When Seeking a Great College Fit, Gifted Students Have Additional Considerations
Flick, A.
OAGC Review
Ohio Association for Gifted Children
Fall 2012

This article takes a look at the many factors that go into the college search process for gifted students.

As they head back to school this fall, many high schoolers are transitioning into a more intense phase of the college search journey. These emerging adults have lots of decisions to make: Large or small? Urban or rural? University or liberal arts college? Finding the right college fit is a challenging process for most students, but gifted students have additional factors to consider. “These bright, gifted children crave good teaching,” said Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, former senior director of admissions at Stanford, and coauthor of Admission Matters. With “someone who gets them, understands them,” Reider said, “they’re in heaven.” He suggests that parents work with their students to find schools that focus on good teaching. Bypass the sales pitches that focus on the dorms, the food, and other amenities, he advises, and instead ask for examples of engaging teachers and try to meet a professor in the area of interest. More often, Reider points out, a focus on teaching is easier to find at a small college.

“We stress the college visit,” added Derick Strode, assistant director of academic services at the Gatton Academy, Kentucky’s residential math and science school. For the last two years, Strode has been guiding the college searches of the select group of students at the academy, which Newsweek now ranks as the top public high school in the nation. “Most every school has a unique personality,” Strode pointed out. To illustrate, Strode gives students and their parents examples of schools that he says have “extreme personalities,” such as Grinnell College in Iowa and Evergreen State College in Washington State. Similarly, Berea College in Kentucky, he added, serves a certain “niche market.”

Gifted teens should consider a number of factors in finding the right campus culture. Ultimately, the student must look inward to determine what type of atmosphere enables him or her to thrive. Does competition bring out the best in her, so that she will most enjoy a school where the students actively vie for top academic spots? Or does he blossom in a supportive community, where students help each other develop to levels beyond what they could achieve on their own? The competitive-supportive question is a crucial one for most gifted learners.

A related consideration is the fish-in-pond effect. Many gifted teens have spent their entire academic careers in schools or districts in which they have few if any academic peers. Earning the top score on every test is routine, as is acing papers written a fraction of the time that classmates spent on theirs. After a while, a student’s identity can become intertwined with being the standout. Going to college, especially a strong college, where there are classes full of valedictorians, can be a real jolt. Some students will be energized by that change, thrilled finally to be among like minds. But others will question their very identity if they are no longer the big fish in the small pond. Students must be honest early in the college search process and identify whether they want to be among other equally strong students or whether they still want to lead the pack. Once the choice is made, they can identify match schools by looking at a college’s midrange of SAT or ACT scores. The student who still wants to be top dog should select a school whose 25th to 75th percentile scores are solidly below his own; the student who wants lots of like minds should apply to schools where her scores are near average.

Similarly, families of gifted students should be aware of the grading practices of colleges under consideration. After more than a decade’s experience with grades that may or may not be reflective of their true abilities, gifted students may leave high school with some strong feelings about how they like to have their work assessed. Some advanced incoming freshmen may be drawn to schools like Evergreen State and New College of Florida, which do not assign grades but instead give narrative feedback on a student’s mastery. While the grading-on-a-curve approach may stimulate some bright learners, other gifted freshmen would find that system frustrating and unfair. Prospective undergraduates should identify a compatible grading system before they submit their applications so that the formerly straight-A student doesn’t get a depressing shock at the end of first semester.

Just as grading systems vary between colleges, so too do distribution requirements. By the time they head off to college, some gifted students have been bristling for years at having to meet various course requirements while being held back from pursuing areas of deep interest. Andrew Quinn, college adviser of the Davidson Academy of Nevada, a public day school that serves profoundly gifted youth, says that colleges run the gamut from “no core curriculum versus a very rigid curriculum.” Also known as “general studies requirements,” these prescriptions require students to take a minimum number of credits in various subject areas, with the goal of developing graduates with a broad knowledge base. Schools vary in how specifically they spell out such universal requirements. Columbia, for example, has a precise set of courses that every student must take. Many state universities instead require coursework in science, humanities, arts, and the like but allow students broad choices of courses within each category. A few schools like Hamilton College and Brown University have no core curriculum. What’s important when considering schools, Quinn said, “is whether the student has the interest and strengths to help him power through what he may consider a more irrelevant or boring class.” If not, he should consider schools with minimal or no core requirements. He also should look closely at other schools’ specific requirements to determine their appeal; although considered rigid, Columbia’s core curriculum consists of rich, deep, engaging courses that many gifted students would savor.

“These kinds of kids have had to learn to be independent learners,” Reider said. This pattern gives gifted students “a natural feel for research,” he said. Reider suggests that students ask college admissions counselors and department professors, “What is the research component of undergraduate education? In what way, and what kind of support is there?” Smaller colleges tend to have more research opportunities for undergraduates, Reider added, but such opportunities can also be found in some larger institutions.

Similarly, Strode advises students to ask about help in finding opportunities beyond campus during and after the college years. “I would ask what support there is for graduate school, and when does it start?” Strode recommended. Likewise, he encourages students to determine how well the school aids undergraduates in locating and getting accepted into internships. Of particular relevance to gifted students, Quinn adds, is knowing what kind of support the school offers to those applying for national and international scholarships like the Fulbright, Goldwater, Marshall, and Mitchell scholarships. Increasingly common are entire offices or departments dedicated to guiding and supporting students through these rigorous application processes. For example, both Ohio University and University of Cincinnati have an Office of Nationally Competitive Awards.

Another practical academic consideration for advanced students is, according to Quinn, “prior college credit and understanding what will happen to that credit, especially if the student is hoping to graduate quite early using that credit.” In this category Quinn counts not only dual credit courses completed while in high school but also Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate program results. Parents often are courted with the notion that paying a modest sum for AP, IB, or dual credits in high school can save semesters of college tuition later. In fact, colleges vary widely in their application of such credits. While some colleges give matriculants credit for introductory coursework, others apply the credit only as elective credit. Others do not award credit but offer placement in higher level courses, and still others—usually the most elite—award neither credit nor placement. If placement or credit for college-level work done in high school is important to the college applicant, he should investigate closely the college’s policies; some colleges will not commit to an enumeration of an individual student’s credit acceptance until after admission. Also, there are rare instances in which universities cap the number of credits that a student can accrue, so coming in with a hefty number of college credits may result in a student’s being forced to graduate earlier than planned. Students with quite a few AP, IB, or dual credits may want to verify that they still will be entitled to four full years at the institution.

Bright teens already set on certain professional paths may want to look closely for a category of schools Reider and his coauthors discuss in Admission Matters, namely those with dual degree programs. Advanced learners are strong candidates for combined programs that overlap the bachelor’s degree with an advanced professional degree, such as a BA-MD, BA-JD, or BA-MBA.

Gifted learners with multipotentiality may be drawn to a college’s special opportunities like the University of Rochester’s Take Five Scholars program, which, according to the school’s Web site, allows students to “apply for a fifth year of courses tuition free to follow their intellectual passion.” It may take some digging to unearth unusual programs like this, but finding just such an opportunity may help tip the decision for a driven learner.

Finally, gifted students also must examine their own preferences and the college’s culture when it comes to the social life. Artistically talented students may crave a community in which uniqueness and creativity are prevalent. Students with leadership abilities may look for a more global focus in a college. When students believe that they have found the colleges that have the social aspects they desire, they still must investigate the consistency of the social scene. Is the college community close—that is, do most of the students live on campus for four years? Is the school in an isolated area in which the social life revolves mostly around the campus? Is the campus like a ghost town from the Old West every weekend, deserted by students heading home? Asking questions like these will spare gifted students the disappointment of finally having found “their people” only to have them all evacuate the campus regularly.

Gifted students and their families do have several extra considerations when searching for colleges. However, the extra effort expended in the search likely will lead to a list of several schools that offer that comfortable fit—both academically and socially—for the new undergraduate.

College Planning Books

Admission Matters (2009) by Sally P. Stringer, Jon Reider, and Marion R. Franck, Jossey-Bass, $14.95
Authored by a former Stanford admissions officer and a UC-Davis associate chancellor emerita with the assistance of a professional writer, Admission Matters is a comprehensive reference and thorough guide for both students and parents to the ins, outs, and tangents of the college search and application process. The appendix includes valuable forms and worksheets to help applicants organize information and proceed through the decisionmaking process.

College Planning for Gifted Students (2006) by Sandra L. Berger, Prufrock Press, $18.95
Berger addresses the whole range of gifted students, including twice exceptional and homeschooled, encouraging students to think about not only what they need from a college but also what they can contribute to a college. While all the important topics of the search and application process are touched on, the emphasis is on helping the gifted student find the right college match.

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges (2012) by Loren Pope and Hilary Masell Oswald, Penguin, $17.00 (print), $12.99 (eBook)
Don’t be thrown by the theme of touting wondrous schools that bring B students to a new level of performance. The mostly small, intimate liberal arts colleges described individually and at length in this book simply and consistently deliver the sort of rigor that challenges and enthralls many gifted students. For example, many of these institutions require a demanding capstone experience. Pope details each school’s culture, which often includes collegial relationships between caring faculty who are dedicated to teaching and students who support each other’s growth.

Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different (2007) by Donald Asher, Ten Speed Press, $21.99 (print), $14.99 (eBook)
This book is a collection of features on distinctive colleges and programs sprinkled among short essays on college life as well as aspects to consider in the college search. Topics range from cool scholarship programs, to the author’s vote for best honors college program in the nation,to the value of an Ivy League education. This book is a great introduction for bright students to unique schools that may prove to be the dream schools that they may not otherwise learn of from guidance counselors or other books.

Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians, and Writers (2008) by Elaina Loveland, SuperCollege, $19.95
Students pursuing artistic fields have a whole host of additional considerations in the college search and application process. Loveland introduces students to the typical curricula in each program area, advises on portfolios and auditions, and helps students compare programs. She profiles several schools’ programs in each artistic area and includes a lengthy list of colleges offering that major with extensive details about each.

Imagine magazine, $30.00 (one-year subscription) and Imagine College Reviews CD $20.00, Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth: cty.jhu.edu/imagine/about/college-reviews.html
In each of its five issues every year, Imagine magazine devotes a two-page spread to a review of a different college. Since the publication serves gifted high school students, the editors pick strong colleges and interview a dozen or so current or recent students “who have high academic ability.” The articles always address the following topics with specific, descriptive quotes from the students: quality of academic instruction, social life, what students like best and least about the school, who would be most compatible with the academic and social atmosphere of the school (an intelligent question that yields telling responses), and if you had it to do over again, would you go to this school. A subscription provides five new reviews a year. The CD of past reviews includes 48 different schools, although some of the reviews, dating as far back as 2000, may be of limited value.

Anne Flick, a gifted intervention specialist and former gifted coordinator, holds a master’s degree in gifted education. She serves families and schools as an educational consultant specializing in gifted education. She has presented at national and state conferences as well as local parent groups.

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