Whatever is, is so-so

This request came to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)’s listserv the other day:

Recently, two students have approached me with concerns about their classes (AB Calc; AP Chem). Both are strong students with rigorous course schedules; they’ve applied to some selective colleges. The math student had some [learning] issues so AB Calc was always a struggle; last semester he was able to pull a B- in the course. The other barely earned a C in AP Chem last semester and continues to struggle this semester. Both currently have an F right now. They’ve spoken to their teachers who think it’s still possible for them to pull a C- by the end of the semester–but a passing grade isn’t guaranteed.
Here are the students questions; should they:
1. Stick with the class and try to get a C or higher, which I am sure is the best possible scenario but is still risky.
2. Drop the class soon, contact all the colleges I have applied to BEFORE the get the decisions back.
3. Wait until I hear back from the colleges and then contact those I am admitted to about dropping the course.

This situation is neither recent nor unusual, especially in the realm of the super-conscious when it comes to college admission. It is part of the gamesmanship that seems to dominate the college process of the overprivileged, where tackling a tough course and sticking it out are not ends in themselves. Instead, the courses are there just to grace a transcript; unless they serve the goal of college admission, they’re not worth the struggle.

The counselor is right to suggest that choice #1 is correct, but his/her hesitation and need to ask the college advising community demonstrate why it’s so tough to be a college counselor these days. The true answer is, “You chose these courses and need to stick with them. Try to learn as much as you can. You both struggled last year but opted to keep going. Good for you! I admire your determination.” The idea is to honor their willingness to challenge themselves by taking the tough road instead of the easy path. (Getting Fs seems to belie that statement, but one has to wonder these days if they simply haven’t already given up.)

But, like telling the truth, taking the tough course doesn’t always get you the reward you want. Trying to prove yourself in AP calc or AP chem doesn’t mean you’ll get an A; it means, if nothing else, that if you do all the work and try your hardest, you’ll get what you earn. There are no guarantees, so unless you’re really in it to try to learn the subject and not simply try to impress college admission officers, your effort is “wasted.” (Many times I’ve heard a rejected candidate say, “What was the point of my taking all those APs if they didn’t get me into Patrician University?”) So which to reward, the effort or the grade?

Colleges put students in this double bind. There’s a standard admission officer response to the student who asks, “Is it better to take a regular course and get an A or an AP course and get a lesser grade?” The answer, you can guess, is “It’s better to get an A in the AP course!” Ha ha. At the same time, however, colleges tell students they should always be challenging themselves and not falling back on comfortable courses they can easily ace. So students push themselves into AP courses even if there’s a good chance they’ll do poorly. It’s a calculated risk, with the AP label outweighing the rest. And classes become means to an end, which means if they’re not serving that end, there’s no reason to take them, and you can see where that’s going (see F above).

So which part of the equation should a college honor more? In a world where there are plenty of students who DO get As in AP courses, there’s no real dilemma for them. But for me there’s always that nagging doubt: What if the student with the lower AP grade is actually a much more interesting student? There are many straight-A students who are more boring than an extra inning baseball game, and not a few others who offer compelling raw material for colleges to work with.

Luckily, many colleges out there are more than willing to forgive a C in calculus or AP chem if the student is clearly doing well otherwise and if there’s clear evidence of effort and determination. As long as that student doesn’t plan to be an engineer or a chemist, shouldn’t his/her willingness to take the risk outweigh the grade in this case? Don’t we hear a lot about students being afraid to do that (and college complaints that students don’t take risks)? It’s here that the most competitive colleges sometimes fall on their own sharp swords: It’s difficult for them to take a chance on a student who really has taken chances and is intellectually alive because their own statistics would be affected.

It becomes a Mobius strip of logic and calculation rather than a humane and individualized decision. For that reason, perhaps the college admission community should try to untwist the connections between risk and achievement/gamesmanship and academic integrity. Maybe it’s time to revisit why, in an age where so many colleges don’t even require math, they still require it to be accepted, and so on. I’m not saying they shouldn’t (and I can argue reasons why they should), but I am saying that a discussion of what being well-educated means at the high school level might do us some good. There’s enough blather about it and enough testing; maybe we should step back to see where the current requirements have gotten us.

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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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