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  • Writer's pictureAlison Merzel

It's About Who You Are, Not What You Did

I recently attended a conference session during which admissions officers at three selective institutions shared case studies of applicants and explained their eventual fate. On the face of it, these applicants were each academically qualified to attend the institutions to which they applied. This is often the case for applicants at highly selective schools - this is why admissions officers have such a tough job. Thousands of applicants all meet what would be described as the minimum qualifications for admission and success at the institution.

I think many of the educational consultants in the session were surprised to learn the outcomes of these applications, as the applicants reminded us of our own student clients and, for the most part, they had remarkable profiles. One candidate in particular who had an outstanding academic record with several AP courses (clear evidence of rigor), strong test scores and leadership in student clubs was ultimately denied. What was the primary reason for the rejection? He lacked soul. As the admissions director explained, this was a student that clearly had been coached to take the "right" classes, select the "right" extra-curriculars, achieve the "right" test score - essentially he was checking off the boxes on his path to earn a spot in his desired institution. However, in his attempt to do the right things to get into his college of choice, he ended up appearing like a pawn in a game. There was no evidence of his personality, his passion, his purpose. It wasn't clear how the student would be a contributing member of this campus or what made him tick. There was no depth to the application, no window into his character.

You may read this and think it isn't fair. You may feel like there is so much pressure on these kids as it is. Shouldn't it be enough that they worked hard in high school and got involved in activities and studied hard to do well on the SAT? Well, in the world of these highly selective schools that many of your kids want to attend, it just isn't enough.

I actually think it is a good lesson. High school shouldn't be about taking the right steps to get into ABC University. High school should be a time for kids to learn, to grow, to take risks and to fail. They need to explore their interests, try new things, figure out what they are good at and what motivates them. If they spend the beginning of high school focusing internally, they will be more successful taking what they have learned and applying it externally when it is time to work on those college applications. It will be more clear to them what they need out of college and what kinds of places are going to help them get there.

College admissions has become ridiculously competitive and today's students are experiencing significant anxiety and stress. They feel enormous pressure to achieve aspirational goals and standards that meet the public's definition of success. This is a systemic issue that won't change overnight, but you can help change the narrative with your own child. Ultimately, doesn't every parent want their child to lead a happy and fulfilling life? There are many, may ways to do this and they don't all have to do with earning a degree from the most prestigious university they can get into. Encourage your student to focus on finding themselves first. The right fit for college will follow.

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