Be fair to yourself

The most common misconception about the admissions process at highly selective colleges is that it’s a meritocracy, that the admissions officers choose the empirically best applicants based on a scientific evaluation of transcripts, test scores, activities, essays, and letters of recommendation. But that’s just not possible at a school that (1) receives applications from the most qualified students in the world and (2) can only admit fewer than 20% of their applicants. There are more perfect-on-paper applicants—including valedictorians with top-notch test scores and awe-inspiring activities—than they can possibly admit. It’s inherently unfair because there’s just no unassailably fair way to do it.

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece explains this reasonably well. Bruni acknowledges that while the current lawsuit against Harvard has clearly identified that Asian Americans were in fact at a disadvantage, the process itself has never been about choosing the objectively best applicants.

“But even clearer [than the apparent discrimination] is something that I’ve long known, something that we need to recognize more bluntly, something that’s smothered under this illusion that getting into an exclusive school is a triumph of merit alone. Harvard, Duke, Pomona and the rest aren’t choosing the best students who apply. They’re choosing the students who, in the inevitably flawed estimation of strangers who barely know them, best fit the school’s vision of an ideal freshman class, best serve its immediate needs or best safeguard its financial future.”

I’m not sure I agree with the implication that the schools themselves have somehow worked to suppress those imperfections of their processes. One of our Collegewise counselors who worked at MIT used to explain to audiences at his information sessions exactly how the process was flawed. I’ve also seen many highly selective colleges do the same in their blog posts and even on the admissions sections of their websites. The truth is that it’s often that students and parents are reluctant or outright unwilling to accept the reality that the highest numbers don’t necessarily win.

But colleges are also under enormous pressure to drive up applications (you can thank the US News Rankings for that), and as a result they’ll almost never discourage anyone from applying. And I’ve yet to see an example of a school outright stating the advantage that wealthy donors, children of alumni, or other special interest groups carry. Colleges can certainly do more to give families the whole picture even if families don’t like what’s painted right in front of them.

Students and parents, when you make the goal of high school to be admitted to a highly selective college, when you define success in terms of which school says yes of those who are most likely to say no, when you place the highest premium on an outcome with the lowest probability of occurring, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and for a high school career full of uncertainty and anxiety.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attend Harvard, Duke, Northwestern, or any other highly selective school. But please make that decision with your eyes wide open. To treat the process as if it is fair just isn’t fair to yourself.

It’s what you do in college that matters

From Gallup’s “College Is Worth It, But Only If We Make the Most of It“:

“This new research tells us there is much more we can all be doing to improve the efficacy and ROI of college. Students can’t just rest on their laurels after getting into college, but they must realize the hard work has just begun. College won’t be the magic bullet they hope for, unless they take full advantage of it by finding great professors and mentors, working on long-term projects, finding internships that apply what they are learning, and being extremely involved in an extra-curricular activity. Parents need to look for these attributes in a college, rather than the prestige of the brand or the fancy buildings and dining halls on campus. And they can’t expect these things to just happen to their child; they need to help emphasize to their child that it’s what they do in college that matters.”

The predictable fear before submission

One of the most predictable points of anxiety during the journey to college is the time right before a student submits their application(s).

There’s a finality to that impending submission. No more revising. No more hand-wringing. No more avoiding the ensuing evaluation. Once that application leaves, it’s literally and figuratively out of your hands, with nothing left to do but wait for a decision.

This fear causes students to second-guess their decisions, like their choice of essay topic or the way they’ve presented their activities. Even worse is the hand-wringing over decisions you can no longer change. Maybe you should have taken the SAT again or chosen a different summer activity or spent more time with your chemistry tutor to get that grade up? Left unchecked, all of this doubt leads some students to hold their applications hostage, too afraid to hit the “Submit” button until the deadline leaves them no other choice.

This is normal behavior. Every one of us has experienced the worry that accompanies doing something new, something that might not work, something with risk and exposure and consequences. But that still doesn’t make the fear useful. It’s not pushing us to make better decisions. It’s not improving the final product. And it’s not changing the eventual outcome for the better.

So if the anxiety isn’t useful, what can you do about it? You can anticipate it.

Expect that you’ll worry right before you submit. Give that feeling a name, like “pre-submission panic.” And when it arrives, you’ll know exactly what it is. You won’t have to interpret it and wonder if those worries are your mind’s way of telling you that you should be doing something different or better. It’s just the physical response that comes with doing something important and potentially life-changing.

The best part is that the acute fear goes away days or even hours after you submit. There will be a sense of overwhelming relief knowing that the work is complete and you’ve done your best. Don’t rush that relief. Give applications the time and attention they deserve. But when you’ve checked and proofed and rechecked again, remind yourself that you’ve worked hard and earned the relief that’s about to ensue. Then hit “Submit.”

The fear is a lot less powerful when you predict and expect it.


One of my Collegewise colleagues who worked in admissions at a highly selective college once described an occasion where he called an applicant to clarify something about a letter of recommendation that was part of her file. The letter had mentioned the student’s work in her junior year, but according to the transcript, she’d taken that particular course her sophomore year. He didn’t suspect that anything was amiss—he just wanted to make sure they were connecting the correct course with the correct teacher.

But as soon as he got the applicant on the phone and identified himself, she hung up. He later discovered the student had written the letter herself and forged the teacher’s name.

We both had the same reaction—was it worth it?

This student was a strong applicant. She had a shot at being admitted. But clearly some combination of the pressure, her desperation to be admitted, or her general anxiety had driven her to do something so risky that it completely torpedoed her application once it was discovered. None of her other credentials mattered at that point.

This is a particularly egregious example, but it’s not at all uncommon for students to counter responsible warnings about bending (or breaking) the truth with, “But how would they ever know?”

And to that question, I always give the same reply.

Are you sure you want to risk it to find out?

If you have to pay money to get money…

When it comes to applying for financial aid and scholarships, here are two golden rules:

1. Never pay to fill out the FAFSA (the first “F” stands for “Free”). The best way to avoid that mistake is to go straight to the source and complete your FAFSA here, at the office of Federal Student Aid.

2. When applying for outside scholarships, expert Mark Kantrowitz says it both bluntly and best in this article: “If you have to pay money to get money, it’s probably a scam.”

A comparison-free space

Most parents receive the message early in our parenting careers that it’s generally not a good idea to compare siblings. “Why can’t you be more responsible like your sister?” might be exactly what we’re thinking and feeling in the moment, but the sentiment is just going to make the unfavorably compared sibling feel bad about themselves.

The high school experience is rooted in comparisons. Kids are constantly compared to every other student in class, every other student who took the standardized test, every other student who’s applying to the dream schools, etc. And for many families, those comparisons seep into the home.

The calculus exam, the student body election, the tryouts for the team or the audition for the play or the big debate tournament–if parents focus all of their conversations with their kids on these outcomes, the feeling of being compared to their peers is inescapable for most kids, even when that’s not our intention. The message is that whoever scored the highest, ran the fastest, or sang the best is more deserving of praise and pride than the kids who worked just as hard and risked just as much.

Some tough-loving parents may point out that this is how the world works and that they’re just preparing their kids for it, but that’s just not true. You have no idea where your family doctor finished in her med school graduating class, and you probably don’t care (you probably care even less about what she scored on her SATs).

Comparisons may be part of the college admissions process, but they don’t need a place in your home. Appreciate your student for who they are, not how they stack up. Praise them for their efforts, not the comparison-driven outcomes.

And if you worry that you’re shielding them from the harsh realities of the world, remember that they’re immersed in comparisons all day, every day, arguably more so than any of us parents are in our jobs or our social circles. Their current high school universe will offer plenty of comparisons for them to feel measured against. Let’s make home their one comparison-free space.

Who did you help?

In this podcast, Adam Grant discusses his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success and cites three data-proven reasons that successful givers are ultimately the most successful overall in an organization.

1. Social capital benefit
Everyone wants to work with givers because they go above and beyond and do things that are not in their job description. They are sought out. When you have a choice about who to work with, you ask for them. They’re the people you trust to be your subordinate or your boss. They just have better reputations.

2. Motivation
Givers have more meaning in their work because it contributes to something larger than themselves. The time they spend trying to support other people and help them gives them a sense of purpose.

3. Learning
The time you devote to helping other people solve their problems helps you solve the organization’s problems.

If you want to feel more fulfilled, achieve more success, and yes, impress colleges, try spending less time asking yourself, “What did I achieve for myself today?” and start asking, “Who did I help today?”

Put on a show

During her 30-year career teaching high school English, my mom used to say that great teaching was theater. She never felt like just explaining Shakespeare or Chaucer or Twain would make the desired impression on the classroom full of teens. If you wanted to get and keep their attention, you needed to put on a show.

It turns out we all have opportunities to turn our performance up by putting on a show of our best selves.

You’re selling raffle tickets to a fundraiser. You can sit behind the desk and wait for willing raffle enthusiasts to arrive. Or you can stand up and spend the next 20 minutes trying 40 different pitches to entice those passing by. Guess which way will teach you something about sales and inevitably lead to selling more tickets?

Your teen tells you they’re tired of taking piano lessons. You can defend the lessons’ value and cite how much money you’ve already invested in piano perfection. Or you can put on a show and use the conversation as an opportunity to really listen to what your student is thinking and feeling. The show opens up the door for more understanding and maybe even to your student asking you for advice in the future.

You’re headed to a faculty meeting during the busiest time of the year, with papers and to-do’s and a million other things you could get done during this time. But if you’re going to be in the room anyway, what’s the best show you could put on to make the time better for you and for everyone else?

Putting on a show isn’t about being disingenuous. It’s recognizing that this moment, this interaction, this question or meeting or insight–it matters. It can move things forward. But not without someone acknowledging and capitalizing on the opportunity.

When you do this enough to make it a habit, it won’t take long before you’re known for always making things better whenever involved. And that’s never a bad reputation to have when you’re looking to stand out.

Make it count. It’s showtime.

Need help with your University of California app?

Just in time for the launch of the University of California application, join Collegewise counselor Nicole Pilar for the following free webinar:

Acing Your University of California App
Wednesday, October 24, 2018
6 p.m. – 7 p.m. (PDT)
Click here to register.

And don’t worry if you can’t make it on October 24th — we’ll be recording the webinar and making the video available to anyone who registers for up to two weeks after the event.

I hope you can join us.