Is it time to make a different choice?

The New York Times ran a story this week entitled “Considering College? Maybe You Should Invest in a Coach,” which elicited reactions ranging from eye-rolling to blood boiling among the Collegewise crew. I won’t share the link here because a story like this is part of the problem that so many of us at Collegewise and in the counseling community are fighting against. The piece isn’t “fake news” in that the sources and statistics are factually correct. But it’s exactly the kind of banal, uninformative story that speaks to the neuroses of a very small population of people and does not represent the broader college admissions landscape.

Here were the themes, all of which you’ve probably heard before in the press and in high school student and parent circles.

  • It’s impossible to get into a “good” college today.
  • Hard-working, perfect-on-paper kids are getting roundly rejected from their dream schools.
  • Even the highest-achieving kids are always just one unintentional, innocuous misstep away—like not maintaining enough eye contact during their college interview—from sinking their admissions ships at their top colleges.
  • Parents are spending lots of money to give their kids an advantage, and they’re doing so as early as infants preparing for pre-school (I swear I am not making this up).
  • The admissions sky is falling, the competition is intense, and your fear is well-founded.

In response to this quote from a coach profiled in the piece, “There are heartbreaking stories every year of a student with a near-perfect SAT score and perfect grades rejected from every Ivy,” Eric Hoover, a writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, tweeted, “If this is your definition of ‘heartbreaking,’ you live a charmed life.”

Bravo, Mr. Hoover.

Every person is entitled to their own worldview. Some people believe that the only restaurants worth visiting are those with Michelin star chefs and a six-month waiting list for a table. But those of us who are perfectly happy with our favorite family-owned restaurant down the street don’t read stories about star chefs and worry that our kids will be at a disadvantage if we don’t start feeding them duck a l’orange at age two. That’s what’s troubling about the press covering this particular college admissions worldview. It implies that the world they describe encapsulates the world of college admissions, which it most certainly does not.

I’ve long wished—and still hold out hope—that the press would cover other stories that represent the majority, not a tiny minority, of the college-going population. I’d love to read tales of earnest, nice kids who got into every school they applied to, none of which were on the US News Top 50, and who flourished during and after college. I’d love to read about the kids who never spent a dime on counseling or test prep or tutoring and happily marched off to their own colleges of choice that were happy to admit them just as they were. I’d love to read about the families who watched their kids grow and learn during college, who beamed with pride as their students walked across the stage at graduation, and continue to beam at their happy and successful kids-turned-adults today, all without ever losing sleep over one grade, test score, or admissions decision.

The press doesn’t write about them. But I promise you they are out there. In fact, there are exponentially more of those families than there are of the anxious, Ivy-League-or-bust families who will stop at nothing to beat the competition and the system.

Families, you get to make a choice about how you approach the process. So please choose. Which camp do you want to be in?

Do you want to buy into the hype that the only colleges worth attending are those who turn away nearly every applicant who applies? Do you want to send the message to your kids that unless they earn an acceptance to a school that almost nobody gets accepted to, they’ve somehow fallen short and are now at a significant life disadvantage?

Or do you want to look around in society and acknowledge that happy and successful adults, from senators to software engineers, social workers to science fiction writers, have come from all kinds of colleges, many of which you’ve never heard of? Would you rather see your student for who they are, not for who a very tiny slice of the over 2,000 colleges in this country require them to be, and then find the schools that will happily welcome them with open admissions arms?

If you choose the first camp, please don’t play the heartbroken card if things don’t work out as you’d hoped. You opted in as you had every right to do. But you made your choice.

And to the press who covers college admissions, maybe it’s time you made a different choice, too?