Recently, our family has been watching the TV Show “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test.” Not sure what it says about us that this is the one program we can all agree on, but that’s not what this blog is about.
In the show, former athletes, reality TV “stars,” actors, and other famous to moderately well-known contestants go through a battery of grueling physical and mental tests to see if they have the attributes necessary to be in an elite military unit.
In most cases, the answer is NO. And the Directing Staff (DS), who are all former special force operators, are quick to tell them. When the DS questions participants, comments on performance, or instructs during exercises, it can sound harsh because it is so direct. But their goal is to push recruits to help them achieve their maximum potential and to see things clearly and honestly.
Well, that is where we find ourselves today. As a grizzled veteran, I am in a DS mood, people. So here are three messages students need to hear about college admission, to help you understand the reality.
- Admission Math. It’s the same as regular math. Applying to 5 schools with a 20% admit rate does not give you a 100% chance of being admitted. That’s just not how math works. Do I think you are smart? Absolutely! After all, you are reading this blog. 😊 But at Georgia Tech (admit rate: 16%) we deny thousands of smart students every year. In fact, last year our denied SAT average was over 1400–the top 5% of global test takers. Most those students had also taken calculus and are doing important things outside the classroom too.
So when someone tells you that your chances of being admitted to an Ivy League (it’s an athletic conference in the Northeast that nobody really cares about when it comes to realignment/NIL), are higher if you apply ED, they’re kind of right in that the admit rates for those schools are above those of Regular Decision. BUT your chances are still not very good. Most of those schools have ED admit rates in the teens. Since that’s where Georgia Tech is overall, I can tell you that you cannot have a high level of assurance of being admitted, regardless of your academic or extracurricular background. (If you prefer less direct and more snarky, check this out.)
2. Adulting is hard at times. I was standing outside the door of one of Tech’s “DS” the other day and heard her tell a student, “Adulting is hard.” Honest. Direct. Not what he wanted to hear as a prospective transfer student who did not have a competitive GPA and was really too far down the road at his current institution to make transferring to Tech a viable option. The truth is we all need to make tough decisions based on reality rather than on hope.
This is particularly true when it comes to paying for college. In our recently published book, we wrote an entire chapter about how to have honest and healthy conversations about this, because it is challenging but critical. While parents or supporting adults should be the ones to initiate discussions around how much they can pay or are willing to pay, often that does not happen, OR it happens too late, I.e., after admission decisions have come back.
If you are a junior or a senior and you have not had these conversations with your family, NOW is the time! Are there conditions, limitations, and expectations you need to know about before you apply or as you wait for financial packages to come back? How does your family feel about loans, working during college, or other practical and likely “adulting” that will come into play? In the spirit of brevity and channeling my DS, I’m not going to delve deep into this right now, but instead leave it on you to do more work here. Check out these blogs or this podcast on facilitating necessary conversations about money and paying for college.
3. Admission is not fair. People complain that college admission is not clear or transparent. I disagree. Admission decisions are incredibly easy to explain and understand. They come down to two fundamental driving principles: supply and demand and institutional mission.
Most colleges in the U.S. admit most students who apply. In fact, currently the average admit rate for four-year colleges is well over 60%. In the years ahead, due to the declining number of domestic students graduating from high school, as well as the international competition in higher education, it will be easier rather than harder to get in. Those are the facts.
At many colleges nationally, they make formulaic decisions where an equation determines admission—this could be test scores + GPA, or just grades. Even in those cases, admission is not fair. We all know that standardized tests have bias. We know that access to tutoring and preparation is not equitable. We know you can pay to improve your score. We know that grades get inflated more at certain schools than others. We know that it is easier at some schools versus others to get higher grades, even if you are learning less. All of that is fact. So even formulaic admission is not fair.
But what really pisses people off is that schools that say they use holistic admission… actually ARE. They say all along that they are not making decisions based solely on your grades or test scores. They say they do not put kids on an excel sheet and draw a line. BUT just like in Special Forces, people don’t like to hear that. They don’t like to hear that because you are from a certain state (or you are not); because of your major; because of the combination of both of those and other institutional priorities/mission, (in combination with supply and demand) you were not admitted.
If you are applying to a number of schools with admit rates of 1 out of 3 or less, expect unpredictability. Don’t get mad about it. You chose that. More here.
If you are applying to a number of schools with admit rates of 1 out of 4 or less, expect turbulence along the way, including deferral and waitlist decision. Don’t get frustrated. You chose that.
If you are applying to a number of schools with admit rates of 1 out of 5 or less, go back and read #1. A balanced list does not mean you have 12 schools on your list that each have a different admit rate, but they’re all under 2o%.
College admission, like the show Special Forces, has the potential to teach invaluable lessons. Both can help you clarify who you are, what you want, and how you deal with challenge and disappointment. This “process” IS an opportunity to grow, discover, and learn lessons that you can apply well beyond this experience. BUT none of that is possible if you are not honest with yourself or realistic about basic facts: admission math is the same as regular math; adulting is hard; and admission is not fair.