In a recent essay in the NY Times, Frank Bruni, op-ed columnist and author, exploded the myth that getting into a highly selective school is the key to success later in life. In line with my recent blog, “Parenting and the Sinking of the Essex”, I would like to unpack some ideas about applying to highly selective colleges:
- Yes, there are several dozen “elite” universities whose admit rate is ridiculously low and even with a perfect looking portfolio should never be counted on. These schools get bucket loads of press and the drama of the rejection letters is the stuff of movies. Should you steer your student away from filling out an application? Well, it depends on your student.
On the one hand, I would not encourage students to apply to these type of schools if their academics are not in the ballpark of the freshman profile of the admitted student. That seems like a waste of $75 – $100. Instead, take your student out to dinner & a movie and create a memory!
On the other hand, if your student has a fighting chance and wants to apply, I would not discourage that effort. Why? Because even rejection can have value. Case in point: The story of Jenna in Bruni’s essay. She was rejected from all the top six schools she applied to. Jenna reported that she felt so worthless. But she picked herself up and went to a college that admitted her, and…
“…once she got there and saw how contentedly she fit in, she had a life-changing realization: Not only was a crushing chapter of her life in the past, it hadn’t crushed her. Rejection was fleeting — and survivable. As a result, she said, “I applied for things fearlessly.”
After graduation, Jenna worked for Teach for American and then secured a grant to develop a new charter school for under-resourced kids in Phoenix. By her report, “I never would have had the strength, drive or fearlessness to take such a risk if I hadn’t been rejected so intensely before,” she told me. “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.”
- In years past, I have encountered some parents who have told their rising 9th graders, “If you work really hard in high school and get into a great college, don’t worry about how much it costs. We’ll figure out how to pay for it.” So, four years pass, your student makes the mark and gets into Stanford, her first choice. YIPPEE, right? Yes, of course, you are proud and delighted. But Stanford costs $63K a year, and there are not many merit scholarships. Parents, did you save a quarter of a million dollars for an undergraduate degree for your brilliant student? What promises do you actually want to make that you can keep with regards to paying for college?
In my case, I told both of my sons that they could apply anywhere they wanted (and I would pay for up to 8 – 10 application fees), but I could only promise them the equivalent of an in-state public college education for a period of four years. If they chose that route, they could graduate debt-free. Otherwise—if they chose a more expensive college – I would apply that amount to their annual bill and they would have to take out loans for the rest. This I could live with (because I’m still working on my retirement fund. 🙂 One of my sons chose to apply to several elite (read expensive) schools and, together, we looked at the award letters coming from those schools. Sometimes, the scholarship monies do come through and the cost of attendance can even be less for a private school that is heavily endowed…but not always. My advice: Keep your options open in the process of selecting the list of schools to apply to—both in terms of the admit rate and the cost of attendance. And consider this: You can afford to provide your student some great unpaid summer internships or professional enrichment programs if all your money is not sunk into tuition.
- Bottom line…it’s about “fit”…like a pair of jeans. Would you EVER…in your wildest dreams…consider buying a pair of jeans for your daughter without her input (and most likely her presence in the store)? Back in 2009, a high school student from Forsyth Country Day, Elizabeth Martin, wrote an essay comparing the task of selecting the perfect college to finding that perfect pair of jeans. Martin concluded, “Even jeans that seem to be the right style, fit and price can be all wrong when one looks at how they appear in the mirror, and colleges are not altogether different. The college search gives high school students an opportunity to really look in the mirror, do a little soul-searching, and decide what is important to them in an education, in an environment, and in their lives.”
Parents, your students’ process of researching the colleges is one of the most important parts of this journey. One college independent consultant, Barbara Pasalis, commented, “The college process is the closest thing we have in America to a 'coming of age' or 'rite of passage'. Students should not miss the chance to take personal control of the process, do the research and use the information gained to make sound decisions for themselves. When navigated correctly, the process can be empowering for students."