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.”

When researchers debunk the rankings

Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, just released their white paper, A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity.” The three most substantial findings likely won’t surprise believers who read this blog:

  • Rankings are problematic because of flawed metrics and rampant misuse.
  • A college’s prestige does not predict student learning, job satisfaction, or happiness.
  • A student’s engagement in college is more predicative of the outcomes than the college itself.

Ideas like those presented in this paper spread best when shared with those most likely to embrace them. So while I didn’t conduct or publish this research, here’s who I believe the paper isn’t for:

1. People who just don’t care about college rankings.
If you’re in that group, you’ve already embraced what this paper is arguing. And it should come as no surprise that you have my full-throated support. Forge ahead, find the right colleges (famous or not) for your student, and know that the vast majority of counseling and admissions professionals endorse your approach.

2. People who believe that prestigious schools are the best schools.
For this group, college rankings—the most prominent of which always place prestigious schools at the top of the list—support your world view. The debate around college rankings isn’t an intellectual exercise you want or need to engage in. Unless you’re open to the idea that a less-famous school could very well provide the same or even better education and outcomes, a research study (even one published by a researcher at a top-ranked university, by the way) isn’t likely to change your mind.

Now, here’s who I believe this paper is for:

1. Families who want to make informed evaluations of potential colleges, but aren’t sure how to do it or what to focus on.
If you’re in this group, you don’t have strong preconceived college notions. You want to make good decisions, but given how many colleges and resulting data points there are to consider, you don’t know what to pay attention to and, more importantly, what to ignore. This paper will help you confidently ignore what’s become a driving and damaging force in college admissions. You’ll know you’re making a good decision doing so. And you’ll reinvest that energy into other areas that will help you better evaluate potential colleges.

2. Data-hungry college researchers.
I have an endearing term for you—“spreadsheet” families. You know who you are. You’re the family member for whom data drives decisions, so everything college-related goes on the spreadsheet. Good for you. You’re engaged in a college search and you want to use reliable metrics rather than marketing to drive those decisions. Members of this group sometimes fall prey to rankings when they mistake them as reliable data points. But the truly data hungry are willing to dig into what reveals itself to be a deeply flawed rankings methodology. This paper will arm you with published research so you can seek reliable data meant to do more than sell magazines.

So if you’re open to looking beyond rankings and prestige, the research, the data, and the encouragement can all be found in here.

Stage your own revolution

I’ll never forget how my former class of 2004 student Chase answered our Collegewise “essay brainstorming” question about something he’d like to do but hadn’t done yet.

“I would really like to go on a date with Britney Spears. I haven’t done it yet because I don’t think she’d be interested in dating an average looking middle-class kid from Irvine, California.”

It was funny and self-deprecating and sounded just like him. In fact, the answer ended up being the perfect response to one application’s short-answer question. But there’s also something to learn here about the way admissions work at selective colleges.

The truth is that Chase was right. He and other guys like him probably had no shot at dating Britney Spears, not because she was inherently superior to him or anyone else, but because of her fame. To have any chance at all at forging a romance with an entertainment celebrity means running in their circles and probably becoming at least semi-rich-and-famous yourself. You don’t need to do those things to find love. But you’ll need to do them to find love with Britney Spears. The choice is yours to make if Britney is worth the effort or if a non-famous love connection will bring you just as much happiness.

That’s a good way to view the admissions process at the more selective colleges.

The more famous and selective the college, the more demands placed on you to have a shot at admission. Top grades in AP classes, high test scores, achievement outside of the classroom—fair or not, that’s what you need to get in. And if it’s all in pursuit of a short list of dream colleges, there’s likely no guarantee it will work.

But like the prospect of connecting with someone famous, you get to make the decision—is it worth it? Is that short list of dream colleges worth the time, work, and sacrifice to even have a chance at getting accepted? Or do you believe you can be just as happy and successful with a college (or a person) that doesn’t grace the covers of the famous magazines?

Brennan Bernard’s recent Forbes piece correctly points out the tyranny of “shoulds” that dominate the college admissions process, as in, “You should study more for standardized tests,” “You should take more AP courses,” “You should secure a formal leadership position,” etc., etc., etc. And he recommends students start their own revolution against the shoulds—boycott the ACT and SAT and put an end to high stakes testing, stage a sit-in against rankings at US News & World Report headquarters, refuse to play a single sport beyond its 12-week season, etc.

If you want to change the system, it’s hard to argue with that tactic. When a million college applicants refuse to take the SAT or ACT and to instead apply only to test-optional colleges, it would shake the testing companies to their core.

But you could also stage your own personal revolution in the most natural, risk-free way possible. It sounds like this:

“I’ll do my best in school without losing sleep or sanity. I’ll choose activities that I like. I’ll be a good person, friend, and citizen. I’ll enjoy being a kid but also be engaged in planning my future. I’ll apply to colleges that fit me, will accept me, and that I can afford without taking on unreasonable debt. And I’ll make the most of what’s available to me while I’m there.”

Even an average student who embraces that revolution will have dozens or even hundreds of realistic colleges from which to choose. You didn’t change the system. You just opted into a different one than most of your stressed friends are immersed in.

You and your family get to make the choice. Opt in to the admissions race and the various literal and figurative price to pay. Or opt out. Focus more on becoming the best version of yourself and have faith that the right colleges will welcome you.

You would not be settling for an inferior college any more than you would be eventually settling to find love with someone who wasn’t famous. If you’re tired of the shoulds, it might be time to stage your own revolution.