I’ll never forget how my former class of 2004 student Chase answered our Collegewise “essay brainstorming” question about something he’d like to do but hadn’t done yet.
“I would really like to go on a date with Britney Spears. I haven’t done it yet because I don’t think she’d be interested in dating an average looking middle-class kid from Irvine, California.”
It was funny and self-deprecating and sounded just like him. In fact, the answer ended up being the perfect response to one application’s short-answer question. But there’s also something to learn here about the way admissions work at selective colleges.
The truth is that Chase was right. He and other guys like him probably had no shot at dating Britney Spears, not because she was inherently superior to him or anyone else, but because of her fame. To have any chance at all at forging a romance with an entertainment celebrity means running in their circles and probably becoming at least semi-rich-and-famous yourself. You don’t need to do those things to find love. But you’ll need to do them to find love with Britney Spears. The choice is yours to make if Britney is worth the effort or if a non-famous love connection will bring you just as much happiness.
That’s a good way to view the admissions process at the more selective colleges.
The more famous and selective the college, the more demands placed on you to have a shot at admission. Top grades in AP classes, high test scores, achievement outside of the classroom—fair or not, that’s what you need to get in. And if it’s all in pursuit of a short list of dream colleges, there’s likely no guarantee it will work.
But like the prospect of connecting with someone famous, you get to make the decision—is it worth it? Is that short list of dream colleges worth the time, work, and sacrifice to even have a chance at getting accepted? Or do you believe you can be just as happy and successful with a college (or a person) that doesn’t grace the covers of the famous magazines?
Brennan Bernard’s recent Forbes piece correctly points out the tyranny of “shoulds” that dominate the college admissions process, as in, “You should study more for standardized tests,” “You should take more AP courses,” “You should secure a formal leadership position,” etc., etc., etc. And he recommends students start their own revolution against the shoulds—boycott the ACT and SAT and put an end to high stakes testing, stage a sit-in against rankings at US News & World Report headquarters, refuse to play a single sport beyond its 12-week season, etc.
If you want to change the system, it’s hard to argue with that tactic. When a million college applicants refuse to take the SAT or ACT and to instead apply only to test-optional colleges, it would shake the testing companies to their core.
But you could also stage your own personal revolution in the most natural, risk-free way possible. It sounds like this:
“I’ll do my best in school without losing sleep or sanity. I’ll choose activities that I like. I’ll be a good person, friend, and citizen. I’ll enjoy being a kid but also be engaged in planning my future. I’ll apply to colleges that fit me, will accept me, and that I can afford without taking on unreasonable debt. And I’ll make the most of what’s available to me while I’m there.”
Even an average student who embraces that revolution will have dozens or even hundreds of realistic colleges from which to choose. You didn’t change the system. You just opted into a different one than most of your stressed friends are immersed in.
You and your family get to make the choice. Opt in to the admissions race and the various literal and figurative price to pay. Or opt out. Focus more on becoming the best version of yourself and have faith that the right colleges will welcome you.
You would not be settling for an inferior college any more than you would be eventually settling to find love with someone who wasn’t famous. If you’re tired of the shoulds, it might be time to stage your own revolution.