The hallway outside the counseling office at Walter Johnson High School is lined with pieces of brightly colored paper that showcase the names of colleges where seniors have been accepted. This past spring, the names included Harvard, Duke, Stanford and dozens of others.

Madeline Feierstein, a 2014 graduate of Walter Johnson, knew that many of her classmates would not recognize her choice, McDaniel College, a 1,700-student liberal arts school in Westminster, Maryland. For her, that didn’t matter.

Madeline wanted a small school, not too far from home. She was struck at first by the beauty of McDaniel’s campus, but ultimately it was the welcoming students and faculty who won her over. Madeline says she often felt like an outsider when she visited colleges as a high school senior.

While shadowing a student for a day at McDaniel, her host introduced her to her friends in the cafeteria and showed her the dorms. Sitting in on a class, Madeline found herself contributing to the discussions. “I raised my hand and said, ‘I think I know the answer,’ ” she says.

“The name of your college does not brand you,” says Madeline Feierstein, a 2014 graduate of Walter Johnson High School and current sophomore at McDaniel College.

Now, as a sophomore studying French and social work, Madeline says the personal attention continues. She likes that her professors notice when she is absent. “Instead of them going, ‘Where were you?’ they ask, ‘Are you OK?’ ” Madeline says. “That means a lot.”

While Madeline’s college search may not sound particularly groundbreaking, she was able to arrive at a mature conclusion that eludes many of her peers—and even her peers’ parents. “It was important for me to apply to schools where I could see myself, not just because everyone else was going,” she says. “In the end, it’s about you.”


ON A MONDAY NIGHT in late April, parents from across Montgomery County filled about two-thirds of the Walt Whitman High School auditorium to hear Frank Bruni talk about his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. A columnist for The New York Times, Bruni described students he interviewed who excelled at state schools and others who flaked out at selective colleges, and listed business executives and politicians who graduated from lesser-known institutions.

Bruni said many parents and students have turned what should be an “electric and exhilarating” phase of exploration into a “chapter of the greatest dread” for teenagers. When parents spend so much money on test prep, tutoring and private counselors, it conveys the notion that advantage in life can be bought. “The message the kid hears is, ‘I can’t do it on my own,’ ” Bruni said.

During the question-and-answer period, some parents said they were relieved to hear his voice of reason, while one parent of a freshman expressed doubt that she could manage the process without hiring help. “I know it seems like a dizzying process,” Bruni said before adding that school counselors are paid for their expertise, and that there is a wealth of information online. “We have entered an era where people with money seem not to feel like they are living life as they should unless important decisions are outsourced to experts.”


Bruni said it’s up to parents to change the tone of the conversation. “It has to start with the consumer,” he said, telling parents that colleges are all too happy to play the game of competing and appearing exclusive—as long as there is a market for it.

Lynda Hitchcock, college/career information coordinator at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, has had similar conversations with parents over the years, but she says many are not convinced. “It’s like talking to a brick wall,” she says.

“I have been all over the country, and it is the same in every neighborhood that resides in the top 5 percent of the parental income, as Bethesda does,” says Jay Mathews, a reporter for The Washington Post, author of Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That Is Best for You, and a former Bethesda resident.


“Successful parents want the same success for their kids, and too many of them believe that comes from getting into a very selective college.”

The college search process here has always been intense, but has become more so thanks in part to The Common Application and the ease of applying online. Top colleges are more selective than ever, with many reporting record numbers of applicants in 2015.

Yet most experts agree: More important than the reputation of the college is what students do once they’re on campus. Research shows that landing a spot in a top-tier school does not guarantee the employment and income edge that many assume.


Economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale investigated the monetary return for graduates of selective colleges compared with those who attended less-selective schools. After factoring for academic achievement—such as SAT scores—the researchers concluded that students who applied to elite schools but attended less-selective institutions earned salaries as high as those who did go to the elite schools. In other words, the school was not the springboard for their success—it was the caliber and the ambition of the students going into college that mattered most.

Rather than zeroing in narrowly on the so-called “best” schools, local counselors suggest that parents should encourage their child to make a college list based on his or her interests. “All those rankings are fair places to start if you want someone else’s opinion or someone else’s criteria,” says Dennis Reynolds, a counselor at Walter Johnson.
For this story, we sought out area families and kids who looked beyond brand names in favor of colleges that made sense for them. The reasons why they ended up where they did are as varied as the kids themselves—from the unique degree programs to the engaging social scene to the lower cost.   

“In the end, what prestige offers is status and an experience,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Its practical effect on your career is minimal.”


THE SUMMER BEFORE her senior year, Lila Sheon’s parents bought her a guidebook on colleges. “I literally sat on the couch, watching TV, and put sticky notes on pages that sounded like any sort of possibility,” says the 2015 graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.