Then & Now: It’s Not Your Dad’s College Anymore

It happens every year. I talk with parents early in their student’s college search process and I hear the same statements.

“I got into Yale with a 25 on my ACT. It’s worth a try now.” (The last application cycle the average ACT score at Yale University was 33-35.)

“Northeastern took everyone back when I applied to college. How tough could it be?” (It’s now got an acceptance rate of 6%, down from 32% ten years ago and an almost open enrollment rate fifty years ago.)

“Nearly everyone in our family went to Johns Hopkins. She’s a legacy. That should be a shoe-in.” (Johns Hopkins dropped legacy consideration from its admission process in 2014.)

We go back and forth in our discussion. I show them statistics from the most recently accepted class. I explain that technology like the Common App has made it easy to apply to twenty schools, unlike when we had to fill out each application on a typewriter and send it in the mail. Some of them grouse about changing demographics. Some of them think their kid should be able to work in the summer to pay for college — just like they did.

And they’re wrong about most of it.

So here’s a brief here & now of college today compared to when we went to school.

High school, for many of us, was mostly about hanging out with our friends and figuring out who we were. We did homework when we had to, usually cramming the night before a test. We started to think about college sometime during senior year when we had to wake up early on a Saturday morning to take the ACT or SAT. We pretty much took the next class in line depending on which grade we were in — sophomore English came after freshman English. Geometry came after algebra. Sports and clubs were for fun and being on the JV team was just fine. Summers were for camp and maybe working at the pool or delivering pizzas. We mailed in paper applications to the state university and a few others within driving distance. Early Decision wasn’t really a thing. Lots of colleges were still the Old Boy’s Network, but if you were a smart girl you could make your way . . . it would be even tougher if you were black or Jewish or gay. We did all of this and we got into pretty good colleges. In 1987, I applied to Kenyon College with a 3.3 GPA and a 26 ACT. I took the ACT once and I took the SAT once (570 math and 620 verbal–not that anyone’s counting). I took two AP tests: English and French. One of those fields became my major and the other became my minor. I applied to four other colleges and got into three of them. Waitlisted at one; thanks Middlebury. With those statistics, there is no way I would get into any of those schools today.

In 2023, high school has become all about molding students into the ideal college applicant. As a result, kids have hours of homework, a chronic lack of sleep, and increased levels of anxiety. They hear about “what colleges are looking for” as early as the day they choose their freshman classes and feel like failures if they haven’t been tracked into geometry or advanced algebra by ninth grade. Sports and clubs are picked as long as they fit with the “brand.” A kid who likes playing baseball in third grade gets a professional pitching coach just to make the cut in high school. A student who sells Air Jordans to his friends is sent to a pre-college summer program for entrepreneurs. Students write multiple drafts of the infamous “college essay” along with up to 40 supplemental essays — all claiming that this college (and this one and this one) is their first choice. Schools that accept single-digit numbers of applicants send rejection after rejection and an otherwise amazing kid hears that they didn’t do enough, study enough, try enough. That they are not enough. By the time they go to college, they are exhausted and burnt out and, for many, their mental health is in the toilet. The excitement that should come from going to college is replaced with a question: what was all that for?

So what’s a parent to do?

  1. Encourage your high school student to do things for fun, not because it’s part of a college-application strategy. Their individual interests will be revealed organically and they’ll have a more authentic college application as a result. Colleges can sniff out a kid whose high school years have been part of a corporate action plan . . . and they hate it.
  2. Step back and give your kid space to have their own college search. This isn’t your time, it’s theirs. Don’t pressure them to go where you went; instead, encourage them to figure out what they like. Chances are, your college is no longer the place you went anyway.
  3. Turn down the noise — from other parents, from other students, from your neighbors and colleagues, from yourself. Your student will find a school they love and they’ll be successful because it’s right for them. That has nothing to do with the bumper sticker on your neighbor’s car.
  4. Envision yourself less as your kid’s guide and more as their companion. This is their college search and you are there to help them identify who they are and what they want. Ask questions: What are you good at? What do you like to do? What needs fixing in the world? How do you want to get there?
  5. Look for help. Start with your high school counselor who can write a recommendation letter, send the school profile, and give you statistics about which specific colleges have accepted how many kids from your student’s high school. If you are interested, seek out an independent college counselor who can help in a more personalized and individual way, who’s probably got several campus visits under their belt, and who can alleviate some of the parent/adolescent tension that can arise during this process.

It’s not your dad’s college search . . . it’s your kid’s. There are some very important differences in the process for today’s Gen Zers and Alphas, but the same fundamental goals are there. Colleges want to find students who will thrive in their environment and kids are looking for schools where they can find a second home. The college application process is all about match-making. Helping your student to learn to listen to their inner voice is the best way to make that match.

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