Lynn O'Shaughnessy

When my daughter was preparing to retake the SAT last fall, she asked me to help her with some sample questions that she'd missed. She was supposed to pick out the mistakes in various sentences. They could have been missing a semicolon or the tenses didn't match or there was some other crime against English grammar rules.

When I looked at the circled test questions, I was as mystified as Caitlin. The sentences were clearly awkward, but the choices, as far as I was concerned, were all dreadful. The inanity of the SAT was one of the more frustrating moments that I experienced as I helped my daughter on her journey to find a great college or university at an affordable price. Now that Caitlin is a survivor of the college admissions race, I thought this would be a good time to share some of what I've learned.

Years before the search began, Caitlin had naively assumed that she'd attend the University of California Berkeley. She is not much different from millions of other kids growing up in this state. She knew little about the school except that her dad graduated from there. Of course, the obvious drawback to choosing this college path is that for most students it has become an impassable one. The academic requirements have grown so high that admission officers can even spurn valedictorians.

Crossing Berkeley off Caitlin's list, however, proved to be a blessing because it prompted her to look beyond the familiar to explore higher education gems that we never knew existed. A turning point came when someone recommended a book, "Colleges that Change Lives, 40 Schools that Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges," by Loren Pope (

When I read the slim book, I remember feeling practically giddy as I learned that bigger isn't better and prestige is overrated. Pope, who was an admissions counselor and the former education editor at The New York Times, is an unabashed booster of small liberal arts colleges, where he insists that students can receive a superior education to the hallowed Ivies.

Over the course of two summers, we visited 18 small liberal arts colleges in the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast. (Go ahead and call it what it probably is - overkill.) Some schools were in Pope's book, but many were not. Caitlin applied to eight schools and had no trouble getting accepted. While high school guidance counselors recommend applying to some "reach schools," these schools were missing from Caitlin's list. And here's why: A college where Caitlin might barely squeak in was definitely not going to reward her with a merit scholarship.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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