Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy

Column: The Focused Student: Choosing the right college is just the start

The other day I ran into a good friend at Starbucks. The conversation soon turned to the college admissions scandal and we both expressed amazement people would go to such extremes to get their children into elite schools.

Before we parted ways she recommended a great book called “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. I bought a copy and immersed myself in the book, gaining a lot of useful insights in the process.

Why do some people go to great lengths to get their kids into elite schools? Many believe that the prestige of a Yale or USC degree will bring almost automatic success in life. Others think a faculty of prominent researchers will translate to a better education. There are those who think that both peers and professors at elite schools will provide invaluable connections that assure jobs and internships, or that the highly ranked schools have something to offer that others don’t.

Bruni addresses all of these assumptions and more by looking at what the data say. The answers are startling, interesting and useful. I’m willing to offer this much of a preview: the best schools do not have a lock on delivering the best education for the majority of students.


What are some of the qualities that help students get the best college education, no matter where they go? It turns out that in order to see clearly, you have to turn the telescope around. It’s not the college or university so much as the student and what he or she does with the opportunities available at almost any school.

One of the keys is motivation. Successful students have the motivation and initiative to do more than the minimum and to be persistent. This can mean petitioning to take a certain class, or filling out an application for a particular program, then following up and making him/herself visible. It means looking into specialty programs, or attending lectures and other programs, then having the gumption to speak to the speaker.

A second quality of successful students is creativity or as Apple once put it in an advertising campaign, “Think Different.” Most students ask for precise guidelines on a paper that is due; how long, how many footnotes, or how many resources must be used? Successful students ask, “What could I do that is unique in terms of content or presentation?”

A third quality linked to success might best be described as “leveraging.” Colleges and universities have a huge number of options, opportunities and resources available, many of which very few students pursue. The inquisitive student — the successful student — asks faculty and counselors and peers what’s available and then acts on the information, which could be a study-abroad program, a unique internship, or a specialty program-within-a-program such as an entrepreneur program within a business major.


Finally, successful students develop and nurture a passion for their primary interest. Their excitement is easily recognized by faculty who share that interest. It fires inquisitiveness, sustains determination and leads to success.

How can parents help? Start by exposing your child to a variety of different things at a young age, from art to sports. Encourage them to dream and ask “What if?” questions. As they get older, encourage them to keep their options open. If they want to be a professional baseball player, don’t discourage it. Ask them to think of complementary areas or fields that might be associated with baseball such as being a statistician, personal trainer, manager, or an architect specializing in sports facilities.

Most important, share with your student that a great education depends much more on the student’s actions than the college or university’s reputation. Far too many students are pressured by parents to attend schools where the student isn’t comfortable with the pressure, size, curriculum, or social demands. The college or university where you went, or that is highly ranked is not necessarily the best choice for your child. Help her or him find what fits best, rather than what’s famous.

Robert Frank is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at