Aug. 27, 2019
My years of counseling college applicants have generated an ongoing question for me: Why do so many obviously unqualified students still aspire to apply to the Ivy League and other so-called elite colleges? What, despite the best advice I (and others) can give them, drives them to remain fixed on these incredibly competitive schools? What keeps them from focusing on a more rational, better suited selection?
I've pondered this syndrome long and hard and have come up with some thoughts about it and want to share them today. If you're a high school senior planning your college process, or have already begun it, perhaps my comments will help you better understand the challenges you may face if one or more of these hyper-selective schools is on your list of candidates. I also hope to give you a more objective rationale for choosing a college.
A powerful gravitational force plays a big part in many high school seniors' college selection processes. Because of the punishing acceptance rates of the Ivies and other “elite" colleges and universities, this attraction often leads to bitter disappointment in the final tally when decisions come out. With single-digit acceptance rates, is it any wonder?
There are good reasons to choose and apply to a school. There are also not-so-good reasons.
1. “My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there."
2. “They had a national championship football/basketball/hockey/etc. team last year."
3. “It's close to/far from home."
4. “There are lots of black/Jewish/Catholic/gay/lesbian/Latin/Asian/etc. students there."
5. “It's Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc."
6. “They offered such a good aid package, my parents could buy me a car."
7. “My brother/sister/father/mother/grandfather-mother/aunt/uncle/etc. went there."
8. “The guys/girls/buildings/campus/etc. in their viewbook looked so cool."
9. “I like to ski/surf/climb/swim/hang-glide/play Ultimate Frisbee/etc."
10. “It meets more of my criteria than most other colleges."
In the vast cosmos of why young people want to go to certain colleges, the thinking seems to fall into four general logic pockets. Remember, some applicants make their college picks based on stimuli other than their own head or heart. Mom and Dad might be providing strong input inspired by any number of motivations, selfish or otherwise.
Just as today's snowstorm can give way to next month's flower blossoms, so do attitudes and cyclical fads come and go. That's why picking a college based on reasons from this group can be dangerous (and expensive). Picking a tried-and-true brand-name college can offset much of the negative potential contained in this type of reasoning.
Think about these reasons for a minute:
- “My boyfriend/girlfriend is going there."
It doesn't take a lot of insight to see the dangers here. Today's boyfriend can be tomorrow's nemesis. Breakups can be especially hurtful at smaller colleges, where everyone seems to know everyone's business. Negative side effects of breakups include depression, anxiety, damaged academics, transfers and other less-pleasant realities. If this is one of your top criteria for picking a college, try to use more imagination.
- “They had a national championship football/basketball/hockey/etc. team last year."
Ever heard the phrase “from the penthouse to the outhouse"? This happens in the world of sports -- a lot. It's easy to be “Notre Dame Proud" when the Irish gridiron squad is 11-1 or 12-0. How proud will you be after two consecutive .500 or (heaven forbid) losing seasons? Sure, there are perennial sports powerhouses out there, but their continuing dominance is not a certainty. Coaches retire, get fired and have bad recruiting years. Be certain that you can survive your college's “outhouse" days, should they occur.
- “It's close to/far from home."
- “I like to ski/surf/climb/swim/hang glide/play Ultimate Frisbee/etc."
These two stem from the same geographic root. Remember that great song lyric: “We gotta get out of this place if it's the last thing we ever do!"? You may feel that way right now and want to get as far away as possible from mom, dad, brother and sister. However, as with the other reasons listed here, there is a temporal quality about them. They are subject to change.
Consequently, if you live in New Jersey and pick a college in Oregon, you're going to experience lots of hassles if, after you spend a few weeks away from the old homestead, you find that -- surprise! -- the old folks and brats back home maybe weren't that bad after all. On the other hand, maybe those long separations will give both sides a chance to reestablish some calmer perspectives about one another.
The flip side of this approach is the perceived need to be not that far away from friends and family. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with this approach if you have a binding need to stay close, such as an ill parent or relative who requires your attention. You might also have a job that you don't want to leave. That's fine. On the other hand, if you don't want to leave home, you may be denying yourself an important lesson in maturity and independence. College is one of those branches in the road where you can steer your life in new directions. Keep an open mind.
Picking a college simply because surf's up, the powder is close to the clam chowder, or whatever, is another of those conditional choices. Conditions can change. If you pick a school in the Northeast for skiing opportunities, and then either lose interest or sustain an injury, you could discover just how cold New Hampshire winters are when you're not shagging down a slalom at full speed. There are also low-snow winters when the powder is scarce. Just examine your geographic preferences carefully before committing.
- “The guys/girls/buildings/campus/etc. in their viewbook looked so cool."
If, like most high school students, you have the usual big green garbage bags full of college catalogs and viewbooks, take a close, dispassionate look at them. See any similarities? Notice how just about every college looks like Yale somehow with a few buildings sporting high Gothic spires and a good dose of ivy growing in all the right places? The lawns are lush green and the sky is deep blue with just a touch of fluffy white clouds. There's usually a lake, beside which a distinguished-looking professor leads his very small class in an animated discussion of some profound topic. Best of all, the students are so diverse!
Wake up and smell the dumpsters, everyone! Viewbooks are marketing pieces, just like those Burger King commercials on television. When's the last time you saw a Whopper coming at you through the drive-up window that looked like a TV Whopper? It's the same thing with viewbooks. You've got to “trod the sod." Go there and visit these places if they interest you. Look for that lake. Is it drained? Check out those Gothic spires. Is the building still inhabited by humans? What about those small classes? Are they for real? What's the statistical breakdown of minorities in the student body? Maybe they put the entire minority population in that one picture. Once, a college recalled its viewbooks when someone discovered that the image of a black student on the cover had been Photoshopped in. That really happened. Obvious moral: Don't base your college picks on marketing materials.
- “They offered such a good aid package, my parents could buy me a car for college."
As incredible as it may sound, financial considerations shouldn't always be first on your list. Many less-than-optimum college experiences have happened and are in progress right now because of money. Don't let sticker price alone be your criterion. Take my word on that.
- “There are lots of black/Jewish/Catholic/gay/lesbian/Latin/Asian/etc. students there."
- “My brother/sister/father/mother/grandfather/grandmother/aunt/uncle/etc. went there."
- “It's Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/MIT/Duke/Williams/etc."
Picking a college because others in your family went there or because others “like you" go there may be a perfectly fine idea, but it may also greatly limit your individualism and quest for personal growth. Even though your relatives may have found one particular school successful in meeting their unique needs, maybe that school won't do the same for you. Likewise, if you want to stay around others whose orientation, in whatever aspect, is the same as your own, then a school with many similar kinds of students should be fine. Keep in mind, though, that it's a big world out there and you'll eventually have to enter the fray. You'll more than likely have little control over whom you have to associate with day after day. That's why it may be better to consider a broader swath of college demographic options.
For many, unfortunately, the reason they apply to the Ivies and other elites is often like the answer to the question: “Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?" Answer: “Because it's there." That's not only a bad answer but also a very slippery slope, so to speak. Keep that in mind. And now ...
- “It meets more of my criteria than most other colleges."
There may be other ways of stating it, but this is by far the best approach to picking a college. It covers all the bases: demographics, location, financial and others. Approaching college selection with a mind toward balance is similar to a smart investment strategy. If you spread your investment across a wide enough menu of considerations, an isolated downturn can't (or shouldn't) hurt you that badly.
Bottom line: Don't be misled by your subjective “feelings." There's no substitute for objective facts, evidence, and rational decisions. Don't be seduced -- and likely led astray -- by the elite mystique.
To all high school seniors out there: Best wishes to you on your college quest this year. May your decisions be reasonable, your actions deliberate and your results exciting!
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