To Tell or Not to Tell?

Recent postings on the NACAC elist have weighed in on the merits or demerits of posting college admission results in a public place like a bulletin board. At some schools, it’s nobody’s business; at others, it’s a celebration of community spirit. A lot of that seems to depend on the social/economic situation of each school, which makes this activity an interesting barometer of college outlooks at both the school and the individual student level.
For privileged schools, the competition is so intense it’s dangerous to post all acceptances, especially when there’s always the chance of hearing, “Why did Jimmy Smith get into Nirvana U when my Susie didn’t?” and worse. The can of worms here is very large and smelly. Despite what we’d like to think and how we try to present it, privileged families often see college admission as a contest to be won and, even more insidious, as a zero-sum game: If your kid wins, mine loses. (As if not getting into Nirvana means you end up having to attend Hollywood Upstairs Medical College.)
On the other hand, less-privileged schools like charters and others serving low-income and first generation students, are justifiably proud when their students are accepted to post-secondary institutions. They have to work many times harder than privileged schools to bring their students into striking distance of four-year colleges, so a success there is a major event, even if the college isn’t “top tier” or “most competitive.” The point is to have students attend and finish well so they can help create the critical college-going culture schools need. And the challenges aren’t just academic; they have to address social, cultural, and other challenges not as prominent with their better-off peers.
I like to see the map of the U.S. with pins showing where students are when I visit a school. That tells me a lot about how widely the school has asked its students to look, which also tells me that they’ve really encouraged their students to think broadly about what they want. In a low-income school, that can be quite an impressive display (think not only acceptances, but good scholarships, financial aid, and an ability to see the world), providing inspiration for future graduates. It’s a community as well as an individual achievement.
As far as posting acceptance letters (all or just the final one) is concerned, I always feel uncomfortable. It looks like scalp collecting at privileged schools, which promotes the competition we try to tamp down. The “wall of shame” where some students post rejection letters (always a student idea, as far as I can tell) can be cathartic but a better idea to me would be to have a bonfire where students could consign these negative spirits to cleansing flames without having to reveal anything specific. (Maybe they could throw in some of the piles of mail they’ve gotten from colleges over the year as well. I’ve also advocated a collective scream along with all this—an atavistic release of all the tension that’s built up throughout the process.)
Parents and schools at all socio-economic levels can be justifiably proud of their students’ accomplishments. If we’ve done our duty as counselors we’ve also communicated the fact that the importance of the college experience is less about where you go than what you do when you’re there.


A version of this post also appears on Admitted, the blog of the National Association for College Counseling.
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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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