Forty-something years ago I was attracted to a college classmate. After our literature seminar, we chatted about the novels we wanted to write as adults. "We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes." It seemed like we had a lot in common. But when I finally got up the courage to ask her out, she declined.
Subsequently, it turned out that she was already married with three children, about to go undergo a prolonged operation for a spinal deformity, and was a spy for the CIA leaving the next day on a secret mission to Pakistan.
Okay, obviously I made up everything after "she declined." But the point remains that there are sometimes forces at work over which you have no control and into which you have no insight. Who knows why that 20-year-old didn't want to have dinner with me.
Here's an aspect of acceptance to traditional boarding schools that everyone in admissions knows about that no one outside our world would ever consider. Consider Alfonzo from San Paulo. His acceptance is a tough call. His grades are borderline; his test scores somewhat below the mean for the school. His coursework is unexceptional as are his extra-curricular activities and his essays. His application is probably not going to make the cut. But here is some information that does not appear anywhere in the admissions file. Alfonzo is the most popular kid at his school. If he is admitted, there will be seven more applications from Brazil the following year. Schools need qualified international applicants. If Alfonzo can bring in some strong kids, that is an unanticipated edge. Alfonzo may be admitted and your son-who has better grades, scores and activities-may not.
Given the unpredictability and randomness of admissions decisions, isn't it a shame when young people experience disproportionate reactions to random rejections? Rather than asking out another girl or accepting an admissions offer from another boarding school, kids sometimes perseverate. Their self-esteem can be brutalized by extrinsic factors. Every "no, thank you" to a dinner invitation can be a referendum on their sense of self. Suicidal ideation is not unheard of when students are rejected from boarding schools.
Disappointments are inevitable. Irrational sadness about results are not. To avoid lopsided responses to disappointing outcomes, your child had best have the following abilities in his emotional toolbox:
- Experience with setbacks.
- Knowledge of alternatives.
- Confidence in his abilities.
We do our children a disservice if we soften every "sting of outrageous fortune." The future is as uncertain as it is imperfect. Preparing our child for the path rather than the path for the child is the way to go. Because you never know when or why a 20-year-old will say "no, thank you" to an invitation to share a meal. You never know when or why a boarding school will say "no, thank you" to an application for admission.
Which once again brings us to the precept that I've been pushing ever since I started advising families about choosing and applying to colleges over 30 years ago: it's who your kid is--not where your kid goes. Or as the title of my fourth book will suggest: Get Your Kid Into The Right College. Get The Right College Into Your Kid. (Available in two months!)
As the decisions from colleges hit mailboxes and in-boxes over the next few days, let's remind our kids that there is an arbitrary aspect to admissions. And that who they are--their motivation and ability--will carry them farther than the return address on the envelope.