Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Dangers of College by Checklist

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

My client just couldn’t understand what went wrong. They had earned great grades in some pretty challenging classes, and had earned test scores that would be expected for someone working in the classroom at a high level. They had secured letters of recommendation from two of the most respected teachers in the school, both of whom knew the student well, so they were able to write with great regard and particular focus on who the student was. The student’s extracurricular list was peppered with leadership and accolades that clearly indicated the student had gone more than the extra mile in their out-of-school pursuits, and summers had been spent in fascinating programs. Still, when the admissions decisions came in, the student had been denied admission at their top choices. What, they wanted to know, had exactly gone wrong?

Welcome the world of College by Checklist, the natural conclusion that’s too easy for students—and particularly parents—to make if they take their college guidance from mainstream media. While it’s better than it used to be, too much coverage of applying to college is focused on the mechanics of forms, lists, and scores. It’s also far too focused on the thirty or so colleges thought to be the most desirable institutions, the ones where a student would be thought a fool if they were admitted, and opted not to attend. These places are promoted as the Golden Ticket, and best of all, the ticket is easy enough to obtain with the right recipe of numbers, achievements, and name-brand classes. 

What’s missing from this calculus of college admission is, of course, the soul of the student. It’s certainly true that a good amount of the history of holistic college admissions—where colleges ask students to write essays and submit letters of recommendation along with their grades—were designed in part to limit college access to certain groups of students. Happily, a good many colleges have flipped those purposes on their head, and see the same mixture as an opportunity to understand the student beyond their grades, and past their achievements. It’s a rare college applicant who successfully reveals what it is that makes them tick—indeed, it’s rare to have an eighteen-year-old who understands what makes them tick. Still, when an application shows a strong glimmer of something more than just a score and the obligatory responses to Why Us, admissions officers clamor over each other to bring that student to their institution, and rightfully so. More than just another doer, that college has found an actively engaged thinker.

It was clear that what was missing from the client I was talking to, who had only sought my advice after they had applied to college. The client had ample good choices from colleges who knew the student would do well enough at their institutions and serve the school with distinction, but all the student’s top choice schools were places looking for students interested in turning over the rocks and wondering what lay underneath. That was something the client had never bothered to consider en route to what he thought was fast tracking his way to a top school.

A television news magazine once interviewed a judge for one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, and the interviewer’s first question was simple—what are you looking for that separates the best performer from so many qualified performers? It’s simple, the judge said—it’s what they do with the notes. Everyone knows the notes once they’re at this level, he said, and sometimes they don’t always hit them in any given performance. But the notes only go so far; after that, it’s what you do with them.

As we begin our work with the next classes of college seekers, here’s hoping they will embrace the opportunity as something beyond a checklist.


  1. Well said, thank you for giving me another version of the opinion parents need to hear.

  2. Thanks, great article! The point that stands out to me is "...places looking for students interested in turning over the rocks and wondering what lay underneath." Authentic curiosity and desire to explore are intangibles that must come through in letters of rec, choices for activities and the essays.