The Search Episode Two Transcript

The Search

Episode Two Transcript

 

Lee Coffin:
Hello from Dartmouth College. I'm Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admission. Welcome to The Search.

Our next episode shares how to find the college that's right for you during this stay at home spring. We're going to be talking about what I call the three Ps: Program, place and people. Then the fourth P; price will come in a future episode. These are the macro issues you should be looking for in a school. I'm joined today by two friends and colleagues who know how to launch a search and how to make it individualized. David Clarke is the executive director at Nalukai Academy in Hawaii and a former director of college counseling at two Boston area independent schools. David grabs the pod mic from his sunny perch on Hawaii's Big Island. Makes me reflect on my own perch at the island in my kitchen, and I think there's a big difference between those two types of island. We're also joined by Kate Boyle Ramsdell, director of college counseling at Noble and Greenough School, which is an independent school in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Thanks guys for joining this conversation with me. Kate, last time I saw you in person, I was at Noble and Greenough, Nobles to those of you in the Boston area, in February for your annual junior college program for parents. I was one of the four deans you invited to be on your panel that kicked off the junior spring at your school. In some ways I think back to February 2nd and I think, "Wow! So much has changed in those 10 weeks." And yet the fundamentals are the same. I mean, the college search still unfolds in the same fundamental way. I'm wondering what are you seeing Kate, at Nobles as you've switched to a Zoom format with your junior parents and kids? And how are you taking the advice we gave you in February and translating it to a remote search?

Kate Ramsdell:
Such a good question. I mean, I think you boil the search down to the three Ps, which we have then taken and used at Nobles to frame the way that we do the search. Always-

Lee Coffin:
You lifted my Ps, that's fun, yeah.

Kate Ramsdell:
Always attributed Lee, always attributed but the people, the place and the program. In a fundamental way, I don't think that has changed at all. When you left us in early February, we were working with kids to start to hone their key criteria and just think a little bit about how they were going to begin to build lists. I would say so much of the work that we do, we can do remotely. We've done it remotely for a long time in the summer [crosstalk 00:02:50].

Lee Coffin:
What's the key criteria? When you tell the students to focus on the key criteria for either you or David, what kind of things do you point them to at the beginning? I mean, they come in wide-eyed and nervous, they're these little Bambi's at the starting line. What helps get them started?

Kate Ramsdell:
David, you can chime in too, but we think about six or seven different pieces of the puzzle that we then end up calling their negotiables later. We can talk about that in a little while, but we talk about location and geography, size of institution, the academic and co-curricular program, whether or not they have special interests like athletics, the arts, engineering, something that's really going to direct their search. We call the big squishy bucket of school culture, something that's probably harder to wrap their heads around. But it could include sectarian or non-sectarian school, fraternities and sorority life, HBCUs. There's all different ways that they could think about school culture. Cost and aid is a significant bucket for a good group of our families. And then the criteria that we don't touch until a little bit later when we have more data and that's going to be interesting this year, is selectivity. We try to get them-

Lee Coffin:
Yeah, let me just jump in. Why do you call them the negotiables?

Kate Ramsdell:
Because we feel like at the very beginning, some of our kids have strong sense of one or two things that matter. And as they go through the search, those evolve and they change. I'm even thinking about this year, I think geography is going to be this really interesting negotiable where we might have a lot of kids who say, "I want to study abroad or I want to study in California." And the travel climate is going to make that a negotiable. Or one that's often not negotiable at all is cost. That for some of our kids cost is the key driver and getting someplace to meet their full need is never going to be negotiable. So we just think over time, we describe them as buckets. Some of them are more full and others may be empty for the whole search. Others, you are distributing your preferences along the way.

Lee Coffin:
Well, I'm reminded of when I was buying a condo. I mean, I went through my list of these are the things the house had to have and one of them for me, one of the non-negotiables, was an outside space and I lost that one. Because at the end I liked something better than that, but I thought that was going to be the deal-breaker for any place I considered. But there's a lot of parallels there as you start to map it. David, does that line up of categories make sense from the way you talk about it with kids?

David Clarke:
Oh, what Kate just described is a wonderful construct and a great way of looking at this. And yes, I agree. I think what's really neat about this job in a lot of ways, is when you start with a new junior class you get to meet all these individuals. You not only are looking for what's important to them, but you're trying to help them understand what's important to them too. That's emerging and changing and the more conversation that you can have, or the more research a student does, or the more reflection time they have where they get to identify what's essential for them, what's negotiable as Kate says. What's just a nice preference versus no, this is essential for me to go and four years at a place, this is essential. It's neat to get to know these individual kids and see the ingredients that make up their college search. That continues to change over time too. [crosstalk 00:06:35]

Lee Coffin:
At the beginning, does one of those factors mean... You mentioned the three Ps. I've been saying the fourth P is price and there's a fifth P that we don't want to talk about and the fifth P is prestige. I'm guessing at the beginning of a search that naughty P, that fifth P comes into the mix a lot at the beginning.

Kate Ramsdell:
Yeah, that's why we put it seventh, because we're trying to figure out how to get people not to go straight to selectivity. But it's hard. I mean, I think the name recognition of places and the climate that I work in and many of us do, it's just that's the first thing people want to jump to, is where can I get in?

Lee Coffin:
How do you back them up?

Kate Ramsdell:
We have to work hard at it. I don't know about David, but I think a part of it is the more we can get kids to reflect and think about what matters to them, the better we are equipped to share a broader list of colleges that we think fit. I don't know, I think when you do this work for a long time, you can crystal ball a lot of things, and you can say like, "I know that today Dartmouth College may be your number one, but if you're lucky you're getting in, but all my data and all my anecdotal information is going to suggest you're not. I'm going to think about other kids who have been like you in the past and maybe where they've landed."

David Clarke:
I think what's interesting about the prestige question that you're bringing up, I think so many people come into this process assuming that the goal is to get into the highest-ranked school that one possibly can. That that's how you win at this game. I think someone in Kate's position or in my position understand that figuring out what that rank list is, is a personal endeavor. And to the degree that we can steer families away from looking at, let's say a magazine's criteria for ranking colleges and instead say, "I don't mind a rank list, but let's have it be made up of your criteria, not what an editor at a magazine thinks," because it's going to be you going to this school. And so-

Lee Coffin:
Well, it's interesting. You're just imagining the student as an editor saying, "Here's my list of negotiables, here's my own weights and measures on each of these factors." Then you as the counselor come in and say, "Let me give you some evidence to help you assess A versus B, C versus D and then sort it."

Kate Ramsdell:
What's been interesting for me over the years, I was just thinking about this as you were talking David, is that the group of people whose kids have been best at moving away from prestige at the beginning have been my colleagues' kids. Teacher's children in some ways, because I think teachers see education as being so much bigger than just the rank. Anyway, I don't know. I've often tried to figure out how can I bottle that attitude and share it more widely. Getting people really to think about the quality of a place doesn't always correlate with its rank.

Lee Coffin:
The naughty P we're going to set aside for a second. The other P; place. My anecdotal experience when I see juniors is they'll say things like, "Yeah, I want to go as far from home as I can get." Place begins the sorting of do I want New England, do I want... I was in Florida this winter doing a junior program and a student came up to me and she said, "I have never experienced snow." And I said, "Oh, well," I said, "That's going to be a new adventure for you." And she said, "Is it better if I visit the school in the winter or in the summer?" I said, "Well in the summer, New England is going to feel like Florida. So maybe the best time to go to New England is when you have to wear a coat and see if you like it." She said, "Oh, I hadn't really thought about it that way." I said, "Because you may love it or you may run screaming back to Florida and your list around place is going shift towards those places in more warm climates."

Lee Coffin:
But let me go to something you said a minute ago, Kate, around helping them understand who they are and what they're looking for. What's the first step? Do you have a survey, do they fill out a self-evaluation? What's the mechanism that you would offer a student and parents about getting this list started and how can we translate that for our stay at home friends who might need to do a self-initiated list?

Kate Ramsdell:
Yeah, no, we do. We do something. We've changed the name of it over years, but we now call it a self-reflection jumpstart. This used to be a self-evaluation questionnaire and that felt so serious and evaluative. So we're trying to find ways for kids. Actually what we've started to do is even mask them, but use supplemental questions from lots of different colleges so the kids are almost thinking about the things that colleges might want them to. What communities have been important to you, list a couple of things that you've read or watched in the last year that have been really interesting and tell us why. It's not so much just what do you love to do, but trying to get more texture behind those answers.

We also help them to put together a little bit of a resume and I always say that has three purposes. One is that you're taking an inventory of what you've done. And I have a lot of kids who are pleasantly surprised by how much they've done. As this process comes to them, they think I'm not good enough. Then that's a nice reminder that no, they have lots to talk about. After that I say, "You might formalize this and share it with a college when you apply and you're certainly going to use it if you apply for a summer job, or if you go for an interview." It's a really nice way to introduce yourself or even to share with a teacher, who's going to write you a recommendation. I think that's a nice way to get them to do some self-reflection, but in a mode where they're doing so it doesn't feel like it's maybe quite as cumbersome actually then sitting and writing an essay or talking about it.

David Clarke:
That idea of figuring out what one's priorities are, it can come from questions. Asking them to reflect on what their current educational institution, their school is like, what they've liked and not liked. And that might provide some insight into what they may or may not be looking for in a college experience. Asking them to reflect on that and then capturing all those things that they do through the extracurricular lists that you ask them to put down can be really helpful. Because then if you're sitting across from that student or you're sitting on a Zoom call perhaps with someone, you can say, "Okay, I see that you've played four years of volleyball. Is playing volleyball is something that you really want to do when you get to college?" And they may or may not have thought about that. For some it's really clear, yes, this is my sport. I know I want to do this. I'm in touch with a coach at the college level.

And other people, it becomes something that, well, it would be nice to do, but it's not essential for me. So the buckets you were talking about before and how negotiable the contents of those buckets are. But I think-

Lee Coffin:
How do you start to find the answer to the buckets though? You have your list, you've worked your way through a self-evaluation of sorts. How does a student or parents in assist, how does the list start to get generated?

Kate Ramsdell:
It's funny, one of the things that our kids say, yes, they want to go in the middle of winter somewhere warm, but then they want to go to the biggest school they can find because they've been at a school with a class of 125 kids and all they want is something different. And yet I think where we lean in on that is to say to David's point, "What do you love about this place?" I love my relationships with people. I love my teachers. I love discussions. It's back to that idea of this imagining of what college should be, and then what's actually a good fit for you is a really interesting walk I think for kids.

I think it depends on the kid. It's like special interests. We don't have to talk about that for a long time, but for some of our kids, David pointed to athletic recruiting, or I think about kids who'd like to play in an orchestra or perhaps want to do theater at a high level. That's going to almost build their list for them. The hard thing there is you say, "Well, what if you break your leg?" Or, "What if you decide that you're never going to sing again?" Whatever that looks like. I think for a lot of kids, that's almost impossible to do that exercise at this stage in their lives. We again, have to revisit and push and say, "Okay, well, your season is three months of the year, four or five months of the year, but you're growing and changing and you may play that for four years, but what if you change your mind?"

Lee Coffin:
How do you redirect that? I mean, my earlier career would do college fairs and students would come up to my table and say, "I want to study cognitive neuroscience." And I'd say, "How do you know? We have that, but how do you know so specifically that that's your major?" That's program-

David Clarke:
I would say that that sometimes stems out of a conversation about what have your favorite classes been at your current school? How have you interacted with your biology teacher? Oftentimes they don't have access to the electives or the more specialized fields within a broad category like biology or even broader science. Part of the research that I urge students to do is to read on a college's website about the different majors that might appeal to them. Some of those colleges really lay out what the four-year experience might be like if you are studying cognitive neuroscience, what classes you might have access to.

For someone who comes in really clear that they're fascinated by this, and they want to explore this, or they want to major in this, I will sometimes then direct them or sometimes pull up a college's website, a departmental webpage, and we might look through it together. Or I might ask them to compare two different colleges and look at the cognitive neuroscience major at both and be able to come back and talk to me about what some of the differences are.

Lee Coffin:
Well, David you're pointing them to something really practical. Because even in a non-stay at home moment, I will often advise juniors and seniors to use the departmental websites at the colleges on their list to look. You might want to be an English major, so something that seems pretty straightforward. But I say, "But are you a writer? Are you interested in Shakespeare, are you interested in creative writing with a focus on feminist poetry?" Each of those is a really different path through a major in English and departments might have a specialty one way or the other that by poking around and seeing who's on the faculty, what courses they teach, can you add up 10 or 12 of those courses into a major? And if you can't, that's insightful.

Kate and David, sticking with the three P's of place, program, people. The list starts to get framed around those big building blocks. How many places should be on an initial list? Five, 10, 25?

Kate Ramsdell:
I like to err on the side of not overwhelming somebody at the beginning. To me, that would mean 15, maybe 20, depending on how focused they are on selectivity and stacking the top of their list with really far reach schools and I've got to keep shoving these more possible and likely schools into the mix. I think if you go fewer than that, at least in my community, you're just not exposing kids to enough. My idea at this stage is really this notion of exposure. I certainly work with kids who say, "I just have no idea. I have no idea what I want to study. I don't know how big it should be. I don't know if I can or want to go far away from home." In that case, we have the benefit of being in the Boston area, but we might say to our kids, "Let's just pick three schools here. One large urban university, one state university, and then one small liberal arts college." You could do it that way too, and just have a little bit of a more micro comparison.

Lee Coffin:
Then if one resonates, you build off of that reaction.

Kate Ramsdell:
Yes, that's right.

Lee Coffin:
Okay, that makes sense. Does the fourth P of price and affordability, does that enter in at this early stage or is that an Act Two consideration?

David Clarke:
I would say like most of the criteria, it really depends on the student in front of you. If you have the chance to do a questionnaire and you ask about whether financial aid is going to be a key part of their process, then I think it's important to talk about affordability and talk about the way in which a college administers financial aid or what may be available to that student can be really important from the get-go for some. As important as place or the other Ps that you talked about.

Kate Ramsdell:
Yeah. And we often say to the parents and guardians that we see or interact with, that for some kids it's unbelievably obvious from the outset that financial aid is going to be part of their process. There's no question. But there are other kids for whom it's less obvious and I've had some of the most difficult and just saddest conversations when a parent reveals at the very end of the process that money matters. So a student who's gotten into three schools and one of them is absolutely their favorite and then the parent says, "I'm sorry, we can't afford to send you." I just think of how much more fruitful a conversation could have been a year before that, or two years before that to say, "This is a really key driver for our family."

Lee Coffin:
Is that where the calculators come in?

Kate Ramsdell:
Yes. Net Price Calculator and MyinTuition are so incredible.

Lee Coffin:
Can you explain those two resources?

Kate Ramsdell:
Sure. Every college has a net price calculator and you put in, it takes about a half an hour I think, to do. But David or Lee, you could correct me if I'm wrong. Asks you for about five or six pieces of data about your financial situation and will ballpark for you, what your aid package might look like at that particular school. I know with MyinTuition, it's a little bit of a step back, a view from, I don't know, let's call it a 100,000 feet and it only takes about three pieces of data and you get a slightly broader look at what you might be doing. But I always say to my families, if they're applying for aid or even wondering if they might qualify or not, just to pick five schools. Again, state university, a selective liberal arts college, a medium sized research university, and do a little bit of comparing and start to get lay of the land.

Lee Coffin:
As these Ps start to swirl around each other, sometimes complementing, sometimes in conflict, the list starts to shift. I often tell a story about going off on a visit with my dad and we were visiting schools in upstate New York, grew up in Connecticut. As we were driving along, I started getting this really queasy feeling about location that I didn't have when my search began. And for me, my quip was, "Oh my God, dad, there's just too many freaking cows." And I started to really dial into what became a more urban signature of my search. And it wasn't that the schools we were visiting weren't wonderful. I had this light bulb moment of like, "Oh!" I came back and re-looked at where I was thinking about applying based on that really early journey.

This spring, that drive with dad in the station wagon throughout upstate New York can happen, you just can't get out of the car. I guess there's some positive there. I mean, if you're within driving distance of a college campus, you do have an opportunity to not go on a tour right now, but you can certainly drive around and get a feel for can you see yourself in this particular place? I remember having a reaction to one of my urban options and it was just too massive and tall, and that didn't feel comfortable with me. I call this the Goldilocks part of the discovery where the search shifts a little bit as you feel it. How do you feel it through this virtual space? What are your students telling you about checking campuses out remotely?

Kate Ramsdell:
It's really interesting. I think I'm going to learn a lot actually, when we come out of this cycle. Because on the one hand they're talking about how hard it is. That it's flat on a screen. It's the same thing when I like the guy standing in the corner, telling me about the school, I really like the school. It's like the tour guide. I like the tour guide or I don't. But at the same time, I'm actually seeing my kids be way better researchers. I have a lot of kids who when they have resources, they do. They have the ability to get out and go see campuses and then they almost default to the gut. This way, I'm actually watching them gather. We built a little framework for our kids about how they could do virtual research and the kinds of things they might be thinking about around their key criteria. Then they basically have a three-column rubric where they put the criteria in the middle. On one side it says meets and on the other side it says doesn't meet.

But I think one of the hardest things for a lot of families to do is to layer the key criteria on top of institutional priorities and the reality of the landscape. When you've been in the work that we've been doing for as long as the three of us have, it becomes fairly intuitive and yet it's really complex. For some kids, they may look at the sheer admit number and say, "Well, if that school has an 8% admit rate and that school has a 22% admit rate and that school has a 43% admit rate, then I have this chance of getting into each of those places." When in fact, it may not be that way at all.

That there could be something on the table for that student in particular that makes the place with the 8% admit rate attainable. Whereas for another student, because of their background, demographics, you name that piece of the puzzle, it's just going to be a more challenging admit. I think having and being able to somehow gain some understanding of how a school puts together its community and where you fit into that puzzle and if you fit into that puzzle, is really, really important.

David Clarke:
I'm going to throw out an old school recommendation. I think the college guidebook written by an objective source, someone who takes the time to interview students, professors to get the feel of the climate of a school is a really good resource that this generation oftentimes doesn't intuitively think is helpful in the college search. Sometimes recommending a guide book like one that profiles small liberal arts colleges, colleges that change lives, can be a really, really nice way of getting the feel for a small school. There are a number of college guide books out there; The Fiske Guide, The Insider's Guide to the Colleges. Taking time to read those entries is a little different than going to a college's website and just looking at the departmental offerings. Getting a sense of what students think of that place, culled and put into a package where you have a two to three-page narrative write up of a college, I think can be really useful.

Lee Coffin:
Okay kids, you have some homework. You've just heard two college counselors share thoughts on how you get started. You need to do some research, you need to shape a list based on your own preferences and what feels important and perhaps negotiable. As you move along through the next few weeks, take some notes, dig into websites. And most importantly, start to wrap your arms around what Kate called that squishy part of the conversation you're having with yourself. What matters to you? How do you zero in on how your comfort level and your own personality syncs up with the colleges you're exploring?\

Ultimately that's what we call fit. You have a fit between who you are and where the college is best representing that version of yourself. Next week we'll come together with another group of students who will think about fit and how they understood what places were the best fits for them and how they went about articulating that fit to the colleges on their list. Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Search. This podcast is brought to you by Dartmouth College, and we look forward to meeting you again on our next episode.