David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

There is No Try

A counselor relates the stats of a stellar candidate:.

  • Applied Early Decision
  • Full pay, did not apply for and would not qualify for need based financial aid.
  • 4.5 weighted gpa; 3.8 unweighted.
  • Five years of French.
  • Four years orchestra, viola, many performances, church choir.
  • Nine AP exams, mostly 5s, some 4s
  • Participating in research, third author published paper.
  • Extensive leadership.
  • She took the most rigorous course offerings her private prep high school offers
  • Outstanding letters of recommendation and essays
  • Applying as a biology major, pre-med.

Yet Susie was rejected at Duke University in North Carolina. Why was she rejected at Duke? Dunno. But I’ll make the following remarks anyway:

  1. Susie is still the star that she was before Duke rejected her.
  2. With credentials—grades, scores, extra-curriculars—like those described above, she will do well wherever she matriculates. Look at all those great courses and good scores on her advanced placement exams. Wow!
  3. Admissions to Highly Selective Colleges is as arbitrary as it is cruel. There were dozens of kids with identical credentials applying for this same spot. Duke can’t take them all.
  4. Trying to understand the reason she was rejected is like trying to read a bowl of alphabet soup.
  5. You can’t do better than Susie. Unless you are a 300-pound, 6’ 7” male who can run 40 yards in under five seconds and who likes to bump into people knocking them over. I’ll ask Susie if she is willing to change her gender and interests, as well as put on a hundred-something pounds. I’ll be right back.
  6. Beyond a point there is no explanation for why Janet is admitted and Jane is not. Indeed, in a given admissions cycle, Alan can be admitted on the third day on which applications are evaluated and Allen denied on the seventh day.
  7. Yoda suggested that there is no try, only do. I have seen all the Star Wars movies and I speak with some authority when I point out that although they gained notoriety in other ways, none of the Jedi knights applied to highly selective American colleges. I hate to disagree with a philosophical Muppet, but there is indeed “try.” What there isn’t is “why.”

Speaking of Yoda, Al Yankovich penned the following: “I know Darth Vader has got you annoyed, but if you kill him off then you’ll be unemployed, oh my Yoda. Y-O-D-A, Yoda.

Counselors who focus on “why” keep themselves engaged.

  • If only Susie were a member of an underrepresented minority. Except tons of underrepresented minority kids are also rejected.
  • If only Susie had nine AP courses instead of eight. Nah. Beyond five APs the number of advanced classes doesn’t move the needle.
  • Susie should not have told the truth about wanting to major in biology, a common, unexceptional choice. Right, lying on applications is the message we want to communicate to our children.
  • If only Susie played cello instead of viola. Really? That’s the best you’ve got as an explanation? The size of the stringed instrument?

It’s entirely human to desire explanations. Why hasn’t my investment portfolio outperformed the S&P 500? Why don’t the Dolphins do well in the post season? It is harder to accept that sometimes we get an unlucky roll of the dice.

The good news is that Susie will do well wherever she matriculates. As long as she doesn’t focus on looking backward and beat herself up for being involved with a random process.

Lastly, some of my gracious readers have asked why I come back to the arbitrary nature of admissions at highly competitive colleges as a frequent topic in these Tuesday essays. I guess I feel strongly about the subject. I also feel like the torrent of misinformation and misunderstanding is sufficiently rampant to merit a repeated response. My loftiest goals as an independent college counselor these past 38 years has to been to dispel anxiety and assuage harmful rumors about the transition process. As long as harmful silliness exists, I will continue to write these affirmations.

How long will it take to combat the ubiquitous notion that admissions is perfectly predictable and precise? Weird Al offers the following insight:

Well, I heard my friends really got in a mess,

So I’m gonna have to leave Yoda, I guess.

But I know that I’ll be coming back someday,

I’ll be playing this part till I’m old and gray.

The long term contract I had to sign,

Says I’ll be making these movies till the end of time.

Oh, my Yoda. Y-O-D-A, Yoda.



One thought on “There is No Try

  1. Charlotte Klaar

    Thank you, David! We just discussed this very topic in my IEC regional group. When are we going to learn to let kids develop and learn who they are without the insane pressure that we put on them? It is more than unhealthy. It is cruel and unusual punishment. How to make it stop and return to the simpler time when it didn’t matter so much where you went to college. The fact that you went is what counted.
    Charlotte Klaar

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