Thanksgiving…college style

If you're a high school student or the parent of one, Thanksgiving will be a lot different someday.

When kids are in high school and they see their families every day, Thanksgiving can seem like just another holiday.  But Turkey Day is a big deal for college kids.  It means heading home to fill up their tanks with family time.  They get a home-cooked meal and time with their siblings and the chance to regale everyone with their college stories about dorms, classes and friends.  They're thankful for their new lives at college and for the home lives that are always there for them.

Parents of college kids get to welcome them home and celebrate the family being together again.  They're reminded what it was like to have a full house before their college students moved out.  Sure, parents might get a little nostalgic for those pre-college days when the kids were still home.  But the truth is that while parents will be thankful to have everyone back together, they're also thankful to see for themselves that their kids have become happy college students who are also a little older and wiser.

And nobody ever begins a Thanksgiving toast with, "I'm thankful I/you attend an Ivy League school."  

If your family is about to enter or is in the throes of the college process, let Thanksgiving be the day that you don't think about the associated stresses.  Don't think about the SAT or the trigonometry grade that won't raise higher than a B.  Don't think about what's happening in the admissions offices and whether or not your essays could have been better.  Don't think about how disappointed you'll be if Duke says, "No." 

Instead, just think about what you're thankful for.  It'll remind you how little the SAT matters in the bigger scheme of things.  And imagine what Thanksgiving will be like one day no matter where you (or your kids) go to college.

Try this college admissions test

Here's a test I gave my audience at a high school's "college night" last week (parents and students both got to play).

1.  Write down the names of the three people you most admire.  You don't necessarily have to know them personally.  They just have to be real people.

2.  Describe why you admire them in 3-4 sentences each.

Now answer these two questions:

Did any of the people on your list go to a prestigious college (Google 'em if you have to)?

Did you mention any prestigious colleges in your descriptions about why you admired these people?

There were 41 attendees in the audience. The number of people who answered "Yes" to at least one of those questions? 


What were your results?


How one graduate from a not-so-famous college made it big

Jon Favreau was just a twenty six year-old kid when he wrote President Obama’s inauguration address (he did it on his laptop at Starbucks).  Today, he’s not even thirty and he’s the Chief White House speechwriter.  Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  I don’t care what your politics are—most people would agree that this guy is pretty successful.   When asked how he got here, Favreau once told an interviewer,

“It all started because of Holy Cross.”

College of the Holy Cross isn’t on my list of the 40 colleges in the country where all the bad admissions news is true.  About 65% of their students were ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes; 95% of Princeton’s students can make that claim.  Holy Cross admits almost half of the students who apply; Stanford admits 9 out of every 100. 

But if there’s ever been someone who’s proven that it’s not where you go to college, it’s what you do while you’re there, John Favreau’s your guy.

Back in college, “Favs” as his friends call him studied political science. He volunteered at the local welfare office and started a project defending the rights of welfare recipients.  He was the editor of the opinion section of the school newspaper.  Then he took advantage of Holy Cross’s “Washington Semester” where he moved to Washington DC and interned for Senator John Kerry.  His junior year, he was named a Harry S. Truman Scholar, winning a $30,000 scholarship awarded to 75 students nationwide each year who have extensive records of public and community service and are committed to careers in public service.  He was named valedictorian of his graduating class and showed everyone in attendance that he had speechwriting chops in his address that closed with:


There seems to be one last bulletin here that Career Planning forgot to drop in our mailboxes.  Now, I realize that most of us already have jobs, but all of these positions are part time, and I’m sure all of us have the necessary qualifications. The employers are our communities, and while each position is already being filled by millions all over the world, there is a desperate need for more help. And here’s some of what we need:

Soccer coaches, Den Mothers, PTA members, Neighbors who help you move in and promise to keep in touch when they move you out, Friends who come early and stay late, Shoulders to cry on, Big Brothers and Sisters, Family comedians, Tee Ball Umpires, Letter-to-the-Editor authors, Voters who care about any issue from Traffic Lights and Tax Reform to Potholes and Peace on Earth, Organizers and Activists, Critics and Supporters, Voices for those who are having trouble getting theirs heard, Summertime Porch-Sitters with special degrees in talking about everything and nothing until the mosquitoes bite, Mentors, Philanthropists, Signature collectors, Boo-boo fixers, Grocers to the hungry, Roofers to the homeless, and Believers—especially believers.”

A few years later when then-Senator Barack Obama interviewed Favreau to join his office as a speechwriter, Obama asked him how he got started in politics and what originally got him interested.

Favreau told him about the welfare office where he volunteered back in college.  At the end of the interview, Obama hired him on the spot. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to go to a famous college to be successful.  It’s what you do while you’re there, not where you go, that matters. 

The folly of Ivy envy

I saw (and enjoyed) The Social Network, and Jay Mathews extracted a good blog post about what the Facebook founders remind us about an Ivy League education.


(Facebook founder, Mark) Zuckerberg seems to have figured out that Harvard wasn’t going to do much for him. He dropped out, like his fellow billionaire Bill Gates, and neither of them has reenrolled. This year’s crop of applicants will discover if they embrace all their college has to offer, no matter where it ranks on the U.S. News list, they will get far more out of it than they ever expected.

Another reason not to put too much stock in college rankings


But the larger problem with ranking colleges is that it
is based on the premise that attending college is like an amusement park
ride: a passive experience where the student picks the most thrilling
ride he can handle, straps in, and holds on to his digital camera.
College is nothing like that.  When students go to college–any
college–they take classes.  Some of those classes are taught by
brilliant professors, some are taught by lousy professors, and some are
taught by graduate students.  What they get out of their education is a
function of the effort they put in.  It's possible to go to the
number-two ranked college and get a terrible education, just as it's
possible to go to number 180 and get a wonderful education."

Zac Bissonnette
Debt-Free U: How I paid for an outstanding education without loans, scholarships or mooching off my parents

Any college will do

There’s plenty of evidence to prove that what you do in college is more important than whether or not your college is prestigious.  Warren Buffet and the majority of the Fortune 500 CEOs are living proof.

From the Wall Street Journal article, “Any College Will Do: Nation’s Top Chief Executives Find Path to the Corner Office Usually Starts at State University”:

“I don’t care where someone went to school, and that never caused me to hire anyone or buy a business.

Warren Buffett
CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Collegewise note:  Buffet started college at U-Penn’s Wharton School of business.  But he hated it and transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Go Huskers.

Don’t fall for the sham

This whole belief that there are about 40 colleges in the universe that are "better" than all the others?  It's a big sham.  And it's one that far too many students and parents fall for. 

I know that all 2500+ colleges in the country don't offer the same quality of education. A kid who has the intellect and drive to be accepted at Yale wouldn't have the same experience if he attended a college where he was surrounded by students who got all "C's" in high school.  I get that. 

But anyone who suggests that Yale is an empirically "better" school than Michigan, University of Chicago, College of Wooster, UVA, Mt. Holyoke, Haverford, Rice, or Oberlin is flat out wrong.  That's not just some crazy opinion of mine; there are studies that back it up. 

Non-believers should read The Chosen, a UC Berkeley sociologist's exhaustive study of college admissions.  His findings showed there was no measurable difference between the outcomes of students who attended the most selective schools and those who attended any of over a hundred schools that accepted more of their applicants. The graduates of famous colleges don't get better paying jobs, they aren't happier, they aren't more successful, their lives aren't any better, etc.

Yes, there are vast differences between the colleges that accept almost nobody and those that accept almost everybody.  But you've got to go pretty deep–deeper than 30 or 80 or even 100–down the list of 2500 schools before those differences become noticeable. 

It's time for us to ask ourselves, is our obsession with gaining admission to prestigious universities, and all the lost sleep and anxiety that accompanies it really worth it?  Is the third round of test preparation for one last try at the SAT worth it?  Are the multiple tutors to move kids from B's to A's, the clamoring to get into AP classes, the gaming of GPAs, and the measuring of kids' accomplishments based on the potential appeal to colleges really worth it?

Hard work is good.  Emotional investment in your education and your future is good.  Feeding your mind and preparing yourself for admission to a college that accepts other hard-working, intellectually curious students is absolutely worth it.  Do those things, and your life will be different because of it.

But if you're doing it all because you think that only Harvard will do and that a Kenyon education just won't get the job done, you're falling for the sham.

Beyond the bottom line benefits

A lot of the reasons you go to college have to do with the bottom line.  If you have a college degree, you'll have more opportunities.  You'll get better jobs.  You'll have advantages that can lead to more success, more money, and arguably a better life than you'd have without a college education.  Those are the bottom line reasons to attend college–a means to an end.  They're all valid.

But college can give you other benefits beyond the bottom line.

In September, 1989, I started college and met my freshman roommate, Craig.  We lived in a dorm room the size of a matchbox and have now been good friends for 21 years, ever since that day we started our college careers together.

Tonight, I'm attending his 40th birthday party. 

People who went to college reap the bottom line benefits every day.  But ask them how their lives are better as a result of going to college, and they'll likely mention very different benefits, like the people they met who are still in their lives today.

You don't have to go to a famous college to reap the benefits–bottom-line or beyond-bottom-line.  

Getting into a good college is not that difficult


Remember that getting into a good college is not that difficult.  It may not be a college that your grandmother has heard of, but you have a better choice of colleges and universities here than in any other country in the world. You might pause for a moment and appreciate that. Notice all those young people moving here from China and Korea and the Philippines and Egypt and Nigeria and other places? They know that you can get a splendid education in the United States with nothing more than a basic understanding of English and a willingness to work hard. The vast majority of colleges accept most of their applicants, and some good ones still have empty spaces in September." 

Jay Mathews
10 Ways to Survive 11th Grade

What you can learn from new college freshmen

Across the country this week, new college freshmen are moving into their dorms.  If you could see those kids, you'd notice something.

None of them are lamenting the rejections they got from schools back in the spring.  Nobody's talking about what their SAT scores were or whether or not they had 4.0 GPAs back in high school.  Nobody cares about any of that.  They're all too excited about finally being in college to spend time looking back. 

And none of the moms and dads who are helping their new college freshmen move into their dorm rooms are thinking about any of those things either. 

When you study hard and still get a ''C" on your chemistry test, or you take the SAT a third time and you still don't get the score you wanted, or you cross your fingers for an acceptance to Duke but a rejection arrives instead, it's easy to feel like your college dreams are slipping away.

But remember what those new college freshmen are reminding us this week.  At some point, you're going to be moving into a college dorm.  That's going to be an exciting day no matter what school you're attending.  And when that happens, things like your SAT scores aren't going to matter anymore. 

They next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of college admissions, when the stress is overshadowing any sense of fun and anticipation for your college future, think of those new freshmen and what it will be like when you're one of them.