The Insider’s Guide to Insiders’ Guides to Colleges

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Making sense of college admissions guides can be difficultThe college guides showed discrepancies on matters such as the most popular majors at a school, its acceptance rate, the odds of getting knifed on your way to the library — but the guides were impressively uniform about a school’s culture: every school was nearly perfect. Andrew Ferguson, author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, struggles to make sense of it all.

I stopped buying college guides after I had five of them, when I noticed that of the five, four seemed at first glance to be interchangeable. The best-selling of them all was the Fiske Guide. Its first edition was put out in 1982 by the education editor of the New York Times. Ted Fiske has retired from the Times but he still publishes his guide, along with companion volumes under his own eponymous brand. With the help of a small staff, Fiske mails questionnaires every few years to college administrators, who pick a handful of students — sometimes as few as five — to answer questions about college life and then return the forms to Fiske. His method is highly subjective and unscientific, as he admits without apology. “Social scientists will tell you it’s crazy,” he once told me. “But I don’t talk to social scientists if I can help it.”

With some variation, Fiske’s method has been copied by nearly all his competitors: editors survey students or recent graduates by mail or over the Web, pluck quotes from the written answers, and then type up a review of each school in a breezy style. Again the formula is a sure moneymaker. It offers low overhead, high margins, a market that refreshes itself every year, and meanwhile you make the schools do all the boring stuff. The guides sell for a bit more than twenty dollars. For this sum the Fiske Guide claims to give you “an insider’s look” at the top 310 schools. The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, edited by the staff of the Yale Daily News, gives you “an insider’s look” at the 330 top schools. Barron’s Guide to the Most Competitive Colleges gives you “an insider’s assessment” of the eighty-six top schools. The Princeton Review 368 Best Colleges gives you the “inside word” on the top 368 schools (though the number of top schools changes mysteriously with each edition). Choosing the Right College, my fifth guide, is put together by conservative Republicans for other conservative Republicans, on the premise that “many college classes are little more than indoctrination in leftist propaganda.” It sounded like an outsider’s guide to me, but no: Choosing the Right College gives you “information previously only available to insiders.” The number of their top schools is 134.

As it happened, the guides were not interchangeable. Flopping them open on the dining-room table, I searched for what these insiders had to say about the schools my son had expressed interest in. I started with our Big State University, BSU. I learned from the Insider’s Guide — I know, they’re all insider’s guides — that BSU had a four-year graduation rate of 92 percent. From Choosing the Right College, I learned that BSU had an 83 percent four-year graduation rate. Fiske told me the strongest majors at BSU were English, Spanish, Portuguese, Religious studies, and German; I learned from Barron’s that the strongest majors were English, history, and biology. As for the most popular majors at BSU, they were psychology, economics, and business — when I was reading Princeton Review. When I read Barron’s, the most popular majors became psychology, history, and English.

At Notre Dame, the Princeton Review’s insiders told me that the school had an acceptance rate of 24 percent and a yield of 56 percent; the insiders at Insider’s Guide said the acceptance rate was 27 percent and the yield was 16 percent. At Choosing the Right College the yield zoomed to 58 percent. The Notre Dame in Choosing had a faculty–student ratio of eleven to one, much more intimate than Princeton Review’s Notre Dame, where it was thirteen to one. Sometimes reading the guides was like traveling through alternative universes: not only did USC’s four-year graduation rate greatly improve on its way from Choosing to the Insider’s Guide (from 69 percent to 84 percent), the crime rate changed too. In the Insider’s Guide USC “was surprisingly safe.” In Choosing the Right College “the entire USC area” was “incredibly unsafe.” Republicans are such wusses.

These discrepancies usually arose only on matters of objective importance, such as the most popular majors at a school, its acceptance rate, and the odds of getting knifed on your way to the library. When it came to the intangibles, a school’s culture, the tone or texture of campus life, the law of constant contradiction was momentarily suspended. The guides showed an impressive uniformity: every school was nearly perfect. Everywhere the students “worked hard” but “knew how to party when they were done studying.” Profs were all “accessible” even if occasionally “you have to seek them out”; they were also “terrific” and “awesome.” There “was always something going on on campus” — on every campus, all the time. “Students do a great job balancing work and play.” “Class sizes are manageable” but “it depends on the class you take.” That does make sense. “If you’re not afraid to work hard, you’ll do fine.”

I ventured beyond the schools my son was interested in, looking for variety. I didn’t find it. Suddenly I was mad to read about a school where the profs were mouth-breathers and the parties were as fun as an autopsy, where psychopaths overran the fraternities and a half-asleep third grader could pass the chemistry class. But of course I never found it, not in these books. The guides insist they’re describing the “top schools,” after all, and it stands to reason that top schools will share certain marks of excellence, even if the excellence starts to run thin by the time you get to the 373rd top school. In choosing students to respond to the surveys, college administrators are unlikely to ask the pipehead passed out in the dormitory stairwell for his candid views. These surveys are filled out by the kind of young people who volunteer to fill out surveys — a principle of self-selection certain to yield a highly upbeat group of youngsters. Insiders are all alike, no matter what school they go to.



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Sian Beilock, a leading expert on the brain science behind human performance, is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Chicago. She has PhDs in both kinesiology and psychology from Michigan State University, and received an award for Transformative Early Career Contributions from the Association for Psychological Science in 2011.

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