During his decades as a counselor, Smith has seen it all, including a rise in the number of anxious, brand-conscious parents who regard admission to an elite college as a matter of life and death. At one point in the book, he consoles a student whose parents banned him from a family ski trip because he was not accepted to Columbia University.

Smith believes that meaningful college quests must start not with a list of best colleges but with a journey into the students’ psyches. “I really want to get into the core of the students, into their souls, and find what’s important to them,” he says. “They’ve got to explore themselves.”

That idea is echoed by John Boshoven, a counselor at both the Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit. “College should be a match to be made, not a prize to be won,” Boshoven says. “I liken it to shopping for a shirt. It should look good and feel good on you. Even if it’s the best ‘name’ college in the country, if it’s the wrong fit, you’ll be unhappy there. And if you’re unhappy, you won’t be successful.”

Marty O’Connell, executive director of the nonprofit organization Colleges That Change Lives (www.ctcl.org), an
alliance of 40 small liberal-arts schools, also stresses self-reflection as the first step on the college journey. “Kids shouldn’t think so much about the major, because many of them have no idea what they want to study,” O’Connell says. “They should ask themselves: Who am I as a learner? What are my abilities and strengths? What kind of academic environment do I want to be in? What do I want out of life?”

Both Smith and O’Connell have scathing comments on the subject of the “best colleges” ratings industry. “U.S. News & World Report should be shot,” Smith says. “They have created this craziness.” Smith also bemoans the decision of highly competitive colleges such as Columbia and the University of Chicago to adopt the Common

Application, a standardized form that makes it easier for students to apply to numerous colleges. Smith and other critics charge that some schools are seeking a bigger pool of applicants merely so they can have more to reject, thus making them appear to be more selective and boosting their rankings even higher.

O’Connell often mocks the “ratings and rankings machine” when she talks to prospective students. She jokes about opening a college that would reject every single hopeful who applied the first year. “The next year, everyone will want to come to our school,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Did you hear? It’s so good, nobody got in!’ ”

Why is the ratings game played by U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek and others so attractive to so many people? For one thing, the raters seem to reduce a complex process down to a simple list: best,
second-best, third-best and so on. O’Connell points to another reason, as well: “We are a name-brand-obsessed society,” she says — whether we’re buying cars, cell phones or college educations. “We think, ‘If I haven’t heard of it, it must not be any good.’ ”

O’Connell also notes that the number of high school graduates has swelled over the last two decades, increasing the number of young people who are bound for college. “This increased the ability for marketing companies and others to get involved in the search process,” she says. “Like anything else in a consumer society, if there’s a market, people will jump into it.”

But if college-seeking kids (and their parents) resist being ruled by the ratings machine, then how should they go about making the important decision of which college is best for them? In addition to the self-reflection counseled above, both Smith and Boshoven advise students to interview people they admire — perhaps their teachers, coaches, religious leaders or friends’ parents. Ask where they went to college and what they liked about it. Chances are many of these admired adults didn’t go to “the right schools,” at least according to the rankings, but they nonetheless lead happy, successful lives.

Tamara Siler, senior associate director of admission at Rice University, in Houston, urges families not to be overawed by the so-called great schools. “Remember, at one point, Stanford was not Stanford,” Siler says. “Every school starts somewhere — Vanderbilt, the University of Chicago, all of them had to build their reputations. It’s too bad more people aren’t looking for that next great school on the horizon, the one that’s doing great stuff for kids.”

  • Image about Gwyeth Smith , Jr.
Mary Beth Carey, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Stonehill College, in Easton, Mass., is proud that her small liberal-arts school recently made Parade’s “College A-List,” but she insists that ratings should never be more than one criterion when students are deciding where to spend their next four years. She stresses the importance of visiting each college that makes it onto a student’s short list. In addition to making the official campus visit, which usually includes a tour, sitting in on classes and even spending a night in a dorm, Carey believes prospective students should make a later, unannounced visit just to make sure the things they liked aren’t actually too good to be true.

Finally, families of college hopefuls should keep in mind that the notoriety of a certain school may or may not say anything about its quality and the value it delivers for students. As examples, Boshoven cites the recent surge in applications to Occidental College, in Los Angeles, and to Butler University, in Indianapolis, two “gems,” he says, that he has been recommending for more than a decade.

Why the sudden interest? Because President Barack Obama attended Occidental (as well as Columbia University), and because Butler’s surprising Bulldogs came within a heartbeat of knocking off mighty Duke University in last year’s NCAA men’s basketball final. Boshoven’s point: The schools may have been off the national radar, but they were excellent institutions long before the fickle media came calling — and hundreds of similar schools are out there waiting for potential applicants to discover them. One of them just may be the perfect fit for your student.