“We have to broaden our definition of what a great college is,” says Dave Marcus, author of “Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges—and Find Themselves,” which chronicled how Oyster Bay High School’s Gwyeth Smith Jr., known as “Smitty,” coaxed a diverse group of seniors through the most stressful experience of their lives.
After giving speeches from Southampton to Great Neck on this rite of passage, Marcus has found what he calls “a real sickness on Long Island,” which he says is “this belief that there’s only 45 colleges that are acceptable to parents!” Let the record show that “there’s more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States and some amazing ones in Canada and beyond,” insists Marcus, a former Newsday reporter and education writer for U.S. News & World Report.
“Parents on Long Island get so obsessed with the process—the grades, the tests, the name-brand schools—that we forget that the college search is an incredible time of self-discovery for a kid,” he says. “It’s a time to dream about the future and figure out who you are and what you want to be.”
Having a Long Island return address on that college application is a mixed blessing, Marcus says, because an Ivy League school “doesn’t want a class that’s 80 percent” from Nassau and Suffolk even though these two counties have some of the best high schools in the nation producing top-notch students.
“Once you get away from the most obvious schools up and down the East Coast,” Marcus says, “there are a lot of colleges that really appreciate Long Islanders” and, he thinks, quite a few are willing to offer merit aid to offset the high cost of living here.
In the book, Smitty advises students to pick 10 schools and factor in weather, distance, size and setting. For example, some may like it hot, others may want to let it snow. And parents shouldn’t be shy about giving their kids’ guidance counselors a “brag sheet” so they have more to work with than just what the student says in a rushed meeting between classes.
First on Marcus and Smitty’s list of “seven secrets of college admissions” [on www.davemarcus.com] is this gem: Forget about the rankings of “best” colleges. The school that’s right for you is the best. Next, don’t call a choice your “safety college” because that diminishes it in your mind. Instead, categorize them as “reach,” “reliable” and “target.” In ninth and tenth grades, students should generalize; in 11th and 12th they should specialize. Don’t take the easy way out; take the “most rigorous high school classes you can handle” because admissions offices “want to see someone who embraces challenges.”
Students who distinguish themselves in a few activities tend to stand out from those who spread themselves too thin. When touring colleges, “visit differences,” they say: contrast an urban campus with a quiet one, like comparing Boston University to Boston College. And last but not least, if a college application includes “optional” essays or materials, “consider them required. Do them!”
“Kids on Long Island try to package themselves to become what they think the admissions office wants rather than just being themselves and showing themselves,” Marcus says. “It’s much more effective to talk about who you are and what you want to become, rather than who you think they want to see.”
In other words, he tells students: Pursue your passion.
“By Long Island standards, Huckleberry Finn was a loser,” he says, “but in a lot of ways he was exactly what you’d want a student to be: smart, curious and empathic.”