The Mission of College Admission
September 5, 2013
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The pressure for students to attend highly ranked colleges has increased as application pools grow and schools become increasingly selective. Finding the “perfect” college or university has become a high priority for high school students, and many begin the process as early as freshman or sophomore year. This year’s juniors and seniors, on the cusp of the application process, have doubtless heard countless pieces of advice. However, there will always be unexpected twists and turns in the application process.
Some of the most crucial decisions can be made early on, potentially reducing future stress. Recent M-A graduate Maddie Napel, who will begin her freshman year at Northwestern University this September, was torn between pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting or a Bachelor of the Arts with a theater major and more freedom to explore other academic interests. She advises students to “decide what degree you want to get before you apply. It’s a bad idea to have a bunch of different schools for a bunch of different paths, and to be deciding at the last second what avenue you want to pursue.”
Similarly, deciding which schools to apply to can be a daunting task. “Think twice before using a school as a backup,” warns graduate Matthew Schertler, who will be taking a gap year before entering the class of 2018 at Brown University. “You might think you have a better shot of getting in, but you shouldn’t be thinking ‘Oh, I might have to resort to this school.’” Napel agrees that it’s best “only to apply to schools you’re actually going to be happy going to,” and not to “base your choice on which school is the most selective.”
Both agree that the colleges they applied to would have been different had they known what they know now. “I would have applied to fewer schools,” says Napel, while Schertler says he would have applied to “more schools, but replaced some with others [he] had more interest in.”
According to graduates who have been through the process, beginning to write applications with ample time to complete and review is also a must. “Sit down and try to spit out some ideas. Then you’ll see that you might want to change it or it might end up being the basis of one of your essays,” says Schertler. “It was fun spending December 31st with Ms. Kleeman, discussing my essay on her porch,” he jokes. “Fun, but don’t.”
Additionally, beware that trying too hard to impress admissions officers may not be the best approach to writing your essays. As Fred Hargadon, the former dean of admissions at Princeton University, told the author of Getting In: Inside the Application Process, “I think it’s the rare student in our schools who isn’t worried about impressing and who has a very good perspective on life and is comfortable admitting what they don’t know.”
Denise Clark Pope of the Stanford University School of Education agrees that “mistakes are supposed to be made,” while Alice Kleeman, the treasured college advisor at M-A, chants, “Authentic, authentic, authentic!” encouraging students to be themselves in spite of pressure to come across as perfect.
Additionally, many students will have to face letters of rejection. “I was obviously disappointed,” says Napel. “But I tried not to dwell on it. Rejection is terrible, but it happens to everyone.”
Even so, Napel believes that, at times, “a rejection might be a kindness.” In some cases “[the admissions officers] don’t feel like the school is a good fit for you and they think that you would get what you want elsewhere.”
But that still leaves the decision of which college to attend. This is an age when “colleges vie for students by offering amenities superior to those of the competition–better stocked coffee bars in the library, better equipped fitness centers in the dorms, and so on,” says Andrew Delbanco in his latest book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. This means that students have to make an extra effort to scope out schools that provide a challenging environment in and out of the classroom. As Delbanco puts it, “A college should not be a haven from worldly contention, but a place where young people fight out among and within themselves contending ideas of the meaningful life, and where they discover self-interest need not be at odds with concern for one another.”