And So It Begins

My oldest is a sophomore in high school. I’ve been working as an independent college counselor for 5 years and I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t ready for it.

What’s “it”?

brass-ring-mailboxCollege mailings. Those postcards and flyers that are starting to show up in our mailbox. Some are
kind of cute and tiny: tri-fold gems that show students studying on the quad in springtime. Some are more substantial: almost encyclopedia-like in their weight. Each one is weirdly personalized with my son’s name. The first one was kind of exciting, sort of like that first holiday card you get early in November. It felt like a little “heads up.” Like a warm whisper in my ear: “We want you.”

But I know it’s nonsense. I know his name was purchased in bulk along with thousands and thousands of other 10th graders who took the pre-ACT last fall. Did your child take the PSAT? Same deal. Keep your eyes open for the deluge. It’s coming for you too.

So what do we do with these nuggets of gold? What do they mean? Does Harvard really want him?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Harvard doesn’t really want him. What Harvard and every other college in the United States wants, is interest. Interest in their institutions that will lead to applications.

Listen to what I just said.

Colleges and universities want lots and lots of students to apply WHETHER OR NOT THEY HAVE A CHANCE IN THE UNIVERSE.

Why? Numbers, pure and simple. More applicants means more students who will be denied admission. More denials means more selectivity. More selectivity means higher ranking on things like the U.S. News & World Report’s college lists. And a higher ranking on these kinds of lists gives a college a higher bond rating so they can borrow money at a lower interest rate. It comes down to money.

It really makes me mad that this is happening and that our children are right in the middle of it. The highly selective schools are dangling single-digit admission rates in front of our kids and they’re eating it up. It’s nothing but flattery, but it can feel really good.

I had a student a few years ago who was a great kid, but who had average grades and fairly low test scores. At our first meeting she was so excited to show me all of the advertisements she had received after taking her pre-ACT. Harvard was there. So was Princeton, Yale, Brown. I could go on. It took a long time to help her understand that those were just marketing pieces that were meant to lure her to apply to schools even though her admission chance was pretty low. She still decided to apply to some of the highly selective schools and I helped her make those applications as strong as they could be, but somewhere in the process she figured it out and felt pretty betrayed.

So when you start to get those shiny brochures, look at them for what they are. If a school looks interesting, go ahead and check it out. It might be an amazing fit for your child. If your student loves a school that’s academically out of his range, go ahead and apply to that reach school. Just be sure to also apply to some schools that are realistic.

In the meantime, those brochures are going to look pretty good in my recycling bin.

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