How I Talk to My Family About College

I’ve been working in the world of college admissions for about 5 years now (four years and eleven months exactly…but who’s counting?)  It’s a great start and the beginning of what I hope to be a long and flourishing career.  My family thinks I have a pretty cool and exciting job…especially my sister-in-law whose son is a junior in high school. My family members frequently ask me about how to get into college.  Many of them assume there is a determining factor in a student’s application that tips the scales in their favor.  Unfortunately, I can’t give them the “secret” to admission, because in reality, there is no precise pathway into a highly selective college.  What I can do is answer all of those terrifying “what if” questions with what I hope are some reassuring and calming truths.

Here are the basics of the situation…my nephew, who we will refer to as “Jack” because he is already going to kill me when he reads this, is a smart kid.  And, from my completely non-biased opinion, he may have a shot at attending a highly selective college (as much of a shot as anyone has at getting into a school with an admission rate under 15%.)  Jack is an avid golfer, he plays in his school’s jazz band, he’s on track to take calculus next year, and has been doing well in school practically his whole life (he’s making my job easy in this case.)  But even with those strong qualifications, USC denies thousands of kids who read just like that every year.  There is an inherent stress factor when applying to a college that is not going to admit the vast majority of their applicants.  As a person who is reading MANY of those applications, I can tell you with some degree of authority that, most of the time, I cannot point to one decision a student made during their high school career and say, “That’s why we didn’t admit them,” or even, “That specific thing is why we did admit them.”  The nature of holistic admissions is that we are looking at the totality of the circumstances, not just specific choices in a vacuum.

So while Jack’s in high school, I’m more than happy to answer his questions about which classes to take, whether to stay in Jazz Band if that means dropping AP Psychology, and how many years of foreign language he really has to take (the answer is four because foreign language is awesome, not because it’s going to get you into college…he didn’t listen to that one and only took two…oh well, you win some you lose some.)

A dilemma arose at the beginning of 10th grade when there was a scheduling issue with basketball practice and a 7th period class.  If he was on the team, he’d have to give up one of his classes.  Jack wanted to drop Jazz Band, but his mom wanted him to drop an academic solid so he could continue playing the bass.  They turned to me for the right answer…and honestly, from the admissions perspective, there wasn’t a right answer.  The right answer was the one that made Jack happy and would help him do well in his other classes.  The right answer was also the one that Jack made himself and felt confident in to boost his own self-esteem.

I can’t say enough about that feeling of control.  When students own their schedules and make their own well-informed choices, they often feel better about their college options.  So I really try to give all the facts and let Jack make his own decisions.  The reassurance that there are hundreds of colleges out there that will take him just the way he is may not sound that comforting now, but the reality is that all we can control in this process is ourselves.  We are entirely powerless over the decisions made in admission offices, so let’s encourage our students to make choices that are theirs so they feel more confident throughout the process.

We know this process is daunting, and that we just want our students, kids, nephews, nieces to be happy and successful.  So what do I tell my nephew?  As someone with this “insider” knowledge, I tell him the exact same thing many of you tell the young people in your life…everything will be okay.  It may not happen the way you hope or expect, but in the end, everything will work out.  There isn’t one “right” way to do college.  Be realistic about your college list and only apply to colleges you will actually attend. If you do that, you really can’t go wrong.  And as you receive more decisions in the mail, keep an open mind and relax.  You’ve always got options.

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