My brother was a pretty mean clarinet player in high school. He had a good ear for pitch, and a great sense of rhythm, and while he didn’t devote excessive hours to practicing, it was clear he knew his stuff.
That’s why we were pretty confident he was headed for a first place rating when the state music festival came along that February. We got up incredibly early on a Saturday morning, and headed across town to a community college with pretty bad signage. We finally found the room where he was to perform—he was the third person to play that morning—and he had plenty of time to warm up, then play the piece to perfection, like he had a million times before.
The twenty minute wait for his score was agony, in part because we hadn’t had breakfast, but it was nothing compare to the feeling in our gut when the score sheet indicated he earned a second place rating.
We then had one of the quietest breakfasts ever at a local restaurant. There wasn’t really a state of mourning, as much as there was a state of confusion. What exactly was missing from his performance that kept him from a top rating?
The answer came several weeks later, when his band teacher met up with the guy who had served as the judge for my brother’s performance. “Yeah”, the judge said, “it turns out he was actually one of the better performers I heard all day. I be if I had a second cup of coffee before I heard him, I would have given him a first place rating.”
This isn’t exactly the news you want to hear when you’re a high school musician. To be sure, my brother didn’t let it get him down. He went on to study music at college, and had a promising side career as a musician for many years. Still, it’s hard enough to get through high school without having to sort out the mysteries of adulthood, especially when the adults in your life can’t really explain why things like this happen, either.
A number of students are about to experience this same feeling in the next couple of weeks, and they don’t even play the clarinet. College admissions experts are expecting record levels of applications at the most popular schools, and since these schools aren’t admitting more students than they did last year, that means they’ll be saying no to more students than ever before.
This can be frustrating to students for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s likely that a ton of students who will get “no” for an answer from the college of their dreams would have been admitted ten years ago, when fewer students were applying to fewer colleges. A- students may have been good enough for students back then, but now that there are more A students applying, things have changed, even if the A- students can do the work.
On top of that, students will be left wondering what they did—or didn’t do—that kept them from being admitted. This kind of thinking is pretty hard on a student, since there is rarely a clear, single reason why a college denies a student with great grades and great scores, who did everything short of cure cancer in their spare time.
The reality is that a handful of schools are blessed with the best of the best as their applicants, so they can be a little fussier when offering admission—but even then, they can’t always tell you why they told others no. That isn’t easy for adults or students to understand, but the best thing to do is adjust your reed, and keep on playing.