Are bright, well-rounded kids boring?

We're training a new counselor in our Irvine, CA office.  Today we discussed highly selective college admissions–what it really takes to get into the most selective colleges. 

The problem with college admissions today is that all the highest achievers–from around the world–apply to the same 40 colleges.  So schools like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, Yale, Northwestern and the rest of the 40 most famous colleges have far, far more qualified applicants than they can ever possibly admit.  Some of them only admit 1 out of every 10 kids.  So most of the applicants, by comparison, don't stand out.  They feel inadequate because they haven't published a book or written a concerto or invented a way to travel back in time.        

Rachael Toor wrote Admissions Confidential about her time working as an undergraduate admissions officer at Duke.  Here's an excerpt from page 2:

"Most of the students I meet on my travels are BWRKs.  That's admissionese for 'bright well-rounded kids.'  You know, the ones who do everything right.  They take honors classes, study hard enough to be in the top 10% of their class, get solid 1350's on their SAT's (blogger's note:  That's like 2030 on the new scale), play sports, participate in student government, do community service (sometimes even when it's not required).  They're earnest, they're hardworking, they're determined.  They do everything right, and most of them don't have a chance of getting in.  We deny them.  In droves.  Another BWRK. Zip.  How boring."

That's a bleak outlook.  Unfortunately, the fact that these schools are so ridiculously hard to get into only feeds peoples' belief that famous schools offer better educations.  

It doesn't have to be that way.

If you're a BWRK, you are almost certainly not boring.  You're smart, you work hard, you commit yourself to activities, and you probably don't spend nearly enough time goofing off and just having fun.  In fact, you'd probably be even more interesting if you followed your real interests instead of just trying to please famous colleges.  But still, hundreds and hundreds of colleges are going to trip over themselves to accept you.  You just have to pick the right schools.

High school students (and their parents) have a choice.  You don't have to buy into the college admissions insanity.  You can reject the idea of desperately trying to stand out to Yale, and you can embrace the idea of working hard, being yourself, and finding the droves of colleges who absolutely love BWRKs. 

Making college worth your time, money and memories

Interesting post from Seth Godin today that makes this argument–the notion that graduating from college is the key to future success has existed for hundreds of years, and it's about to be exposed as a scam for several reasons.

1. With some notable exceptions, the educations offered by most colleges aren't really all that different from one another.  

2. The price of colleges has risen much more than the pay increase you get from attending one has.

3. The public is about to realize that colleges can easily manipulate their rankings, so the rankings really don't mean anything.

4.  The data shows that the famous, most selective schools aren't necessarily better than the others. 

I'm not sure I'm ready to write off the value of attending college, but I am absolutely ready to say this. 

Just being a college graduate is not special; lots of people do it with varying levels of post-college success.  Just being there for four years doesn't guarantee you a better life.  And just managing to get accepted to a school that rejects most applicants isn't a guarantee that the world is going to throw jobs and money at you. 

It's what you do while you're in college that matters, not where you go.  It's up to you to make your college years worth your time, money, and memories.

Who deserves the credit?

According to the Boston Globe, Harvard received a record 29,112 applications for the Class of 2013.  

2,900 of them scored a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading section.  3,500 got a perfect SAT math score. Nearly 3,700 were ranked first in their senior class. 

Still, 93% of those amazing, brilliant, accomplish students were rejected.  Why?  Because Harvard only has 1655 spaces in the freshman class. It's not a miscarriage of justice; it's just simple math (I was an English major, and let's just say that for me to call math simple is really saying something). 

So, when those 1655 lucky students who are currently freshmen at Harvard go on to do great things in their lives, who deserves the credit?  Does Harvard deserve it? 

I don't think so.  Those students' future success will come from of qualities they developed long before they ever took up residence at Harvard, like their work ethic, interest in learning, character, persistence, and maybe even their personality and charm.  Schools like Harvard go out of their way to accept students with those qualities.  So it really should come as no surprise if the graduates go on to do great things. 

And what about the 27,000 amazingly brilliant and accomplished applicants who were rejected?  Are they doomed to substandard lives now that they won't have Harvard degrees?  I know–that sounds like a stupid question because it is.  Of course they're not doomed.  They're too amazingly brilliant and accomplished to be left behind. 

I'm not arguing that the Harvard experience isn't a special one; I'm sure most of those 1655 freshmen will have an amazing four years.  But so will the rest of those hard-workers who got rejected and ended up someplace else.  Smart, hard-working, passionate kids will almost certainly make something of themselves wherever they go. 

The notion that you have to go to a famous college to have a happy and successful life is a scam. If you had to go to one of those schools to have a good life, we'd never
have 2,000 colleges in this country that people would pay good money to
attend.  So don't fall for name-brand-itis.  It's not where you go to college; it's who you are and what you do while you're there that counts. 

The right college–famous or not–can certainly help you.  But you'll still deserve the credit for your own success.

Something you never hear

Here's something you never hear.

"He was a smart kid who worked hard in college, pursued his interests, found mentors, and made the most of the experience.  But unfortunately, his college wasn't a famous one, so he never went on to be successful."

Seriously, why do you think you never hear that? 

You've never heard that because you do not have to go to a famous college to be successful.  Anybody who tells you that you do is either misinformed or misguided, but whichever reason it is, they're wrong. 

What Nike and highly-selective colleges have in common

Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.  When he came into the league in 1984, nobody had ever seen spectacular, high flying dunks like Jordan could do.  He won six NBA championships.  He was the league MVP 5 times.  He led the league in scoring 10 times.  He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.  He could shoot three-pointers.  He could rebound.  He was a leader, a tenacious competitor, and just to top it all off, he was one of the worst trash talkers to ever play in the NBA (I would have been, too, if I could back it up like Jordan did).

It was no surprise that when Nike introduced their Air Jordan basketball shoe early in Jordan's career, it became the hottest selling athletic shoe of its day.  Nike's marketing execs were smart enough to attach their brand to Jordan and bet on him early.  They could see that he was great and was only going to become even greater. Over 25 years later (and nearly a decade since Michael left the game of
basketball for good), the Air Jordan is still one of the most popular basketball
shoes.  It was brilliant marketing foresight.

That's a lot like what highly selective colleges are doing when they select kids. 

The nation's most selective colleges get applications from the smartest, most exceptional applicants in the college admissions pool and then reject almost all of them.  For the 10% that are accepted, the colleges are betting on their success like Nike bet on Jordan.  Given what those kids have already accomplished by age 18, it's a smart bet. 

So, how much credit do the colleges deserve when those kids go on to do great things?

I think that to give too much credit to the most selective schools for the greatness of
their graduates is a bit like saying that Michael Jordan achieved his success
because of his trademark shoes. 

Successful people don't do great things just because they attend a famous college.  They do great things because they've worked hard enough to become great in the first place.  Kids who have the intellectual curiosity, work ethic and passion for their interests to be accepted to a highly-selective college are more likely to apply those same traits once they get there.  Put a bunch of those kids together and you have a lot of potentially great future college graduates.  They were, after all, great before they ever moved into the dorm.

I don't have anything against highly selective colleges.  I don't deny that they can offer a unique experience for an exceptional kid who's seeking the opportunity to surround herself with ridiculously smart, motivated, passionate students who are also published authors, concert pianists, patent holders, all-American athletes, artists, physicists, etc.

But that experience is a product of the population as much if not more so than it is of the college and the education it provides.  Nobody with an ounce of common sense has ever believed that a basketball shoe alone would actually get you into the NBA.  Please don't believe that a famous college will make you great. 

When he was a kid on the varsity team, Jordan wasn't dreaming of having a shoe named after him.  He just wanted to be a great basketball player.  So don't make your high school years about trying to get accepted to an Ivy League school.  If that's the only reason you're working hard, you're missing the point. 

Your goal should be to become great–at math, painting, the drums, hockey, poetry, drama, computer programming, video production, singing–whatever it is that you love to do.  Work hard enough at being great and the right colleges will appreciate you.  

Then you can bring your greatness (and your shoes of choice) with you to college.

Make your own value

The Today show ran this piece yesterday on the "Top 20 Best Value Colleges" which came from the results of a recent survey by The Princeton Review.  Now more than ever, families are asking questions–as they should–about the quality of colleges in relation to their sticker price.

Are private schools worth the money?

Will my education at a less selective public school be as good as the kind I might experience at a selective private school?

Which colleges will help me get a better paying job when I graduate?

But as you're comparing different colleges and what you'd be getting for your money, keep in mind that each student has enormous influence on the value of her college experience.

Here are two very different examples of students attending two very different schools.

Student #1 chooses to attend the cheapest public school in his state.  It's neither famous nor selective as it admits over 70% of the applicants.  He throws himself into the college experience.  He starts by visiting regularly with his academic advisor to talk about his courses and which ones he seems to like the most.  He visits professors during their office hours and gets to know them.  During his sophomore year, he chooses "regional development" as his major, a subject he first investigated at the urging of his advisor who thought he would love the courses (the advisor was right).  He's excited to go to class every day because he loves the subject matter.  He explores various activities and gets a part time job in the athletics office scheduling intramural sports games.  That job later turns into an internship where he works for the Director of Campus Activities.  When the school wants a student representative on the committee to plan for the new athletics complex, he interviews and is selected.  The summer before his senior year, the Director of Campus Activities hires him for a full time summer internship to coordinate student volunteers.  He does such a great job that they allow him to trim his hours and continue working during his senior year.  All the while, he's creating lifelong friendships and enjoying the fun that college has to offer.  He flourishes inside and outside of the classroom.  He graduates with honors, with a resume of experience, with professors and mentors who can advise him and serve as references, and with a lifetime worth of college memories.

Student #2 attends a highly selective, famous private college.  He majors in business because that's what he always said he wanted to major in.  He meets with his advisor only when he's required to and never fully avails himself of that resource.  He doesn't visit professors during their office hours.  He attends most, but not all of his classes, and is naturally smart enough to study the night before the test and pull off "B." He does fine academically, but certainly doesn't love his classes.  He plays intramural sports and makes some good friends, but doesn't ever seek out or locate an activity that he's passionate about.  During his college summers, he hangs out with his friends and has the occasional part time job to make extra spending money.  He doesn't cultivate any professional relationships with people who could serve as mentors or recommenders.  He makes some good friends and has his share of fun, but if you ask him, he really likes, but doesn't necessarily love college.  He graduates with a degree in business from a famous university, but no real experience other than his part-time summer jobs.  

So, who had the better college education?  Which student is likely to be more successful after college?  Which student got the best value for his college education?

The student is the variable in every college's education.  That's why it is almost impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy the potential quality and value of any one particular school.   

The best funded university in the world with small classes, plenty of support and loads of Nobel Prize winning professors won't be worth its tuition to the student who isn't willing to take advantage of those resources.  And the cheap public school that makes no appearance in the annual college rankings can become the launching pad to success for the right student who is naturally inclined to work hard and achieve his goals. 

Yes, you should be cost conscious when choosing colleges.  You should ask what you're going to get for your money.  And you should evaluate the spending decision just like you would with any purchase of a similar magnitude.  To do anything other than that would be irresponsible.

But it's important to remember that colleges don't make kids successful–kids have to do that for themselves.  A student's work ethic, curiosity, initiative, integrity and maturity–and what she does to apply those traits during her time in college–will have far greater influence over her happiness and post-college success than the name of her college will.  

If you want to get the most bang for your college buck, start your evaluation with the variable–the student.  Think about the kind of environment where a student would flourish, the kind of place where she can put her natural talents to the best use.  Then find the colleges that match that description.  Don't do it the other way around; don't pick famous colleges because you're sure they're "good" and then try to find a way to get accepted.

In college, you don't automatically get what you pay for.  You have to make your own value.

50 things…

Here are fifty things you can do in college, even if the school isn't a famous one. 

  1. Eat late night pizza in the dorms.
  2. Take road trips.
  3. Play intramural basketball games.  At midnight.
  4. Choose classes you want to take.
  5. See how many straight nights you can eat spaghetti.
  6. Be a resident advisor in the dorms.
  7. Do research in physics with a professor.
  8. Meet your future husband or wife.
  9. Meet the person who will one day be your maid of honor or best man.
  10. Paint your face in the school's colors for the big game.
  11. Have a professor who tells you that she sees great potential in your work.
  12. Enjoy late night conversations with your new friends in the dorm.
  13. Create memories with your friends that will make you smile when you're fifty.
  14. Write for the campus newspaper.
  15. Sit with a professor during her office hours and realize you're chatting with the person who wrote the textbook you're using in class.
  16. Play mud football games on Sundays.
  17. Study abroad in Italy.  Or Greece.  Or Australia. 
  18. Pull an all nighter studying with your friends.
  19. Go to parties.  Good ones.
  20. Participate in campus traditions.
  21. Sing (obscene) songs to your college's rival at the homecoming game.
  22. Work a part-time job at the campus coffee shop, or the library, or at the restaurant in town.
  23. Discover your academic passions.
  24. Play in the school's marching band.
  25. Participate in the engineering Olympics.
  26. Feel like you're getting a little smarter every day.
  27. Realize that you are actually excited to attend your classes.
  28. Leave everything you didn't like about high school behind.
  29. Go on a camping trip with your new friends.
  30. Find an internship in a career that looks interesting.
  31. Meet mentors who will help you reach your potential.
  32. Celebrate the end of finals week with your fellow students.
  33. Take a class that has absolutely nothing to do with your major just because it looks interesting.
  34. Go to the school's football games.  Or the basketball games.  Or the hockey games.
  35. Spend Thanksgiving with a friend's family because they live closer to campus.
  36. Camp out to get basketball tickets.
  37. Eat Top Ramen, or cereal, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner.
  38. Write a senior thesis on a subject you get to pick.
  39. Spend your summer getting career experience in an area you find interesting.
  40. Study in the park.  In between Frisbee tossing.
  41. Excel academically and enjoy what you're learning.
  42. Make the kind of friends you know will be in your life for a very long time.
  43. Do community service with your college friends.
  44. Find your natural talents and interests.
  45. Discover what you want to do with your life.
  46. Do things that, one day, your kids won't be able to imagine mom or dad doing.
  47. Join a fraternity or sorority.
  48. Participate in an outdoor education program.
  49. Graduate and marvel at how far you've come, how much you've grown, and how much you've learned over the last four years.
  50. See how proud your parents are at your graduation.

How many of those are actually factored into the US News College rankings?

When rejection is a good thing

Highly-selective colleges are always going to be picky.  They receive applications from the most qualified students from around
the world.  And almost everyone who applies gets rejected (about 10-15 out of
every 100 applicants gets in).  That's not going to change.

So you can lament that your test scores aren't high enough or that you don't have
enough AP classes or that you haven't yet achieved statewide or nationwide or worldwide acclaim
for one of your activities. 

Or you can reject that thinking.  You can reject the idea that not being good
enough to get into an Ivy League school equates to just not being good enough at all.  Reject the idea that your
admissibility to Duke is a measure of your worth.  Just reject it.
  

Instead, embrace the idea that hundreds of colleges will almost certainly
take you exactly as you are.  

The wisdom and merits of exploring less visible colleges

I once did a seminar about how to choose colleges, and while trying to make the point that you shouldn't apply to a school just because it's famous, I turned to a student in the audience and asked,

"Would you ask someone to marry you just because she was good looking and rich?"

The kid didn't even break a smile and answered, "Probably." 

I do love a teenager's honesty. 

Maybe Marty O'Connell, Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives will have better luck with that analogy when teens read her article about the wisdom and merits of selecting less visible colleges.   

Colleges that Change Lives

Ctcl picMarketing author Seth Godin recently published a recommended reading list on his blog.  And I was happy to see one of our favorites show up–even happier to hear his take:

"The more you learn about the industry of marketing colleges, the more
skeptical you'll become of the $150,000 famous school degree. Every
high school parent in America should read this book."

If you're intrigued, check out:

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges by Lauren Pope