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College admissions is now an incredibly stressful, costly, and time-consuming task for families. This post discusses a few ways parents can help reframe the admissions discussion with their teens, starting with reading the book Who Gets In and Why.
The college admissions process has spun out of control
When you have a baby, and you see them brimming with potential, who doesn’t imagine them in a cap and gown walking under the arches at Harvard?
Fast-forward seventeen years, and you realize that dream college comes with major life sacrifices and a price tag the size of the GDP of some developing countries.
But we get sucked in as parents to want the “best” for our kids, which often includes a name-brand college that people recognize. You may think about the bragging rights or prestige or connections that come with these institutions and convince yourself that the cost is worth it.
Kids get caught up in it too. They look at things like rankings and admission rate percentages or what celebrity is wearing what sweatshirt, and they start thinking that their self-worth is tied up with what college they attend.
So, you sign your child up for test prep courses and AP classes that need tutors. Your kid loses sleep trying to start their own business and earn volunteer hours. They stress about every grade and worry about every line on their college essay.
And in the age of college prep schools and admissions consultants and professional essay writers, when grade inflation is at an all-time high, and sophisticated marketing tools track every move. At the same time, students continue to strive for perfection at all costs and teen mental health is in crisis mode, admissions at the top 100 U.S. colleges has hit an all-time low.
What the heck is going on?
High school students are sacrificing their mental health for college admissions
While browsing a college admissions parent group, I read two back-to-back posts that stopped me in my tracks.
The first was about a high-achieving student with a 4.5 GPA, 1550 SATs, 9 APs, president of everything at their school, volunteered at shelters, went on a mission trip, etc. The student applied to 10 top schools but did not get into any of them.
Not a single school.
In a moment of panic, she found a local state school that had rolling admissions, and she was waiting to hear back.
According to the mother, her child was now in a deep depression, feels like a failure, and is struggling daily.
The second post was about another great student. She had a 3.1 GPA, 27 ACT, played a varsity sport, was a member of a few clubs, and held down a part-time job in the summer. She applied to 10 colleges, and was accepted into seven schools with merit aid.
She picked the school that best fit her needs and couldn’t wait to start this next phase of her life.
The book “Who Gets In and Why” can help you understand the current state of college admissions.
Our best advice to parents currently going through the college admissions process is to read the book Who Gets In and Why, and then have your kid read it too.
The author, Jeff Selingo, goes inside three different college admissions offices and gives a first-hand account of how admissions officers are painstakingly making decisions about student applications.
With his first-hand knowledge, he dispels common myths about the admissions process, and how more elite colleges are looking to round out their own student populations with specific students.
What does that mean? According to Selingo:
While many have long believed that admissions is merit-based, rewarding the best students, Who Gets in and Why presents a more complicated truth, showing that “who gets in” is frequently more about the college’s agenda than the applicant. In a world where thousands of equally qualified students vie for a fixed number of spots at elite institutions, admissions officers often make split-second decisions based on a variety of factors – like diversity, money, and, ultimately, whether a student will enroll if accepted.
Whether it’s seeking students from a certain geographical area, giving higher priority to a student who has shown demonstrated interest or offering preference to a student who can pay full tuition, it comes down to what the school is looking for and not the student credentials (beyond meeting certain benchmarks.) This is above and beyond other metrics, such as race, gender, ethnicity, legacy, or athletics.
So, this means that a certain college may be looking for a cello player from the Northeast or a female bioscience major to round out their student population.
Unfortunately, many students take a rejection from their “dream” school as a rejection of their qualifications and effort–and it can significantly impact their self-esteem.
The reason we recommend reading Who Gets In and Why–and having your student read it too–is so college applicants can see that this decision often isn’t personal. It’s business.
Many kids get rejected by a college not because they aren’t qualified but because their student profiles and attributions were not what the college needed at that exact moment.
What families need to understand about selecting a college
The key takeaway for us, however, is that most students overlook the hundreds of schools that may be a good fit college for them simply because of marketing hype or rankings in business magazines.
Students who open their options up to a wide variety of schools are more likely to get admitted, earn merit scholarships, and have positive, productive college experiences.
The best advice we have found is to help your child find a school that they love, that you can afford, and that you know they will be accepted. That doesn’t mean they still can’t reach for the stars in the college application process, but it also means they won’t feel like their world ended if they didn’t get into that “dream” school.
This could make a difference when it comes down to their mental health during the process.
Bring back the fun of finding a college
Most students dread the college admissions process because they know how much stress and work it involves. Instead, try to make it a little more fun.
We also suggest taking college tours every chance you can get, wherever you are, to see the depth that certain schools can offer students. Visit local colleges even if you don’t think that it is an option. Swing by a campus on vacation. Take some virtual tours.
The more students can see the various options available at different campuses, the more they can make a better, informed decisions about their future.
There are so many great options out there once you get past the label, many of which can give generous financial packages and enrollment incentives.
Where you go is not who you are
Do not tie the work they put in during high school only to the admissions process. It is not wasted if they decide to go to a different type of school or even if they decide to attend a community college, trade school, or the military.
Make sure to celebrate their effort and not tie it to achievement.
We also love this book by Frank Bruni, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be
If you have a student that wants to reach for the stars, that is awesome. Just make sure they understand the current dynamics and that where they go to college is not who they are–or who they will be.
If you have a more anxious student, look at a wide breadth of options. There is a college for everyone if that is what your student wants to do with their life. And ask yourself, is getting into a certain type of college worth the impact it may have on your teen’s mental health?
Parents can change the narratives for their kids about the college admissions process if they don’t get sucked into the marketing. We’ve lost our way a bit with the process, so it’s up to us to reframe the discussion.
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