College acceptance letters (or, sadly for some, rejection letters) have been making their way into mailboxes and inboxes over the last couple of months. Now is the time for many seniors to make their decision. In my practice, many of the seniors I work with are faced with the tough, but good, problem of making the choice about where they do want to enroll in the fall. And these are the same teenagers who, up until the day they received their first acceptance letter, were convinced that they wouldn’t get into college without that extra AP class, more volunteer hours, proficiency in their instrument, more “wins” in their sport, or that key internship.
Parents, while agreeing that their teen should be taking care of himself or herself, also seem to have been operating under the assumption that their child needs to do more and stand out in order to get into college. Teens and their parents often feel their hands are tied. They acknowledge that their teen is working harder and longer hours than most adults. It’s not uncommon for me to hear of teens getting up at 6:00 am, heading to school, going to practice, and then spending up to 5 hours on homework, getting to bed around midnight. When I respond – “this seems like craziness – what’s it for?” Teens and their parents are united in their defense: “this is what you have to do if you want to get into college.”
Really? I’ve been researching and trying to find out if this is really what has to be done in order to get into college. It seems there is a mixed response to this question. A position that makes sense to me is that, while admission rates are down for many selective schools, it may be related to a phenomenon referred to as “application inflation” as opposed to changing criteria for gaining acceptance. With the common application becoming more and more (I can’t help myself) common, applying to 15 schools is no more work or inconvenient than applying to 5 schools. Therefore, more and more students are applying to many, many schools. With the increase in applications per school, the admission rates are going down. Even so, some schools are increasing the number of spots available for incoming classes.
I like to compare the college application process to buying a home. Just as there are many, many homes out there that a family could happily live in, there are many, many colleges that would be happy to accept any given student. As home buyers are faced with the pros and cons of each house (i.e., this one gives us the extra bedroom, but not the backyard space), college hopefuls may find themselves in a similar position (i.e., this school is offering me more money, but this school has the program I want). You may end up finding yourself prioritizing certain “pros” and giving up others in another area, but in the end, the home buyer can and will find a place to live and the college applicant can and will find a college that will “offer them a spot in their incoming class.”
I encourage teens to think of schools as “offering them a spot” rather than “accepting” them. That reframing highlights what I believe to be true. This is where buying a home may differ from selecting a college. In buying a home, people are often encouraged to buy the least expensive house in the most expensive neighborhood they can afford. In selecting a college, I encourage families and teens to think about the best fit for their student. Think about the type of environment that is most comfortable for your senior – do they thrive with more personal attention? Are they self-starters? Do they like to feel nurtured? Are they looking for more independence? These kinds of questions can help you and your teen determine the best fit for your child, not just looking at the aspects of college that are easy to measure (i.e., the college ranking and the financial aspects).
Likewise, I encourage parents of teens who are not quite to the college decision phase, but are in that I’ve-got-to-do-more-to-get-into-college phase to step back and think about your teen as more than a college applicant. Think about all that is important during adolescence – developing an understanding of yourself, gaining independence, developing social relationships, developing passions and enjoying leisure time, making mistakes and learning from – and allow your teen to live in the moment rather than constantly orienting themselves toward getting into college.