This week, I wrote a check for term life insurance. If I die, my widow and four children will be sad. But they will not be poor. I was happy to write this check as I have been for years. When signing the check, I did not raise my fist to the heavens, shouting: "I wish I had died. So that my family would have a pile of money!" To the contrary, I am happy to be alive so that I can write blogs, run marathons, and continue to provide emotional and financial support for my beloved wife and kids.
"Hope for the best, but plan for the worst" is such a straight forward idea. Why do my colleagues and I have so much trouble conveying this fundamental concept to the young people whom we counsel on choosing and applying to college? If you're not admitted at Princeton, consider Franklin and Marshall; if Georgetown says no, look at Holy Cross; if Duke doesn't smile on your application, Guilford or Davidson might; if Vanderbilt sends you a "thin envelope," Rhodes might send you a thick one. If Harvard says no, Tufts might say yes. And if Tufts says no (and you posilutely must be in Boston) then look at Emmanuel, Lasell, or Endicott--wonderful school all, all of which admitted pretty much every qualified applicant last year.
Maybe young people can't accept looking "down" the ladder--more later on this silly idea that one college is absolutely better than another--because they can't accept a vision of their own imperfection and mortality. Whereas I have no misconceptions about the likelihood that I will get hit by a bus. It could happen.
So I buy life insurance.
Maybe it's because young people have a terrible time envisioning the worst--going to a "bad" college. Maybe their self- esteem is tied up in "winning" the "race to nowhere." Maybe they just can't understand the arbitrariness of admissions at selective colleges, the random aspect, no matter how many newsletters I send out on the subject. Maybe they think the social pressure of high school--everyone is looking at me and I look terrible--goes on forever.
Here's an exercise that makes the point: How old were you when you got married? How many people from your high school were at your wedding? I have asked this question to hundreds of moms and dads in my office over the years. The answers don't vary very much. "One" and "two" are the most common responses. Only on occasion will someone say, "I was very young when I got married; there were a lot of people from my high school at the wedding." The take away? Choosing a college to impress your high school friends is a bad--we could go so far as to say "silly"--plan.
Here's another point: where you went to college might help you get your first job. But it won't help with your second. At some point it's about what you can DO, not where you went or what grade you got.
When was the last time you asked a pilot what grade she got in aeronautical engineering? Because a more relevant question is whether or not she knows how to fly a plane. When was the last time you asked your doctor what grade she got in organic chemistry? Because a more relevant question is whether or not she knows how to remove a tumor.
I have written repeatedly over the years about how it's not about the kid; it's not about the college, that the only important aspect of college admissions is about the match between the student and the college. But I'm starting to rethink my position. I'm coming to believe--after 30 years or counseling students on which college might suit them best--that it's all about the kid. Strong students do well where ever they go; hot house flowers will fail even with the best of intentions and support.
Which brings me to more advice regarding college admissions and beyond: Rather than padding your resume by becoming a "paper member" of a bunch of clubs, read Pride and Prejudice instead; rather than engaging in activities in which you don't find meaning because you think "it'll look good for college," read Joseph Andrews; rather than harassing your teacher about giving you a higher grade, read The Grapes of Wrath.
The students sitting next to you in first year English will be familiar with these titles. It wouldn't hurt you to have a few novels under your belt as well--an insurance policy if you will. Because--and here's an even more salient point--I bet you never saw a resume fly a plane or remove a tumor.