Thursday, November 30, 2006

College Admission "Madness"

It's college admissions season again (with deadlines approaching!) That means we're in for another round of stories on how the college admissions process has become ever more insane. I always roll my eyes a little at these stories, because they've been repeated every year for the past decade. I remember a New York Times magazine cover story back in spring 1996 that followed four high-achieving seniors at a large high school who applied to Harvard. Only one got in. Harvard had an especially low admission rate that year because the SAT had been recentered, which raised most students' scores. Suddenly, people who hadn't been in the top buckets for colleges were, and decided to give it a whirl. Now, in 2006, we're getting stories like $15k to Get into Harvard: How to Stop the Madness about a young lady who's pondering spending $4500 to go volunteer in Thailand because it will look good on her applications.

The net result of all this furor is not positive. When Money/CNN runs a story talking about how one family is spending $15,000 to help get their kid into college, families who can't spend that kind of money start thinking maybe their child isn't college material. In reality, the vast majority of college-bound students wind up at one of their top choice schools. Most colleges actually admit most of their applicants.

The stories also mask another reality. Guess what? A lot of highly gifted kids actually enjoy the college application process (even as they fret about the very public nature of the outcome). Here's why:

1. College admissions is a Big Project involving multiple components that aren't simply handed to you in school. Essays, extra-curricular activities... Too many school assignments are one-off little projects. It's fun and mind-stretching to labor toward a big goal, where you have to figure out how all the pieces work together.
2. It's a Big Project with an obvious purpose. Why did I get graded on the coloring skills I used to shade in a map of all the former Soviet Socialist Republics in school once? I have no idea. But I knew exactly why I was putting a lot of effort into getting into a good college.
3. I learned about platform building. College counselors often talk about kids finding a 'hook' -- something that makes them stand out. What makes me a compelling candidate? What's my "story"? This is 100% the same question you need to ask when you're trying to sell a book proposal. It's a question you need to ask for any award, for landing some jobs, etc. It's also a question you rarely ask in school before the college application process.
4. College applications pit you against the best kids in the whole country (and world, sometimes). Gifted kids get a little bored being pitted against the same 2 other kids they've been in programs with since 3rd grade. New competition helps you sharpen the saw.

Are any families who read this blog going through the process right now? I'm curious if you find it stressful... or fun.


Stormia said...

I did it last year, and it definitely was NOT fun. I think most of my academy classmates would say the same thing.

sherrys said...

My son is going through it now and while I wouldn't say he thinks it is "fun" exactly and it is a lot of pressure and work, I dont think he really minds it. In fact he said he kinda hopes he doesnt get into his early decision choice so he can see where else he does get it.

The Princess Mom said...

My son decided last month to apply to an early college program, so his college application process will all take place between Thanksgiving and February 1st, with all his eggs in one basket. He has seven essays to write in that amount of time (1 down, 6 to go) plus the usual filling out forms, searching for scholarships, getting recommendations and (most importantly) bringing his grades up!

Yes, it's stressful, but it's a good stress, for all the reasons you mention. He says the possibility of joining this program has "given him back the will to study."