Thursday, April 12, 2012

You Have to do What to Get Into College?

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

School counselors just can’t win in April.

Last week, you went to get hot dogs for opening day of baseball season, and you were mobbed by questions about why straight A students didn’t get into Harvard. This week, you went to get some red pens at the drug store to do your taxes, and people are asking you about the articles describing who did get into Harvard:

“Did you hear?  American rich kids are out at the Ivies.”

“All of those fancy community service trips and summer camps?  All passé.”

“Forget academics-- students should focus on becoming trapeze artists to get into Princeton.”

The good news is that this college second-guessing is so depressing, it’s actually making you look forward to doing your taxes.  The bad news is the people saying these things are the parents of juniors who want you to “get them into college” next year.

What’s a counselor to do?  Tell the truth.

*  Reviews of the admission patterns of several Ivy League schools do indeed show admit rates are up for international students and students who are the first in their families to go to college.  While that means fewer upper class students from college-going families were admitted, it doesn’t mean they were shunned, and there’s a good chance they’ll be room for them next year, too.

*  Is it really news that exotic community service trips are over? However well-meaning they may be, spending thousands of dollars to work with students in need has always defeated the point, something colleges (and I) first pointed out four years ago—and in this column (see

In terms of summer camps, however, one wants to be careful here. A student writer who has left her high school peers in the dust needs a top-tier summer program to grow as a student. Since there’s no posing involved here, that student should go to the best program she can get her hands on, and ask her high school counselor to tell the colleges the student is by no means trying to impress her way into a college.  At the end of the day, passion still matters; students shouldn’t be afraid to show it.

*  This trapeze advice is simply astonishing.  Colleges are indeed looking for students with unusual talents, but since when is this news?  Colleges have long recruited athletes, musicians, and other scholars whose grades aren’t cum laude-- but that’s because colleges value these talents and get something in return.  Unless they’re the national champion, a student who’s a great trapeze artist is unlikely to get a break in admissions if they have a B average— special as it is, colleges get no money, media, or prestige from those who fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

In addition, these “special” talents don’t always play out as the student might expect.  If East Coast College is looking for violas this year, it’s good to be a violist.  On the other hand, being a violist next year won’t get you very far, since they’ll have a bumper crop leftover from this year.

Since students won’t know how many violists are needed until you’re a senior, it’s probably best to pursue the talents they love, engage in the extracurriculars that appeal to them, give back to their local community, and take the most challenging classes they can succeed in across the curriculum. If they end up playing a viola, they’ll find a great school…

…and if that advice turns out to be a little old school, sometimes it’s good for things to be certain-- just like taxes.

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