High school students who apply to competitive colleges are generally divided into two groups: those who understand the challenge; and those who are blissfully unaware. Which situation is better for the mental health of the students and their parents? Hard to say. Is it the kid who agonizes about comma-placement in an admissions essay, and sweats through a half-dozen AP classes and extracurricular activities to ace an application to Yale--and in the process losses all connection to friends and family? Or is it the kid who floats through senior year, unaware that his academic performance isn't good enough for NYU, and then suffers the surprising sting of rejection and the mad scramble to find another school?
All of these applicants, both the supremely worried and the falsely confident, are like runners lining up at the starting line. Some know the race course is brutal, while others think it is similar to races they've won before. The students might think they are running separately, but in fact they are tied together. The college admissions race is a 3-legged race, where the stronger leg of the prepared applicant is roped to the weaker leg of the uninformed student. After all, it's the tens of thousands of students who apply to high-tier colleges unaware that they have little chance for admission who spur the feeding frenzy of ever-rising applicant numbers and shrinking acceptance rates. And it's Harvard's record-setting 25,000 applicants for 2,000 spots and sub-10% acceptance rate that makes thousands of hyper-competitive students agonize through their senior year. No one seems to win with the current process.
On April 29th the New York Times published an essay titled, "Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard" by Michael Winerip about how today's students who accomplish amazing things by age 17 still don't get into the school of their dreams. That's okay, he wrote, you don't have to win this impossible battle to win at life. With that kind of headline it's no wonder the article stayed at the top of the "Most Emailed" list for a week. I was curious about how parents might react to the article, so I visited the online forums hosted by College Confidential, a commercial college consulting company. There I found pages and pages of posts reacting to Winerip's essay--most of them appreciative of his call to take a deep breath about the whole process. Winerip attended Harvard and is now a local interviewer for the school in the New York area. His kids aren't going to attend his alma mater, but he thinks one of them will go to a "good state school." The parents' posts on College Confidential also reflected this reflective optimism that 'everything will come out in the end.' On the student forums, however, I found mostly a demoralized and negative response to Winerip's article. "There goes my college dreams," posted one high school junior. Escaping the pressure, it seems, only comes with being able to win the game, or looking back with fond memories.