Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The End of the Safety School

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


It’s known as the calm after the storm. Once the October flurry of college applications are submitted, and you’ve done your best to offer words of support and praise for every one of the 62 gazillion students on your caseload applying to college, you somehow find a minute to review just who has applied to what college, just to make sure everyone has a place to land next year.

And that’s when it hits you. Dear Melody, that high-flying senior who came into your office with a color-coded list of colleges and a spreadsheet that would put Goldman Sachs to shame, has completed all of her applications to the colleges that admit two percent of their applicants—but somehow never got around to applying to State U, where she’s a sure admit for their honors program.

Steve, the bassoon player with OK grades, came in and freely admitted he wanted to apply to some colleges where his GPA and scores suggested he didn’t have a chance, but he wanted to see how far the bassoon thing could get him. He had an audition video file professionally produced, and the applications to the Reach schools are all done. But the applications to the two local schools that have heard the tape, waived the application fee, and basically said “send us an email and you’re in”? Not so much.

Welcome to the world of application clean-up, that gut-wrenching time around Halloween that is nearly all tricks and no treats. All of those nice lists created last spring that had the right mix of Safety, Target, and Reach schools are now just filler in a CA-60, as seniors show their proclivity to be—well, seniors, and think they will live forever, so why not take a few risks with college applications?

The real challenge here is that you get it—you understand why seniors don’t really want to deal with safety schools. Despite your best efforts, seniors don’t see safety schools as Plan B. They see them as Plan G, as in “Gee, too bad you couldn’t get into a good school.” You tell them a good Safety School is a place where they’d love to go to school where their chances of admission are incredibly good—but at the same time, you also know that since getting in is a given, that’s somehow seen by them as one less reason to want to go there.

What to do? Try this:

Stop calling them Safety schools. College is all about stretching to discover more about yourself and your relationship to the world, a place that is the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Safety is in there somewhere, but calling a college Safe portrays images of maternal smothering, paternalistic decision-making about “what’s best for you”, and tapioca pudding.

A Likely college conveys a sense of a school that would *love* to have you, that would welcome you to the fun, frazzled world of higher education with a slap on the back and a crème brulee. Yes, that’s basically tapioca pudding exposed to a blowtorch, but blowtorches are cool. No more Safety schools—they’re Likely schools.

Create a new Likely list. You might be tempted to email Melody and say, “Here’s the list of Likely schools we talked about last spring”, but that list is old news she’s trying to run away from for some reason, and she isn’t coming back. Instead, review the list of schools she’s already applied to, find some common themes, and create a new list of Likelies. Make sure at least one of them will send an admission notice before Christmas, and try to get one that will offer merit money. Students are thrilled by the first school that says yes, and by a school that will pay them to go there. That makes two Likely schools that will remain in play, in case the other schools say no.

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