June 30, 2022


College Admission 101, Third Edition. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $12.99.

     Wading through the wilds of the collegiate experience can be a daunting chore, a slog lasting four years or more at the end of which it turns out that much of what you got out of the situation relates directly to what you put into it. Getting through the muck of the pre-collegiate experience can be, in its own way, even more disheartening: everybody has ideas, comments, notions, advice, recommendations and thoughts, quickly creating a “my brain is full” phenomenon for students and families alike.

     College today is not about education – not principally, anyway. One recent Princeton Review survey – the organization does tons of surveys – found that only 25% of respondents said that education is the biggest benefit of college. Nearly a third of those surveyed (college applicants and their parents) – 32% – said the main benefit is exposure to new ideas, although the pre-eminence of cancel culture and ideological lockstep at many colleges may cause some skepticism about that response. However, the biggest benefit of all cited in the survey was “potentially better job and higher income,” the chosen response of 42% of respondents. So old notions of “broadened horizons” and “a liberal education” (where “liberal” is a nonpolitical term) seem to have fallen by the wayside as primary motivations for college attendance.

     With career practicality in the ascendant as the main reason for college, it makes sense to look for a guide that will allow students and families to focus on that element. And this is one thing that College Admission 101 does very well indeed. It may seem obvious that, as Robert Franek says, “Applying to schools that line up with your goals and interests helps your chances of gaining acceptance,” but the comment is a worthwhile one that users of the book can keep in mind while negotiating all its ins and outs.

     The word “users” is deliberate: this is a book meant to be used, not just read for information, because there are lots of ins and outs in the college-admissions process, and no one-size-fits-all method of handling them (again, as Franek states). Still, there are some basics of the process of which all students and families should be aware. Obviously, costs and geographical issues are central to every family’s concerns, and they are suitably addressed. But there is much more here. How important are college ranking lists (a mainstay of Princeton Review publications)? How can you get the most out of a campus visit? How can you learn about a college if you cannot go see it in person? What is the best way to take advantage of the proliferation of virtual information sessions, online question-and-answer opportunities, and live chats, all made possible by the Internet and all quite different from most parents’ engagement with colleges? (Partial answer to this last question is to “ask questions about the admission process and the typical student the college admits. That will allow the presenter to give you the information they’re [sic] comfortable sharing, like whether or not interviews are offered, the ranges of GPAs and test scores for admits, and the importance the school places on essays and letters of recommendations [sic].”)

     It is important for parents who attended college to realize, in Internet-related material and elsewhere, that this is not the college-investigation-and-application process through which they themselves went. Just consider schools’ increasing elimination of the once-ubiquitous requirement to take the SAT or ACT, and the onetime high significance of the results of those tests. Franek devotes considerable attention to the continued value of the tests and the pluses and minuses of taking them, whether or not a particular school requires them. His bottom line is that “standardized tests give you opportunities,” but he understands why some students will not want to take them if they are not mandatory, as is now the case at many schools. Franek’s discussion also requires him to define terms that parents of college-age students may not have encountered before, such as “test-optional and test-blind,” which “are not the same. Test-optional schools allow you to choose whether or not to include SAT or ACT scores with your application. Test-blind schools won’t look at or consider SAT or ACT scores.”

     Unlike many Princeton Review offerings, College Admission 101 is not a super-thick, oversize book, but families should not underestimate just how information-packed it is. What should students do in 11th and 12th grades to get ready? What summer activities will boost a student’s application? What exactly is FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and what must families have on hand in order to complete it? The answer to this last question alone is almost enough to discourage college applications altogether, but Franek’s “8 Quick Tips for Getting Financial Aid” mitigates the circumstances to some degree – although “Financial Aid Terms You Need to Know,” which goes on for three pages (19 items) of gobbledygook (important gobbledygook), may be a major turnoff.

     There is a substantial difference between compressed and simplified, and College Admission 101 is quite clearly the former, not the latter. Franek packs a lot of information into every page, with some of it clearly oriented more toward parents (cost calculations), some of it useful for parents and students alike (the best place to search for scholarships), and some of it particularly informative for students (who sits on admissions committees, and the single most important thing committee members look for in applications). Among the book’s most-valuable elements are the ones dealing with less-than-optimal matters, such as having a significant high-school disciplinary history, what to do if the family has not already spent years saving for college costs, how to handle less-than-optimal social-media accounts in an age when admission officers have easy access to social media, and how to improve the chance of admission from a waitlist even though students on waitlists are rarely admitted.

     What is particularly interesting is that although the book’s subtitle refers to “New Challenges in Admissions, Testing, Financial Aid, and More,” the topics themselves are ones with which students and families have dealt for many decades – the forms of the challenges in college application have changed, but the underlying concerns themselves have not. If college application remains a quagmire through which students and parents have to wade, this book at least offers a variety of practical ways to avoid getting stuck in the academic mire – or trapped in metaphorical quicksand.

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