Manage downs, maximize ups

A lot of the hysteria around getting into prestigious colleges comes from the belief that if you can just get into one, the advantage of attaching that name to yourself will leave you set for the rest of your life, assured that success and everything else will work out how you (or your parents) want it to.

But life doesn’t work that way.

People who get into Harvard aren’t set for the rest of their lives. They’ll still stumble.  They’ll have disappointments.  They may even have their hearts broken a time or two. These things don’t happen because Harvard failed them. They happen because that’s life, no matter where you went to college. Show me a happy and successful adult, and I guarantee you they’ve experienced their share of disappointments, too. You can’t insulate yourself from that.

But here’s the good news.

Wherever you go to college, you can learn as much as you can about a subject that fascinates you. You can discover your talents. You can try just about anything you’ve ever wanted to try, often with very few repercussions if things don’t go well.

And more importantly, you can prepare for what life will give you. You can try things that intimidate you. You can learn from your failures and come back stronger next time. You can find ways to make the best of situations that didn’t pan out like you’d hoped.

This is not my way of telling teenagers they should prepare for a life filled with nothing but recurring disappointment. There are a lot of wonderful things out there in the world for you during and after college. But a prestigious college doesn’t present an unobstructed path for you to access them.

If you’ve been working like crazy in high school to get into your dream school, you’re off to a great start. You know how to set goals and how to work for them. You’re invested in creating the future that you want. And you’re starting to prepare yourself for what it will take to get it.

But remember that no matter what your first choice college says, it won’t give you—or rob you of—those dreams. Pursue them wherever you go to college. And use your four years to learn how to manage the occasional downs so you can maximize the hopefully far more frequent ups.

No dependency

If you made a list of all the goals you have for yourself during and after college, from meeting new people to learning what interests you to getting started in a particular career, how many of them actually require that you attend one particular college?

More broadly, how many of them require that you attend a prestigious school?

And if those particular schools magically disappeared tomorrow, would you need to abandon your goals, or would you simply apply them at (by applying to) different schools.

Aim for the schools you want, sure. But remember that very few goals are dependent on a short list of colleges to help you achieve them.

Are we against highly-selective colleges?

Yesterday’s post inviting families to attend our webinar on highly-selective college admissions generated some questions that showed I may not always be clear that I actually have nothing against the most prestigious colleges, or the idea that a student may want to attend one.

For the record: I—and the rest of our counselors at Collegewise—have nothing against the most selective colleges. We work with students every year who go on to all of those schools and end up blissfully happy. Some of our counselors attended those prestigious colleges, and they wear their alumni garb proudly. Many students have wonderful college experiences at Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, and the rest of the 40 or so colleges that are considered the most selective. We’re equal-opportunity college enthusiasts.

But here’s what we are against:

We’re against the notion that prestigious colleges offer inherently better educations or experiences than the less famous schools. There is no evidence to support that assertion.

We’re against the idea that the only acceptable outcome for an “A” student’s hard work is an admission to a college that denies nearly everyone who applies.

We’re against the belief that “B” and even “C” students can’t enjoy their ride to college, too.

We’re against treating the college admissions process as an escalating arms race, one in which happiness, fulfillment, and sanity are sacrificed in the pursuit of perfect grades, higher test scores, and more impressive activities.

And most importantly, we’re against the idea that a GPA, test score, or admission decision from a particular college is an accurate measure of a student’s worth (or a measure of that student’s parents).

Human nature dictates that for some people, the more difficult something is to get, the more they covet it. It’s the educational equivalent of the exclusive night club—the longer the line outside, the more desperate some people will be to find a way in. But when channeled into college admissions, that desperation to get admitted into a school that turns away nearly everyone ruins the process for a lot of good kids.

I, and the rest of my colleagues at Collegewise, believe that going to college is incredibly important. We believe that students should work hard, treat people right, and take an active interest in their educations. But what those hard-working, good kids do once they’re in college will be much more important than the names of the schools where they do it.

Reject it with me

Dr. Victor Schwartz is the medical director of The Jed Foundation, an organization working to promote emotional health and to prevent suicide among college students. Regular readers here won’t be surprised by my favorite snippet from his recent article, College Applicants: What Matters Is Not What You Think!:

“Stop worrying about getting into that special elite school. Take a deep breath. It will not make as much difference as you think. There are plenty of schools at which you will receive an excellent and well-rounded education. And if you work hard and learn a lot, this will help you on the way to a successful career and life. But, as you start to consider where you will go to school, think about how well you will ‘fit’ with the school. This will make more difference than you imagine in keeping you on track for later success in school and in life!”

It might be easy for a high school student to misinterpret my regular message—and Dr. Schwartz’s words—as, “There’s no need to work hard. Just go to whichever college will accept you.” But that’s certainly not the intent.

I think every student should dream big. You should work hard and go after your goals. You should learn how to dust yourself off and bounce back after you fail. It’s your future, and you shouldn’t expect anybody to care more about it than you do.

But if you’re willing to develop traits like character, work ethic, and curiosity, you don’t need Brown or UCLA or any other prestigious college to deem you worthy of an admission to their school to go make your future.

That brand-name obsession, that belief that good kids who work hard will somehow be at a disadvantage if they don’t attend a school on the top 20 of some arbitrary rankings list, that’s what I reject. I hope that my readers here will, too.

You’ll fall in love with a “Yes!”

I’ve written before that no matter how disappointed a student may be when a dream college says no, that feeling will be long gone four months later when the student moves into a dorm somewhere else. Students almost always find a way to eventually fall in collegiate love with a school that had the good sense to say, “YES!”

Last week, Breanne in our Irvine, California office received an email from one of her former student’s mothers with a glowing update on college life. The school her daughter is attending was once a distant second to her dream school. But as is often the case, a college that says yes has a wonderful way of turning that disappointment around.

Senior families, if bad admissions news arrives later this spring, remember that the disappointment will be temporary. Treat it like a romantic breakup, a real—but temporary—disappointment that will fade as fast as you are willing to move on to another fish in the collegiate sea. You’ll fall in love with a school that said yes even if it feels like you’ve just lost your soulmate.

Here’s the email, shared with the parent’s permission:

“We just got back from Boulder Family Weekend. Leah is doing great and I think she is very glad she is at Boulder. There is so much to do, the facilities are gorgeous, not to mention the views. The first two weeks she hiked to a lake in the nearby snow-dappled mountains and took an overnight field trip with one of her classes to a mountain retreat. None of that would have been possible at her original first choice school in California. She gets along with her suitemates, has made a lot of friends on her floor (one of them bakes in the dorm kitchen and brings everyone muffins), and is playing fall ball with the club lacrosse team. She went to a football game in Denver with the guys in her hall. She placed out of math, science, and language and she’s helping her friends with calculus and physics. So Collegewise is right. Once you get to the school that wants you, the others just fade away.”

Mother of Leah
University of Colorado – Boulder

What do U.S. News rankings really tell you?

Valerie Strauss has an interesting piece, How US News Concocts its College Rankings, on her blog today. You might be surprised what data is—and is not—used to decide which colleges are really “best.”

And for a more in-depth rankings takedown, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s past piece in the New Yorker, shared on the Colleges That Change Lives website.

Nowhere to go but forward

From Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams:

“The right college is the last, best chance for masses of teenagers to find themselves in a situation where they have no choice but to grow. And fast. The editor at the Harvard Lampoon experiences this. I felt it when I co-ran a large student-run business. The advanced physics major discovers this on her first day at the high-energy lab, working on a problem no one has ever solved before. That’s the reason to spend the time and spend the money and hang out on campus: so you can find yourself in a dark alley with nowhere to go but forward.”

Get bleak to feel positive

Imagine you were told today that you (or for parents, your kid) would never be able to go to college. That opportunity is gone, and it is never coming back. You’ll never move into a dorm. You’ll never get to choose your classes or your major. You’ll never get to spend those four years learning, growing, discovering your talents and having fun. College memories? You won’t be creating any. College degree? You won’t be getting one. So your plans for the future will probably need to change. After high school, that’s it. Best of luck to you.

Now, imagine a college offered you a chance to attend.  But the school, while respectable, isn’t prestigious.

Would you be any less thankful?

And the bigger question when you come back to reality—why can’t you start being thankful for that opportunity today?

Are prestigious colleges life-changers?

Prestigious colleges aren’t necessarily better schools. That’s an over-arching theme of my blog and of our work at Collegewise. It’s why we encourage students to work hard to give themselves as many college options as possible, but not to define their success based on whether or not a highly-seletive college says yes. What students do in college is much more important than the name of the school where they do it.

Non-believers should take a close look at the results of a new Gallup Poll, summarized in this NPR article:

There’s plenty of anxiety in the U.S. over getting into a top college. But a new Gallup poll suggests that, later in life, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think. In fact, when you ask college graduates whether they’re ‘engaged’ with their work or ‘thriving’ in all aspects of their lives, their responses don’t vary one bit whether they went to a prestigious college or not.”