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.

No one prescribed path to success

William Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist, a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School, and the co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. And while I take small issue with the title (more on that in a minute), I did enjoy his piece “It’s Time to Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College,” especially this portion:

“Many adults worry that if their kids knew that grades in school aren’t highly predictive of success in life, they’d lose their motivation to apply themselves and aim high. In fact, the opposite is true. In my 32 years of working with kids as a psychologist, I’ve seen that simply telling kids the truth — giving them an accurate model of reality, including the advantages of being a good student — increases their flexibility and drive. It motivates kids with high aspirations to shift their emphasis from achieving for its own sake to educating themselves so that they can make an important contribution. An accurate model of reality also encourages less-motivated students to think more broadly about their options and energizes them to pursue education and self-development even if they aren’t top achievers.”

I’ve learned that authors often don’t write the titles of their pieces in major outlets, and that may be the case here. But I’d be cautious about being so dismissive about the college choice to say that where you go simply doesn’t matter at all. Colleges are not all the same. The right college for one student may not be the right cost, academic setting, environment, etc. for another.

But the larger point is still an important one. Great educations can be found at many colleges, not just the famous, expensive, or prestigious ones. What you do in college will be more important than the name of the school where you do it. And there’s no one prescribed path to success.

Do you get what you pay for?

Senior families, as you weigh the costs of your college options, here’s a benchmark to avoid: “You get what you pay for.” That might be true when you’re choosing a television, a new roof, or a seat on an airplane. But it just doesn’t hold up when you’re choosing a college.

Almost every purported benefit of any college is only worth the degree to which a student avails themselves of that benefit.

Small classes can lead to a lot of personal attention and interaction with professors, but only if the student wants and takes advantage of that opportunity.

Six Nobel Prize-winning professors on campus? Great. How do you plan to make that benefit a benefit to you?

Great snowboarding, a top engineering program, a wide range of study abroad options, deep pre-med advising, a socially conscious student body, a brand new gym on campus, a city with virtually unlimited internship opportunities, etc.—each is like an item on a menu. It’s available for you to order and enjoy, but none are served up and force-fed to you. Choose the school that offers an appealing menu, then order and enjoy accordingly.

It’s up to each student and parent to decide together if the offerings at any college justify the price. Many students who attend expensive schools rave about the experiences. But they don’t do so more effusively than those who attend the more moderately priced options. College is an investment that should be carefully considered. But price doesn’t perfectly correlate to quality for good reason—you get to drive the value of your own returns.

With college, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for. You get what you make of what you pay for.

Enjoyment now vs. later

In 2001, I was invited to give the welcoming address to the new freshman class at my alma mater, UC Irvine. And during my opening comments about how much the campus had changed, I remarked that one thing likely remained the same:

“I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

And seemingly every freshman in the room laughed.

That joke wouldn’t resonate as much today as it once did because it’s no longer true for a host of reasons. But at that time—much as when I began my own freshman year—it spoke to a reality. Most students had originally wanted to be somewhere else, most commonly, about 40 miles north at the home of The Bruins.

There’s a powerful lesson in here for students just starting their college search, and for seniors who will spend the next few months waiting for news about where they’ll be spending the next four years.

Those freshmen were able to have a good laugh at their own admissions expense for two reasons:

1. They were over it. Yes, it had hurt when UCLA said no. Plenty of tears had been shed. But those students eventually did what most human beings do in the face disappointment—they licked their wounds and forged ahead. If ever you needed evidence that a “no” from your dream school is not a tragedy, just look at how quickly most teens bounce back at another college.

2. Disappointment over where they couldn’t go had turned to excitement about where they’d ended up. They were starting college that day! Everything they’d been working and waiting for during the last four years was about to pay off. Dorms, classes, new friends, new experiences—it was all there in front of them. How could they not feel excited about what was in store?

Seniors, if you don’t get the answers you’re hoping for from your top choice schools, remember that room of freshmen at UC Irvine. When UCLA sent the bad news, they were just as disappointed as you’d expect them to be. But just six months later, they were laughing about that school that said no. And even more importantly, they were thrilled to be attending the school that said yes.

And juniors, as you begin your college search, as you think and answer questions about what you’re looking for in a school, it’s only natural that you’ll develop some front-running favorites, schools that you pine for more strongly than others.

But don’t let those preferences inject negativity into your process. You’re going to get in somewhere, probably a place where you’ll one day be thrilled to sit in freshman orientation. And if you develop a reasonable college list that has your counselor’s endorsement, that outcome is almost a guarantee.

If you want to have a college admissions process without all the stress and anxiety, imagine that enjoyment you’re bound to feel later and inject some of it into your process now.

Do college rankings really matter?

Our own Arun Ponnusamy has a lot of experience with colleges that routinely top the rankings lists. He attended the University of Chicago, and he read applications at his alma mater, at Caltech, and at UCLA. So it might surprise you to hear him remind students and parents that college rankings do nothing more than sell magazines and serve as online clickbait. And he explains why in just over two minutes.

What the research says about prestigious colleges

From the Gallup Organization’s “5 Ways to Make College a Success,” the findings of which are based on their comprehensive research on higher education.

4. Question the value of attending prestigious, highly selective and high-priced colleges and universities. They actually provide little (at best) to no (at worst) advantage in being engaged in your job and in your life outcomes (thriving in your well-being). Nor do they reduce the chances of feeling education regret. College is much more about what you make of it — how you take advantage of your education — than the type of institution you attend.