Every reputable guide to marathon running, every competent coach, takes into consideration the background as well as the goals of each athlete. No sensible coach fails to consider how many miles were run last week and the expectations for race day. An athlete running her first marathon might build up to running 20 miles on a Saturday three weeks before her debut race. An elite athlete might run 20 miles every Saturday for months preparing for her event.
Top marathoners routinely train over 100 miles a week. Suggesting that a novice athlete run these distances is not just absurd--it's impossible--and will lead to injury and misery.
That's why good coaching is so individual.
My son's cross country coach--a good man and a great mentor--knows the capability of every young man on his team. He knows how far each member of his team ran yesterday; he knows how many miles each kid ran last week. He has a pretty good idea of what each kid should do tomorrow and next week and the week after. But he's ready to change the workouts if he perceives that a kid is injured or if a kid is ready to push a little harder. It's hardly a surprise that Don Kappleman's team has finished in the top five in the state tournament five times in the past five years.
But college admissions professionals routinely give the same advice to each and every student as if the students were widgets flying off a conveyor belt:
Apply to the most competitive college you can get in to. No. Bad advice. To the contrary, apply to the school where you belong. A degree from a "top" school may be right for this able math-lete, but for a student from the Planet Earth, a more comfortable fit might lead to four years of contentment rather than one semester of stress followed by transferring.
Apply to the college with the most name recognition. No, again. Apply to the school where you match. Employers and deans of admissions at graduate schools are intimately acquainted with the "lesser known" and "second tier not second rate" colleges. Because that's where they send their own children. Name recognition has as much to do with athletic teams as it does with academic quality anyway.
Apply to the college that everyone has heard of. No, no, and no. Apply to the school that you can afford. It's certainly true that some schools with large endowments can meet the demonstrated financial need of all their applicants. But while some schools can fund all their students with need, some schools can't. Many students in this country are graduating with calamitous debt. The definition of insolvency is owing more than you make in a year. A teacher making $40K who has $90,000 of student loans is never going to be able to get out from under, buy a condo, save some money. These students got criminally negligent advice. They'll be paying for this bad advice--quite literally--for decades to come.
Which is not to say that good advice doesn't exist, only that it's harder to come by. Here are some thoughts to help you evaluate the quality of the advice you're getting:
1) Is is "one size fits all"? If you're in a room with more than a few people, you may very well be listening to advice that is better suited to someone else.
2) What is the "agenda" of the person giving the advice? If she is working for a college, she must put the college's enrollment goals before helping a particular young person. (Concerned parent: "Is there much alcohol here at this school?" Tour Guide: "No, ma'am. None at all. Not a drop.")
3) Just as a chicken is an egg's way of making another egg, the purpose of a book about admissions is to sell more books. College guides exist because they sell. And those silly magazines with their ridiculous rankings? Their primary goal is to get as many folks as possible to shell out $7.95 to buy a copy. Helping students make good decisions about where to apply to college is not their primary concern. Selling magazines is their highest priority.
In short, and as always: "College is a match to be made, not a game to be won." Forget what your friends think about where you're applying; forget what your relatives think about where you're applying; forget about what some magazine thinks about where you're applying. Take a long, dark drink from the fountain of your soul and go where you belong.