College Admissions: Reflections

Two of our children have gone through college admissions. So, I want to share personal learnings that include great perspectives from so many people. I want to try and pay it forward.


The goal of adolescence is separation. When I first heard this, I found it profound. And, years later, I find it to be even more so.

College admissions is an interesting time for teens. They begin to think about leaving the home. What do they want vs. what their parents want? How are they similar or different from older siblings?

Moreover, it a major step whereby they for the first time step away from their peers. What do they want vs. what their friends want? In addition, each student prepares to stand alone and be evaluated by strangers and have the results known. Will they get in or not at College X? Their friends and family will hear.

There are many emotions during this process, both for the student and the parents.

My children’s application processes were mostly stress-free for me. That is because I tried to focus on what was best for my children. When I reminded myself that my life is truly not about me, it put things in perspective.

All of this is a hunt for “fit.” That’s it. And, it is about fit for the student and not for the parents.

There is no single applicant pool–it is a series of small puddles. In a very data-driven way, colleges distill a large group of applicants into smaller buckets to compares apples to apples.

A student from a private school in Boston is not compared to a public school student in Montana. That Boston student instead is compared to other students from that school and peer schools with similar socio-economic backgrounds from that year and other years.

And, it’s a tight fit. Each year, there are only about 30 spots in a Yale class for male Massachusetts students, for example. You take out the recruited athletes, the low-income students from Dorchester, the kids from rural towns in the Berkshires, etc., and you are down to a very small number of spots available for the “unhooked.”

Each applicant becomes a pixel in a large scatter plot amidst many scatter plots. Really. This leads me to the next point.

Admissions evaluates applications, not people. I think there are many facets to an individual. Some can be conveyed in an application. Some cannot. In the end, I feel the process accepts or rejects applications, but not the actual people.

Here is what I mean.

Essays are read and assigned a numerical score. So are teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities. GPAs and board scores are collected. All those numbers and pieces of paper are then condensed to a single line for each individual. That data line then appears on a long spreadsheet/database. That list is sorted and sliced and diced.

A person is more than a collection of numbers and scores, IMO.

Admissions decisions say more about that college’s priorities than about the student. When 40% of this year’s Princeton applicants have 4.0 GPAs, per a recent WSJ article, other criteria come to play. IMO, the major ones are: geographic diversity, URMs, first-generation college, and athletes.

Many colleges want at least one student from each state. Many colleges increasingly are competing for the same under-represented minorities and students who are the first in their families to go to colleges. Student-athletes attend various summer programs at which they are evaluated and then ranked. And, if they pass muster, appear on a coach’s list.

Honestly, if you are an “unhooked” white or Asian applicant from a major metropolitan area, there is a surplus of those students. If you’re female, the odds are much worse for you; e.g., last year, 3,745 males applied to Middlebury. Females? 5,074. No really: Here is the datasheet. Take a look at page seven.

If you live east of the Mississippi, the number of seats available have gone down to make room for dramatic increases in students from Texas, California and other countries.

And, so on.

So, institutional priorities, as set by that college’s Trustees, will take precedence over an individual’s qualifications. The Trustees may feel the need to change a family’s arc by choosing a student who is the first to go to college (which I laud). They may feel the need to field a stronger football team (which I understand).

So, all this to say that many very qualified applications (again, not people) will be rejected. There are many, many institutional needs.

The student must “own” the process. So trite, but it is important that the applicant drives the process and really looks within as to what he/she wants. A large or small school? An urban or rural area? Greek life or not? Some of the unhappiest people at my college were those who were there because of their parents.

Sure, parents need to buy in with what the student is seeking, particularly if they are paying the tuition. But, in the end, this very laborious process of applying to college is something that is critical for the student: that person will start to discover who he/she really is.

It’s a needed evolution of personhood. Each student must find an individual path.

Unconditional love is where it’s at. I cannot remember where I read this, but an author wrote that adolescents silently ask the following of their parents. Do you approve of the person I already am? Or, is your view of me contingent on whether I get into a certain college? In other words: Am I already good enough for you?

All this reminds me of a book called The Price of Privilege. Author Madeline Levine, a psychologist focused on adolescents, cites studies with surprising results. The rates of anxiety/substance abuse/cutting/depression/eating disorders are higher among upper-middle class children in the suburbs living with two parents than those among inner-city children raised by a single parent. The latter feel more known and loved on average.

For me, my parents exerted no pressure on me. But, I myself for a long time tied my self worth to achievements. I was the source of pressure. Work became my drug of choice, and achievement the high I needed to have.

And, the craving for bigger and bigger hits became ludicrous. I graduated in the top 5% of my college class, but I mentally tore myself to shreds when I didn’t win a Rhodes scholarship. It was silly.

So, just before college decisions recently were sent, I emailed our second child. I told her that I understood that “decision day” was a major event in her life. But, I told her that I was already proud of her before the college process even started. I gave examples. I tried to be specific about what in her I already admired.

In the end, the process truly works. In this large and at-scale courting process, students and colleges will do a dance and then pick each other.

In our son’s case, he is very happy. “Dad,” he told me, “it feels so right to be here.” He is at a college in an urban environment that offers great Computer Science and Music Theory. He is working hard at his courses, having fun, singing with a very selective a cappella group, and developing faster than I can absorb. He is a good soul, a kind person.

In our second child’s case, it is a college that is academically strong at just about everything, but, also, offers ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. This is a person who can ski or snowboard all day. She can fly fish for 12 hours while forgetting to eat or drink. This also is a person who needs to be challenged academically and also prefers a collaborative environment. Her college choice offers all of that, thankfully.

Parenting is about longing and fulfillment, together. The mere thought of children away from home creates a heart tug of longing that parents know so well.

But, when I think about my son at college, I get a warm and very fulfilling feeling inside me. When I think of our second child away at a college that really “fits,” I get the same vibe.

I feel that children launching into the world, making good choices and having an impact are signs of successful parenting. I haven’t screwed up too much.


Life is a very interesting journey. You’re always growing, if you permit that. In the case of college admissions, the child evolves. But, surprisingly, so does the parent….

3 thoughts on “College Admissions: Reflections

  1. Well said Jo.
    Agree whole heartedly about fit. I’m trying to help my niece understand that choosing the school that spoke to her – even if it’s less ‘prestigious’ – is the right decision.

    1. Rob, great to hear from you. I think it is a tough thing for adults, too: External validation vs. intrinsic value. Example: Buy the high-end car or appliance with a prestigious brand, or the one that is cheaper that has better quality? Take the job with a company that has social cachet, or with the one where the culture is a better fit?

      I feel like I’ve spent decades slowly weaning myself from the validation and affirmation from others. It takes a while, but, I think the most important thing is to be mindful.

      In the end, children mimic their parents. We have to lead by example.

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