty? Off-campus at local institutions of merit?


Senior year requirements: Do you require graduating exams? (Many do, and fail to mention this little detail.) What percentage of students complete a senior project or thesis?


Sexual assault prevention and services: What kind of sexual assault prevention course do you offer first-years? Do upperclass students get refreshers? Do you have a women’s center? How easy is it for female and male students who have experienced unwanted sexual contact to find immediate and long-term support? Do you offer self-defense classes?


Substance abuse policies: What are penalties for violations of substance abuse policies? What percentage of your first-years violate the policies? Do you offer substance-free housing?


As you ask the tough questions, beware of inch-deep answers, marketing slogans, or propaganda. When meeting with other on-campus officials and students, dig deep.


Finally, have these conversations ahead of time:

  • Warn your teen that you will have questions about some aspects of academics and college life that the tour won’t address. Their eye-rolling should happen prior to the visits.
  • Discuss what they might personally be concerned about and together scour the website to find out if these questions are answered online.
  • Encourage them to be ready to ask those that aren’t.

Planning for College Admissions, Part One: The Timeline

As our test prep and academic support students begin to reach their standardized test and GPA goals and move into the fourth quarter of their junior year, many ask us what is next in the college application process. Most families are aware that April vacation is a great time for college tours, but both students and parents express indecision and even a bit of panic: How many schools should we visit? How honed should our list be? And, importantly, what comes next?


This article kicks off a series with answers to those questions and more. Through advice from our tutors, college advisors in the Acton-Boxboro and Concord-Carlisle communities, and our AB High School, Concord-Carlisle HS and other regional seniors who have just completed the process, we will present a wide range of perspectives and advice. Our students are the ones who have most recently marched through the trenches of college choice and admissions, some emerging less battle-scarred than others. They are ready and eager to share their newfound wisdom with current juniors and their parents!


Neuroscience shows that adolescents’ brains are developing so rapidly that some days, they retreat into their bedrooms or the basement as one person, and emerge literally as another. We’ve all seen it happen! With this list and the articles to follow, we hope that step by step, blog by blog, we can make this confusing, important, and exciting time of life, the prelude to the launch of a brand new adult, a little more stable and comfortable, and a lot less stressful.


Finally, as always, Open Door Education values feedback and questions! Please comment below, and share any topics you would love to see covered, as well as questions or input! If you know of a wonderful regional student to be featured, we’d love to hear that, too.


College Admissions Timeline

The Role of Demonstrated Interest in Your College Search

by Marla Platt

During the college process, sometimes showing a little love can go a long way.

Colleges and universities care greatly about their yield rate, that is, the percentage of applicants who accept an offer of admission and join the freshman class.  As a result, schools aim to welcome engaged applicants who appear predisposed to accept a potential offer of admission. Consider this:  If you were throwing a party and had room for a limited number of guests, wouldn’t it make good sense to invite those who would enthusiastically respond with, “Yes, I’ll be there!”  Would you invest time asking those who would likely put you off with, “Um, I’ll have to check…” or who have long seemed lukewarm about hanging out with you?

How schools gauge interest will depend on each institution’s priorities.  For super-selective schools, such as Ivies and the like, or public colleges that rely mostly on an applicant’s statistics, demonstrated enthusiasm on its own is not going to propel one very far.  For many schools, however, demonstrating interest matters and simply starts with “showing up.”

Have you taken the time to contact the Admissions Office with questions to voice curiosity about the school? How about a campus tour?  For colleges that value this expression of interest, visiting is an important demonstration of an applicant’s intention to grasp more about the school and potentially enroll. If an applicant lives within a 3-4 hour drive, the college may expect the student to head on over for a look.

Not everyone, however, has the time and funds to trek out to distant college campuses.  Costs for transportation, hotels, and meals add up quickly, and admissions offices understand this.  If a campus visit is not realistic, there are other ways to reach out to a school to let them know that they are on your radar.

Try emailing or phoning the admissions office to request that pertinent information be forwarded to you – or ask where to locate it on the school website. Find out if college representatives will be attending college fairs close to where you live. Admissions reps commonly field student questions about majors and requirements; interviewing possibilities; high school visits; merit award potential. Because campus extracurricular life is central to a vibrant college experience, specific questions about activities; ways to become involved; or research prospects are also welcome questions for admissions representatives.

At the very least, simply find your spot on the school mailing list. If a college contacts you with information or inquires about what matters to you in your education, do respond and investigate further.

Taking the time to express sincere interest in a school and how its offerings fit your goals can end up supporting your best interest!

Marla Platt, M.B.A. is an independent college consultant based in Sudbury through AchieveCoach College Consulting, providing personalized guidance to students and families throughout the college planning, search and admissions process. She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and can be reached via