"It's not you, it's me:" The Waiting and Mating Game of College Admission Season

The media is filled these days with college admission stories as institutions of higher learning fire off their annual emails and letters to thousands of applicants. The New York Times reports that this is another record year for the number of applications to selective colleges and universities, ranging from percentage increases in the teens at some schools to as much as 40-50% at others. http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/total-apps-2011/
Earlier this week, NPR ran a captivating story on how the admissions committee at Amherst College operates.  http://www.npr.org/2011/03/28/134916924/Amherst-Admissions-Process . A selective school, Amherst will select 1,000 students for admissions out of the more than 8,000 who applied.  Although the article does not talk about Ivy League admissions, this year 35,000 applied to Harvard's 2110 spots, and 27,230 to Yale's 1,940 openings. The story records an actual decision meeting as admissions officers sort through essays and applications.  In this story and another that I have linked to below, there are some important messages for students and parents.   
Increasing the Number of Applications
As our college counseling office has talked about for some time, the nature of this process has changed dramatically over the years.  Marketing and branding efforts by colleges themselves and the US News and World Report have led to a significant increase in the numbers of students applying to selective colleges and universities.   (These efforts have misled and skewed the public's understanding of what really constitutes a great undergraduate education; however, I will leave that for another blog entry.)  Also, adding to the mix is the Common Application, which allows students to easily apply to multiple schools.  Another factor often not talked about, which I suspect will only increase in the coming years, is the "globalization" of American colleges and universities.  These schools have ambitions to be global centers of learning and this will only increase the number of international students seeking an American education at the nation's finest universities and colleges. This will have the net effect of making it more competitive for American students.
Genuine Intellectual Curiosity
There are some key points as I read all of this coverage. The thought of attempting to outwit the changing college game is not time well-spent. Instead, admissions committees do value exactly what families found in CA at the outset: a place and an opportunity to approach your education authentically and with genuine and robust intellectual curiosity.  All of us would advise students to enjoy the educational experience at CA, and to prepare yourself for life and finding a college match that meets you where you are, helping you grow into your next stage. Remember that there are an overwhelming number of colleges in the U.S. that might be a fit for you, colleges that emphasize teaching and learning, preparation for grad school, and that offer hands-on opportunities, including mentorship and research collaboration. Author and columnist Mitch Albom offers and always-healthy perspective in his latest piece: http://www.freep.com/article/20110320/COL01/103200499/Mitch-Albom-college-rejects-you-may-do-you-favor?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|Sports|s
Eyes Wide Open
There is no doubt a student should go into this process fully aware of how college admission decisions are made. When parents and Upper School students meet with our college counselors at the appropriate time relative to our counseling schedule, be sure to listen carefully to what Cathy Nabbefeld and Mark Moody have to say.  Both have broad experience in this field and close connections with college admissions officers across the country.   Parents must recognize that this is not the same process that you went through; it is dramatically different and far more competitive.   As our college counselors have noted, it often has to do with what kind of class each college is seeking to create.  In the NPR report, one admissions officer says, "...there are years that it’s great to be runner and there are years that it is great to be a lacrosse player.  And then there are years that it is great to play the piccolo and there are years that it is great to play the piano. But, the candidate doesn't know that."    The report demonstrates in many ways these are "random decisions" and students should not see these decisions as a "referendum on their worth."   Having worked with seniors for 15 years, I know this easy to say, but hard for students and parents to actually accept.  This is a process in which students fully puts themselves out there, and it can hurt when things don't turn out positively.
Meaning of “Success”
Students do have some control over this.  Throughout one's high school career, it is important for students to do the following:
  • Diligently approach each academic subject and apply themselves fully to their coursework.  Students should set goals for themselves, but they must be realistic in accordance with their ability.  What matters most is that each student is working to his or her full potential.
  • Form positive relationships with your teachers and peers.  Our teachers are well known for their phenomenal letters of recommendation.  When teachers and students have authentic and positive relationships, these letters can work in powerful ways for students. Positively engage with your peers and think about your place in the community every day, and what you can do to make it better. This all comes through in your application.
  • Find your interest and engage deeply in it. This can be in the arts, athletics, service learning, or anything the student finds invigorating.  One does not need to try to do it all, because each student needs balance in his/her life.  But, colleges and universities are looking for interesting students, and that usually means one who is interested in more than playing video games and watching TV.  Ultimately, these interests have to come from the students, or it is not authentic.   As parents, we tend to over-schedule and manage our children's lives.  The adults need to help nudge our kids in the right direction, but ultimately let our children find their path.
  • Learn to take risks and be resilient.  This is as much the work of the parents as it is the students'. Students should try to get comfortable putting themselves out there by trying something new. And, when things don't go your way, don't give up or let it wear you down.  If we look at great figures in history, like Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, or Abraham Lincoln, we will find that all experienced failure and did not experience greatness until late in life. And, even then, it did not come easy.  
No matter the outcome in the college admission process, things inevitably turn out well for the students.  There is no study that I know of that says that attending an Ivy League college or university will lead one to earning more money or, more importantly, leading a happy and fulfilled life.  There are also so many wonderful schools out there, and I would encourage you not to be brainwashed by US News World and Report.  None of the data that they use to calculate what makes a great college has anything to do with the actual teaching and learning that takes place on a college campus. It says nothing about the quality of the faculty in a student's areas of interest or evidence of how effective their undergraduate program actually is.  
A Step in the Process
Finally, it is important for each student to think about college as the next phase of layered processes of finding one's way in life. (I know of few professions that do not require an advanced degree.)  This is an important step, but no college admission rejection letter can ever prevent a student from fulfilling his or her ambitions in life. Great doctors, lawyers, business leaders, scholars, engineers, artists, and athletes have emerged from nearly every college and university in the country.  Ultimately, it is the will and ability of the individual that will determine his or her fate.
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