The Search, Episode Three Transcript

The Search

Episode Three Transcript

 

Lee Coffin:
Hello, everyone from Dartmouth College, I'm Lee Coffin, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. Welcome back to The Search.

Today we will continue the conversation about finding the right college for you with a conversation about assessing fit. How do you look at the negotiables, the priorities and start to explore, shift, rethink what seemed important to you as a junior and maybe less important to you as you move into your senior year and certainly making a final decision? It makes me reflect about my own college search a while ago now, but I started out as a junior in high school, even into my senior year thinking I would be a journalism major. So, my early search was predicated on journalism schools until I realized I was more of a liberal arts guy. So, I started to shift, and journalism took a back seat to the liberal arts. Big took a backseat to small, rural took a backseat to city. The list I ended up with was really different from the one I started out with.

So today we welcome three high school seniors who are going to share their thoughts on the search they experienced that wrapped up just a few weeks ago. So, we welcome Jason Acosta Espinosa, who's a senior at Revere High School in Revere, Massachusetts, which is just outside of Boston. Jason tells us that he's interested in international relations and psychology, gender and women's studies, he's like me, he was a first-gen college bound student and he is the two times Student Council President at Revere High School. So, I think it's always interesting when you get elected once, you got reelected. So that says something Jason, about your background as a debater. He's also a barista at Starbucks. Jason, you're a busy guy. We're also say hello to Ramsey Ash. Who's a senior from Ono West Virginia, where he attends Kabel Midland High School. When he applied, he was jockeying between first and second place in his senior class. Is that still true, Ramsey?

Ramsey:
Yes, still true, still jockeying.

Lee:
Still jockeying, good. Ramsey is thinking about, of course to study in biomedical engineering and math. His extracurricular rainbow is really quite eclectic. He is the drum major in the marching band. He started his BE business that looks at protecting bumblebees from rodents. He's a member of the West Virginia Youth Symphony. He's a boy scout and he's got his eyes on prosthetic design as a path through biomed engineering. So, Ramsey, that's a really eclectic range of interests that you've got.

Ramsey:
Yeah, through my high school years, I've tried to just expand on everything and just explore it fully. I just really also enjoy the arts a lot. I know you mentioned that the use symphony and the drum major, but just connecting to other humans through the arts is really my passion right now.

Lee:
That's great. Then Emmy Johnson is our third guest. Emma is a senior from Omaha, Nebraska, where she attends Marion High School. She shares Ramsey's interest in engineering and theater. She has done some software design work. She's a member of the theater guild, speech. She's the class treasurer. So like Jason, she got herself elected to a student leadership position and she plays six instruments, including her vocal cords. So, you also have a really interesting arts background.

Emma:
Yes. Arts has always been a major part of my life. I started out doing dance when I was maybe three or four years old and that eventually became musical theater and has continued on through several instruments and like Ramsey said, I just really enjoy connecting with other people in a variety of ways.

Lee:
Awesome. Let's talk about what each of you had as your priorities as you began your search. What kind of colleges... Let me ask you this question a different way. On May 1 of your junior year, if you had written down the college where you would have enrolled, did that become the place you enrolled on May 1 of your senior year?

Emma:
Not in the slightest.

Jason:
No.

Lee:
Not in the slightest, Ramsey's shaking his head no, Jason... As a lesson to all of you juniors, none of them enrolled at the place that seemed like their first choice in May of their junior year, which is really important permission slip to give you, as you wander the halls of the college searches. You don't necessarily end up where you think you're going when the search begins. So, let's start the conversation with our three friends this week, about not the where, but what were the priorities each of you brought into your thinking at the beginning? What were the important negotiables? Was it size? Was it location? Was it major? Was it financial aid? Was it distance from home? What were the things that you said to yourself? "Okay. My college needs to be the following." What were the criteria you were using? Jason, go ahead.

Jason:
So in terms of deciding on colleges, I felt like for a long time, my list was scattered all over the place, but I think that's something that I quickly learned to prioritize, mostly in the sense of being balanced between being a research school and then also having a strong liberal arts focus. I've always found myself growing, doing best when I'm in a small, tight knit community. That was something that I really looked for throughout my whole process. Another thing that was really important to me personally was also just the sense of community and how passionate people felt on campus. I knew I didn't want to end up at a school that was very large. When I saw over 10,000 students at a school I was like, "Oh no, I can't do that."

Lee:
Too much.

Jason:
That's way too much.

Lee:
Then Ramsey and Emma, how did you begin?

Ramsey:
The things that I chose to prioritize in the beginning, because that's what we're focusing on, were I was very interested in a STEM major. So, towards the beginning, I had a lot of science-based schools and Jason said, research-based schools. I was also different from Jason, I was looking towards a big school with probably the university status and just a lot of different people because I had convinced myself initially that the more people there were, the more diversity there would be, which may be true to some extent, but through my journey, I've changed my views on that a little bit, so we can probably talk about that more in depth later.

Lee:
Okay, that's really helpful. Then Emma, how did you start out with criteria?

Emma:
So middle of my junior year, I had decided to go on a road trip with my dad to go explore maybe four different universities. So, over my spring break, my dad and I took a road trip and we visited these four different universities. I found one school that I had determined was going to be my dream school and after further research, I realized that it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I didn't have a preference, small school over large school, and I didn't have any other major preferences other than one specific thing, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't a school that was going to pigeonhole me in something that I realized I didn't want to do. So that allowed me to rule out any universities that were specifically geared towards STEM or specifically geared towards arts, because I knew that if I went to either of those universities, I would lose a major aspect.

Lee:
Ramsey, you were nodding as Emma shared that story. So, does it sound familiar?

Ramsey:
Yeah, I'm a little bit different, but I actually, when I decided to graduate early, I had made a deal of sorts with my family that I would stay local, because of my age and just the experience I was losing from one year of high school. So, I had planned to attend a local college for at least one year and then reassess if I wanted to try to transfer or something. That plan held true up until about November and then I realized that when I had planned to stay for four years, I had had all these dream schools and big ambitions. I had put in all of this work and I had some things that I just wanted to do, instead of things that maybe made the most sense or that the people around me thought I should do.

So, whenever I assess those ones and the things that I truly wanted in a school, I similarly, to Emma, I expanded my list to about 25 schools, which got narrowed down to about 10 in the end as well. I think it's interesting to note that both Emma and I, and probably Jason, did the majority of our exploration online, even though we weren't under a pandemic then, we had a similar experience going through, exploring colleges online, simply because it's unreasonable to visit all of those colleges.

Lee:
Yeah, no, I was thinking that as listening, I had clicked through your files in our database and it doesn't look like Emma and Ramsey had visited campus.

Ramsey:
No.

Lee:
And Jason did at some point make his [inaudible 00:10:02], but he was a lot closer. But Jason was nodding as Ramsey and Emma were talking. So that sounds familiar to you too?

Jason:
I often felt really constrained in my background. Because coming from Revere high school, it's not necessarily a high school known for having these extravagant resources or having students that are attending these top colleges. Last year, oftentimes when I spoke to students at my high school, they would give a pessimistic attitude and say like, "You know what? Don't apply to these schools. Don't expect a lot." And so, for a while, when May started of my junior year and we were really looking at colleges, I kind of felt like, "Oh my God, it's a mistake to apply to these schools. I should probably just stick with what I know and what I have been told."

So, in my sense, the reason why I was so afraid of applying wasn't necessarily just how long distance it was or how different it really was, but more like I just felt like I didn't really belong on campus. And I think it's still going to be a huge struggle and transition as a first gen low income student.

Lee:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). But you ignored those voices telling you not to move forward. You had a degree of confidence in yourself ultimately to say, "This is a journey I want to take." Thank you for sharing that with us. What's interesting is, each of you is describing this beginning part of the journey and the way your priorities shifted. What struck me is how hard it is to keep your own perspective front and center. There's a lot of voices, whether it's family, peers at school, guidance counselor, social media, wherever it's coming from. Was that a challenge to keep yourself true to your own interests as they emerged?

Ramsey:
Yeah. So, I actually kept my college process a secret from all my friends. I did discuss it with my family because they were helping me with it and providing some of the fees for the applications. Thankful for them. But I did not really discuss it at length with people at school or certain teachers at school, certain counselors at school, just because I knew that, similarly to what Jason said, it was not the norm to apply to more than two schools. It wasn't the norm to have a high ambition. It wasn't the norm to seek something outside of the state of West Virginia. It just wasn't the norm. And so, I knew that keeping that a secret was going to be the best path for me, and I really think that that helped me focus on what I wanted.

And maybe that's not a great piece of advice to seal yourself off from your peers or something, but I think in the sense of college, it's really got to be all about you. It's one of those times in your life where you can unapologetically just take control of it and apply to what you want.

Lee:
Let's talk a little bit about the acceptance rates. Because when you look at a college and our statistics are in the guidebooks or online, and the rankings, how distracting is that? It sounds like the degree of selectivity plants some doubt in the way you think about your options. And each of you overcame that doubt through various techniques, whether it was just not discussing. Ramsey, I had a friend in high school who, like you, did not tell any of us in the honors program with her, what she was doing. And when the topic would come up at lunch, she would say, "I'm pleased with my choices," and she just kind of left it at that.

And at the end of the journey, she just announced one day she was going to Duke, and everyone said, "Where did that..." She said, "You know, it was right for me and I followed my own path, and I didn't need to get drawn into the competitiveness of the moment," which I thought was really wise of her to have done that. Her name is Cammie and I still call it the Cammie principle of keeping your own counsel. You don't need to feed the beast of competition in your respective junior and senior classes, and being true to your own plans, seeking input when you need them are really important, but you don't need to put it all out there. But let's talk a bit about the acceptance rates. Why is that intimidating?

Jason:
It's so scary that that's kind of what we've grown to is obsessing over numbers.

Lee:
Yeah. Well, the numbers are measurable. There's a lot of numbers that swirl around college admission, and we'll have an upcoming episode where we talk about data like grade point averages and testing and what it all means, how it fits. But beyond your personal numbers, there are numbers like acceptance rate, the number of applications, the yield, the number of students who accept the offer. It gets reported widely in the media. It becomes taken as fact that this is the most important data, when in fact, I would say as an admission officer, the most important data point is something you can't measure. And that is your own determination of fit. When you meet a campus and say, "I see myself here."

Ramsey:
I just wanted to say that I tried to avoid acceptance rates as much as possible. Now, there is a lot of times when it's completely unavoidable, because when you Google search something like Dartmouth College, that's how Google works. If I was aware of it, I tried to leave it out of my consideration. Because like Emma and Jason both touched on, it's something that can make you question, "Is this really going to ever pan out?" There's a certain extent to where that's wise to consider that, because obviously time and money are two things that we can never get back, so you want to use them as wisely as you can. And that's wise.

For me personally, in the end when I narrowed my list down to about the 10 colleges, [inaudible 00:16:29] local or in-state colleges kind of falling towards the bottom, and then public universities in other states falling in the middle range, and then some highly competitive top 20 schools, per se, falling at the top range. And I think that that variability really helped me overcome that because I could see myself in all of the colleges, I applied to no matter what the acceptance rate was. So then whenever the decisions came back, I no longer had to consider the acceptance rate. I was just viewing myself in the colleges.

Lee:
That's really wise. And there's a trap in this search, and it's the idea that the reach school on your list is the best option. That the safety school, and I don't like that term, but people use it, that the safety school is an option you would never attend. And I would say, don't apply them. A school that is a likely place for you to be admitted is one, like Ramsey just pointed out, you should feel really comfortable being part of that student body. And the odds of you being accepted are reasonable.

But I think a lot of juniors and seniors in high school get caught in that, "The lower the acceptance rate, the more I must want it, and the higher the acceptance rate, the least compelling it might be." So, Ramsey pointed out that like the juniors in our stay-at-home moment, most of you did a search that was virtual. How did you come to that sense of fit when you weren't physically on the campus? What worked for each of you as you thought about the place and the people? Assessed its vibe? What helped you think about that?

Emma:
I know that when I was looking into several universities, another one of the things that I really took to be important was that idea that the students, and I guess the faculty as well on campus, were smart, intelligent well-rounded people, but weren't so cut-throat competitive that you felt like you couldn't swim with the help of others. Like you wouldn't be able to ask anyone for help. And so, to help narrow down and to find that community that really fit me, if I was looking online doing my virtual research and I had any questions, I would actually reach out to the admissions team and I would ask for help. And I would try and contact as many people at these universities as I could to really get a feel of what their community was like, while just being at home.

Ramsey:
One thing that really helped me choose... This was more for choosing a college once acceptances have come back, but it can definitely apply to creating or refining your list of colleges, was to look at how the colleges were handling the pandemic. It's a good example of just random things occurring and problems with students occurring. I know that we've had some issues back home with schools not taking care of their student bodies and just leaving them out to dry. And that would be a telltale sign of how the college would truly treat you in the matter of a crisis. Because even if not at the same high stakes as the coronavirus pandemic, crises happen every day in people's lives. And so, it's a really telltale sign of how they're going to handle it. So, by looking at just the websites, look at their policies that they've written, look at the procedures, look at how the faculty has taken it on. Have they made virtual lessons? Have they put resources out there or have they just posted Google docs with assignments on it? Maybe ask some current students. Like Emma said, reach out to the admissions facility and say, "What's your plan right now for handling?" Because all schools went on during the spring semester to my knowledge, I don't know of any schools that just stopped at the [inaudible 00:20:29] level. So that would definitely be a great way to help assess that fit would be to look at how they're handling the current crisis.

Lee:
Jason, how did it feel for you?

Jason:
So, I assessed it by visiting some schools. I mean being in Massachusetts, you're pretty close to a lot of really great options. And I would sometimes even just go out to Boston and go to BU, go to Harvard and see what I thought. And I remember when I was in the city and those types of campuses, I never really liked it. I felt as though everything was so high obtained and stressful and nobody was really enjoying themselves, then I was not about that place. I wanted to be happy on campus, not suffering but I also didn't really expect myself to enjoy going or being at a school that's kind of isolated. In a geographical sense but not necessarily in a communal sense. And that's definitely something that I learned to distinguish with a lot of the schools is even if location might tell you that it's rural and you could see cows right outside your dorm. That doesn't necessarily mean that the people there are isolated or that there's something happening on campus. If anything, that can mean that there's even greater opportunities and a stronger sense of community because how close everyone is.

Someone who hasn't really been a super nature hiking person I'm definitely excited to experience that part of life at Dartmouth. And that's something that I didn't really think about as much during my time exploring colleges. And I definitely recommend people to look at what types of opportunities are there around the area that you're in as opposed to just the school.

Lee:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it's important. Did any of you have kind of that cartoon light bulb moment where you came to a personal epiphany where you said, this is it? Did something just hit you and you said, "I know"?

Ramsey:
Yeah, so mine was not during the construction of a list, I made a lot of my choices later in the year. But whenever I was admitted to Dartmouth, we started conversing with fellow admitted students and just with upperclassmen and everyone was very supportive and just nice. But beyond that, the light bulb moment was whenever people would say that they were committing, everyone would welcome them home. And there was something so special about that and a lot of the videos released from the admissions teams had said it and stuff. And I thought that was really sweet but when I saw real college students saying that organically, not being monitored, not being looked after, it was just something that they felt. They felt like they were at home, that helped me feel like I could be at home too. So, I would suggest to juniors or anyone just considering the list of colleges to try to reach out and just try to see what that community is like. You probably have a lot of free time on your hands right now, just try to find someone there and reach out to them.

Most people love to talk about the college they go to.

Lee:
Yeah. No, it's important. And I mean what I love about the advice you're giving is it can be a slow-developing process, you don't have to have a aha moment in August before your senior year. Or even in September or November, could be April of your senior year where the pieces start to come together. And earlier in the conversation [inaudible 00:24:13] by how all three of you talked about how your thinking changed from the beginning of your search as you moved more deeply into it. It sounds like in that moment of between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, at least two of you had a complete reset. I don't know if Jason did the same thing, but Emma and Ramsey got to some moment in December where you realize the list that was about to become your list of applications wasn't quite right. And then you kind of began again and did a really quick search and what voice was talking to you, and I don't mean your mom or dad.

But what voice was in your head in December that you said, "Ramsey, this is not the right set of schools," or "Emma, let's add 20 more." What called out to you in that late moment?

Ramsey:
I've put a lot of pressure on myself through high school, which a lot of high schoolers do, especially those with high ambitions. It seems to just be the societal standard that ambitions equal anxiety and just a lot of stuff like that. So, through that journey, I had done a lot of studying and just pushing myself. And that moment in December that came was that I didn't want a school where I was going to be solely focused on that. I wanted that to be a main part of my college experience, I wanted to be a successful college student, but I wanted to have the opportunity to explore things to me that were just fun. And we've talked about the arts a lot. Those are something that it's a very wide umbrella of things, but a lot of people find comfort in the arts. I wanted a community that had arts within it, I wanted a school that had a symphony. I wanted a school that had a clarinet teacher that could actually teach me on my instrument, that was something that was really important to me.

Ramsey:
And that didn't fall into the number one or two spots on importance until late in the game when I reassessed and figured out that that was something that meant more to me. Even at times than what major I was going to be getting if I was going to get that developmental experience of the arts that I just wanted. That ended up being more important to me than, for example, the fact that I'm not going to be getting a bachelor's in science for a STEM major. I'm going to be getting a Bachelor of Arts so.

Lee:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Jason introduced himself as a low-income student and I'm wondering how the question of financial aid entered into any of your searches. And was that something you were focused on or was it something you and your parents were talking about openly during the whole search? When, if ever, did it appear as one of the negotiables on your list?

Emma:
For me, I think that financial aid really came into play more this past spring. I was looking at a variety of schools and as I was being accepted into these schools, I was receiving these financial aid packets. And as I would look at them, I would look at this financial aid and I would say, "I'm not quite sure I can afford this." And I would look at a variety of scholarships but with everything happening with the virus, I lost out on several scholarship opportunities. I was supposed to fly out to a university in New York in March, about two weeks after everything shut down. And it was completely canceled, I was supposed to spend the night in a student's dorm, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor to compete in a business competition that would have meant a full ride. And that would've meant attending or going to a local university.

Emma:
So, I wasn't aware at that time that I would have the opportunity to attend Dartmouth. But when comparing various financial aid packages, it really did put a lot of... I don't want to say unnecessary stress, but it added extra pressure that I wasn't expecting-

Lee:
Interesting.

Emma:
... to really make a good decision that was both a good fit for me as an individual but also a fit for my family financially. I have a younger brother who's going to be entering college pretty soon. He's entering his junior year now and plays a lot of travel hockey, which can be expensive as well. And when comparing various financial aid packages, I found that Dartmouth actually provided the best financial aid package and was much more affordable for my family than some of my other top-choice universities. And that was part of the reason why I decided to go to Dartmouth.

Lee:
So, for you in the final moments, financial aid became a really important sorting priority at the end.

Emma:
Yeah.

Lee:
Yeah.

Emma:
In comparison to a few other schools, I mean that was pretty much what brought down the final decision because I had found two or three schools that I really appreciated the community in. And they all offered very similar things. It's just Dartmouth I felt a little more at home when reading over everything that it had to offer. And that financial aid package is what pushed it over the edge and why I decided to commit.

Lee:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Ramsey's nodding.

Ramsey:
Yeah. So, I've been raised in a family where being rich in love is more important than being rich in money. So even though money is something that we, unfortunately, have to consider often it tends to not be just topic of conversation regularly. Because that's just not at the center of our beliefs but obviously college is expensive, it really is. And I had this idea that dream college equals a lot of money and I think I was kind of proved wrong. Kind of like what Emma said, I was all set to take the full ride to the local college that I've talked about a little bit. But then whenever I got my admission offer and some financial aid letters, I was seeing that I had to choose, do I want it to be cheap or do I want it to be a good experience? And even though it is wise to not want to enter insane amounts of debt in the first four years of your true adulthood, I think that there is a lot of personal decision to be made if the extra money is worth it. In my personal opinion, if you think you're going to be getting the best experience, the money will fall in place.

Lee:
So, at the beginning of your search, as you were sorting and exploring, was cost one of the factors at the beginning or did this come into the conversation later?

Ramsey:
Cost was one of the things that would have stopped me from applying. And I'm really glad that I pushed myself past that. So, I definitely considered it through the whole process. In the beginning it was more of a negative, and in the end, it ended up actually being a positive, like that was something that helped out my decision.

Lee:
So Jason, you were a member of the QuestBridge Scholarship Program, so for our listeners who may also be a part of that kind of network of high achieving, low income students around the country, how was affordability part of your thinking as you kind of met Quest but also just throughout this experience?

Jason:
Well, I think that as someone who has to think about finances 24/7, I never really had the luxury of having costs be something that's like a last-minute decision. So, I think that's something that I ended up rushing a lot throughout my college process in terms of finalizing everything. What's knowing how I can make these decisions happen for myself and knowing what types of opportunities would help me with that. With QuestBridge, I just found such a strong community of like-minded people who were so welcoming, but also not allowing their barriers bring them down. And I think that that was something that was really inspiring for, not just myself, but for a lot of the community, especially seeing some of the active chapters on some of the college campuses. A lot of the schools that I ended up applying to were through QuestBridge and I had only done the regular decisions portion because I didn't feel like my application was ready.

And that's something I'd definitely like to point out anyway to first gen low income students is be very careful when you're applying under early decision or some sort of binding program, because sometimes it's really, you might think that there's a certain cost associated and then it ends up being a lot higher than it might actually turn out to be. So just be really careful in knowing that you need to make sure that your finances are being thought out thoroughly if you are a low-income student who is relying on financial aid packages.

I also think that there's something to be said about students that are low income and super involved on campus. And I've definitely seen a lot of that at Dartmouth. There's a QuestBridge group chapter for Dartmouth students. There are so many passionate voices, like my friend's Sam. She's such an involved person on campus and doesn't allow her barriers to sort of break her down and she tries to be as vibrant as possible and as involved as possible, even if she's a little different from the general or from a lot of student members of the population. I think that she tries so hard to really shine in a time and in a place where it can be really difficult to do so.

And I think that's connecting to those students and reaching out to what they thought was important and what they received from Dartmouth was something that was really inspiring.

Lee:
Thank you. Well, thanks, all three of you. This has been such an interesting and lively conversation.

Assessing fit is one of the most important and elusive parts of your search. You have to ask yourself a really personal question, where do I see myself? which campus among my many options speaks to me most clearly around the program, the people, the place? And how do I see myself thriving across each of those questions? Fit may be something you feel in your instincts more than your ability to spell it out. That's okay. But the point of what a good search will ultimately lead to is a match between your aspirations for college and the colleges' opportunities and offerings. And that is a question only you can answer. It would be like going into an ice cream shop and saying, "Tell me what your best flavor is." The answer to that question depends on your own taste buds and my answer won't be your answer. So, own it, make it individualized and follow the path that feels right to you.

Our next episode, we will expand this conversation about discovery and fit to look outside the United States and meet some students from three very different places who launched an American college search from abroad. And I think you'll find that conversation illuminating and exciting. So, until then I'm Lee Coffin from Dartmouth College. See you soon at The Search.