By Debby Shulman
As May 1st swiftly approaches, everyone with a high school senior senses the growing excitement in the week to come. May Day signifies the date where ALL high school seniors must officially commit to college … so May Day, for many, represents an exhausting sigh of emotional relief and the end of a very long year. And I love May Day. Maybe more this year because our last child will be leaving for college in the fall, but also May Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the college application experience.
I strongly believe there remains tremendous evidence that the college application process works the way it should. The system, more often than not, reflects admission practices that accurately admit and deny students based on a specific set of qualifications. And sadly, none of these are because, “Tommy is such a good, good boy” or “We have a guy who knows someone in admissions.”
You see, colleges and universities do not particularly care whether or not your child has prayed to the shrine of the Wolverine or the Badger, attended games since the age of six, or tattooed the mascot on his/her ankle. Colleges care about coursework, they care about grades and some even care about character.
Yet, the greatest, most prevalent misperceptions regarding the college application process do not stem from students, they come from parents who simply refuse to accept that the University of Exceptional Children does not want little Tommy in the Class of 2020.
Mind you, Tommy may bring test scores that raise eyebrows and garner “ooohhhs and ahhhhs” at lacrosse games, but those folks will not be the ones assessing whether Tommy stands in the Ivy or can hear the ocean from his dorm. So many parents believe they have a real, honest-to-goodness Ivy candidate living upstairs, yet when presented with statistics and facts (rather than rumor mill sideline chat) their optimistic hearing turns selective; the truth in College Town hurts. And while nobody disputes the work ethic, academic achievement and athletic prowess of Tommy – many parents fail to realize that so much more must be considered when reaching for that elusive and coveted spot within the very best colleges and universities. But more importantly, the expectation that Tommy will find acceptance at a school nestled along the banks of a majestic river with gothic quads and classmates surrounded by secret service agents brings more harm than good to an otherwise wonderfully exciting process.
But WHY you’re all asking … WHY NOT TOMMY?!
C’mon — he’s a great kid! He goes to camp, he coaches lacrosse all summer for special needs children, he plays beautifully with his younger sister and shovels the snowy driveway of the elderly lady next door. AND HE IS A PEER GROUP LEADER! And on Link Crew! And Charity Drive! And Student Association! The list, dear readers, goes on and on …
What troubles me more than the ridiculous assumption that everyone has an Ivy living upstairs, remains the undue pressure placed on Tommy to reach unattainable heights in order to appease his parents own need for vicarious achievement.
Mom and Dad want this acceptance, not necessarily Tommy. Mom and Dad crave that Facebook post, the humble brag, the all caps-exclamation-post frenzy. But okay, I digress. Since we all want to root for Tommy, (the underdog of this college tale) let me lay out some much-needed facts.
Your basic, run-of-the-mill exclusive, highly competitive school will most likely be private and small. Therefore, they don’t care because they don’t have to! Private schools receive support through tuition, endowments and donations. Well-established alumni offer substantial monetary gifts that support the university and the campus. So when parents debate and argue the seemingly incongruous, unfair and paradoxical admission practices exercised by admission officers at these selective institutions, they fail to understand the bigger picture.
For example, a highly sought-after private school in the south will receive roughly 30,000 applications. They will accept 3,800. DO THE MATH. Of those, 96% will have graduated at the very top of their class, and an honorable percentage will be children of alums with generous and wealthy parents who will be thrilled to continue making donations to their alma mater. Move on to the deserving minority candidates from low-income households and that represents 1391 candidates accepted. Throw in highly competitive overseas candidates from countries all over the world and another 270 spots of our acceptance pie are gone. Get it? That leaves only 1,204 spots left, spread out over a very large and competitive playing field.
Therefore, the likelihood of Tommy finding acceptance among the banks of the Quinnipiac River or the Northern California coastline remain understandably slim. BUT, if our hero should be lucky enough to receive that golden ticket, he will have spent years as a highly-engaged community volunteer and civic leader, he will fluently speak another language, he will be an officer in his senior class, he will have successfully completed a wide variety of Advanced Placement courses with an independent study thrown in for good measure.
So … drum roll, please: Is it worth it?
Too many parents wrongfully assume that acceptance to an Ivy is a numbers game. Bring a top score and a terrific GPA and there we have it – a candidate Mom and Dad believe worthy of admittance. But that’s just not the way it works and with so much pressure placed on our students to scale such insurmountable odds, I really like the idea of just staying quiet and finding schools that meet the emotional, academic and social needs of your kid. It’s a triple threat – without one of these important attributes we risk setting our teens up for disappointment and often, a transfer.
Stop the insanity with the college application frenzy; stop worrying about your high school freshman getting into a good college and please, PLEASE stop talking about your kid’s test scores. Because come May Day, nobody will care anymore.
We live within driving distance of some of the most outstanding schools in the country. The Big Ten offers honors colleges galore, well-established undergraduate research programs that attract world-renowned professors and students from over the world. Small liberal arts colleges bring engaging and published professors, award-winning authors and a campus community that will culturally rival any high school experience.
Students with high ACT and SAT scores and impressive grade point averages will continue to bring that energy and commitment no matter where they hang their baseball hat.
My favorite story this year begins with a state champion high school runner from the western suburbs of Illinois. A perfect ACT score, volunteer work and a wonderful essay earned her a spot at Stanford, which she ultimately turned down. A budding veterinarian, a smaller Jesuit college in Illinois offered her a full ride, and knowing she will have years of vet school beyond her undergraduate education, she chose the lesser-known school. This wise young student will find plenty of joy running for this small school knowing she made the right decision. And her parents couldn’t care less. Stanford, while considered the best of the best, might not be the best for everyone.
What we REALLY want for our children lies with the happiness and confidence they find by way of experience, life lessons and discovering what makes THEM feel inspired.
The T-shirt they proudly wear on May Day should represent their journey, not the one placed upon them by parents too obsessed with collegiate vanity to see beyond the test score.
Lisa Barr, editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor specializing the development of college and graduate school applications with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois. Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen Magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Find her on Facebook at Debbyshulman.com