Old news, new audiences

One of my oldest friends from college who has a son just starting his college search asked me for my take on an article from his local paper. Entitled “Test Perfection Isn’t Enough,” it described a staggering level of competition where, to use the article’s words, “perfection doesn’t guarantee a spot at Stanford, Princeton, or even Berkeley.”

For my friend, this was a gloomy admissions scenario, a sign of scary times to come for his family as his high-achieving son decides where he will go to college. But to me the story was akin to one entitled “Cigarettes are Detrimental to Your Health” or “Smoke Detectors Increase Your Family’s Chance of Surviving a Fire.” Old news.

Repeating old news for new audiences is yet another factor that creates unnecessary anxiety for families during the college admissions process. Every spring since I founded Collegewise in 1999, the same headlines run again like clockwork—admission rates at the most selective colleges are down, perfection isn’t enough, the competition is staggering, etc. Those articles never mention that the colleges in question represent just a fraction of the over 2,000 from which to choose and that most schools in our country accept far more applicants than they turn away. What gets left out gives the headlines even more oomph.

If you’re a high school counselor or a parent who’s been through the process with older kids, it’s all old news. Not necessarily inaccurate in its facts, but not a breaking story, either. And what an unnecessarily scary message for a family who’s entering the process for the first time to see seemingly substantiated proof that they have every reason to be anxious. It’s no wonder so many people end up approaching the process like an arduous rite of passage to survive rather than an exciting journey to enjoy.

It’s healthy to stay informed, and I’m not suggesting any family should discount any or all news when it relates to college admissions. But the press wants people to be grabbed by headlines, especially for those pieces that are trying to do more than report the events of the day. And that means that you’ll need to be discerning about whether the news you’re taking in should affect your outlook or your college application plans.

When in doubt, ask yourself these two questions when ingesting any news about admissions:

1. Is the news describing a change?
A change needs to be anchored in a description of before and after. The article my friend shared with me never claimed the statistics represented any sort of shift from how things used to be to how they are today. It merely told readers that the most selective colleges in the country are still hard to get into.

2. Is the news broadly applicable?
When the press reported on the changes to the FAFSA last year, that was a global change to the process that affected every family intending on applying for need-based financial aid for college. But a story about how Harvard denied even more kids than they did the year before, or how the already highly competitive Ivy League schools were still very competitive? That’s not broad (or new) news.

These questions alone won’t insulate you from clickbait-induced anxiety. But they’re a good start to identifying old news pitched to new audiences.