2019 might well go down in history as the year college admissions jumped the shark. Over the last two decades, the hype and intensity surrounding university admissions in the United States has grown slowly, a cheating scandal in Atlanta here, an improper influence over the University of Illinois admissions process there. This year, the great scriptwriters in the sky turned up the drama with news stories surrounding the Varsity Blues Scandal, the multiple instances of poor parent behavior at a top private school in Washington, D.C., and several instances of standardized testing fraud, all within five months.
These high profile examples of deplorable behavior, all executed with the intent of gaming a coveted spot at a tiny cross-section of American colleges, underscore the perceived high stakes of college admissions and the dysfunctional side effects they introduce into our culture. Over my 20 years in selective admissions, I observed the toxic achievement culture fueled by the daydreams of elite higher education. I also witnessed the lethargic response from the broader higher education admissions community, which in my view seemed to more or less shrug off the hysteria as regrettable, but ultimately good for business.
What we now know, of course, is that this collective indifference to the intensifying admissions hype cycles has created a vacuum in which our young people must sift through all the marketing and pressure to perform with few resources to consult, except for all their “friends” in the comparison echo chamber of social media. The cemented pattern for many achievement-oriented high schoolers is: school, practice, extracurriculars, homework, eat, sleep, repeat. It is not surprising then that a New York University study found that nearly half of high achieving high school students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis, what clinicians call chronic stress. A further 26% of students demonstrated symptoms consistent with clinically significant depression.
I see and hear it now first-hand from the students with whom I work in my educational consulting practice. Inspired by the staff and faculty at Challenge Success, we built a program around evidence-based techniques to address the stress and pressure of the modern college search by re-writing the dominant cultural script about the college search. Our main idea is this: the college search is NOT about the college; it is about the search. It is about the student taking stock of himself or herself and starting down the path of adult-decision making, in all its rewards and messiness.
This is not to say that stress, and sometimes overwhelming fear, is completely avoidable for the college seeking student. As with any major life change, a baseline of anxiety is to be expected. It is this vague dread that students describe as lurking in the vicinity of the college search that we want to explore.
So, let’s address the looming and often shapeless nature of college anxiety. Let’s be precise and nuanced in addressing the nature of admissions fear.
In spite of overwhelming evidence that most students experience great success in the college search, there is still considerable anxiety and fear. Consider this: the average college admits approximately two-thirds of its applicants, and only 20% of all colleges admit less than half of applicants. The vast bulk of students pursuing higher education today are attending colleges and universities that admit large majorities of applicants. What’s more, a national survey found that 55% of first-time college students are attending their first-choice college. Why then, in an educational environment so full of diverse options, are young people so fearful of this next step they are facing? And how can we begin to recreate the negative environment that surrounds them?
Let’s tackle the top three fears we normally hear from students:
- “I won’t get into the college I want to attend.”
What if I told you a story about a boy with an unusually clear dream to bring his particular style of art into the world for everyone to see? He was so obsessed with his craft, that he would fake illnesses so that he could stay home from school and work on his art. When it came time to apply to college, he put in his application to one of the top schools for the study of this particular art form. He was turned down, not once, but three times. Despondent, he took up a job as a gofer at a local studio and enrolled in classes at a local public college.
This would likely sum up the totality of this fear for most young people. But what if I told you that this young man was none other than Steven Allan Spielberg, the film icon, and eventual trustee of the college that thrice rejected him, the University of Southern California.
Warren Buffett was denied to Harvard Business School. I am going to just leave that right there for a second. To Harvard Business School. Warren Buffett. Barack Obama (denied to Swarthmore), Tina Fey (denied to Princeton), Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin (denied to M.I.T.), Tom Hanks (denied to M.I.T. and also Villanova for good measure) and hundreds more cultural and industrial luminaries were all turned away by various admissions committees. In many cases, being turned away from one path of ambition served as an invitation to a new unanticipated direction. Tom Brokaw (who was denied admission to Harvard) has noted that “The initial stumble was critical in getting me launched.”
I get it. Socially, the college search is a highly visible process, with everyone seemingly in on the culturally acceptable two-part question that every high school senior in America gets asked: “Where are you going to college and what do you want to major in?” (more on that later). I call these the family reunion questions. If you dare to answer the first part of that question, it feels as if you are putting yourself out there, because what if you don’t get in? Everyone will know and how awful would that be? In my dissertation research, we found that over 58% of high school juniors indicated that not getting into their top choice college was a major source of stress in their college search.
The headwater of this fear is a dysfunctional belief I call the “true love college,” in which young people are advised to visit various college campuses and to listen closely to the winds as inevitably one of them will whisper, like the cornfields to Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams. A lone sunbeam will illuminate their path as various woodland creatures gather around their feet and birds to their shoulder. And no, there will be no rain this day, but if it must, it rains Skittles.
It is my experience that buying into this myth is often troubling for young people. When kids fixate on one college, they lend their fate to that college, their future held in escrow by an admissions committee which is, I can confidently say, made up of people. Wonderful, hard-working, but most certainly, human people, just as full of flaws and mistakes as anyone else. Just ask the admissions committee who denied Warren Buffett.
So how do we rewrite this dysfunctional script? With cheeseburgers, of course.
Colleges are like cheeseburgers. You can find them all over the place, and there’s a lot of core similarities to them, but the magic is in the diversity. The bun, the burger, the cheese, the toppings — oh so many toppings. There are regional varieties, variations to suit all kinds of tastes and needs from gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian options; it’s amazing. And yes, there are those who scream loudly about some notion of a “classic cheeseburger,” or perhaps argue that a cheeseburger isn’t truly great unless it costs an absurd amount of money, but we know better. The beauty is in knowing what kind of cheeseburger you like and being unapologetic about that. And if a college won’t serve you their prestigious brand of cheeseburger, channel your inner Spielberg and Obama and go find a cheeseburger at another place that will appreciate you. They’re all delicious.
2. “All my friends have their majors picked out and I don’t have a clue.”
The second half of the “family reunion questions” is a doozy. “What do you want to major in,” or its cousin, which shows up when you have picked a major, “What do you want to do with that?” are seemingly innocent enough questions. But they do introduce a degree of stress into the mixture of anxieties that surround the college search. Again, going back to my dissertation research: 49% of high school juniors identified choice of major as a significant source of anxiety as it related to their college search. While I certainly acknowledge that there is some benefit for a young person to be encouraged to articulate their future plans (as well as they know them at the time), I am concerned with the rigidity of the small box into which the young person must insert their answers.
The challenge is that we, the individuals usually asking, “what do you want to major in?” represent a generation of professionals steeped in a more linear view of career preparedness with a more pronounced division between majors and professions. The current generation does not see a career this way. Three-quarters of college graduates do not end up working in their major five years post-graduation. The notion of a career is more fluid than it has ever been with today’s worker changing jobs 12 times on average.
The rewrite of this dysfunctional belief: Instead of asking “What do I want to major in?” ask “What do I want to learn how to do?” Do you want to learn how to start a business, write compelling research, advocate for a cause you truly believe in, fluently speak three languages, or even, how can you be successful while also enjoying your life? These are the questions that are much more meaningful and lasting.
3. “I won’t pick the right college.”
This fear is a derivative of the aforementioned “true love college,” except this belief also rolls notions of future success into the stress burrito. “If I pick the wrong college, I won’t be able to get the job I want, and thus will live a life of crime and degradation, possibly in a van down by the river . . . yada, yada.” This fear drives the college-seeking student and family to rankings magazines and material from the “best colleges” section of the bookstore, hoping that enrolling in a particular college will unlock a better career and life. On campus tours, this shows up in the form of questions like, “What percent of graduates find employment, or grad school, or simply avoid jail time within 6 months?” At the heart of this is the notion that one college can significantly prepare you better for a career than another, a concept that is thematic to most university admissions marketing that floods mailboxes (I should know, I did that for two decades). Marketing like this hinges on two important and interlocking variables: value and scarcity.
The messaging is simple, yet flawed:
- College is a valuable and even essential gateway to financial security and upward social mobility, and,
- Access to the best colleges is getting scarcer and scarcer.
You see, if the marketing is to work, the resources needed to achieve this future success must be perceived as scarce. As a former university marketer, my job was to convince prospective students and families that paying my college’s tuition was worth it; it was the best and most unique cheeseburger in the world. Could they get just as good of a cheeseburger, errr education, perhaps with a different experience and toppings, just down the street for one-third of the price? Yes. However, for my particular cheeseburgers to keep selling, there had to be a perceived scarcity in access to future success, or said another way, “Our college has something the other places don’t, and because of that, our students outperform those other places and get better jobs.”
The problem, of course, is that there is scant evidence that one 4-year college dramatically outperforms another 4-year college in career success and life satisfaction outcomes, when variables known to predict such outcomes are controlled. A famous example of this is the study by Stacy Berg Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton economist Alan Krueger in which they found that students who were admitted to highly selective and top-ranked universities, but who attended less selective colleges were just as successful and happy as those were attended the choosier schools. Said another way, it’s not about the college, it’s about the student.
The rewrite of this dysfunctional belief: I have studied the college search enough to know that what college you attend simply does not matter as much as we are all led to believe it does. No amount of marketing can change this. You know what does matter? You, the student. Your character, integrity, love for yourself and those around you, and your sheer unwillingness to go away. No college can give you this, nor take it away.
So let’s resolve to journey to the center of the college anxiety that is around us and describe it in specific and nuanced terms. When we do, we will find out that it’s just fear being afraid of itself. The future is not something to fear and access to success is not a scarce resource. There are an abundance of options all around us. Keep that in mind the next time you bite into your favorite cheeseburger.
Thomas C. Golden, Ph.D., is the Founder and Principal of Golden Educational Consulting which seeks to inspire young people to discover what inspires them by teaching families how to prepare their kids for the challenges of the college search. Known simply as Dr. Thom to his clients and friends, he spent more than 20 years in selective admissions at some of the top universities in the world, leading recruitment and admissions evaluations at Purdue and Vanderbilt Universities. He can be reached at email@example.com and at doctorthom.com