April Fool’s Day

My students have been hearing in quantity from their colleges in the lat few weeks and especially in the last few days. Some heard well before the official April 1 date, but that’s OK. As always, most are getting good and not so good news; others a preponderance of one more than another; some, just news. There’s happiness and unhappiness all around as students and parents start to compare results as well as deal with their own.

I always feel ambivalent and more than a little sad at this time. Of course I’m glad for good news for my seniors, but I’m also aware that suddenly I’ve become irrelevant because my function is over. Students that I’ve gotten to know over the last two years are ready to take off. That’s as it should be and I’ve always said that college counselors should be “transparent;” that is, they should as much as possible let their students claim the credit they deserve for their acceptances and stay out of the way as much as possible throughout the process anyway.

Of course, we have to deal with the rejections as well, and that’s harder for a number of reasons. First of all, so much weight is placed on the whole process by parents, schools, magazines, and so on that a “no” letter can seem like a rejection of the person, his life choices, and his own worth as an individual. I try to defuse this by refusing to treat a rejection as a tragedy, as parents often do (much more than their kids, do, in fact). If a senior tells me about a rejection from Anywhere U., I say, “Screw them!” or “Too bad for them!” Mostly, she feels better almost immediately because she realizes it’s the institution’s short-sightedness not any defects, that is to blame for the negative decision. Teen psyches are fragile enough without buying into their–legitimate but unnecessary–tragic sensibility.

Second, it’s part of the American dream that if we work hard and play by the rules, we will achieve our goals and desires. No matter how often this has been proven demonstrably false, it persists and is a powerful force, seemingly concentrated nowhere more than in college admission. Time and again I hear from parents (again, more than from their children) that “it’s unfair that Jack worked so hard and didn’t get into TripleSuper U.” But college admission isn’t based on a recipe that can be followed to a predetermined conclusion: sometimes when you follow all the rules you come out with mush instead of a cake. And there’s no way to predict with any certainty which one you’ll get.

Third, disappointment about the results of a college application (especially on the part of parents) are bound inextricably to feelings of personal self-worth and one’s success or failure as a parent. When parents express sadness at a denial, they are in fact acquiescing to the imagined rejection of their child as a person, when in fact they should be supporting their child by refusing to accept the decision as anything but arbitrary and impersonal. I’ve seen too many parents take college decisions so personally they can barely contain themselves, and this is unfortunate. I understand how hard it is to see one’s offspring turned down for anything, much less college, but a parent must be stronger than that and immediately focus on the positive. Parents will call me and say, “What was wrong with my child? With his application? Why didn’t she get into Ivy U.?” Logic and statistics are useless in these situations (nine percent acceptance rates and hundreds, if not thousands of supremely qualified applicants notwithstanding) and I understand the frustration. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten the answer to these questions, whether it comes from me or the admission office itself, is “There’s no good reason.” If the college is lucky it can point to a test score that’s slightly off (one reason schools are afraid to let go of them), but more often than not at highly competitive schools, there’s no reason why a decision went one way or another, making the whole process seem only slightly less certain than the craps table in Vegas.

Finally, in my particular school milieu, I find it more than amusing to hear some of my students (most of whom aspire to the presumed heights of academe) say, “I only got into my backup schools–Carleton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago.” What makes this sad to me isn’t the over-inflated sense of self that would consider Hopkins a backup school, but the presumption that only an infinitesimally small number of colleges and universities in this country can provide a good education or be worth attending. Much of this attitude I lay at the door of marketing and the capitalistic forces that drive colleges to register their names as trademarks. The power of the brand name has become such a force in American life that it’s almost impossible to resist in whatever realm.

As Americans, we all want to feel that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and that with “pluck and luck” we can achieve our dreams through our earnest effort. But this Horatio Alger myth is derailed constantly in the college admission process. (One should also remember that the stories themselves aren’t always what they seem–many of the boy characters are actually helped out by a kindly benefactor for whom they happen to do a good deed, which is not the same as doing it all yourself.) In the college admission process, we should try to forget about achieving specific results (entry into Ivy U.) and focus on more general results (entry into a good institution that will support our goals). To say this goes against all the “achieve your dreams” nostrums we’re sold, and so students and families continue to apply the principles too narrowly. This contributes, ironically, to the devaluation of real educational effort: Students see that their efforts don’t get them into Ivy U., something they’ve been told should happen, and so they become cynical, passing it along to the next generation of applicants. Doing well and working hard become obstacles to illusory goals rather than ends in themselves. This situation breeds only cynicism and resentment, and spirals out of control, to everyone’s disadvantage.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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