Tension levels are rising as we approach the time for colleges and universities to notify students about admissions’ decisions and the time for students to select their collegiate destination. You can feel it everywhere – in high schools, in homes, on cell phones, on the Internet, and on Twitter. College admissions and financial aid offices experience heightened anxiety too. Everyone is deciding something; everyone is waiting to hear from someone or some place. Everyone wants to have quality choices and make quality decisions.
Seniors in high school often think there is only one “right” college for them, one place where they will be a perfect fit. If students do not get into their first choice, they are understandably disappointed – hurt by the collegiate rejection. And, other choices, even excellent ones, feel like sloppy seconds. Then, there are classmates accepted at places they did not even want to attend — classmates that are, in the mind of the rejected student, less well qualified.
It all seems so unfair, so arbitrary.
Parents of graduating students often have their own hearts fixed on a certain school for their son or daughter – their alma mater, a place close to home, a college that they visited with their child that seemed just right. When a rejection comes, parents can feel as if they have somehow failed; they are disappointed; they wonder what else they could have done. They worry. And, parents hurt when they see their child hurting.
Stated simply: March 15 – May 15 are tough times in the college enrollment world.
Here are two themes to keep in mind as families navigate these difficult months:
One: It is worth recognizing that the college and university selection process is far from an exact science. Institutions are balancing all sorts of criteria, often invisible to applicants and their families. There are geographic considerations (we want students from all over the world); certain specific programs may need to be populated in a given year (from nursing to astrophysics); the college orchestra needs bassoonists (and has too many flutists); the men’s soccer team needs a goalie and the women’s basketball team needs a center. No need for quarterbacks or pitchers this year. Institutions also want to welcome incoming students from public and private schools, day and boarding schools and those who have been home-schooled; there is a desire for diversity in every sense of that word.
And, there are the handful of students who have set themselves apart in a way that appeals to admissions officers – they lived abroad for a decade; they excelled at the national level in a sport; they survived cancer; they lived through a natural disaster. These students have such compelling stories that they are admitted using different criteria. Then, as you may have read in the media recently, many college presidents have a pick or two or three of new admits to add to the mix – based on a desire to please the Board of Trustees or a key donor. You get the idea.
The point is that a rejection – however bad it feels – is not “personal.” It is not a statement of a student’s capacity or his/her likelihood of success. With hundreds of applicants for every position at selective institutions, the incoming class could be filled several times over with qualified applicants.
Two: When a love relationship ends, we are heartbroken and think there will never ever be another perfect person for us. We think we will never find the other half of our grapefruit, someone who understands us as well as the person who rejected us. But, even folks who have experienced remarkably tragic losses of spouses frequently find another mate who provides them with love and friendship.
There are many colleges that can enable student success. If a student wants and is rejected by a small ivy, it initially feels like one’s future is doomed and all is lost. Far from it. There are other small, excellent colleges where that student can excel. And, if perchance a student did not apply to any of these colleges or did not get in anywhere he/she wanted to go, it is well worth the student thinking about taking a year between high school and college to do something different – work in a hospital; teach toddlers; write a book; design an Internet game. And, many students transfer colleges in today’s world. Colleges are most assuredly not prisons; one can leave!
Here’s a sobering thought. The students making decisions about what college to attend are doing that almost 9 –12 months before they leave home. And, this is a period of time in which young adult brains are changing rapidly. What seemed right in the fall of senior year of high school may not seem so right as one heads off for college. So, as we approach the time of collegiate choices and decisions, pause long enough to remember that where one starts college is not destiny – no matter what anyone says.
By Karen Gross, former President of Southern Vermont College and former Senior Policy Advisor, US Department of Education. Her writings have also appeared in The Huffington Post, The Hechinger Report and Inside Higher Ed.
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