Exclusivity breeds popularity.
The more exclusive the
night club, the more we wish we could get inside (and the longer the
lines outside will grow).
The popular kids in high school aren't necessarily the nicest or the smartest–it's
the air of exclusivity that makes them popular (an air that disappears
approximately two-and-a-half minutes after graduation, but still…).
When celebrities were seen wearing ugg
boots, the prices and the demand soared to a
point that for a time, the boots were very difficult to get. The harder they were to find (and pay for), the more people wanted to wear them.
The night clubs and the cool kids and the uggs aren't necessarily better than their counterparts. They just benefit from the part of human nature that makes us desire something more if we can't get it.
The most exclusive colleges, and their associated popularity, work the same way.
There are over 2,000 colleges to go around. We are lucky to be living
in a country with the best, most accessible system higher education in
the world. No matter what you read in the press about how hard it is
to get into college, just about any kid can go.
But the same 50 schools keep getting more and more competitive, with greater numbers of highly qualified applicants vying to gain admission every year. The more difficult it is to get in, the stronger our desire to go to those schools (or see our kids go to them). We believe there must be something special about those places because so few people are invited to attend. That's why when you hear people talk about the "best schools," they're almost certainly basing that analysis on one factor–how difficult it is to get in.
Kids today are working harder, studying more, and sleeping less in an effort to get into what amounts to an exclusive collegiate nightclub whose very appeal is the fact they reject most of their applicants. That's an academic arms race in which no amount of hard work and success can guarantee victory.
What if we moved the goalposts? What if we encouraged kids to work hard with a different goal in mind, one that won't need the validation of an admission offer from an exclusive college.
A kid who works hard in challenging classes, who studies for his SATs, who makes an impact in his activities, who’s nice to his peers and respectful of his teachers will be better educated. He will be more mature. He'll probably have a better sense of his real intellectual interests and inherent talents. He will be more prepared to succeed during and after college. That should be reason enough to do it. That kid doesn't need an admission to an exclusive college to prove his worth (or his parents' worth).
He will, of course, also be admitted to hundreds of colleges. Most of the 2000 colleges will trip over themselves for this kid. But if it's not UC Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke, or Stanford, or Pomona, he hasn't failed. He'll still go to a college where he will use his talents and abilities to make a success of himself.
I have nothing against the popular schools; I'm against kids and parents putting too much luster on them just because they're exclusive. There are lots of valid reasons to work hard and improve yourself, but trying to get the popular colleges to like you shouldn't be one of them
It might be time for some different goals.