• Image about Gwyeth Smith , Jr.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS LYONS

News flash: There’s a whole universe of great colleges out there beyond Harvard and Yale and Columbia. Here’s how your student can make the right choice.

November’s upon us. The leaves are dropping from the SAT calendar. And millions of high school juniors and seniors are pondering one of the most important questions in a young person’s life: Which college should I attend? Experts say there is a wrong way and a right way to answer that question.

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The Wrong Way: Go into the decision process like it’s some kind of grim battle, a winner-takes-all contest to fight your way into one of America’s 20 or so most famous colleges. Concentrate only on the alleged prestige and wow factor that the school will lend you. Let your search process be dominated by the magazines that endlessly rate and rank the schools. Buy into the widespread belief that the colleges with the lowest admission rates must be the best schools.

The Right Way: Make sure the decision process starts with you, the student, rather than with your parents or the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Ask yourself why you’re planning to go to
college in the first place. Question the marketing mindset that proclaims only a handful of America’s more than 4,000 colleges as being worthwhile. And ask what lasting value, beyond a
decal sporting the name of a prestigious school, you hope to get from your college experience.

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To Gwyeth Smith, Jr., who spent more than 30 years counseling students at several high schools in and around New York, the mystery of picking the right college really comes down to one question.
“Do you want quality, or do you want brand?” asks Smith, who is profiled in an excellent book that was published in 2009, called Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right
Colleges — and Find Themselves.

Penned by Pulitzer Prize–winning author David L. Marcus, Acceptance follows Smith through a year of helping students choose the colleges that are right for them, emphasizing the fit between college and student rather than the brand status a big-name university may confer.