The Lies We Tell Ourselves, Part 1. Students.

I run, but I’m not a REAL runner. But I am a competitor. So when someone passes me or is faster than me, I always tell myself that they’re just in the first quarter mile. Conversely, when I pass someone, I convince myself that they’re fresh and barely getting started, while I’m nearing the end of my jog. It’s ridiculous. But we all do this on some level, don’t we? “I’m not gaining weight, this scale is always five pounds too high.” “Going out with friends instead of studying for tomorrow’s final will be fine. I’m really at my best after 2 a.m. anyway.” “This shirt is expensive, but I need to look good and land this  job.” On some level, we know these thoughts aren’t true but they help us justify our actions, they make us feel better, and they provide us a little bit of hope that we love to cling to.

These little lies also happen in college admission, and we’re all guilty- students, college admissions counselors, and parents. Let’s start with students.

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Students:

Lie 1- Applying to multiple schools with extremely low admit rates increases my chances of getting into one of them. Statistically incorrect. If every school you apply to takes one out of every five students (or less), you are entering a complete crap shoot, as we examined in Holistic Admission, The Struggle is Real. Each year I hear from a student or about a student who applied only to Ivy League Schools, and was not admitted to any of them. Or worse, from the student who applied only to one ultra-selective school, only to learn in March they’ve been denied and are left scrambling for options. Maybe you’re too young to have seen the cinematographic masterpiece Dumb and Dumber in which Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carey) asks Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly—also briefly, and I mean briefly, Carey’s wife) the chances of them ending up together. He suggests one in a hundred to which she replies, “I’d say more like one in a million.” Christmas pauses, considers, and then replies exuberantly, “So…you’re telling me there’s a chance… YEAH!” Like I said before… it’s the hope we love to cling to.

If you’ve been tuning out counselors, teachers, or parents who advise you to apply to a “foundation” or “safety” school, it’s time to snap out of it and get one or two more applications in NOW. If you’ve been looking at data in Naviance or from prior years matriculation lists from your high school and see no one with your profile has been admitted to a particular college over the last few years, then I implore you to submit at least one application to a place you could see attending (not only one that will admit you, but likely offer you a scholarship too).

Lie 2- I have to go to X institution if I’m going to have a really successful career. Look at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 list of companies and their CEOs. Most come from schools not categorized as highly selective. While this is a purely monetary measure, it demonstrates that you do not have to attend an elite college in order to be highly successful. Similarly, ask any parent or teacher that attended a prestigious school about their experience and their experience now 20-30 years after graduating from college. They’ll inevitably rattle of plenty of examples of classmates who have not “succeeded,”, and an equal or greater number who are not happy, content, or thriving. The college you attend does not dictate your life trajectory. Getting into a school earns you nothing but the right to pay tuition. It’s the work you do once there, the contacts you make, the worldview you gain, and the opportunities you grasp and capitalize on that will have the primary bearing on your future success—however you define that.

Lie 3- The school I get into and attend represents my success and standing. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and this is a very noble trait. In its best form, it leads to people serving in the armed forces or sacrificing their own stat sheet for a team win. But when it comes to college admission, unfortunately, this often goes the other way. Take Eric. Yesterday he was admitted to Stanford. Congratulations, Eric! Only 5% of applicants will be this year. Today Eric proudly threw open the schoolhouse doors with his chest out, his hair flipping, and his chin unnaturally high. The other mere denizens of the school (including his teachers and administrators) were simply thankful to be in his esteemed presence. Eric perused the cafeteria at lunch as he considered whom he should grace with his presence….. Eric had been admitted to Stanford. But he’d also become a complete jerk. Don’t be like Eric.

Tomorrow we’ll hear the lies college admission officers tell.

When Should Families Start Talking About Paying for College?

Financial aid deadlines at colleges across the nation typically arrive in mid-February. When should your family start the conversation about paying for college? Is it better to have the cost conversation early on, or wait until a student has been accepted to his or her dream college?

A Family Affair, Part 1

It’s taken me over fifteen years working in college admission to realize a basic human truth:  People love their kids. Profound, right? But it’s an extremely important lesson and a statement I continue to tell myself and our staff each year.

People love their kids. That’s why a mother might call pretending to be her daughter in hopes of receiving a password or an admission decision. That’s why a father will be in the lobby at 7:30 a.m. after his son was deferred admission or waitlisted the day before. People love their kids. You’ve been holding them up literally since they were born and even now at 120 lbs or 250 lbs, you’re figuratively still doing just that.

This is why this excerpt from Jay Mathews’ article in the Washington Post a few years ago is so disconcerting to me: “There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college.”

Now I realize this is hyperbolic journalism. Regardless, nobody wants to be part of an industry that breeds that kind of angst. However each year we see strained family dynamics, so his sentiments are somewhat true.  I believe there is a different solution– a better way forward. So here is a practical tip for helping your family thrive in the admission process, rather than allowing it to be divisive.

Safe place-safe space

Starting in the junior year of high school and gaining momentum in the senior year, the “college conversation” can seem like THE ONLY topic. So whether you are on the way to church or coming home from a tennis match, or driving two states over to visit relatives, the talk is always about college. “Have you considered applying to University X?” “I hear Brandon is really happy at Y College. You remember Brandon, right sweetie?” “Have you finished your essay?” “Where is your friend Sarah going to go for college next year?” And on and on and on…

If this is your pattern, then the quality of the conversation simply cannot be sustained. Nobody can talk about one subject all of the time and expect everyone else to continue to be interested or engaged.

I propose your family set aside two hours on a specified night each week or perhaps on Sunday afternoons and agree that the conversation will be about college. It’s in this time you open college mail, discuss deadlines that are coming up, look over essays to be edited, or discuss upcoming trips and the logistics of all of this. Everybody agrees to come to that meeting open, potentially even smiling (snacks help) with a willingness to ask and answer questions in the spirit of unity.

If this sounds cheesy or utopian or Pollyanna, then good. We all need a bit more of that in life in general, and certainly in the college admission process (Again, your alternative is what Mathews proposes). Also, no cell phones, no petting the cat, no staring longingly out the window. Just a defined period of time and a “safe place” where these necessary (and hopefully now more intentional) conversations can take place. Outside of that time and place, the college conversation is forboden (a great and all too infrequently used word). So if mom asks about a scholarship deadline on Wednesday at 7:30 a.m.- you can simply reply, “Safe place- safe space.”

At the end of the day, people love their kids. Students- remember that when mom and dad are on your case about this. Parents- remember that when your voice raises or when your patience wanes.

Tune in next week for tip 2 of A Family Affair.