From the White House to the house down the street, it’s crunch time in the college application process. High School seniors are filling out forms, polishing essays and making final decisions about where they will apply.

They typically will choose several schools that match their needs, finances and abilities, a “safety” in case they are rejected by the others, and a “stretch” school – one that is more selective and carries more prestige.

The details of her application list are a First Family secret, but Malia Obama, who’ll graduate next spring from the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, is known to have visited at least a dozen colleges, including six in the Ivy League, along with Stanford, NYU and the University of California, Berkeley.

Malia has several advantages in the college admissions sweepstakes. She’s an Ivy League legacy, with parents holding degrees from Columbia, Princeton and Harvard. She’s black, if affirmative action comes into play. And there’s the daughter-of-a-president thing.

But the Obamas are asking themselves questions that will be familiar to all of us who have been through this process: Where should I apply? Where can I get in? What’s really the best school for me?

Most students, and most parents, hope for the thick envelope admitting them to their stretch school, the one that ranks highest on the national lists, that carries the most prestige. But bragging rights don’t count for much by the time first year finals come around, and many proud students have found out too late that the school they picked isn’t the best school for them.

Often, it’s because there is a mismatch between their abilities and the school’s demands. They were academic stars in high school, but found themselves struggling in unfamiliar territory in their first organic chemistry course. Their sports skills got them through the door with a great financial aid package, but they struck out when they had to read three books and write three papers in a single week. Or they majored in partying during their freshman year and never made it to their sophomore year.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stumbled into this issue this month during oral arguments on a challenge to affirmative action in college admissions. Scalia, who is often wrong but rarely this inarticulate, said “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less - a slower-track school where they do well.”

There was an immediate outcry over the racism that his remarks either implied – or didn’t. People who had benefited from affirmative action programs, had thrived in elite schools and had success afterwards offered their stories as proof that the hypothesis Scalia put forth is wrong.

Anecdotes aren’t proof, of course. Some students will rise to the challenges posed by an elite college. Some are academic late bloomers, whose high school records don’t reflect their true potential. But not all.

And there’s a real argument that giving applicants a boost in the admission process does them no favors. Briefs were filed on both sides of the affirmative admissions case citing or challenging the mismatch hypothesis, though their relevance is debatable. The question before the Supreme Court is whether race-conscious admissions are constitutional, not whether they are beneficial for the students.

Like many ideas, this one is easier to discuss if we leave race out of it.

Any student admitted to a more selective college than he or she would qualify for on academic grounds might struggle, get demoralized and wash out. In his best-seller “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell writes extensively about the “big fish, small pond” theory, which argues that being a top student in a mid-level college is better than being a lower-ranking student in an elite university. The bigger fish in smaller ponds have more fulfilling college careers and more successful post-college careers than the small fish in the biggest ponds.

What students and parents need to understand is that admissions officers have their own priorities. Colleges want a diverse student body – not just in terms of race, but also geography, interests, backgrounds. They may overlook an applicant’s low GPA if he’s a good prospect for the hockey team. They may choose a kid from Oklahoma with mediocre test scores over the applicant with sterling academic credentials who goes to an exclusive D.C. prep school and lives in a big house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

But don’t let their priorities get ahead of yours. Apply to the stretch schools, but don’t go if it doesn’t feel right. Don’t get sucked in by the university marketing machines. As I told my kids, it doesn’t matter where you go. What matters are the attitudes and aptitudes you bring with you.

Or, as Barack Obama told Malia, “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”

Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.