The Real Actual Honest to Goodness Truth About College Admissions

You will read a lot of articles and get a lot of advice about college admissions, but this article comes from a speech I give my students each year that is what I feel to be the one TRUTH in college admissions.  Here it is for you:

You have spent thirteen years doing all the right things. You spent hours upon hours doing homework, studying for tests and working on projects. You got the grades. You took the hard classes.  You did everything right. You worked out, you practiced, you competed. You drew, you played, you sculpted, you dance, you mastered it. You gave your heart and time to others. You grew up. You sacrificed. And now, at the beginning of your senior year, you are about to apply to college.

Before you do apply, I’m going to stand in front of you and ask you to write an essay that shows your vulnerability and humanity. I’m going to ask you to show the colleges who you really are. I will ask you to tell stories about yourself that you aren’t even comfortable sharing with your parents or friends. I am about to ask you to tell a tale of you and with introspection, and to reveal yourself. This, yet, is not the TRUTH. Here is the TRUTH: You hand your entire life story to a college. And what you’re saying now is, ‘judge me.’  

And they will.  

And sometimes you will still not get in. TRUTH.

There. That is the real, actual, honest to goodness truth behind college admissions. Everything you’ve done is on display and sometimes it isn’t good enough. Those of us in college admissions can get cynical really quickly in this discussion. Maybe you can’t jump high enough or maybe you don’t play the right instrument. Maybe you would have been accepted if you were a vaulter and not a tumbler. Whether you intellectually know you deserved to be in just as much as the next person, it still stings. It hurts.  Was everything you did for nothing? How much did you give up to try for this school and it ultimately failed? Well, that’s why I’m writing this. What can you do about it?

Here are three ways to take the pain out of college denial letters:

  1. FIND THE SWEET SPOT.  If you are a golfer or tennis player, you know what this means. If not, it’s simple: apply to the right schools. You’ve got to do your research and understand what the Middle 50 means. If the Middle 50 is an ACT score range of 32-35, that means twenty-five percent of students at that school have a perfect 36 ACT score. If you have a 29, which is awesome, you have a strong chance of getting a denial letter. I encourage you to apply if that school fits you in other ways, but temper your expectations. Just remember, as much as you tell yourself you’re okay with it, it will still sting.
  2. DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE.  Rankings are Public Enemy #1. Completely and totally ignore them. Visit the schools you might be interested in and find out how this school will be great FOR YOU. Rankings in national magazines are intended to make money. Without going into all the details with you, rankings are bogus and have nothing to do with your future success or happiness. For a longer explanation, read Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. 
  3. SHOW ME THE PASSION.  Whether it’s music, astronomy or soccer, do what you have a passion for.  Two things happen here. One, you actually enjoy what you’re doing for 13 years and you won’t feel like you wasted time on what didn’t matter. Two, even though you didn’t take every AP class or play every sport or instrument, you will be more likely to be accepted in the first place. A college will see that your activities, classes and other pursuits are genuine. The opposite of presenting a genuine application is marketing. Another side effect of getting off the marketing script is that you won’t experience so much stress and anxiety about being perfect and getting involved in something every minute of every day. 

There you have it, the unavoidable truth. My hope is that you now have some tools to understand and deal with this truth. As always, if you have any questions about this or anything college admissions, you can always askmrreeves.