Barry Mills on a Search for that Perfect College Fit

President Barry Mills, who has been on something of a busman’s holiday these past few days, finds that there’s always more to learn.

I spent the last two days getting first-hand experience on the joys of having a son apply to College. I have gone through this twice before with my two older sons, and I thought I remembered the experience, but these last couple of days have been a reminder that the college admissions journey is different every time you do it.

Somehow, in my family, the college trip has always been my job in the division of labor. Karen makes some noise about how I am the more experienced parent, given my job here at Bowdoin, but the force of this rationale only demonstrates why she is so talented working in the government. I actually enjoy the trips with my sons—the great college bonding experience that includes long car rides, trains, airplanes, and hotels. I know only too well that once college starts, family dynamics change, so the trips are a special time.

Our youngest, George, is a rising senior at Brunswick High School. In the past, I have gotten myself in trouble with my sons by publicly chronicling their lives, so I will refrain.  All I will disclose is that this trip was spent entirely with automobile visits to relatively large schools in New England cities. I did run into a Bowdoin parent at one of the information sessions with their youngest, but I will endeavor to maintain confidentiality for all of us.

It is just amazing how much the college tour matters. Even with my jaded eye and experience, I found myself measuring the quality of the places based on my reactions to the one-hour walk we took with the tour guides. Every guide jokes about his or her ability to walk backwards and exudes enthusiasm for the 13 a capella groups on campus, but the tour experience really does matter. No one recites “The Offer of the College” at the end of the tour as Bowdoin’s famous tour guide, DeRay McKesson, did a few years ago to the delight of the visitors, but one very charming young student did tell our tour group yesterday in very genuine terms why she chose the college she attends, and it mattered.

If one listens very closely in the information sessions, it is possible to pick up the differences among the schools, but it isn’t all that easy. It is just amazing how students can make judgments on the basis of this two-hour exposure to a college or university that has hundreds of years of history, but they do and most often what they decide is right for them.

My overriding impression was not about the schools—it was about the parents. The anxiety level of the parents was just palpable. Part of it was the hassle of finding the campus, a parking space, some place to grab a quick sandwich, and then the right building. But I also noticed a deeper anxiety—people were intent on finding the perfect place for their child and the perfect formula for admissions. I get it—more kids get rejected than accepted at these fantastic schools, but it is quite the daunting system we have created for these families.

I don’t sit in on information sessions at Bowdoin, nor do I go on the tours at the College,  but I frequently get very good reports from parents and alumni on the job that we do. Sometimes, when I walk in the general vicinity of a Bowdoin tour, I am amazed at what I learn. The number of Bowdoin students marrying other Bowdoin students is always quoted as a statistic—but it can’t be over 50% (sometimes, I hear more).

It is very instructive for me to be on the “other side.” In my job—as in many of yours—it is really so important to understand how our “product” (the College) is perceived and how are we doing conveying our message. I come away even more convinced that we must make our process more transparent and we must be very clear what Bowdoin represents and what we are about. In the end, we reject a whole lot more students than we are able to accept, so it is vital for the reputation of the College and for our sense of ourselves, that we interact with our potential students and their families with respect and sensitivity for their anxiety (without, of course, going too far to enable that anxiety).

One wise and experienced admissions person told us today the decision is made in your head, heart, and gut. I think that is good advice, so as we finished at each campus, I suggested to George that he take a moment to walk into the main quad of each place we visited and picture himself on the campus. If it feels right, it probably is. It was a good test—some places scored high, others not so high. We are at the beginning of George’s college process, but I can’t wait for next April to see how this all resolves.


Over the summer, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available on here or on the Bowdoin website.


  1. Lana Adikes says:

    Barry…my daughter, Katherin Adikes ( Bowdoin 2004 ) just married Patrick Rockefeller ( 2004 )…Dick Pulsifer and his wife, Lynn, attended the wedding in Milwaukee, Kate’s home town…

    After graduation, Kate, Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, spent a year with Hanley Denning in Guatemala as a volunteer, during which time we visited her there…after that she had a 2 year fellowship at the NIH in D.C. in bio ethics and followed that up with med school at Michigan…where she is now in her 4th year

    Patrick is with the Dept of Defense and will be leaving in October for his second tour of duty in Afganistan…

    This is such an extroadinary couple and a true product of a Bowdoin education…I hope you remember them…they are a remarkable couple…Bowdoin was very important to both of them and enriched both of their lives…we enjoyed meeting you on several occasions and thank you for your meaningful work at Bowdoin…best of luck to you in the future and may you continue to have a profound effect on young people embarking on their futures…thank you for your excellence…

    Lana Adikes
    6151 North Lake Drive
    Whitefish Bay, WI 53217

  2. Audrey Rabinowitz says:

    President Mills,

    I read your piece while visiting schools in the midwest with my son. In this second go round we’ve made one change from the the first time we went through the search process with our daughter, a rising senior at Bowdoin. We don’t constantly compare schools or try to figure out which one is “the best fit.” Instead, we are happily compiling a list of schools that he likes, and will apply to. The pressure to make the right choice or to figure out which school is best for him is premature – because right now the choice is theirs, not ours. Next April, we expect that there will be more than one acceptance in the mail. At that point, we can help him make a choice. But postponing that decision until it really exists takes a lot of the pressure off and makes the visits much more enjoyable.

    Bowdoin turned out to be the “perfect fit” for our daughter. But had she made a different choice, that might have been “perfect” too. Visiting schools without the need to constantly size them up against each other makes it easier to appreciate how many wonderful possibilities are out there.

    On a separate note, we have found the quality of the information sessions varies dramatically from one school to another. It is so surprising that with all of the time and money schools put into the recruitment process, there isn’t more focus on the content of these sessions, which really can have a significant impact on the listeners. The best session we attended was given by an assistant dean who promised not to tell us anything that could be found on the school’s website!

    We are enjoying your columns.


    Audrey Rabinowitz

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