Making a useful college mission statement

I've written about how and why to craft a college mission statement, but I want to follow up with more detail and give a sense of how you might use the mission statement to help make your college search more efficient and effective.

Let's walk through Kim's mission statement and see how it works. And let me state something obvious that needs repeating: Kim's preferences are simply what she wants and likes. They're neither good nor bad, and they're different than yours. That's just fine.

What we put together is this: "I want to study social sciences and have opportunities for research and professional interactions with professors at a small- to medium-sized urban university, preferably on the East or West coast, with a traditional campus feel and a clear path to graduate programs."

  * "I want to study social sciences" Kim doesn't know what she wants to major in, which is okay because she still has a year of high school left (and she'll probably change her mind once she gets to college). But she's pretty confident it will be in the Social Sciences category. Maybe Political Science, maybe Sociology, maybe Criminology. She'd like to be an FBI agent or work in public policy. When she thinks about giving back to society, it takes the form of public policy more than volunteering spare time or spare change.

  * "and have opportunities for research and professional interactions with professors" Academics are only a part of college life. There are also lots of social, athletic, spiritual, and professional opportunities. For some people, classes aren't even the major focus of college, just something they need to do in order to have access to the other stuff. But for Kim, the academics are central. She'd like opportunities to help with research, and she's interested in interacting with professors outside the classroom.

  * "at a small- to medium-sized urban university" Kim wants to live in a city. She's much more flexible on the size of the campus than the size of its location. 

  * "preferably on the East or West Coast" While based more on past experience than anything objective, Kim feels a strong preference for East and West. She won't ignore good fits from the South or Midwest, but she isn't really seeking them out.

  * "with a traditional campus feel" This has come up a lot with Kim. She really likes a traditional college vibe. Stone buildings, a concentrated quad with a big lawn, things like that. She's reconciled this love of old traditional college campuses with her desire to live in a city she can explore by looking for schools that are like small self-contained spaces within a larger context. So, for example, Columbia in New York City is much more appealing to her than NYU. I suspect she's been heavily influenced by Rice University here in Houston, which feels very much like a small town in the middle of a giant city.

  * "and a clear path to graduate school." Virtually any university is a path to graduate school, but Kim wants to make sure she's at a place where it's normal to go on to a graduate program and she can have support for working toward a graduate program.

We didn't get to this mission statement quickly--this was the fourth of six sessions. I wouldn't ask anyone to put together a concise mission statement about what they want until they've spent a lot of time really exploring what they want first. There are other things that Kim and I talked about that I know she'd like in a college, but these are her priorities.

After putting the statement into a readable, if lengthy, sentence, we went back and gave weights to each element based on a 100-point scale. By giving weights and scores to the different elements of her mission statement, Kim can be clear to herself and others what's most important, what's kind of important, and what's only marginally important. It also gives her a way to compare and even rank schools based on her criteria, not the criteria of a magazine or website. The "top 100 schools in the nation" don't matter to Kim--the "top 100 schools for Kim" matter to her.

  * "I want to study social sciences" 40 points. As much as Kim likes to think about the aesthetics and general vibe of a school, she recognizes that studying for her degree is the most important to her, so she gives this a lot of weight. In our session, we looked up the most popular majors for schools on Big Future. If "Social Sciences" was on the list, she gave the school at least 30 points. If it was the top major, with over 30% of students majoring in social sciences? Then it gets all 40 points. 

  * "and have opportunities for research and professional interactions with professors" 40 points. This aspect is the other most important one to Kim. She needs to be at place, wherever it is, where she feels welcome to visit professors during office hours and she can have opportunities to participate in research and internships. She wants to be very hands-on with her academic classes. We had to use published faculty-student ratios as a proxy for access to professors and projects. This isn't a perfect measurement, but it's something she can get a better look at during campus visits and her own research.

  * "at a small- to medium-sized urban university" 5 points. Size makes a difference to Kim--she doesn't want to feel lost at a giant school. But she also recognizes that she can figure out schools of different sizes as long as the other stuff is taken care of. Again, we used the official College Board designations to determine what is small and medium. 

  * "preferably on the East or West Coast" 5 points. Kim prefers to look at D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. But she's open-minded if a good fit comes along from somewhere else.

  * "with a traditional campus feel" 10 points. Kim's less flexible about the general feeling and tone of her college. This was the most difficult part to gauge for us in our short session. We mostly just looked at photos of campuses online and had to make a determination. She can work on getting a clearer sense over the next year through further searching and possibly visits.

  * "and a clear path to graduate school." 0 points. For Kim's own motivation, and to be clear in her communication with schools about what she's interested in, she kept this in her mission statement. But we also recognized that it's really hard to measure, and that counting for this is probably the same as counting for opportunities for research and projects. So it stays in the statement but gets no points.

I also asked Kim to give bonus points for safety schools. I cannot overstate how important this is. Too many students have a completely separate search for safety schools. They apply to schools they want to attend, and then they apply to a few schools they don't have much interest in but are likely accept them. This can turn out disastrous! Safety schools should be schools that match your criteria...and also are likely to accept you. They may not be "dream schools," but you don't want to count them out. To help keep safety schools on the short list, we add bonus points to them. How exactly to define a safety school is different for each student and each situation, but this is what we did for Kim: we added 5 points for schools whose overall acceptance rate is over 80%. For schools where her SAT scores are above their mid range, we added another 5 points. 

(Kim is confident that the schools she's looking at are within her financial reach, so we didn't include cost in the mission statement. If cost is a major factor for you, add bonus points for schools that fit your financial need. You may even put cost into your mission statement.)

Then, to make sure everything seemed right, we tested the mission statement. We scored three schools that I already know she's really interested in to make sure they got high scores. We scored three schools I know she's not interested in to make sure they got low scores. This also made Kim rethink her weights and points. When Franklin Olin College of Engineering, which only offers degrees in engineering, got high marks for being in an urban center and having a really low student-to-faculty ratio, she had to decide if she wanted to put less emphasis on those elements and even more on a strong social science program. But Olin still got less than 50 points, so she kept things as they were.

So now Kim has a working mission statement, with weighted scores. Think about how useful this is to her.

It's useful in a passive sense, because when Kim gets a brochure or email from a college, she can get a quick sense of how interested she might be in the school with only about a three-minute online search. How big and where is the campus? What's the faculty-student ratio? Is Social Sciences a major department? Done. Kim doesn't overlook good fits just because she hasn't heard of them, and she doesn't waste time exploring not-so-good fits just because a school has a familiar name. It also helps her cut through the marketing and look at what's really important to her. She doesn't have to figure out which school she should pursue based on comparing one school's standard class-under-a-tree photo with another's.

There's also a more active way that this mission statement is useful. When Kim is doing more in-depth research, or visiting a campus, or talking to a school's representative, she has very specific questions to ask. She's trying to get accurate scores for the sections of her mission statement. So Kim is moving beyond just "is Social Sciences popular at this school?' and also asking "what percentage of Social Science majors go on to graduate programs?" And "Does the university have graduate programs in the social sciences, and if so how does that affect the undergrad program?" She's also getting a sense of just how much the school's community interacts--remember, she's looking for urban areas--with the greater community. Is there a subway stop nearby? What kind of local partnerships does the school have? Having this mission statement and weights gives Kim a clear way to actively seek what she's looking for rather than just going on a campus tour hoping to be wowed by the dining hall selections.

One last thing that I tried to make clear to Kim and I'll try to make clear here. While this process is literally formulaic, it doesn't have to be rigid. All it does is make you more self-aware. Kim can change and tweak her mission statement and the weights as much as she needs as she keeps developing over her next two years of high school. If there's a school that doesn't score high on her mission statement that she stills wants to apply to because it has some special feeling, that's great. If a school scores really high but just repels her for some reason, no problem. But she'll be aware that she's applying to a school that has a special something even though it doesn't fit what she says she wants. She'll be aware that she's passing up something that fits her needs, at least on paper. She can still be swayed, but she won't easily get played.

What's important to you is probably very different than what's important to Kim. She's not considering sports, Greek life, cost, quality of boarding, or several other things that many people do consider. But whatever is important to you, once you understand what that is, can be put into a mission statement like hers. It makes you a much more active problem-solver and less of a passive product hoping to get accepted somewhere.

[This is an editied version of a post I first ran last year.]

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