On the most recent edition of the Grammys, one of the speakers made a heartfelt acceptance speech. She mentioned her disadvantaged background. She talked about how hard she had worked and how grateful she was for her success, her award, and her adulation. Both the speaker and the audience were emotional. It was a moving talk. The singer said that her accomplishment should send a clear message to other practitioners. She said words to the effect of, “if I can do it, anyone can.” Surely, under the tearful circumstances, the singer can be forgiven for making such an absurd statement.
Rather than inspiring other kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, her harmful words should be ignored. Because “let’s line up for recess; I want everyone to be first” only makes sense until you think about it for a few seconds.
“If I can make it, anyone can” is misleading. The reality, to the contrary, is that only one person gets the award. If two hundred or two thousand or two million young singers are inspired by the winner’s impassioned words, there will still only be one prize to be won in her category. One person will win next year. Just like one person won this year. No new categories will be invented. No more prizes will be awarded. One category. One winner. Simple arithmetic. It doesn’t matter how many contestants there are. It doesn’t matter how talented the other singers are. It doesn’t matter how many young people believe in themselves. One prize. One person wins. Everyone else doesn’t. Singing is a beautiful thing. Thinking you’re going to win an award for singing, not so much.
Similarly, there are 2000 beds at Harvard this fall. Next year there will still be two thousand young people in the first year class. Harvard has no plans to add two hundred or two thousand new first-year slots based on the achievements of their applicants. It doesn’t matter how many aspiring first year students worked hard or felt good about their successes in the classroom and on the athletic field. The vast majority of those kids will have to matriculate elsewhere.
Admittedly, below a certain level, an applicant has effectively no chance. A student who does not take advanced placement courses, have top test scores, and have significant extracurriculars or involvement in sports has zero likelihood of being admitted. But a student who has impeccable credentials still has only a one in twenty chance. Harvard admits five percent of its applicants. Next year they hope to admit four percent. Presumably all of whom believe in themselves.
In the experience of this author, that each child has a straightforward choice to make. She can put all her chips on a highly selective college. She can focus her time, effort, and treasure on that one in twenty shot. Or she can relax, enjoy her high school experience, and get a tremendous education at one of the many colleges that admit virtually all qualified applicants.
By relaxing about “big name” colleges, parents can communicate to their children that their kids are indeed winners in the eyes of their folks. Even if–especially if–the highly selective college says no. A flurry of acceptance and denial emails will hit the in-box next week. I hope your kids get more “Congratulations!” than “We regret to inform you” responses. Truly. But whatever the result, is my sincere wish that the arguments in this column will allow you and your family to relax. Curtail the disappointment if your child gets an unlucky roll of the dice. The time to focus on your child’s education rather than your car’s bumper sticker is yesterday. The time to stop worrying about admissions to highly selective colleges is the day before that.
Independent Educational Consultant