Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

College Applicants: Yes, the Rules Apply to You, Too

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” – Albert Einstein.

thomas-edisonOur culture admires those who challenge the status quo. American success lore brims with heroic biographies of courageous, original entrepreneurs, explorers, inventors,  athletes, celebrities, and politicians. The fact that young Americans absorb these stories as part of our innovative national heritage shows healthy transmission of our country’s cherished values. In contrast, in his bestseller, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, Yale professor William Deresiewicz bemoans the fact that “the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand perfect grades” has had the unintended result of developing smart-but-banal college students who do not know how to “think critically and creatively.”

That said, I do not believe that an iconoclast, break-the-rules attitude is a valuable quality in the college application process. While I admire young people with original ideas, I am a guardian of prudent, conventional wisdom when it comes to applying to college. As an independent college admissions consultant, I warn clients to beware of two false assumptions that tempt applicants to take ill-advised gambles in the college process. Instead, I suggest accepting demographic realities and finding ways to stand out within today’s higher education framework.

laptopyoungredheadFalse Assumption Number One: “I will be the exception to the rule.”  Intrinsic to youthful idealism is the belief that no matter how many people have fallen prey to statistical norms in the past, I will be the lucky exception, or, said another way, the rules don’t apply to me. Unfortunately, many exemplary, optimistic young people get drawn into this false assumption. They might look at a Naviance Scattergram and say, “See, one or two students got accepted at Ivy U who were below the average SAT and GPA for that school. So exceptions do exist, and I could be the next exception.” Alas, this is a trap of wishful thinking that creates a deceptive mirage on the applicant’s planning horizon, complicating the college process for that individual.

scattergramThe problem with this reasoning is that the ostensible “exception” is actually part of the rule, but the student just does not know what that entire rule is. Let us assume that the “exceptions” on this graph are recruited athletes, artistic prodigies, legacy applicants, “development admits,” or underrepresented minorities (URMs). They are not exceptions, then, just corollaries of the rule, of which the applicant is not aware. Most special status information is not given on a Naviance Scattergram; it only provides data on a student’s Early Decision and Early Action status. Hence, the applicant is better served to use the “rule” as a guideline unless he or she clearly possesses a special status.

COMPUTERINDIANMOMWhy is this deceptive thinking risky? Because it might lead to a student applying to an unrealistic Early Decision school, losing out on the opportunity to use the ED “wild card” to apply to a school where he or she has a better chance of getting accepted. Or it might lead to an applicant spending too much time and energy applying to colleges that are too much of a reach, while not bothering to “court” less selective schools (through compelling essays, campus visits, and interviews) that place a strong emphasis on demonstrated interest. Or ignoring the feedback inherent in December deferrals or denials, that may be suggesting that an applicant include less competitive (but still appealing) prospective schools in January. While some admission results are random, most are not, and can help an observant and flexible applicant readjust strategy. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.”

congratulationsFalse Assumption Number Two: “I’ve wanted this my whole life.” I am careful not to paint an entire generation with the same broad brush, since American high school students vary so much across socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious, regional, family, and academic categories. There is, however, a conspicuous segment of high-performing, upper middle class Millenials whose parents have thrived in their educational and professional lives, and who expect their own lives to proceed along successful paths as well.

I have written extensively about how the admissions landscape has changed since my generation was in college. Still, I continue to encounter many fine applicants with, alas, unrealistic expectations. I refrain from the curmudgeonly moniker entitled,” since many students from this segment put forth Herculean efforts; most of them, however, do expect to win, and it is a rude awakening for them to discover that some situations are beyond their control, such as when they were born and the state of college admissions now that they have turned eighteen.

happytrophyIf their parents attended elite institutions, these teens may expect that they can follow in their parents’ footsteps. Throughout their lives, if they really wanted something, they generally got it. Not just material things, but camp experiences, support for extracurricular interests, tutoring, travel, and perhaps independent schooling. They grew up learning that if they wanted something badly enough, they would eventually acquire it. Some, of course, do attain the academic credentials to land elite college acceptances, but others’ confidence exceeds their actual high school performance. Pumped up by a lifetime of optimism, an applicant might take the risk to apply Early Decision or Early Action-Restricted to a “Hail Mary pass” university, propelled by the pure belief that winning is inevitable because it is so intensely desired.

manpraiseuniverseAs an adolescent in the 1970’s, I was horrified after reading the famous Stephen Crane poem: “A man said to the universe: ‘Sir, I exist!’ ‘However,’ replied the universe, ‘The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.'” I could not fathom the frightening prospect that the objective, impersonal rules of the world were not going to bend for me because of my imagined “specialness.” I would not be able to attain a goal simply because I wanted it so badly. The rules of reality applied to me just like everybody else; I would simply have to learn to survive, and somehow, I did.

Malcolm Gladwell points out in his bestseller, Outliers, that success is determined not only by intelligence and drive, but mediated by situational factors over which we have no control, such as when and where we were born. The rules apply to everyone. In David and Goliath, however, Gladwell shows how so-called advantages can paradoxically turn out to be disadvantages and vice versa.

Veterinarian surgeon doctor making a checkup of a begle puppy dog

Based on Gladwell’s thought-provoking challenges to conventional thinking about success, I would say that being born during a time when it was not so difficult to get into an Ivy League school might have been an advantage, but being born during a time when it is extremely difficult offers its own advantages as well. For example, Gladwell specifically mentions that being a large fish in a small pond at a less elite college might bring greater confidence, and therefore greater success, later in life. Other examples might include saving money for graduate school by winning merit scholarships at a less selective undergraduate school, or maximizing GPA at a less competitive university to qualify for an elite program in medicine, law, business or academia. Or just plain doing well, as NY Times columnist Frank Bruni suggests in his recent bestseller, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

Our children have to learn to survive their unique generational situation, not by insisting on college application choices that fly in the face of reality. Rather, they are better served by doing their best to capitalize on whatever opportunities today’s college admissions landscape brings their way.