Saturday, February 28, 2015

Five tips gifted students need to consider when choosing a college

Will college be a repetition of high school?

Most gifted teens look to college as an escape from the boredom of high school. And finding one that provides the right mix of social fit, geographic proximity to home, and extra-curricular needs, to name a few, is critical to ensuring a student's comfort and well-being. But the strength of the school's academic climate is equally important.

Yet...debates about the uniformity of college academics persist in opinion articles and on college forums such as college confidential. Many claim that all schools are basically the same. Elite and ivy-level colleges are described as no better than state universities. Community colleges are often touted as not only a great financial choice, but as comparable to other elite schools. "You get what you put into it. Classes, especially in the sciences, are the same at every school. You can get a good education wherever you go." 

But is this really true?

Students and parents know from personal experience that the quality of education in elementary and high school varies. Teachers, peers, educational materials, and expectations can be vastly different from one class to another, and certainly from one school to another. Why would this differ for college?

When gifted teens go to mainstream colleges, they may feel adrift, fail to find a niche of like-minded peers, and never receive the education they need. It can seem like a repetition of high school.

Case example one:
Josh* completed all of the higher level math courses available in high school. He participated in "dual enrollment" and took a linear algebra class at a local private college. He was surprised by how easy the class was. It was a 400-level class, and included mostly juniors, seniors and even some grad students. He found that it took little effort to finish his homework assignments, which he completed during class. He was so bored that he completed extra-credit assignments just so he could stay after class to explore concepts in depth with the professor. And he was the only student who chose to do this. He got an easy A in the class.
After graduation, Josh went to an elite college. Since he was concerned that he did not learn enough at the local private college, he decided to take linear algebra again. This time, it was extremely challenging. It never occurred to him to ask for help from his TA or professor. He never needed help in the past, and had always breezed through his classes. He ended up with a B, his first ever. 

How could two classes be so different, especially in a structured subject such as math? What does this say about the value and quality of education at different schools?

What if Josh had chosen the local private college for his four-year education? If a 400-level class was so easy, would he have been able to find many classes that were challenging? Would he have found like-minded peers? And would he have learned to challenge himself and develop a work ethic, rather than assume he could coast through school?

Case example two:
Sara* was accepted into an honors program at a state university. Her family was thrilled since they would save money and she would benefit from an honors education. At first, Sara enjoyed being in a separate dorm with other honors students, who appeared more serious about their work. She took some freshman seminars that were more intimate and intensive. However, there were fewer options for honors classes after her first semester, especially in her major. She had to take general education requirements with students who seemed less motivated and engaged. She started to feel isolated in such a large school, especially with its emphasis on football. Although she carved out a small niche of friends, she never felt part of the school culture. It started to feel a lot like high school again.

While honors programs can sometimes compensate for a lethargic academic environment, gifted students need to appreciate that once again, they will be in the minority. Some gifted teens may long to shed the "trappings" of their high school reputations and embrace an exciting social climate at college, but others might feel frustrated if the serious student seems less welcome. Some honors programs provide a nurturing environment for these students, but many others do not.

With college decisions looming for many high school seniors, weighing the many academic, social, financial, and geographic decisions can be very stressful. Even though college may be vastly different from high school, it is critical that gifted students and their families consider the academic climate and determine whether or not it will be a good fit.

If you are a high school student trying to choose a college, here are some tips that may help with your decision:

1. Visit classes. Sitting in on at least two or three classes can give you a flavor of the pace, intensity and complexity of how information is taught. Yes, you might end up in a class where the professor is not particularly interesting. But you can still get a sense of the students. Do they seem interested in the material (or are they just looking at their phones)? Can you picture yourself interacting with students like these in the future?

2. Explore course descriptions. Even if you can't visit the college or attend classes, look at the courses, syllabi, and texts assigned for classes to see if they are rigorous enough for you. Do they seem interesting and challenging? How do they compare across the different colleges you are considering?

3. Look at requirements in the subject areas that interest you. While you may not have declared your major area of study, you probably know what interests you, and may want to explore what each college expects for graduation requirements. Will you be able to take a variety of classes that interest you, or will you be distracted by unrelated core curriculum requirements? Will you need to complete an honors thesis? Are there opportunities for research, co-ops, internships, or hands-on learning experiences?

4. Speak with students in honors programs (if you are considering one). The term "honors college" is a widely used, loosely defined phrase, and warrants further investigation. Try to meet with other students in the honors program to find out what really goes on. See if the program is what the admissions department portrays. Find out what the students like and do not like about it, what demands and perks are part of it, and how supportive and cohesive it is. Get a sense of how separate or integrated it is with the rest of the university.

5. Visit extra-curriculars that interest you. If participating in a sport, creative or performing arts activity, or other passionate interest is essential to you, the quality of these activities at different colleges can be a deal-breaker. Try to spend time visiting and getting a sense of whether the activity would offer the quality, intensity and commitment you need. Get a sense of the students who participate and whether you would enjoy spending time with them.

Best of luck with a great decision and with your future!

You may also like the following:

Ten essential tips to help your gifted teen plan for college

April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors

Sending your gifted child to college: Providing support when fears arise

Five hurdles gifted college students must overcome

There is life after high school - even for gifted teens

Seven college planning pitfalls (and how to avoid them)

Choose wisely: Some truths about elite colleges for gifted students

Five reasons to consider an elite college (and they're not what you think)

*Names have been changed to protect privacy


  1. There is often little information on choosing the right college for gifted students and as a mother of a gifted teen, I never gave it much thought. Like so many, I too thought college, any college, would be a more engaging educational environment than in high school. Thanks for giving me more to think about and consider.

    You are right about the honor programs at universities--they are not all as they are described. My oldest son was asked to join an honors program his freshman year in college and the perks seemed very attractive. It wasn't at all what he was hoping it would be and turned out to be more of a designation than a program which supported its students.

    Gail, you always provide the most concise and useful information for parents of gifted students. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks, Celi. It is really difficult to decide and to include factors related to giftedness among the many other concerns when choosing a college. I appreciate the information you shared about your older son and the honors program. There are so many differences between colleges that it is hard to know what the term really means. Thank you again for your helpful comments.


  2. Finances are also a consideration for gifted kids. All schools are not created equal, but there are a lot of excellent schools out there; even beyond the ivies. When beginning to look at colleges, check out the schools's endowments. This is a precursor to the amount of money they will have available for scholarships and this can make a huge difference in financial aid. It can make a private school affordable for many gifted students.

    1. Great advice, Lisa. Many falsely assume that gifted children come from wealthy families, just as giftedness is falsely equated with elitism. Financial aid is critical. The better the school, often the greater the endowment. If a family qualifies for need-based financial aid, the ivies, ivy-caliber schools, and many elite private schools offer amazing aid. If a family does not qualify, many smaller schools looking for gifted, accomplished students will offer merit aid. And students with high scores on the PSATs may qualify for National Merit Scholarship status, resulting in free tuition at a range of schools. Thanks for bringing up this important point.

  3. I've learned that one of the hardest parts about going to college is actually choosing a college to go to. The problem I face is that I never had a goal of a certain school to go to, so choosing one has been a huge pain for me. These tips helped and I can't wait to learn more about them.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Sometimes it's better to not get too caught up with focusing on a particular school, though. Having a range of options that fit relatively well allows for the uncertainty of what happens with the admissions process.

  4. Overall it's inspiring blog with great posts.