On the question of worth

Any debate around the question “Are prestigious colleges worth it?” is likely to be dominated by worldviews. Some people, regardless of any data to the contrary, would find it nonsensical to suggest that attending Harvard doesn’t lead to inherently better outcomes for graduates. On the flip side, I’ve heard equally passionate arguments from happy and successful graduates of public schools famous only to those living in the school’s zip codes. Worth, especially when applied to colleges, is in the eye—and the worldview—of the beholder.

But if you’re interested in an unbiased blending of recent data with the appropriate acknowledgement of just how subjective the nature of worth can be, Brennan Bernard’s latest Forbes piece, “Elite Admission: what is college worth?” tackles both clearly and effectively.

Beating the reality drum

Good college counselors, and I on this blog, routinely beat the drum that all the headlines about the absurd selectivity of American colleges are only news because they are anomalies. We remind families that highly selective colleges make up only a tiny portion of available schools, that happy and successful adults hail from hundreds of less selective colleges, and that the vast majority of schools accept many more applicants than do the highly selective ones. Good news doesn’t always make for good headlines. But in this case, the good news is where the reality is.

If you’re still not convinced and would like to see some data around this argument, here’s a recent Atlantic article, “College-Admissions Hysteria Is Not the Norm.” This may not turn out to be my most viral post this year, but it’s worth it to keep beating the reality drum.

(False) merit

Seth Godin’s recent episode of his Akimbo podcast tackles the question of merit, with a timely look into the highly selective college admissions process. It’s not for those who are looking for the secrets (legit, criminal, or anywhere in between) to cracking the admissions process. But if you’d like to better understand the absurdity of using standardized test scores to evaluate merit, or even more importantly, viewing a denial from one of those schools as a sign that you’re destined for a subpar future, it’s definitely worth a listen.

What’s all the frenzy really for?

Jay Mathews is the semi-retired education reporter for the Washington Post who still shows up occasionally to pen a new story. And I always perk up when he drops his trademark sanity and perspective about the college admissions process captured so well in his book Harvard Schmarvard.

Here’s his latest piece. And while the title—Dear Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman: You wasted your money—reads a little like clickbait, the message contained within (the gist of which I’ve pasted below) is one worth reading for any student or parent who’s experiencing anxiety around the desire to attend a highly selective college.

“I confess that when I opened the acceptance letter [from Harvard], I thought great wealth and power would soon be mine. So why have I spent my life being ordered around by people who attended less-selective schools?…I’m not complaining. I love my work. But I have always wondered why smart people like you [Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman ]assume getting into an Ivy League school, or its equivalent, guarantees success.”

You matter most

This piece from The Chicago Tribune’s Heidi Stevens, “What I want high school seniors to hear loud and clear, in the wake of the celebrity college cheating scandal,” should be required reading for all high school students and parents who have felt anxious, disheartened, or just plain beaten down by the competition for admission to highly-selective colleges. The message is important enough that I’m hesitant to share a passage here as I’d hate for readers to gulp and move on. But here’s the overarching message, the details of which deserve a click and a thorough read.

“You can find happiness and success — not to mention brilliance and inspiration and lifelong friendships and mind-blowing authors and really good art and really bad coffee — on thousands of college campuses…The key ingredient is you. What you bring. Who you are when you get there. Who you are when you leave. You matter most in this equation.”

One of the messages I hammer home daily here is that it’s what you do in college, not where you go, that matters. Students, you are what’s important. You, not your test scores, and not the ranking of your college.  You are the most important ingredient in charting your future. I say that not to pressure you, but to empower you.

No matter what happens as your admissions decisions arrive, no matter which colleges say yes and which lose out on the chance to add you to their freshman halls, you are still the x-factor for your life today and tomorrow. Wherever you go to college, what matters most is what you do with that opportunity.

You matter most.

Hang in there—it’ll be OK

Many high school students received their early admission decisions this week. And to encourage those who got news that wasn’t what they’d hoped, CNN anchor and Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper tweeted some reassuring words. But what I really appreciated were the responses from successful people who’d experienced their own college rejections as high school students. And two in particular stood out (links take you to past posts I’ve written about them).

Jon Favreau








Chris Sacca








Getting in (to a famous college)

Seth Godin’s latest podcast episode, Getting In (to a Famous College), manages to explain how to get into a famous college, point out the risks of playing that game, and recommend alternative paths, all in just 30 minutes. It’s worth a listen for anyone who aspires to chase, or to detach from, that coveted offer of admission. That link will let you listen on his website, but for other options, click here. His delivery is a little slow for my taste, so I speed the play up to 1.5x speed.

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.”