What if there were one simple answer to your unrelenting doubts? What if that unassuming solution would take away all the pain? What if that one unique answer were hidden in plain sight? What if that solution were so mind-numbingly obvious that, once you had stumbled upon its blinding clarity, you spent the next several years smacking your open palm against your forehead? Most importantly, what if this brazenly obvious answer obviated all kinds of madness? Of course, the lunacy to which I refer is the emphasis on application to and attendance at HighlySelective Colleges. If you look beyond the hundred-something schools that admit fewer than half their applicants, a ton of foolishness remains ensconced in the asylum.
But wait, there’s more! By not obsessing about admission to HSCs, here’s what you get:
1) The need for prevaricating on college applications is obviated.
My personal favorite is the applicant who wrote about the tragic demise of his very-much-alive mother. An admissions officer happened to call the family home; the student’s not-dead mother answered the phone; an awkward conversation ensued; the acceptance was rescinded.
2) Lesser lies are also avoided. “I established and implemented developmentally appropriate curriculum for children ranging in age from three to nine years of age.” No you didn’t. You did nothing of the kind. What you did was babysat. Nothing wrong with babysitting, but get over yourself and stop with the ten-dollar, meaningless verbiage. And think of yourself as the honest person you are. There, doesn’t that feel good?
3) If you are a male from an enriched background, it makes no difference where you went to college. Wealth is the most common outcome measure, but whatever metric you choose, there is no difference in later life. Kids who were accepted to Highly Selective Colleges but instead chose North Cornstalk State are indistinguishable from their counterparts at HSC. For women there is a difference. Women who go to HSCs tend to have children later in life.
4) Insight into strength of schedule. There is always someone smarter, faster, more competitive than your child. Similarly, there is always someone who is less able. With a B average from an HSC, you can go to medical school NOWHERE in the United States of America. With an A average from North Cornstalk State, you are only a few years away from scribbling your name on a prescription pad. Doing well is more important that attending an HSC.
5) It is freeing. There are no other words for it–except possibly “life affirming,” “glorious,” and “liberating.” Imagine not having to be concerned with ubiquitous, mind-numbing statistics. “This cycle at Cornell, 22.6% of Early Applicants were accepted, 24.3% were deferred.” Who cares? If Ithaca is attractive to you, go ahead and apply. But stop thinking about whether or not you’ll be admitted. You don’t know; your neighbors don’t know; and, until your application is perused, the admissions committee doesn’t know. In the previous admissions cycle, Harvard admitted 4.917% of applicants; this year Harvard admitted 4.834%. Admittedly, I made up that precision to emphasize the absurdity, but you can’t blame me and no jury in the country would convict.
6) You can stop thinking about meaningless minutiae. Did that other applicant (who is rich/poor, black/white, tall/short) get admitted whereas you (poor/rich, white/black, short/tall) did not? Were tuba players popular at that HSC while you prefer the ukulele? Again, it doesn’t matter. Again, who cares? How admissions works globally at a given campus is not your issue. If you get an unlucky roll of the dice at Cornell, you can go to Bucknell. The world will continue to turn.
7) Who you are matters more than where you go. I know I write column after column about this simple truth, but there is still such misguided fanaticism of the “OMG! The sky is falling! I wasn’t admitted to an HSC! I will grow up to be unemployed and unhappy!” sort. Counterexample: Arguably the smartest, most motivated student at the University of Florida College of Medicine this year did her undergraduate work at Arizona State University. Last year, Arizona State University accepted 83% of its applicants. Do the math. Who you are—getting an A in organic chemistry—matters more than where you go—ASU versus HSC.
8) You get to go to college where you want rather than the one your neighbors prefer.
9) You avoid being scammed. I wish I were making this up but parents pay tens of thousands of dollars to “counselors” who have an “algorithm” to predict which students will be admitted to which HSC. Spoiler alert: There is no giant with a golden harp in the clouds. Nor is there an accurate algorithm. But a handful of magic beans would be a better investment than $40,000 for “guaranteed” admission to Syracuse University. Surefire admissions to NYU for $100,000 would be laughable if it weren’t just fundamentally tragic.
10) Most importantly, by not obsessing about that which is neither important nor meaningful, you have every chance of having a life. Take 11 AP courses in high school and be miserable because you think prodigious amounts of work will increase your chances at an HSC? Nah. The director of admission of Stanford said there’s no difference between five APs and eleven. Marginal improvements—my chances at Stanford are six percent rather than four percent—are negligible. Take a chance. Take art history. Take anthropology. Take a course in which you are genuinely interested. My math isn’t that strong but I’m pretty sure you’re never going to be 17 years old again. Enjoy. Do what you care about rather than being a paper member of a bunch of clubs. Take a walk. Hang out with friends. Toss a ball with your parents. Go for a hike in a national park, get lost, and barely find your way back to the car before dark. And for goodness gracious sakes, read a book that wasn’t assigned.
Could the answer be that straight-forward? Is it possible to get through high school without being ruled by anxiety and doubt? As admissions decisions continue to flood your in-box in the coming weeks, try to feel good about yourself and your accomplishments. And remember that who you are matters more than where you go.