Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

College Admissions–Agony, Ecstasy, Reality

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In real life I’m a college counselor at an independent school, and if your school has a secondary division—that is, if there are seniors in your school—you know that this week is emotionally pretty intense.

As I write this a bit more than half the news is in, and there is still a gap between what kids have heard and what we have heard from kids, because we depend on them to let us know where things stand. Most of the news, so far, has been good—our Naviance app gives us a daily update on the percentage of “accepts,” “denies,” and “unknowns.”

Contrary to what many believe, we college counselors do not always know the news in advance. At best, many of the colleges that will speak to us during the process give us a kind of Magic 8-Ball reading—“she’s reading well at the moment.” Only a tiny number give us real news in advance, and some tell us nothing at all. So, like the kids, we wait, too.

And what is it we are waiting for?

For us, it’s data, of course, and affirmation of our own predictions and hopes. In our hearts we want 100% success, although we know and tell our kids and families that a certain amount of less-than-ideal news is probably a good thing; it builds character, we think, and helps kids build some coping skills around disappointment. We discipline ourselves to using the word “denied” to describe bad news, although the kids always say “rejected.” Of late we have seen more use of wait-lists and the dreaded “January admit,” which is almost always a full and unconditionally acceptance but almost always feels like a kind of, well, rejection. We rejoice and suffer with our students and put our hearts and minds into consoling and guiding where we canfocusing on bright sides and helping to formulate Plan B.

For the students, however, the moment of opening the letter, popping open the email, or logging into the decision site is probably as charged an event as they have experienced: a moment of truth. Fantasies, hopes, dreams, parental pressures, and desperate desires—along with the deepest and most secret fears and anxieties—are all mixed up in a powerful late-adolescent emotional stew that roils and bubbles throughout this long spring notification period. Many see their entire futures, as well as their self-concepts, riding on the decision made by the admission committee at some beloved college, and some will take “bad news”—denial or waitlist or even January admission—as a personal blow.

I can’t blame kids for taking it personally. We have been telling them for years about what they need to do to “succeed” and how to do it, and there is no more palpable measure of success in the world of a high-schooler than where he or she gets into college. We have created an appalling beauty pageant in which every even vaguely ambitious student—and every parent—is pretty much required to participate, cranking out good grades in every course, taking the “most demanding” courses in disciplines they don’t much like, participating at a “meaningful” level in “significant” activities, and demonstrating “leadership” and “accomplishment” wherever they can. The only thing missing is the swimsuit contest.

Universities elsewhere—Canada, Ireland, the U.K.—don’t seem to care so much about the beauty pageant. Instead of essays about why they loved their grandmother and why their service trip meant so much to them, applicants in those countries are asked to explain why they want to study what they want to study at the places they are applying; they have to submit a transcript and test scores, not an annotated resume. If they may miss outstanding prospects from time to time, these universities send a message that going to school is what matters most—not “the 253 officially recognized student organizations on campus” and the posh new student center.

There is a group of smaller U.S. universities who group themselves together under the “Colleges That Change Lives” rubric, taking their name from an excellent 1996 book by Loren Pope that focuses on a handful of lesser-known colleges with great track records at turning good but not always conventionally superb high school students into engaged, committed scholars who pursue academic passions into graduate and professional schools in disproportionate numbers. These are colleges, in other words, for kids who have perhaps opted out of the beauty pageant but whose big intellects are searching for an academic purpose that high school may not quite have fully illuminated—colleges whose holistic admissions programs seem pretty good at identifying the right kind of kids, perhaps kids that both the superselective U.S. beauty pageant and the more cut-and-dried overseas processes might have missed.

The point is that the lives of eighteen-year-olds have plenty of room for change, a lesson that only experience can teach us and that I have been surprised and generally pleased to discover is taught to us recurringly over many decades.

And so college counselors, like teachers, administrators, parents, friends, and the world at large spend this week above all other weeks in the year helping kids understand that it’s not about rejection or acceptance but about making the most of the opportunities life gives us. There’s no such thing as “deserving” in this business, because the notion turns the focus away from the essential lessons here. But it’s not easy, for us or—of course—for the kids. For some kids even good news is freighted: Did I undervalue myself? And shades of Groucho: Do I want to even go to a place that would take me?

At 5 o’clock our time on Thursday many of the Ivy League schools post their decisions, and all I can imagine is a rolling barrage of misery running westward across time zones as 90+ percent of the applicants to each of Yale, Harvard, Brown, and others find that their futures are not to be in New Haven, Cambridge, Providence, or wherever. I have been assured that many of those kids are applying to multiple schools and that quite a few will get into one or another, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that on Thursday evening and Friday I will have to have Kleenex on the table in my office.

Then, weirdly, by next Monday the flow of news—except for a scattering of waitlist changes—will be over, and we’ll enter what for many students is the hardest part of the process: actually choosing a college. All the good news becomes the previously unconsidered side of a double-edged sword, accompanied by three or four weeks of the most intensive self-discovery as kids decide whether that smaller, more rural place might serve them better than the big urban school that they had assumed would fulfill their deepest desires. (There’s also the money piece, which we know is a private agony for kids and parents but takes place largely away from our world.)

So, to high school folks everywhere: These are the weeks when so much of the pudding is being proved, and most importantly when students and their families are confronting what the whole darn pudding actually means. It’s hard on everyone, and it will have mostly beautiful results as well as a few that linger in mind as disturbing puzzles.

And please smile at your college counselor colleagues when you see them–but don’t ask a lot of questions quite yet.

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