5 Ways to Put College Admissions Woes into Perspective from an Expert

The coming two weeks are when kids learn whether they’ve been accepted or rejected by the colleges of their dreams. As I noted in a recent excerpt of my new book in The New York Times, it’s a tense and sometimes heartbreaking time, because too many kids and their parents lose sight of important realities. Here are some ways to ratchet down the overblown anxiety, which is part of what my book, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” tries to accomplish. Cover Frank Bruni Where You Go Is Not Who Youll Be

1. Understand just how random and particular the process of getting into the most selective colleges is. Acceptance rates have fallen in many cases to 10 percent or lower. Stanford’s was 5 percent last year. And as schools like it construct their freshman classes, they’re reserving a substantial percentage of slots for star athletes. Same goes for children of alumni. Applicants who fall outside these and other preferred categories are competing for a tiny number of places, in a system where whimsy and luck factor in. Disappointment is almost certain. It’s a reflection of the odds, not a verdict on your worth.

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2. Keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a “best school,” but there are many schools that are right for you. As I reported my book and collected the stories of the successful individuals who are profiled in it, I was struck time and again by how much they’d benefited from schools that made sense for them, even if those schools wouldn’t have made sense for someone else. Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, felt that Northern Michigan University was ideal for him, because it exposed a Jewish kid from New York City to Midwesterners from rural areas. It made him more fluent in dealing with a diversity of people: a crucial talent in business.

3. Focus on how you’re going to use college, which is much more important than the name of the institution. Schultz is an example of that, too. An even better case in point is David Rusenko, one of the young (and very rich) men who founded the tech venture Weebly. I tell his story in the book: He got in to Carnegie Mellon University but worried that it wouldn’t give him what he really needed: people skills, specifically greater social ease in dealing with, and leading, peers. So he opted instead for Penn State, which is much less selective but which gave him access to Greek life, football parties, all of it. He considers that decision a key part of his later success.

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4. Know that the name of your alma mater will take you only so far. We’ve constructed a narrative in this country that doesn’t do justice to this truth. When successful people have fancy schools on their resumes, we note it; when they don’t, we fail to. But consider some of what I’ve put in the book: When I looked at the alma maters of the CEOs of the Top 10 companies in the Fortune 500, I noticed that only one was a highly selective school. Others were state universities and such. A 2014 Gallup poll of employers showed that very, very few of them rated as “very important” where a job candidate went to school. These employers cared more about  a job candidate’s skills and work performance since school.

5. Remember that life is long and that many people bloom after the college admissions juncture. In the book I profile the writer John Green. He went to Kenyon College back when its acceptance rate was something like 50 percent, as he recalls. He hadn’t done exceptionally well in high school or on the SATs. And at Kenyon, after taking an introductory creative writing class, he wasn’t allowed into a space-limited advanced one. He didn’t take up writing again fully until after college. And he went on to produce some of the best-selling and mostly highly regarded young adult novels of our time, including “The Fault in Our Stars.”


{Image credit: Will Folsom, Flickr}

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