A lot of the best ways to get into college today are counterintuitive. What feels safe is risky. And what feels risky is often the surest way to get in.
The riskiest way to write a college essay is to try and write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You'll end up writing the same thing every other applicant writes. It's safer to just relax and tell a story that sounds like you.
The riskiest way to have a college interview is to rehearse what you think are the right answers. You'll end up sounding fake and rehearsed. Far safer to be yourself and just enjoy the conversation.
The riskiest way to spend your time outside of class is to do any activity because you believe it "looks good" to colleges. You'll end up doing things you don't love, and when colleges look for evidence of your passion, you won't be able to show it to them. It's far safer to follow your interests, whatever they are, whether it's community service, leadership, stamp collecting, karate, or your part time job at McDonald's.
Picking the right colleges can be counterintuitive, too.
Marketing blogger Seth Godin recently wrote a post on his blog about peoples' reluctance to pay attention to data when it is counterintuitive. Here's one of the many examples he referenced:
"The data shows that famous colleges underperform many cheaper, friendlier, smaller colleges. How much is your neighbor's envy worth?"
Most people don't believe that. They believe that highly selective
colleges offer better educations, produce more successful graduates,
and provide a path to upward mobility that less selective colleges
simply can't match. Nobody's been able to produce data to prove those
things, but people believe them anyway. And they believe them because to pick colleges any other way feels risky.
Colleges don't come with any guarantees. No college promises that
you'll be smarter, happier, richer or more successful when you
graduate. And yet you're going to spend four years and a lot of money
(up to $150,000 at some schools) at a four-year college that you
can't really test drive ahead of time. That's scary. It's scary for a
student to imagine that she might not like her college. It's scary for
a parent to imagine that a college might fail to give her son every
advantage as he starts his post-college adult life.
So families turn to things like college rankings and name-brand cachet. They look to the most selective schools based on the belief that if they're hard to get into, they must be good schools. It's virtually impossible to measure the quality of a college, but the fact that a school is famous brings some sense of security to a lot of families. "If
it's not going to come with a guarantee, at least my kid will have a
degree from an Ivy League school."
But the truth is that colleges–even the famous ones–don't make students successful; students have to do that for themselves.
What you do in college is much, much more important than the name of the college you attend is. You–your work ethic, curiosity, skills, self-confidence, initiative and desire to learn, are what will make you successful.
Do you want to be happy and successful after college? Do you want your kids to look back on four years of college as the most fulfilling, maturing and outright joyous times in their lives? If you do, you've got to do something counterintuitive–stop obsessing over how you're going to get into the most selective colleges, and start obsessing on finding the schools that are right for you. Reject the idea that name brand is important and embrace the idea that you don't have to go to a famous college. Be who you want to be in high school, not some contrived version of what you think colleges want you to be.
It's not easy. It feels risky. But it's absolutely the safest thing you could do.