Well, Thursday at 5:00pm EDT has come and gone. “Ivy Day,” as it was termed for me by a student at Yale—where the current students eagerly await the news, partly because they love to woo accepted students and perhaps in part because they too watch as admission rates grow smaller and smaller at the most selective—the most absurdly selective—universities. The rates are now under 10% at almost a dozen colleges by my count, and dropping like a stone at others. Thus, “Ivy Day” 2012 yielded up plenty of pain—nearly a quarter of a million applications were submitted, perhaps by as many as 100,000 different kids around the world.
In my world the moment passed relatively quietly. Good news seems to have come to us at a roughly proportional rate, and a few kids got to dance on air through that evening as their parents reeled and marveled. It’s a good feeling—I’m lucky to say I’ve been there as a kid and a parent—but of course it’s kind of a placebo high, and all too temporary. At best it’s a momentary affirmation of the truism that hard work can pay off, and at worst it’s about winning some sort of prize; society has turned college admissions into yet another chance to bestow a five-star rating, but at least there is a substantive reality that underlies the enterprise, even though the reality is a bit less sweet than the moment of opening the email or accessing the decision website: You may get into Princeton, but somebody’s going to have to pay for it, and it will involve four years of even more hard work and new adjustments.
In our schools the impact of the news is a bit more muddled. The happy kids are happy, but keenly aware that their happiness isn’t universal—that good friends may have been devastated. Many of the disappointed students simply take their feelings underground; these are the kids who will only tell us the results of the decisions days from now, after being asked. Waitlists just confuse the issue even further.
We can say all we like about the whole process being akin to playing the lottery, but this may not be such a great consolation in a week where the MegaMillions was over half a billion dollars; it’s all too easy to overvalue having the winning ticket.
And what about our institutions? As a college counselor I’m pretty clear on the instrumental importance of my school’s “college list,” the ways in which outsiders are tempted to use the information as a proxy for the overall quality of the educational experience and current families see the list as validation (or not) of an important decision they have made on behalf of their children. Administrators sleep more serenely when their schools’ lists are tastefully dotted with the names of a particular 10 or 12 schools—you know the ones.
In my work, and at my particular school, I am not immune from these anxieties, and I’ll sleep reasonably well this spring. But my favorite list, the one I take the most pleasure in compiling, is the full list of colleges that have accepted our students—not the ones they choose to attend, but the ones that represent the full range of their interests and aspirations, the aggregated panorama of what and where this group of eighty kids saw themselves as—maybe—yearning for at some point during their senior year: business schools and art schools, engineering schools, schools in the mountains and schools amid cornfields, giant state universities and colleges nearly as small as our high school, places up the street and across the ocean.
I see our “colleges accepting” list each year not so much as data (of course it is, and it should be) but as a mandala created from the hopes and dreams of 18-year-olds glimpsing for the first time the full promise of life, the chance to explore their evolving passions and follow them toward experiences unknown but assuredly exhilarating. If they overvalue the achievement of “getting in,” they can never fully estimate the adventures—glorious and mundane, happy and sad—that await them.
I am proud that I work in a school where the emphasis is on those hopes, dreams, and evolving passions, a school in which who kids are matters at least as much as where they go. I like to think we don’t have “default” schools to which we are expected to remit certain kinds of kids or kids who didn’t spend the evening of “Ivy Day” rejoicing; every student has to figure out who they are in order to be—or become—who they are, and the college search-apply-choose process should support this by affording them the freedom of many options.
All too soon the “colleges accepting” list will be winnowed to a “colleges attending” list through a process that makes the month of April a surprisingly painful time of decision-making for kids who thought the hard work would be over when they “got in.” Simply discovering the criteria by which they make big choices—practical and fanciful, rational and emotional, private and social—is the last big lesson of the college search-apply-choose process, or at least the last lesson we get to observe in our schools; we will generally only hear echoes of the pangs of separation and the struggles of transition over the summer and into next autumn.
I’m not such a Pollyanna that I don’t appreciate the inequities and injustices of the selective college admission process as practiced in the U.S. in our time. But in the lives of the students living through it the process is a reality, and on their behalf for the moment we have to make the best of it.
So all through the next few months I will occasionally pull out and marvel at the “colleges accepting” list, thinking about what might have been, and what may still be; the list is written, but the lives it represents are not. As much as we wring our hands and beat our breasts about college admission, I think it’s okay to take heart and even find something wonderful in the exploration and growth we are so often privileged to witness.