What colleges say, and what students hear

Students often hear something very different than the intended message when a college says,

“You are invited to apply with our special application…”

“Colleges want students who have demonstrated leadership…”

“Our college has a 10 percent admit rate…”

“The most competitive applicants will have challenged themselves in a rigorous course program…”

“Our college reviews applications holistically. Test scores are only one small part of the equation…”

Sometimes the fault is squarely on the college. Other times, it’s the student who is refusing to hear what they don’t want to hear. And occasionally it’s a little of both. Whatever the particular cause, The Washington Post’s recent piece, “The disconnect between what colleges say and what students hear,” clears up the confusion between these and other misheard messages from colleges to students.

How will you know if you don’t ask?

My three-year-old has officially hit the “Why?” phase. Any declarative statement we make, whether answering one of his questions, making an observation, or explaining why he should or can’t do something, is almost always met with the same reply.


Every parent has not only been through this phase, but also experienced the end of the “Why?” line, that point where you run out of logical responses and realize that you just don’t have a good answer. From deconstructing the various parts of fire trucks to staying at the table until he finishes his dinner, my three-year-old must really be starting to get the impression that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.

As frustrating as it might be, kids don’t ask that question just to needle their parents (though as they get older it can certainly happen). At the onset, “Why?” is how they learn. They’re uncovering how things work, how decisions are made, and how actions link together. They ask “Why?” to make sense of a world that doesn’t yet make sense to them.

Maybe young kids are onto something here.

Maybe we should all spend a little more time asking “Why?” and a little less time making assumptions about what we think is true.

For example, what would happen if students, parents, counselors, and schools traded assumptions for genuine curiosity and began not just asking, but also trying to answer “Why?” around statements like:

  • “Yale is a great school.”
  • “I need a leadership position for my resume.”
  • “Our department will continue to measure class ranking.”
  • “This club meets at lunch once a week.”
  • “Our son needs a college with a lot of personal attention.”
  • “I need to expand my counseling practice.”
  • “The teacher doesn’t like me.”
  • “We don’t send counselors to conferences.”
  • “I’m interested in studying business.”
  • “He should quit the tuba.”
  • “Kids can’t do their own fundraising—parents need to take it on.”
  • “UCLA is good for premeds.”
  • “The counselors at our school can’t help us.”
  • “Kids who major in liberal arts can’t get good jobs.”
  • “My history teacher will write a better letter of rec than my physics teacher.”
  • “I have to stay up past midnight to get my homework done.”
  • “This student should attend a community college rather than a four-year school.”
  • “This student should attend a four-year school rather than a community college.”
  • “I’ll get better internships if I go to NYU.”
  • “You can’t get a good job if you go to a college people haven’t heard of.”
  • “I want to go to law school when I graduate.”

I’m not necessarily suggesting that any of those statements are flawed when specifically applied to you. But how will you know if you don’t ask?

Whether or not you’re in charge

You certainly don’t have to be a CEO to benefit from Claire Lew’s advice in her new post, “How to influence culture when you’re not the CEO.”

And here are two past posts of mine about how to make a difference even when you’re not in charge, one on how to be a leader without a leadership position, the other on creating a pocket of greatness.

To be successful in college admissions, at work, in your club or PTA or counseling office, look for ways to make an impact, whether or not you’re in charge.

If you were in the room

I’d love to see high school students spending less time preparing for standardized tests and more time trying to solve interesting problems. Here’s one.

You’re in charge of the homecoming committee and you’ve just learned that hackers have stolen the names, email addresses, and credit card information of 160 families who used the website you set up to sell tickets. But the unknown hackers promise to delete all the personal information if you just pay them $50.

What do you do?

If you tell the affected families, you’ve just created a huge headache for yourself and for everyone affected that might have never materialized had you paid the $50.

If you keep it a secret and pay the $50, the hackers might use the information anyway. And there’s still that chance that someone could find out and leak the secret.

What are you going to do?

This is the dilemma Uber faced recently. And while Uber may be a large company, that decision came down to a small room of individuals who had a choice. We know how their choice worked out for them.

What would you have done if you were in the room?

From today to tomorrow

College planning demands that you think about the future. What kind of college do you want to go to? What do you want to study? What do you want to do after college? It’s healthy to thoughtfully consider questions about your future. But if you feel overwhelmed, unsure, or just plain tired of trying to predict who, what, and where you’ll be tomorrow, spend more time considering who, what, and where you are today.

You’re not going to be the same person two, five, or ten years from now. Those changes are what make your time in and after college so exciting. But making decisions based on things that haven’t happened yet is like investing money in an idea that hasn’t become a legitimate business or product yet. It might pay off just as you’d expected. But that’s a lot of risk to take on based on only a prediction.

If you say you want to be a doctor tomorrow, is that plan reflected in what you’re doing and learning today?

If you say you want to go to a small college because of personal attention with professors, how often are you participating in class, interacting with your teachers, and meeting with your counselor today?

If you say you want to study business because it interests you, how are you feeding that interest today? Do you have a part-time job (fast food, coffee shops, and stores at the mall are all businesses)? Do you read about successful entrepreneurs? Do you investigate what you’d be learning as a business major, how business programs at one college compare to others, or whether people who’ve succeeded in business actually studied it in college?

If what you’re doing today doesn’t match your vision of tomorrow, that leaves you with two options. You can change everything you’re doing in the present to match your proposed future self. Or you can ask some tough questions about whether that future vision should really be driving big decisions like where you apply to college.

There’s not necessarily a wrong answer between those choices. But most people don’t end up in a good destination tomorrow by taking a path that feels wrong today.

Why not?

Last month, I shared that my firefighter college friend sent me his department’s proposed “Mission and Values” statement for some editing feedback. I gave him some, along with a completely rewritten version that came right out and said what I thought they were trying to say, without all the formal just-like-every-other-mission-statement speak (you can see some sample passages in the past post). I called it “Kevin’s version the chief will never approve.” Turns out I was wrong. I was happy and a little shocked last week to learn that they adopted almost all my verbiage, including the samples shared in the last post.

I won’t share the new version here because their mission statement—and this post—are not about me at all. But it was a good reminder that sometimes the path to a welcome change or a better way is just one person who says, “Why not?”

“That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a fine reason to keep things the same if it’s a source of pride for the people doing it. Honored traditions and best practices gain that status when they work well and people embrace them.

But if it’s just been too long since someone considered whether the way you’ve always done it is in fact the best way, if you don’t have a good reason to keep things the same, it might be the perfect time to ask, “Why not?” and consider trying something new.

Is there a better way?

You don’t have to hold a leadership position to see and suggest a better way of doing things.

Our local community center runs a “Toddler Gym” every Saturday morning. For a small membership fee, parents can take their kids to an indoor basketball court loaded with toys and mats and miniature vehicles and let them get all their energy out. But every fourth or fifth Saturday, the Toddler Gym is canceled because the space is being used for something else. Unfortunately, that information is never shared in advance, not even on the website. And the employees have to spend time and energy disappointing 75-100 families who typically show up, either by turning them away at the door or taking their phone call ahead of time.

It’s not an egregious customer service mistake. We’re lucky to have a community center that does this at all. But there’s still got to be a better way.

It seems like those dates could be put on a public calendar ahead of time or posted on the website as they occur. Or send out a quick “No Toddler Gym today due to our basketball tournament—we’ll see you next Saturday!” We all had to enter our email addresses to enroll. Why not use that asset?

One of those cheerful employees behind the desk must have had similar thoughts considering they have to deliver that news to families on Saturday mornings. Why not do something about it? It’s hard to imagine someone could get fired for suggesting or just outright initiating a better way that they genuinely believe will make the customers and the employees happier.

The most junior admissions officer can point out where their application instructions aren’t clear enough and offer to do something about it.

A counselor can spot where there’s a bottleneck of information in their office and try to make things more efficient.

The homecoming committee member who notices that there’s no place at the dance for people to leave their coats can point it out, and even better, can suggest a workable solution on the fly.

Finding a better way doesn’t mean ignoring directions. You can’t decide that a homemade video will be better than the paper your English teacher specifically asked you to write. And I’ve written before that college applicants should not look for a better way to provide the requested information to colleges—schools are very particular about what, when, and how materials should be sent.

But the most impactful improvements are often built on multiple well-intentioned micro-changes made over time. And that starts with caring enough to ask, “Is there a better way?”

The freedom of college

When we ask Collegewise students what excites them most about college, “The freedom” is one of the most common answers. And I’ve found with most kids that this isn’t code for “The freedom to act irresponsibly and do whatever I want all the time.” For most, it’s the freedom from the imposed structure, the lack of choice, and frankly, the pressure that’s become so common for today’s high school students.

I love that the pending freedom excites these kids, especially when they also start considering—not over-planning, just considering—what exactly they plan to do with that freedom once they have it.

You’ll have the freedom to make choices. It’s hard to find that freedom at age 17 when you’re in school six hours a day, then participating in after-school activities, doing homework, being tutored, doing test prep, etc. But college isn’t going to be like that. Even if you’re a student who works in college or plays a college sport or otherwise commits yourself to something important, chances are good you will have abundantly more choices available to you in college.

You’ll be free to learn just about any subject that interests you. And depending on your college and your course of study, those choices won’t be limited to what’s available as part of your major.

You’ll be free to decide how you want to spend more of your time.

You’ll be free to try new things—subjects, involvements, approaches, etc.

You’ll be free to take responsibility for yourself and for your decisions.

You’ll be free to fail. Not catastrophically (I don’t recommend flunking out of college), and not because you didn’t make the effort. But when you no longer have to worry about failure hurting your chances of getting into college, you’re now free to make the effort even when success isn’t necessarily a sure thing.

You’ll be free to reinvent yourself into who you are rather than what your high school world seemed to push you to be.

This newfound freedom won’t excuse you from your responsibility to make the most of your college time and money. In fact, your newfound freedom is what allows you to do just that.

So students, while you’re dreaming of how wonderful that freedom will be, spend some time thinking about just exactly what you’ll do with it when it arrives. Imagining what you’ll do with that freedom will help you find colleges that are right for you, get accepted when you apply, and be both happy and successful once you get there.

How you score with people

Almost all the standard college admissions metrics focus on individual achievements. Classes, grades, test scores, honors, awards—it’s all about what you did and what you accomplished. Given that students are immersed in a feeding frenzy of peers all trying to best each other, it’s no wonder that we’re also seeing higher rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and even loneliness. Relentless individual achievement can be a lonely pursuit.

There’s nothing wrong with pairing individual goals with the work ethic to achieve them. But the happiest, most successful people rarely get there alone. They lead, they join, they ask for help, they build relationships, they find mentors, etc. People who spend all their time looking out for number one eventually have nobody left to look out for them.

Students, ambition is good. Set goals, take the challenging class, feed your mind, pursue things you enjoy. It’s your life and your college future after all. I think it’s both healthy and mature to take your share of the responsibility for creating it.

But while you’re amassing those accolades, it’s worth thinking about what kind of impact you’re making on the people around you. Your teammates, your classmates, your coworkers, your co-members, your constituents, your school, your community—how is your work improving their situation, too?

I’m not suggesting that you should necessarily spend all your time doing things for everyone around you. But once you go to college, and even more so after you leave it, the world will care a lot more about how you score with people than it will how you score on a test.

For the college vs. just for family

I’m in social—and social media—circles with a lot of parents who, like me, have young kids. And some of those parents don’t quite understand that not everything about their kids is necessarily share-worthy. I know that parents are wired to think everything our kids do is a wonderful combination of brilliant, hilarious, and adorable. But while I am confident that Grandma and Grandpa will happily view any photo or video we share, our unconditional love for our own kids does not necessarily translate into everyone else’s unconditional fascination with the same children. It’s easy to spot those parents who haven’t yet learned to curate their toddler tales, who don’t consider whether or not each share is legitimately interesting to people outside their closest circles.

Parents, are you making the college application version of that mistake with your teens?

Are you insisting that they send copies of awards, articles, or other evidence of their accomplishments?

Are you preparing video or audio recordings of them on the field, in the orchestra, or on the stage?

Are you gathering multiple outside letters of recommendation from sources that know you or the school better than they know your student?

And most importantly, are you doing these things when a college’s application instructions don’t specifically invite or outright require those extra materials?

If so—and I know this is hard to hear—you’re sharing information that is likely far less interesting to the admissions reader than it is to you.

Nobody can possibly appreciate the depths and complexities of all that is wonderful about your kids like you can. But colleges spend a lot of time honing their applications, the questions, and their requests (or lack thereof) of supplemental materials to give them the information they want in exactly the format they prefer. Ignoring those instructions and sending materials that they did not request doesn’t just water down the information they did want; it also runs the risk of annoying the person your student is trying to impress.

I’ll always cheer for parents who celebrate their kids. But the potential penalties of celebration inundation are much higher during the college application process than they are in your social media circles. Give the colleges what they want, but keep everything else just for the family.