June 14, 2018


College Admission 101: Simple Answers to Tough Questions about College Admissions and Financial Aid. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.

     If you have to lie, do it with sincerity. That would seem to be solid, basic advice to college-bound students now that college is increasingly being seen the way high school used to be: as the necessary foundation of whatever career one may wish to have. Robert Franek is not quite so cynically plainspoken about college admissions, but he offers plenty of smart and substantial answers to questions that students and families are likely to be asking about the admissions process in College Admission 101. The very first question is the underlying one for a great many families nowadays: “Is a college degree worth the cost of tuition?” And of course Franek answers with a resounding “yes,” since otherwise there would be no book. But families need to understand that “the cost of tuition” is only a small part of the overall cost of college: room and board are separate matters, often costing as much as tuition itself, and there are psychological and experiential costs associated with college as well – ones that some students and parents learn can outweigh the financial ones. Franek does not try to deal with the totality of college costs, direct and indirect, but he does a very fine job of helping students and parents negotiate the practical decision-making that goes into college admission and the options available to get into an appropriate school and afford to attend it.

     Franek starts by stating that there is no “best” college, only a school that is the best fit for each individual student – an oft-repeated truism, yes, but one worth asserting again and again. He then offers, in tables and boxes – a design characteristic of this book from start to finish – information on salaries of graduates of various schools, and responses to a survey asking the biggest benefit of college. There is no surprise there: the largest group of respondents, 42%, say the major benefit is “potentially better job and higher income,” the notion of students becoming “well-rounded” or “better people” having long since been eclipsed by more-pragmatic matters. Only 26% say “the education” is the biggest benefit. This should immediately disabuse families of any traditional notions about college, if they still have any.

     By organizing College Admission 101 as a series of questions and answers, Franek makes it easy for readers of the book – perhaps “users” would be a better term – to zero in on specific issues that matter to them. Want to know what criteria to use when choosing a college? There is a question for that, with a seven-page, carefully considered answer. To how many schools should a student apply? Here the answer essentially boils down to a single paragraph. In other words, Franek wisely devotes more time to questions requiring greater thought and analysis, and less to ones that are, in the long run (and sometimes the short run), of less significance. Along the way, he also tosses in deadpan statistics that readers/users of College Admission 101 may find amusingly enlightening: 50% of parents say they would prefer that a child attend a school fewer than 250 miles from home, while 68% of students say they want to be more than 250 miles away.

     Franek really does cover just about all the basics of college application and admission, although not always in depth. He deals with researching schools, types of standardized tests, how admissions officers look at extracurricular activities (hint: as a matter of considerable importance), financial aid and the inevitable FAFSA form, the Common Application, the importance of the application essay (including a very useful five suggestions to make the essay as appealing as possible), how admissions offices actually function, and more. Franek certainly knows his stuff, having worked in this field for 20-plus years – and equally important, he knows how to communicate some difficult and even frustrating truths in a plainspoken way. Thus, “While it’s true that it looks better to take difficult classes and not always get sky high grades than to take easy classes and always excel, a high overall GPA is crucial.” This may not be reassuring to students, but it is honest.

     What College Admission 101 does not include is some of the most controversial material relating to the real-world, non-idealized admissions process: favoritism for less-qualified children of alumni, preferences accorded based on race in the name of “diversity” or “making up for past societal wrongs,” and so forth. Some of these matters have become increasingly important in the admissions process in recent years, and a forthright discussion of them would have been welcome – even if the conclusion had simply been that there is nothing a student can do about, say, his or her racial or ethnic background. College Admission 101 can thus be faulted for making the same erroneous assumption that most college textbooks about economics continue to make: assuming that decisions are made rationally and in a balanced way. This is no truer of deciding which person to admit to a specific school than it is of figuring out whether an Apple or Android phone is “better.” Still, to the extent that the college-admission process is rational and explainable, College Admission 101 is a first-rate guide to it, from someone who clearly knows the ins and outs of the field as well as the ups and downs experienced by all those (parents as well as students) who are trying to negotiate it in the hope of eventually landing a better job – and maybe even learning a thing or two.

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