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Gettin In (or not): What is College Admission Really all about?

Message to a teenager who was accepted at her second choice school and is anxiously waiting for word from her first choice:

Sorry for your nail-biting time. You are a great girl and will land on your feet like a cat–as you always do. Congratulations on your A’s and B’s this year.

Remember something you already know: having someone else want you as you want them is never a sure thing. A batting average of 500 in that game is an outstanding success rate; to get 100% would be truly amazing. Congratulations on your success. I am virtually holding your hand as you bite the nails off your other one.

(…or should this message go to her father?) What experiences can you share about the often painful process of high school and college admission? What advice do you have for a teenager? Is their future really as on the line as almost everyone seems to feel at this decision time of year?

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8 Responses to “Gettin In (or not): What is College Admission Really all about?”

  1. Peter March 23, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    Sigh … Dad … MUST you choose THE TOPIC on the topic of which I am MOST unpleasant to listen to?!? I can’t help myself, so here I go, I’ll try to keep it relevant. BECAUSE we have yet to devise the mechanism by which to cultivate and promote and reward best practices in the classroom, and BECAUSE we are more of a meritocracy today than we have ever been, the real purpose of educational institutions — in terms of how they function in the machinery of our economy — is to sort. Yes, she will land on her feet, and yes she is a unique and beautiful snowflake, and yes, by the time she is my age (40) enough other things will have happened, enough opportunities will have presented themselves to mitigate the consequences of where she gets sorted, but she IS being sorted, and no two ways about it, it sucks. She is facing a real socio-economic crossroads. And the standards are JUST BARELY fair enough for her to be filled with all kinds of regret as a result of the outcome. Whew! so … let’s reform the business of teaching so that future generations don’t have to deal with what she is dealing with.

  2. Mark March 23, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    Now that my three girls are all in college, My theory that that the college obsession is lunacy has pretty much been confirmed. Here are a few observations:

    1. There are a large number of colleges that are about equal in educational quality to the handful of elite schools that everyone wants to attend.

    2. Them elite schools aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Some are so full of themselves or overly competitive that they are downright destructive.

    3. There are, however, also colleges and universities that are considered good “middle tier” schools that offer a mediocre education, especially some state schools that are being bled to death by budget cutters.

    4. The theory that “a degree from an elite school guarantees your future” is mostly a myth – plenty of very successful people went to no-name colleges – but there is still a bit of truth to it. An elite degree can make a difference, BUT…

    5. I’ve realized that nothing is more important than raising and educating a child who loves to learn. This child may well get into a “good” college, but will do well even at a mediocre one, and throughout life. On the other hand, a child who is raised to get into a prestegious college may get there and be utterly unable to take advantage of it: her goal may have been met, and she may hate learning after years of high-pressure preparation.

    Let your kids find their own way. Regardless of where they go to college, or whether they even go to college, their way will ultimately be the best for them.

  3. Lisa Sunbury March 24, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    “I’ve realized that nothing is more important than raising and educating a child who loves to learn. This child may well get into a “good” college, but will do well even at a mediocre one, and throughout life. On the other hand, a child who is raised to get into a prestigious college may get there and be utterly unable to take advantage of it: her goal may have been met, and she may hate learning after years of high-pressure preparation.”
    “Let your kids find their own way. Regardless of where they go to college, or whether they even go to college, their way will ultimately be the best for them.”

    Mark, Love this SO much, as it echoes my own strongly held beliefs. Also, you inspired me to share the story of a young lady that I know and love, who, three years ago, “turned down” Harvard , in favor of attending a good, but smaller, and less prestigious college, because she felt it was a better fit for her.

    Her decision was a bit difficult for her parents to fully embrace at first, but ultimately they supported their daughter’s choice, and trusted that “her way would ultimately be the best way.”

    What struck all of us so strongly, was the care and consideration this young woman put into her decision. She truly knows how to think and reason for herself, and values and is self directed and proactive in her learning- and to me that is the ultimate goal of all education,(or it should be) which makes the question of college, no college, or which college, moot.

  4. Peter March 24, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Okay … so … at risk of sounding argumentative — because nothing of what Mark or Lisa seem to be saying, here, strikes me as WRONG — do you all believe that the system itself works properly? — that the problem is simply what we project onto it?
    This is not intended as a loaded question. I have always been sorted into the academic non-elite box, and coming from a family full of academic high-fliers, I am regularly counseled not to take the sorting seriously. But the biases in judging the situation are overwhelming. I mean, someone that perceives that he or she has benefited from an unjust sorting system has some stake in believing that the box one gets sorted into doesn’t matter, because it suggests that any successes that he or she enjoys subsequently can be attributed to his or her actual value-added to society; while someone that lacked fundamental competencies necessary to get sorted even into a “second” or “third” tier box has a stake in believing that he or she would have been much more successful if he or she had possessed the particular knacks.
    The truth is, we all have circumstances that benefit us and that have no connection whatsoever to aptitude. Living in Japan for 10 years as an outsider (no one really assimilates, here, it’s one of the peculiarities of this country) I have become conscious of a wide range of advantages and disadvantages that go with that status, and have learned to navigate them. It works out alright, and I enjoy working it out.
    But returning to the issue of academic sorting, is the feeling that the system is not broken, and that my failure as a school-goer is no more significant than by being a native English speaking Caucasian male from the northeastern United States?

  5. kirsten olson March 25, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Rick, Thank you for this. With a son in exactly this position–waiting for his first choice–already been accepted at his second–the caution is as much to the rest of the world as him–it will all be okay.

    Appreciatively,

    Kirsten

  6. Anita March 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    Our family is also in the throes of the college admission experience. My daughter has worked hard for 4 years, has stellar test scores, grades, etc., and yet she was rejected from the most competitive of the University of CA campuses. Every year during the past few years that I’ve been tuned in to the statistics, we’ve been told is the “worst year” as far as acceptance rates for some of these top colleges (and other private ones). It’s no surprise, given the economic meltdown of the state of CA, and its impact on education. I think the bigger question, and one that is on top of mind for all of us and contributing to our collective anxiety, is that we are at a turning point in this country, and we’re not certain that our children will be able to enjoy the same standard of living as their parents (or one that we did until a couple of years ago). Faced with that uncertainly, we’re scrambling to give them any possible edge or boost for them to shine among the masses (in the unemployment line). Who knows where they’ll be in 10, 20, 30 years, but they’ll most likely be doing okay, if not for the Ivy League education that they may or may not get, then as a result of having families with the wherewithal to support them. It might be a cultural shift from the American individualist way of thinking to more a familial and supportive model – not because we want to, but because we have to in order to survive.

  7. Lisa Sunbury March 25, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Peter,

    I understand and appreciate what you are saying, and I don’t see you as argumentative at all, just passionate- which is something I also understand and appreciate 🙂

    I happen to agree with you 100% beginning with: BECAUSE we have yet to devise the mechanism by which to cultivate and promote and reward best practices in the classroom….etc., ending with: let’s reform the business of teaching so that future generations don’t have to deal with what she is dealing with. Bravo to that!

    In many ways the system IS broken, although there are bright spots that exist here and there, and there are people like your Dad, and many who participate in reading and commenting here, who are committed to examining, speaking out about, and fixing what’s wrong in our educational system today.

    Unfortunately, progress and change sometimes (usually) seems to take forever, (at any rate, it often occurs at a pace that’s much too slow for my taste) but we’re having the conversation, some are listening, and THAT is an important first step!

    So yes, I agree that as things exist today, this young woman may be
    the “victim” of being “sorted”, but given that this may be the reality, what words of wisdom would you offer her? You yourself seem to have fared well, and seem to agree that in the end, all will be well…..and she will find her way…. Isn’t that what’s ultimately important?

    Would love to continue this conversation with you, and share with you my personal tale of “being sorted,” and what impact and implications it’s had for me in my life…..

  8. GAry Gruber March 28, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    After many years of counseling families through this experience (some call it a process) the biggest mistake I see people making is limiting their choices in ways that penalize them in the end. There are literally hundreds of fine colleges and universities where one can get a supreme education in many different arenas. The first person I heard this from was Ted Fiske, former classmate and friend who did his homework with his Fisk Guide to Colleges. With schools, geography is often a limjiting factor and economics is increasingly a significant and legitimate concern.

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