Adam Price Ph.D.

The Unmotivated Teen

I'm Too Ordinary to Get Into College

How the application process sucks the soul out of 17-year-olds

Posted Nov 19, 2017

It happens every Fall. One seventeen year old after another plops down on my office couch and frets “I am so ordinary and my friends are so exceptional.”  What’s happening? It’s college application time. One patient worried because, like many boys, it took him a little while to warm up to high school. As a result, he felt he blew any chance to get into a ‘good college.’ Yet I hear the same thing from straight A students. One young woman likened the college application process to a ‘beauty contest for 17-year-olds.' She told me “I would rather be hit by a bus and in the hospital than experience the anxiety I am now feeling.

It's not just the kids who stressed out. Parents too are very anxious about where their kids land, and are as overwhelmed by the process. Some have been driven to extreme measures. I heard an admissions officer tell of a parent who actually took his son’s place at the college interview, rationalizing that his interview skills were better than his son’s.  I have seen parents who say ‘I don’t care where Johnny goes to college’ and then encourage him to take the SAT a fourth or fifth time. Parents worry that where their son attends will be critical for life success, and often feel that they too are being evaluated.

Here are some points to consider if and when your son is applying to college:         

You do not have to be perfect to get in:  A friend of mine is a beloved college professor and administrator. He cautions students not to worry if ‘a classmate has more badges, awards, or a higher GPA. It rarely affects where you will be admitted.” I asked him what advice he would give a high school senior applying to college:

“You have more to share and be proud of than you might realize. Many  experiences or achievements matter, both in life and in the college admissions process.  Students who work outside school, who take care of siblings, parents, grandparents, or an elderly neighbor might want to share that information.  Showing that you have grown, changed, learned something or overcome obstacles demonstrates the grit and resilience that colleges are looking for.”

Where you go matters less than you think:  Two researchers, Alan Krueger & Stacey Berg Dale, wanted to find it out if kids who went to top tier colleges (such as the Ivies, Amherst, Berkley, etc.) did better than peers who went to less prestigious institutions. Success was measured by income. They found that by 1995 students who entered college in 1976 earned 30% more than students who went to a less selective college. However, the research duo wondered if the real difference was not the prestige of the college, but the determination of the student to get there. To answer this question they looked at kids who got into an Ivy League College, but went somewhere else, probably for financial reasons. Twenty years later these kids earned as much as their counterparts who attended elite colleges. In other words, what mattered was how hard the students worked, not where they went to college. The reverse is also true. I have met many a Harvard grad whose lack of post-college drive held them back.

 Furthermore, in an Op-Ed entitled “Why College Rankings are a Joke” the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recounted how impressed he was visiting the University of Maryland, Balitmore County. While there Bruni spoke to a renowned mathematician and met a film major whose short movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. This school offers superior education to lower income students who go on to have outstanding careers. Bruni concluded that “The rankings nourish the myth that the richest, most selective colleges have some corner on superior education.”  

It’s about the fit, not the prestige: Nicole Oringer runs a top notch college counselling practice. Her motto is “we match kids to colleges not parents to bumper stickers.” Too many times I have seen students accept admission to a school with a better name, rather than the one they might be happier at. I was one of those kids. Way back in 1978 I chose Columbia University over The University of Michigan, only to have a miserable freshman year. There were a number of factors that contributed to my unhappiness, but fortunately Michigan would still have me as a transfer student. While there was much about Columbia I missed, I believe I grew more as a person at Michigan, because it was a better match. To quote my professor friend again “Name brand institutions are not always the best fit, and many smaller or less well known institutions offer more opportunities for growth and development.”

I fear that the race to produce top performing students who have achieve their potential by the age of eighteen is robbing them of the very things they need most to succeed: enough space to learn by trial and error, enough freedom to learn on their own, and enough time to grow. Applying to college is competitive, but it’s not the single most important competition in a person’s life. Unlike a beauty contest, there is not just winner. The goal is to produce an eighteen year old who is ready to embark on a lifelong process of growth and self-improvement and who will always be working towards his potential.