At the mid-point of summer, the college application season begins gearing up. Rising seniors should be using these lazy summer days to research colleges, compile a workable list of potential schools, and start drafting college essays. The college application process is a world of fear and anxiety for many students – but it doesn’t have to be that way!
If you approach the college admission process with the right mindset, you can emerge completely unscathed, even if you don’t wind up getting into your dream school. To help you get into this Zen state of mind, here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
“Rejection” Is a Misnomer
People say that they either “got in” or “got rejected from” a school. Those tens of thousands of “rejection” letters are sadly maligned. The very term suggests that students who weren’t offered admission were somehow defective, that there is something wrong with them. But there isn’t. (Don’t roll your eyes – I have a valid point.)
A former MIT Admissions Counselor wrote an insightful post about this very idea. He used a fishing analogy to illustrate this, but I hate fishing, so I’ll just get to the point. (If you like fish, or analogies, go check out his fishy explanation – it’s a pretty unique way of illustrating this concept.)
Most people view the college admission process in a very black and white way: Either you’re good enough to get in, or you’re not. The problem with this viewpoint is that it completely ignores an entire world of gray areas. If everyone who was amazingly brilliant with perfect GPAs, top test scores, and a host of extracurricular activities got accepted at Harvard, Harvard’s freshman class would rival the population of a medium-sized town. Pure logistics require that a lot of students can’t possibly get accepted at Harvard (or MIT, or Stanford, or any of a number of other selective colleges) – it doesn’t mean there’s anything deficient about those students, it just means there isn’t enough room for all of them.
This does not mean that admission officers blindly pick names out of a hat. No matter what anyone tells you, the college admission process really is an individualistic and holistic process. Yes, your grades and test scores will get you into the pool of potential candidates. Without good grades and test scores, the odds are that you won’t make the first cut at a selective school. But from there, things get murky. There isn’t a defined set of objective criteria, a magical checklist, or an Excel spreadsheet that will determine who gets in and who doesn’t. It’s up to the admission officers to carefully examine every aspect of your application to determine whether they think that you and their school are a match made in heaven.
If admission were black and white, we wouldn’t have admissions officers – we would have a computer program that spits out the names of the students accepted into the freshmen class. Trust me, it would be far cheaper and easier to approach admissions in such a way; but the human element of admissions works to ensure that every student accepted will excel at a given school. (Or at least it tries to achieve that goal.)
So as you begin the college admission process, make this your mantra: There is no such thing as rejection.
No School Will Make or Break Your Future
Many students have internalized the idea that the only sure route to success is to graduate from a “name brand” college or university. There are a lot of factors that contribute to this idea – from college rankings to media coverage to peer/parental/family opinions. But there isn’t a single school that will absolutely guarantee your future success. Your fate rests on your shoulders, not on the school you attend.
First, attending a name brand school – even an Ivy League school – won’t guarantee success. Even if we accept the notion that your success can be defined primarily by your income level (a narrow definition of success that doesn’t apply to everyone), simply attending a top college won’t ensure that you earn a lot of money. Likewise, attending a comparatively poorly ranked school won’t ensure that you DON’T earn a lot of money.
Not convinced? Let’s look at some data.
There are two rankings that I used to look into this idea of highly ranked schools producing highly paid graduates: First, I looked at the Forbes Best College list to find the school’s national rank; second, I looked at the Payscale College Rankings to find how the school ranks based on graduate income.
You’d expect that the higher the school’s “best college” ranking, the higher its graduate income rank would be, right? In other words, if we were to graph the relationship, we think it should look something like this:
Imagine my surprise when I put a few dozen school rankings into the computer and this popped up instead:
The actual relationship between college ranking and graduate salary isn’t so neat and clean. On the one hand, you have some schools clustered in that bottom left corner whose college rankings and pay rankings are similar. These schools are name brand schools whose graduates earn top dollar: Princeton (ranked first both in Forbes’ ranking and Payscale’s ranking), Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. But on the other end of the spectrum are schools like the University of Chicago, which Forbes ranks as the 4th best college in the nation even though its graduates’ pay ranks 163rd. And for every school like the University of Chicago, there are schools like Lehigh University, whose graduates’ pay ranks 6th in the nation even though Forbes considers it to be the 108th best college.
The takeaway: The relationship between success (at least in terms of income) and a college’s prestige isn’t linear. You can’t assume that going to a top ranked school will ensure success, just as you can’t be sure that going to your local state college will hold you back.
For further proof, consider this 2011 study: Two economists examined graduate pay, college ranking, SAT scores, grades, and the colleges students applied to. They found that a student with a 1400 SAT who went to Penn State (Forbes ranking: 184) but applied to U Penn (Forbes ranking: 17) earned as much as a student with the same SAT score who attended U Penn. The lesson was that the student’s motivation and work ethic were better indicators of future success than the school the student ultimately attended. In other words, a bright student who works hard will do well no matter where he goes to college.
So, by all means, apply to the Harvards and the Yales of the world. They are amazing schools with wonderful faculty and unique learning opportunities. But if you don’t get in, or you ultimately decide not to attend, your future is not ruined! You will still do well at any college, as long as you are motivated and willing to put in the effort.
So as you gear up for the college admission season, get to a Zen state of mind. Your only concern should be putting your best foot forward in order to improve the odds that you will be accepted at your dream school. Don’t worry about getting “rejected” (since, as we already established, you can’t really be rejected from a school). Don’t worry about how you’ll pay your bills when you graduate. Don’t worry about anything other than doing your best.
Live in the moment. Worry only about that which you can control. And let the universe do the rest.