Try Harder! College Admissions Amped

The college admissions cycle can be brutal. Throw some extreme parental pressure in the mix and a school full of high achievers who amp up the competition for grades and activities, and it is little wonder that the 5 students Director, Debbie Lum, follows through their college application process at Lowell High School, an elite public high school in San Francisco, in her 2021 documentary Try Harder! are tired, stressed, and anxious. PBS released the documentary this month for free streaming in their Independent Lens series.

As I watched the documentary, I was stuck by a reoccurring belief that all the students held – their self-worth is wrapped up in where they are admitted and ultimately attend college. For these students, admittance to one of 20 or so highly selective (or what some are now calling highly rejective) schools was their marker for success. Even to the point that one young man, Shea, looks directly at the camera and says, “I can’t do what I want to do in life if I am not accepted to one of my top choice schools.” This thinking, driven by the college rankings machine, is not a healthy or sound way to approach college admissions.

In fact, it is this mentality that is feeding the ongoing frenzy around 20 or so highly selective schools, or what I call wildcards in my college admissions consulting practice. I call these schools wildcards because while it used to be that high standardized test scores, GPAs, and class rankings along with some impressive extracurriculars might land you a seat at one of these schools, that is no longer the case. Students with near perfect test scores, exceptional GPAs, and the highest class rankings are regularly receiving admissions denials at these schools in the most recent admissions cycles.

Let’s look at some of the some of the jaw-dropping admissions rates of the 2021-22 admissions cycle that have recently been released by colleges (it is interesting to note that this cycle saw more colleges choosing not to be transparent with admissions results).

Harvard – 3.2%

Columbia – 3.7%

Stanford – 4%

Princeton – 4%

MIT – 6.7%

U of Chicago – 7%

Northeastern – 7%

Swarthmore – 9.2%

Vanderbilt – 9.6%

The 2021-2022 admissions cycle was record breaking for many colleges across the country. The number of applications were up, and the acceptance rates dipped to lows we have never seen before.

Why are colleges so committed to attracting more applications and driving down acceptance rates? A big factor motivating the madness is college rankings. The ranking systems matter to colleges, particularly the granddaddy of them all, U.S. News. The computations for U.S. News to determine ranking strongly weights the reputation of the college in a peer assessment survey (20% of the ranking) in determining the “best” schools in the nation. Folded into that 20% is the perception of exclusivity that comes from having lower, and lower still acceptance rates. Students and families who are using rankings to inform their college list building should interrogate the methodology behind the ranking to ensure it is in line with their ideas about what is important in a college.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Does it really matter to you or your child that Harvard has done such a good job marketing the mystic of its brand name that over 96% of the 77,000+ high school students who applied in the last admissions cycle were denied admissions and that leaders at other colleges are impressed enough by this to rank it highly in their peer assessment survey?

My guess is that as a parent you might be a bit more interested in the fit of the school for your child. Seems to me the academic fit, the social experience, the cost, and the school’s ability to deliver a quality education that prepares a young adult for the challenges of work and life might be a smidge more important than the successful marketing teams hired in by these colleges to attract more and more applicants that the schools can then eagerly reject and by doing so bump up their rankings. It is eye opening to know that colleges view prospective students as filler in their marketing funnels.

There are over 3,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone. These 20 or so highly rejective schools (with admission rates under 10%) that the kids highlighted in Try Harder! and kids across the nation set their sights on are just a small percentage of the vast opportunities available to students.

Let’s consider some alternatives to the highly rejective colleges.

Last month, I visited Drexel University in Philadelphia (75% acceptance rate). Drexel offers an amazing co-op program where students can choose to do 1 or 3 co-op experiences and see real world application of the skills and theories learned in the classroom.

A few months ago, I sat in on a great webinar with Marquette University (Milwaukee, 82.5% acceptance rate) and was blown away by the beautiful urban campus near the lake and the entrepreneur incubator on campus. Students are using the incubator to develop business ideas and products. Some of the students actually launch their concepts while still in college.

A few weeks ago, I was on campus at the University of California Riverside (65.8% acceptance rate). Besides being an inviting campus in a cute college town, they have a strong pre-health program with many pathways to medical school for their students and many options for reducing the high cost of medical school.

In February, I had the opportunity to tour Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida (57.7% acceptance rate). I loved that the admissions officer I met told me, “Rollins is not a spectator sport.” Students are engaged and active participants in the classroom, and professors know the names of the students they teach – something that has been linked to success in college in beyond. Rollins has a “Finish in Four” plan to help ensure that students complete their degree in four years and a strong focus on providing their undergraduate students research opportunities that are critical for admission to graduate school, medical school, and law school.

Just last week I was at the University of Tampa (44.5% acceptance rate). The urban campus located on the river and in the heart of downtown is stellar, and they offer a marine science degree chocked full of real-life experience at their bayside site that includes three research vessels that students take out on the bay to conduct important marine research.

The students at Lowell High School highlighted in Try Harder! were short-sighted in discounting schools like these with much more reasonable admissions probabilities. There are many other hidden gems of colleges that offer interesting and intellectually challenging experiences that prepare students for success after college. A college experience is what you make of it, and great students find ways to stand out on campuses across the country. Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University, says of the Purdue-Gallup Index, a higher education study that measured college outcomes, “Our survey clearly indicated that it wasn’t so much where you go to college as much as it is how you go to college – what you extract from the campus experience. Students and their families are making a significant investment in college, and it should be done with eyes wide open.”

Frank Bruni’s seminal book on what he calls the college admissions mania, Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be interrogates this desire highlighted in Try Harder! to only be satisfied with your college search if it ends in an acceptance at a highly selective school. Bruni imparts his wisdom saying, “Where we go to college will have infinitely less bearing on our fulfillment in life than so much else: the wisdom with which we choose our romantic partners; our interactions with the communities we inhabit; our generosity toward the families we inherit and the families that we make.” Bruni is on to something here – I hardly believe that the approximate 18,000 students who are accepted and attend Ivy Leagues are the only people in all of America to live exciting and fulfilling lives, and I don’t think anyone else should believe that either, particularly young people with their whole lives ahead.

Elliot Felix’s newly released book, How to Get the Most Out of College, offers students 127 ways to squeeze everything out of their college experience. This excellent addition to the collection of books on the college experience offers outstanding tips and a strong road map for any student at any college. Felix has years of experience as a consultant for institutions of higher learning, and his book pulls back the curtain so that students can benefit from his deep knowledge of higher ed and make their college experiences as unique and exciting as they choose. Felix’s work is not predicated on attending a highly selective school, instead he suggests that every school can offer students experiences that will help launch them into fulfilling careers and exciting lives, but it is up to the student to mold their college experiences to meet their unique needs.

My goal is to help the students that I serve find their passions and the schools that will best serve them in reaching their goals. I do this by helping students develop a balanced list populated by schools that they will be excited to attend. I don’t think students need to “try harder,” it seems to me that they need to “try smarter” in seeking the perfect schools for their college list and finding places where they will thrive. The recent college admissions cycles have shown us the importance of looking beyond the “brand name” schools and thinking hard about finding great fit schools that match up with your child’s unique goals for college and beyond.