Rejection and Acceptance

Seniors have gotten their letters now. Some are happy, some not so happy, some are wondering what they did wrong. Some parents are wondering what I did wrong. (Not all of them, but some…They’re the ones that I hear from the most, unfortunately. Happy parents tend to be happy on their own.) The kids take the decisions philosophically, for the most part. In fact I admire their resilience and matter of fact-ness when confronted with the hard, cold facts. It’s a long slog to this point and most of them have good choices. Some are lucky although they don’t necessarily know that. In this climate, where many schools this year reported twenty percent and higher increases in applicants, you could say they’re ALL lucky. (Swarthmore had a 28% rise, RPI Doubled its pool…Even a 10% rise is significant, especially when coupled with a decrease in acceptances, which some schools also reported due to slight overenrollments last year.)

It’s probably the hardest part of my job to try explaining results to parents who, understandably, are less concerned with national trends than with whether their children have gotten what they want. And there’s the rub: Too often, it seems that parents aren’t satisfied that their children have gotten into excellent schools, but are instead upset that they haven’t gotten into their FIRST CHOICE school. As I’ve said before, I work in a fairly rarified environment, so my viewpoint is skewed, but I think there’s a connection to the larger social trend of getting one’s children exactly what they want. This works fine for consumer goods like cars, toys, computer games and so on, but not for college. No one looks at your qualifications when you go to buy Bonestorm II for your X-Box.

Complicating this situation is the problem that a student can fit a college’s published student profile exactly or even better, and still not get in. We’re brought up to think that our effort and adherence to the rules will get us where we want to go, but college admission doesn’t work that way. You can do everything “right” and still not get in to your “dream” school. The most competitive schools love to say how they could fill their freshman class several times over with valedictorians and perfect-SAT-scorers, but that doesn’t really help anyone.

The only time this really hurts, though, is when a student and/or parents have been working toward admission to one particular school, doing all the strategizing, scheming, and “gaming” they can to reach the desired result. Even though for some schools there’s a 90% chance of failure, that doesn’t matter. I still get calls demanding to know why Johnny or Janey didn’t get into Heavenly U. Unfortunately, if the student fits the profile, I have no good answer, and didn’t when I worked on the other side of the desk, either: There’s nothing wrong, most often plenty right, in the application; we simply didn’t have enough room for everyone. Sometimes a waitlisted or rejected student might even have briefly been in the accepted pile, but the vagaries of the numbers pulled him out again…

As I’ve said, most kids take the decisions philosophically. If they’ve gone through the process with open eyes, they know they took some chances and could only hope for the best. Those who really do come through well are those who decided early on they could be happy just about anywhere, and who know that it is THEY, not the institution, that will determine the success of their college lives and beyond. Those who pinned all their hopes on one institution have a tougher road: They’ve unwittingly tied their self-worth to the judgment of that institution and very often their parents have done the same thing, like overbearing parents at sports events or backstage mothers and fathers who have tied their own self-worth to their children’s success. An acceptance to the “right” college is like a seal of approval for their parenting over the years. Since I also work with an inner-city school where actually GOING to college is an achievement I don’t have a lot of sympathy for these parents, although I try to see things from their point of view. (And this is another facet of the increasingly commercialized logo-conscious society we now live in. Another entry…)

The best evidence of my rarified environment comes when a kid who didn’t get into the Ivy League mopes that “I only got into my backup schools: Hopkins, Carleton, and the University of Chicago.” Well, I can’t really take that too seriously. We as a school should try not to give our students such an inflated view of themselves, even if they get it from home. I like my kids and do my best to support them 100%, but at some point you have to say, “You got a great selection there; I hope you appreciate that.” And I have plenty of kids who are in fact, happy that they’ve been accepted at small schools no one’s ever heard of or simply where they feel they’ll fit in. These kids have chosen wisely and with some genuine thoughtfulness about themselves and their lives. I think these kids will have the best futures ahead of them because they’re resilient, understanding, and mature in their outlooks, in contrast to the kids who think that only one institution or life choice will do. They tend to be inflexible, unable to deal with uncertainty, and easily frustrated. They will have a harder life, I think, because they haven’t yet learned that the world revolves with or without them; the flexible kids take that knowledge in stride and make the best of it.

College admission is sort of a mug’s game: You can’t ever really know what you’re getting when you plunk your money and your “self” down. You have to trust in the imponderables too much if you settle on one place too firmly. You can try to pick the red ace, but it’s probably not going to happen even if you’re a genius (or just think you are). But if you allow yourself to float on the waves of fate, thinking that you’ll reach a friendly shore one way or another, you can be happy no matter what happens in the short run. That means thinking broadly about yourself and your abilities, desires, and future. We never know what’s going to happen to us: No matter how tightly we plan our lives, we can trip over an ottoman and break our necks on the way to accept the Nobel Prize. A certain amount of resignation regarding the randomness of life could help a great deal in the college admission process.

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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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