How Kids Really Choose a School

A surprising new poll shows who students listen to—and who they ignore—when deciding where to go to college. Parents, it turns out, wield a lot of influence, while coaches and siblings are out of luck.

06.26.09 10:08 PM ET

Parents can’t complain that their kids don’t listen to them—at least about where to go to college. The largest high-school graduating class in American history just finished the college-admissions process, and they report that parents were, by far, the most important influence on their decision-making.

But students also wanted their parents to back off. “Let your opinion be known, but don’t force the school that you want your child to attend on them. College is the first step in their lives for the adult world,” said one graduating senior who will be attending her first-choice school in the fall.

In the study, 64 percent of students said that they and their parents were usually or always in sync about whether a school was a good fit.

The findings were reported in a soon-to-be-released study, “How Students Really Decide,” published by, an online student-to-college matching service. “This is the first survey of college-bound students in recent history that really explores the dynamic of students, their parents, and others who influence application and enrollment decisions,” said Anne Dwane,’s CEO. “We wanted to get beyond the statistics; to understand the factors—including social media—that really influence students.”

The study reflected a national sample of 600 college-bound seniors.

One finding that probably won’t please those hard-working teachers who slave over crafting just-perfect college recommendations: Friends were significantly more of an influence than either teachers or guidance counselors. “Millennials are highly collaborative,” said Dwane. “We see a growing impact of friends who have gone through the process validating their friends’ decisions.”

And who weren’t important influences? Coaches and siblings. “To put it into perspective,” said Dwane, “although more than 55 percent of high-school students play interscholastic sports, coaches were extremely influential with just over 3 percent of college-bound seniors. That is almost identical to the 100,000 college freshmen who receive athletic scholarships.”

The stress level of college-bound seniors is as prevalent in mid-America as it is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. More than 40 percent of kids reported a “great deal” of stress, surrounding the process, with more than 20 percent experiencing “more than I ever imagined.” And who was more anxious—parents or kids? Kids were, though a third of students reported significant anxiety among parents as well.

Not surprisingly, the economy contributed to the stress levels. Fully half of all students report that they eliminated colleges from consideration because of price.

Was “prestige” a significant factor? Yes—for about half of all students and parents.

That helps explain why the number of applications to Ivy League and other “highly selective” schools was never higher. The eight Ivy League colleges reported a total of just over 202,000 applications between them, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year. (The percentage of graduating seniors grew by less than one-half of 1 percent.)

“When families are paying $200,000 for an undergraduate degree, they want that diploma to have some ‘brand value’,” said Paulo DeOliveira, a former assistant director of admissions at Brown. “That’s why rankings such as the U.S. News list hold so much sway.”

After parents and friends “browbeat” them about where to apply, what really influenced their decision about where to go?

Students reported that their own “gut feelings” were most affected by a campus visit and the opportunity to see the college’s students. Surprisingly, very few ever sat in on a class or spent the night on campus. For most, the college visits were a blur of short trips with parents in tow. The walking-backward student tour guide was the single largest influencer.

“I hated the tour guide,” reported more than a few students. Said one Manhattan boy after his USC visit, “She thought she was on stage.” He didn’t apply there.

A majority of kids admitted to applying to at least one college solely because someone else—usually a parent—wanted them to.

“Recognizing this tension between where kids think they want to go and where their parents want them to apply, I usually recommend a Solomonic compromise at the outset,” said Michael Muska, the dean of college relations at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep. “The student should apply to one college solely to please the parents. And the parents must allow the student to apply to one school they absolutely think is wrong. In the end, it usually works out pretty well because the compromise reduces the stress and allows them all to get on with the process.”

Indeed, the Zinch survey results seemed to reinforce Muska’s strategy. After visiting colleges, 64 percent of students said that they and their parents were usually or always in sync about whether a school was a good fit.

Yet despite the importance of visiting the college, more than 77 percent reported applying to schools they never saw.

Perhaps the biggest shock most students are bound to encounter once they reach college involves majors. Fully 79 percent of students said they “definitely knew” or were pretty sure what they wanted to major in. But according to a study by Penn State, 70 percent of students change their major at least once while in college, and 20 percent change it two or more times.

What advice do graduating seniors have for those about to go through the process?

For students, it ranges from the practical to the philosophical. The most oft-repeated piece of advice for high-school students is to start earlier. “Getting it done early reduces stress and allows you to enjoy senior year,” was a typical comment.

But trusting one’s own gut was the second most frequently heard piece of advice.

“Keep a level head and think about yourself during this process—as selfish as that sounds. College is for you, and not for your boyfriend, your family, or your teachers. Applying on that basis will guarantee that you will be unhappy to some degree,” said a Midwest girl bound for her first-choice school.

And what happened to those 200,000-plus applications to the Ivy League this year? Most of the applicants were disappointed. The Ivies were even more selective this year than in years past. They accepted just 11.9 percent of applicants, down from 12.6 percent the year before. And despite the economy, the yield at the Ivies—the percentage of kids who choose to enroll after being admitted—actually inched up a bit. But even the most selective schools—Harvard and Penn among them—went to their waitlists to fill their classes.

Finally, the most poignant advice that graduating seniors offered came back to the relationship with their parents:

“Your kid isn’t an idiot if he or she is accepting the daunting process of college apps. They know what they want; they know what’s possible and what’s not. Get involved, but not too much, and support their decision. Don’t change it.”

Steve Cohen is the CEO of iCollegeCounselor.