This is the admissions season for high school seniors. Almost every day the past few weeks, I've been talking to kids about their applications as they ask me to write recommendations for them. And most of these kids have great grades and decent scores. Almost all of them have been doing community service and school extracurricular activities. So many of this generation of students have been constructing the perfect record for college applications. But they don't stand out because so many others have been doing the same thing.It is difficult to imagine, but college admission really is something of a crap shoot and it all is a matter of what admissions officers are looking for that year whether you get in or not.I suspect that what bothers kids most about the process is not the cutthroat competition they face, but the arbitrary nature of the whole thing. You struggle to give schools what they want. But ultimately folks like Mr. O'Neill may simply ignore your grades or your test scores, focusing instead on whether you've had the right "experiences" or have the right skin color to be admitted to the sacred city.I want to tell my students to relax. They'll all get in somewhere and go off and have wonderful experiences and, if they work at it, they can gain a great education. They can make of college what they will and it won't matter all that much which school they choose or chooses them. They shouldn't set their hearts on any one school because it's become such a crap shoot about where they will get in. And so much of it has nothing to do with anything they did or didn't do in high school. But that's a hard lesson for a 17 or 18 year-old kid who thinks that they should reap the reward that they deserve for having done everything that they were told they needed to do to create that great high school record.
My alma mater, University of Maryland College Park, has gotten harder to get into now. While I might still be admitted because when I went to college it was after spending four years in the Navy, so I was a non-traditional student. But my wife probably wouldn't get in today. Her grades in high school were good, she was invovled in a few things like the school newspaper and she certainly had good recommendations (so good that her high school English teacher was a guest at our wedding), but she wouldn't hold a candle to some of the kids getting into Maryland today.
But, a college education as much about the student and his/her efforts as it is about the institution. Some of the smartest people I know didn't go to big time or big name colleges, but got a great education at smaller schools because they put a lot of effort into their education.