How to Marie Kondo Your College List

 

Managing expectations while developing a college list is not easy. High school students today deal with a lot of “noise” from peers, parents, teachers, counselors, and if they are really unlucky, random people who have no business talking to them about college (I am looking at you Jay the Lyft driver). It is a hot topic and social media chatter does not help. Where they will go, what they will major in; there seems to be nothing sacred about the journey and no one feels compelled to keep their mouth shut.

And then there’s the critical issue that comes up with many of the students I work with: getting into the most selective American colleges is more fiercely competitive than ever before, with many schools reporting a record number of applicants (again), and corresponding record low admit rates (again). To many, this news is fear-inducing. How will I (or my child, parents have a lot of college-related fear, too!) possibly get admitted to a “top” college or university?

Answering how is hard. There are no silver bullets in this process, and the reality is with college admit rates under 10, 20, 30 percent at the most selective colleges and universities, most applicants won’t get admitted to these schools.

But here’s the thing: there are hundreds of other amazing schools that, in a heartbeat, most students would be happy attending. There is a nasty misconception that the most selective colleges and universities offer some magical golden ticket to greatness and a happy, fulfilling, and successful life. This is a myth. A name is just a name. Yes, brand means something to many people, and over time having a certain college on your resume might help your salary tick up, but it won’t help everyone and in the ways that many people think it will.

Instead of trying to become the applicant you think one of these uber selective schools will admit, I suggest a path of far less resistance and more authenticty—a path that includes looking at colleges where you have a realistic chance of being admitted, colleges that, perhaps, spark real joy.

But again, how?! Try taking a page out of Marie Kondo’s book. The KonMari Method is Marie Kondo’s minimalism-inspired approach to tackling your stuff category-by-category rather than room-by-room. Here’s how I have applied it to creating a college list. There are six basic rules to get started:

  1. Commit yourself to tidying up your list
  2. Imagine your ideal college
  3. Remove colleges from the list first (the ones you know you will not attend); before getting rid of colleges from the list, sincerely thank each of them for serving a purpose
  4. Evaluate your list by category.
  5. Follow the right order
  6. Ask yourself if each college sparks joy

The categories to consider, in order:

  1. Academic offerings
  2. Financial considerations, cost
  3. Extracurricular offerings, social life, and happiness of students
  4. Eligibility and competitiveness for admission
  5. Miscellaneous Items (admit rates, legacy, special programs, study abroad etc.)

As you tidy your list ask yourself: why do I want these colleges on my list? Do they spark joy, meaning, does what they have to offer academically, extracurricularly, socially, and financially get me excited to attend? Am I more drawn to the name of the school, the brand, the prestige? What will school A (that I probably won’t get into) offer me that school B (that I probably can get into) cannot and vice versa? Am I evaluating colleges in a way that emphasizes my college priorities (and not my parents or my peers)?

Kondo believes that if you tidy your space, you can transform your life. I believe that if you tidy your college list, you can transform your college application journey. Shoot me an email to schedule a free 30-minute to learn more about how BMC supports students on their college applications and more.

 

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Off to College – Good Reads

Too good to not share!

To every child everywhere who is leaving home soon, could we agree that we love each other and that’s what matters? And real quick, before you go, let’s just make sure we covered everything.

Advice to My College Freshman by Kelly Corrigan

My worries have taken over my life. Which makes me like approximately every parent who’s sending their kid away right now. I can’t tell if this is a very good time or a very bad time to be reading books on “adulting” — those skills we all need to make it in this world — but read them I must. Deep breaths.

To spur innovation, compete globally and nurture prosperity in a country where factory jobs have ceased to be the answer, we need more, better college graduates. So why aren’t we doing more to create them?

 

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Prepare Now for College Admissions Interviews

Not all colleges require interviews. In fact, many don’t offer them. At schools that do, they are not always evaluative or even considered in the admissions process. That said, we still suggest you interview if you can. Why? It is a way to demonstrate interest, learn more about the school, and help the school learn more about you. Seems like a no brainer!

Below, you will find some common interview questions. Practice with a parent, or a friend, or with us!. Never go to an interview (even those that are not evaluative) unprepared!

High School Experience

  • Tell me a little bit about your high school.
  • Tell me about the courses you are taking currently.
  • Tell me about your favorite class(s) you have taken. Why was it your favorite?
  • Which class has been your least favorite? Why?
  • Which classes have been the most difficult (or most challenging)?
  • What subjects do you plan on studying at [school]?
  • How have you pursued this interest in school, and outside of school?
  • What is your dream job?

Extracurricular Activities

  • What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
  • When you’re not in class, studying, or doing homework, what do you do with your time (organized activities or things for fun)?
  • How did you get involved/started with ____ activity?
  • Which activity is the most meaningful to you, and which one is the most fun?
  • What extracurricular activities do you hope to continue in college?
  • If you could only continue taking part in one EC, which one would it be and why?

College Expectations

  • What type of environment are you looking for in a college/university?
  • What matters most to you in a college setting?

School Specific

  • How did you become interested in [school]?
  • What do you find appealing about [school]?
  • Why do you think you [school] might be the right fit for you?
  • Do you know any students at [school]? Have you reached out to them to learn more about [school]?
  • If you had an opportunity to tell the Admissions Committee anything about yourself, what would it be? What would you want the Admissions Committee to know about you that may not come across on your application?
  • What have you learned about [school] that seems unusual or surprising?

Miscellaneous

  • Apart from looking at colleges, how have you spent your high school summers?
  • How would your best friend describe you?
  • How would your teachers describe you?
  • If you had a year to do anything you want, what would it be and why?
  • What are you currently reading?
  • Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to discuss?

 

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College Admissions Events in NYC

Thought we’d share some local events from a few very popular schools. If you can’t get to campus, you should 100% connect with schools when they come to your area, in addition to being in touch via email. It’s a great way to learn about the school and its programs as well as demonstrate interest. Email us if there are other schools you want to see added to this list!

Elon

Emory

JHU

Notre Dame

Penn State

Tufts

Tulane

USC

UVM

Villanova

 

How to Play The Long Game

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

I am once again reposting this blog from Senior Assistant Director of Admission at Georgia Tech, Katie Mattli. If you think GT might be on your list, or even if it is not, this is a fun blog to read, and more important than it being fun (and often funny), they keep it very real. Real is something many college applicants—and their parents—lose sight of during this process. If you ever feel yourself veering off the path of real, head the Georgia Tech admissions blog.

Read the original post here, or below:

I like quirky historical novelties and the Livermore Light Bulb, or known to its friends as the Centennial Bulb, is one of my favorites.  Never heard of it?  Let me explain.  Yes, there is indeed a light bulb in Livermore, California so famous it has a name and actual caretakers.  Why? Because the Livermore Light Bulb has been softly glowing in the Pleasanton Fire Department for 117 years! In fact, it just had a birthday in June. The Centennial Bulb has a website, a festival, a children’s book, and –this is my favorite part – its own Bulb Cam. You can literally watch a light bulb glow in real-time, which I find humorously whimsical.

What does a light bulb have to do with college admission?  A few things actually.

Don’t second guess your interests. 

I mean it.  Live them loud and proud.  I’m writing about a light bulb I like and you are still here, so that proves authenticity is interesting.  The applicants who get my attention in the admission process are those who, for lack of a better phrase, really like stuff.  All kinds of stuff.  They hear about a cause, read about a historical event, or learn about a theory and they dive in for the pure pleasure of learning more about it.  You can sense joy in their application—joy in sharing something that really engages them. Students always ask, “How can I make my application stand out?” Follow your true-North passions and your application will naturally have a strong voice in the crowd.

Care Instructions

The Centennial has been glowing for so long because no one remembered to turn it off – for a long time. It turns out that switching lights on and off all the time actually reduces their shelf life.  It makes me wonder how often we, students and adults alike, take stock of what is healthy for us. We don’t have care instructions attached to our lives, but if asked we could probably name the basics.  We are the opposite of lightbulbs.  We can, and should, turn off to recharge. You should sleep.  You should eat.  You should spend time with friends.  Do you live by your calendar? Then put your self-care appointments on the docket with reminders such as “lunch,” “snack,” “aspirational bedtime,” and “breathing room/free time.”  A healthy student will thrive in high school and in college. I haven’t made any clichéd references to lightbulbs and burn out here, but you get the picture. Don’t get so caught up in the everyday noise that you forget to be healthy.

Who is on your maintenance team?

The Centennial Lightbulb has three different organizations devoted to keeping that little four-watt light bulb softly glowing.  Before you start the college admission process, take stock of who is in your corner.  Who are the folks in your inner circle?  Choose carefully.  Do they see your value? Do they give you honest feedback?  Do they encourage you? Do they keep you anchored? The vast majority of students headed to college had help along the way.  Family members are not the only people who hopefully have your back. Don’t forget you can create a supportive network staring with a favorite teacher, a retired neighbor, a high school guidance counselor, your coach, a friend who graduated last year.  Reach out, ask for some time, make an appointment, start a conversation. It takes a village.

Keep your eye on the long game.

Physicists have studied the Centennial and have discovered its filament is thicker than today’s commercial lightbulbs.  It is made of sterner stuff. The college admission process can rattle highschool students. I think students believe they are focusing on their future (hence the anxiety), but I think they have lost sight of the long game.  After years of watching students and their families navigate applying to college, here are my thoughts on the admission long game and students who are made of “sterner stuff”:

  • Finding a good fit is the ultimate goal.  Your best-fit school may not be your best friend’s best-fit school.  Get comfortable with that. Put institutions on your list where you will thrive. That is the long game.
  • Ignore the myth of “the one.” college will not be the making of you but your decisions in college will. That is the long game.
  • Be happy for others.  Time will prove to you that what feels like a competition now dissipates with age.  If your buddy gets that coveted acceptance or the Val or Sal spot, cheer for them. It shows character and you will be happier for it. That is the long game.
  • Enjoy senior year.  This is your last homecoming, last high school debate competition, last playoff, senior night… Enjoy them!  That is the long game.

 

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Incoming or Current College Student? Get Started with Career Counseling

Did you know that we offer 1:1 career coaching—guidance on crafting a killer resume and cover letter, networking, getting noticed on LinkedIn, identifying best-fit companies and roles, and preparing for interviews—for individuals in high school, college, and early in their careers who want to get strategic about meeting their professional goals?

Current offerings include:

  • 30-minute Career Q&A
  • Job Search Strategy Session
  • Interview Preparation Session
  • Resume/LinkedIn Review & Editing Package
  • Cover Letter Review & Editing Package
  • Hourly Ad-Hoc Services

We work with internship and job-seekers locally in New York City, as well as around the country and globe. If you are interested in learning more contact us.

 

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Congrats Class of 2019! And Some Advice

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

As graduation nears and high school comes to a close, first and foremost, take time to soak it all in and enjoy yourself! Graduation signifies exciting new beginnings, but also change. Many of the people you are used to seeing every day at your high school are people you might not see often (or again in some cases), so make the most of spending time with them, and your family, this summer.

While you are relaxing with the people you care about most, don’t forget to say thanks where thanks is due. It can be easy to forget the many individuals who were there every step of the way during your application journey, supporting and guiding you towards college. Take some time to thank the people who helped you along the way by writing them a thank you note or giving a heartfelt thanks in person.

People to thank: parents, guidance counselor, teachers, letter of recommendation writers, anyone else who read your essays/app, college admissions officers you met with, and tutors just to name a few!

Also, make the most of this summer!!! Consider an internship or job. You’ll need money in college; a job is where the money comes from. Beyond having some much-needed cash, one Stanford researcher even found that having a summer job can boost academic performance, and more: “adolescent employment can foster noncognitive skills like time management, perseverance, and self-confidence.” Moreover, once you are in college you’ll need to be 100% independent, just as you will need to be at work. Prep now and be ready for those more significant pre-professional experiences as an undergrad.

But what type of job should I get? I suggest something fun like scooping ice cream, or better yet, waiting tables. As Rob Asghar notes, waiting tables “can be the high-pressure arena in which many talented people learn how to take control of their lives and prosper over the long haul.”

“I think everyone should spend some time waiting tables or working in retail,” Elisa Schreiber, a marketing executive in Silicon Valley, tells me.

“I learned so much by waiting tables,” says Schreiber, a longtime colleague who happens to be one of the savviest strategists and leaders I’ve ever worked alongside. “I learned empathy and understanding and compassion. I learned how to get people in and out while still feeling good about their experience. It made me exponentially better when I started my salaried, professional career—from leading people to handling pressure to effectively managing my time.”

It is not glamorous (I know, I did it for the better part of a decade in high school, college, and grad school), but it is a learning experience, to say the least. I also suggest getting on LinkedIn. See this post for tips on getting started.

 

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The One Prize That Matters Most

Life is not a contest, and the world is not an arena. Just by being here, unique among all others, offering contributions that no one else can give, you have already won the one prize that matters most.

I read an interesting Opinion piece in the Times the other day, that ended with the quote above. The title, “Let’s Hear It for the Average Child” confused me a bit, because there is nothing presented that shouts “average” to me, and I don’t see how being a student “whose talents lie outside the arena” makes one at all “average,” however average is defined (which is not clear in this piece).

But I “get it” and love the overarching message: you don’t need to be an award-winning, straight-A-getter, popular, all-subjects-enjoying, all-star athlete. Often, student’s whose gifts don’t translate to how society rewards them are the biggest “winners” of all.

It’s too bad we don’t more often—and outwardly—award students who are kind, compassionate, empathetic, self-aware, reflective and who have developed an understanding of how the world works on a deeper level. The students who get that it’s not all about their grades, or their resume, or where they go to college. In fact, it’s not even all about them.

I can’t wait for the day that colleges seek to measure and reward Margaret Renkl‘s “average” student. Until then, I’ll keep encouraging students to do the best they can in school but also to actively pursue their genuine interests, whatever they are, and engage with their communities (home, school, online, wherever they find and develop them!) in a positive and meaningful way. School is a central, significant part of your life in your teens and twenties, but it is not who you are, and it does not define you. 

 

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College Applications Benefit From Focus

Until colleges start honestly looking for students who aren’t hyper-focused, I find myself having to make clear that students who drill down on their interests early on in high school will be better positioned to tell a clear, focused story in their college applications, and might have an advantage. Being well-rounded is fantastic, but colleges are looking for students with something unique, a specific talent, skill, goal, or interest to add to value to their next class. With a more focused application, you hand the reader of your file precisely what they are looking for—you make it easy to see your value add, and sadly, fit into one of the many boxes they try to place applicants in.

There are some other arguments toward being more narrow, focused. You may love all five (or more honestly, ten…) clubs you are in and the three sports you play, but how much can you meaningfully contribute to all of these activities? Chances are not that much, and by spreading yourself so thin, you’re not making much of an impact in any single one of them.

If you want to have a bigger impact, while at the same time create a profile that might be more appealing to admissions officers, try to narrow down your interests and corresponding activities by the end of 10th grade, and think about how you can engage more meaningfully and at a higher level in the one or two things you love the most. It’s a bonus if these activities relate to your potential college major, or support it in some way, as well as demonstrate a commitment to serving someone other than yourself. If you are not sure what that means or how that translates in a college app, email us.

Drilling down on your interests to develop a clear story or narrative for your college apps will go a long way in the admissions process, and is one of the focus areas of our college counseling work with high school students.

Remember, colleges seek to build a well-rounded class comprised of students with unique talents and skills, not a class full of unfocused students or generalists. If this changes, we will definitely be posting about it here!

 

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There’s More to College Than Where You Get In

David Coleman, CEO of the College Board (a company I can’t say I am a huge fan of most of the time — because I am anti-testing) wrote an article that had some wonderful points, and that I hope is an honest reflection of perspective the company is taking into consideration. All of us in this business (those of us with a heart, morals, etc.) do, I believe, think deeply about the impact of our work. Are we hurting or helping? It’s a fine line and a question that I hope my clients and the readers of this blog know that I think about a lot. I hope to always keep my work in “check” in this way, and make sure my values (integrity, empathy, transparency) and my team’s approach to this work is known:

Ensuring students have appropriate college options is our top priority. In order to make this happen, we aim to set realistic expectations and attainable goals. Once realistic expectations are established and viable goals set, we provide students with the guidance, resources, and support they need to navigate the admissions process successfully. In doing so, we aim to help students create the time and space necessary to work smarter, not harder.

We strive to empower students and believe that a student-driven approach to finding best-fit colleges and universities is the only appropriate approach. Finally, we believe that transparency—around all aspects of the college admissions process—matters. We hope our honesty and expertise can demystify the college admissions process so that students can tackle their applications and make final decisions with confidence.

We also strongly believe that the process of drafting and revising application essays is the first step toward becoming a college-level writer. With that in mind, we view our role in the essay process as closer to that of a tutor than an editor; all edits and comments are not simply corrective, but also instructive. Through reviewing and actively engaging with our feedback, each student can improve as a writer and as a thinker throughout the essay-writing process—arriving at college more than ready to tackle the heavy writing load.

Anyway, here’s the article—highly suggest counselors, students, and parents give this one a read!

The crazed pursuit of college admissions helps no one thrive. And while the Varsity Blues admissions scandal shines a light on families that break the rules, it’s time to consider the unhappiness of families that play by them. While competition for seats may be inevitable, students scramble to do ever more to get into college—and give away more of their childhood to do so. This competition might seem a problem only for middle class and wealthy families. But students of modest means suffer most when applying to college becomes an endless list of tasks requiring time and other resources.

As the CEO of the College Board, I see this arms race up close. We administer the SAT, a test that helps admissions officers assess the reading, writing, and math skills of students across the country and around the world. We also administer the Advanced Placement program, which helps students earn credit for college-level work they do while in high school. We know these tools to be useful, but we also see how they can contribute to the arms race. The College Board can and will do more to limit the excesses—more on that below—but there is more at stake than which tests kids take or don’t take.

The statistic that should worry us most is this one: According to a 2014 study by Gallup and Purdue University, only 3 percent of students have the kind of transformative experience in college that fosters personal success and happiness. Three percent. Even as the pressure of college admissions haunts students throughout their adolescence, whispering premature anxiety into questions of what to learn and how to spend time, the admissions process as we know it often misses the heart of the matter: What kind of education is really worth investing in? What is it that students should be doing, not just to get into college, but to succeed there and live a good life after they graduate?

Having listened to hundreds of admissions officers, school counselors, parents, and students, and after reflecting on my own experience, I believe there is a healthier model to prepare young people to excel. There are durable ways to invest in children that will help them thrive in college and beyond. As the Varsity Blues scandal works its way through the legal system, the broader question is whether there’s a productive path out of the current admissions madness—a way to fill students not with anxiety, but with a deeper devotion to learning.

In the Gallup-Purdue study, the type of college that students attended affected their sense of well-being after graduation more than what they experienced at whichever institution they chose. The 3 percent of students whose lives changed for the better—who, according to Gallup, had the types of experiences that “strongly relate to great jobs and great lives afterward”—had three features in common: a great teacher and mentor, intensive engagement in activities outside class, and in-depth study and application of ideas.

These three shared features are all about intensity—not just participation in college life, but active engagement. They require students to move beyond merely doing something and toward becoming devoted to something. They require a depth of commitment that will serve students well throughout their lives. And yet nearly nothing in the admissions process tells students that these are the keys to their success.

1. Find great teachers.

At the College Board, we regularly convene first-generation students on the threshold of college to help them plan their future. These students have been remarkably resourceful in navigating their path to college, yet they have much less to say about how they will succeed once there. I have asked hundreds of high-school students what choices they will make in college that will most shape their success. Students talk about which major they will choose, who their friends will be, or which clubs they’ll join. They never say that their most important decision will be who their professors are. In general, students are extremely passive about seeking out great teaching.

Outside of family, though, no single factor comes close to the impact of a great teacher on students’ success. Former U.S. Education Secretary John King describes how a New York City public-school teacher effectively saved his life after he lost his mother and father. He says that as a young African American and Puerto Rican man from Brooklyn in a family in crisis, he might well have ended up “shot or in prison” but for great teaching.

Even for students who confront far fewer challenges, seeking out and finding the right teachers pays enormous rewards. In my high school in New York City, there was a tough and engaging teacher named Mrs. Grist. I asked whether I could take her government class, and I went on to study psychology with her as well. Mrs. Grist was among the most forbidding people I had ever met, yet she made the subjects she taught intense and urgent. I was stunned when she asked me whether I needed a recommendation for college. Her offer gave me confidence in my step, as if her hand were behind me.

Mrs. Grist’s approach to teaching helped transform my college life as well. I arrived at college disoriented by large lectures and huge reading lists. I knew I was a slower, more deliberate reader. I could be intimidated by racing through books I did not understand. I was not self-sufficient to do my best work on my own and needed a great teacher to inspire me.

So rather than accepting the typical first-year roster of large introductory courses, I began a hunt. I used those first days of the semester, before schedules were set in stone, to find classes where I felt at home. I will never forget how much I relaxed when I walked into a small philosophy class that taught only one book. Instead of racing through a book a week in a big survey course, I immersed myself in the world of Plato’s Republic with a gifted teacher, Professor Ferrari. Rather than dazzling us with his expertise, he asked questions as if he, too, were reading the book for the first time.

In effect, I was attending a very different college from that of so many of my classmates. They carried around piles of books that they might at best skim before class; I was kept up at night by the handful of old books on my shelf. They were more engaged in what was going on outside class, and studied in binges for midterms and finals; I read my few pages, often with a sense of defeat, but there were moments when the centuries separating the authors and me would melt away. I worked daily for my teachers—looking forward to the next conversation, usually in class, sometimes in office hours, where I seldom saw another classmate. All these students who had fought so hard to pry open the doors of college didn’t know to knock on their teachers’ doors.

Finding great teachers and insisting on learning from them is a form of resistance. You must push the rules and the system. One of the most misleading things we say in education is that a good school will “give you an excellent education.” A great education is never given—it is taken. The ancient myth of Prometheus is more honest; the gods do not give Prometheus the flame—he steals it.

2. Pick an activity (or maybe two).

Religious tradition testifies that immersion changes lives. Research agrees; the College Board reviewed dozens of studies to find the factors that most predict success. After grades and test scores, the factor that most predicts college success is follow-through—that is, students’ sustained effort and growth in one or two extracurricular activities while in high school. Students who devote themselves to an activity are more likely to succeed later in areas such as campus leadership and independent accomplishment.

Devotion to one or two activities—not several—advances you. Competition to get into college has metastasized into a race where more is better. We have sacrificed the productive ideal of nurturing excellence in one thing for the mad rush to submit a résumé of too many things.

The typical application for college today has eight to 10 spaces for students’ activities outside class, and parents and students have become convinced that the more spaces filled, the better. Long lists cultivate busy mediocrity rather than sustained excellence. To get into college or to earn scholarships, it is much more effective to be very good at a small set of things than to check off a long list.

MIT recently revised its application to include only four spaces for extracurricular activities, and admissions officials there are evaluating whether they can move to three. Brilliantly, the school also removed the space for students to put any activities from ninth grade on their application. From MIT’s point of view, ninth grade is a safe harbor—a year to change your mind, to try different things without regard to your track record.

MIT is not alone. “Not only at Maryland, but broadly across the admissions community we’re more interested in the few things students are devoted to over a sustained period of time rather than a long list,” says Barbara Gill, associate vice president of enrollment management at the University of Maryland.

Time is one of the great inequalities in our society. The Harvard researcher Richard Weissbourd is right to demand that college applications honor the work some students do to support their families. For lower-income students, it is defeating to ask them for a long list of activities outside class. We need to do all we can to ensure that they have the time, resources, and space to pursue passions in-depth outside class—but also not penalize them if work and family obligations get in the way.

In wealthier communities, the scramble for credentials often leads to premature professionalism and intensive regimentation. These artificial structures we invent to fill applications hinder the development of genuine interest and commitment. Young people become less authors of their own fate than soldiers enacting the battle plans of their parents.

Personally, I was lucky. In high school, I began debating and found that I loved it. (My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm—after debate practice, I was too argumentative—but they left me to it.) I didn’t have much else going on outside class, so I could fill my time researching evidence and practicing for the next fight. But I wonder how today’s overscheduled students find time to explore any one extracurricular—whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument, or anything else worth doing—in any depth. The key challenge for our young people is not to master more activities, but to learn that mastery requires doing one thing at a time.

3. Learn to love ideas, even when it hurts.

The luckiest people in life develop enduring fascinations and spend time honing their skills and learning new ones. They experience regularly the internal satisfaction that arises from encountering new ideas. With its focus on external measures of success, such as grades and test scores, the college-admissions scramble does little to communicate the importance of growth and exploration. For young people to be happy in college—and to excel there and the rest of their lives—they need to open themselves to new subjects and ideas that can captivate and motivate them. That process necessarily includes doing things they might not immediately like.

Most of the time, we misunderstand how students learn to love a subject. Listen to parents talk: My child loves math. My child loves to read. When parents say this, they mean their child enjoys something and is good at it. It sounds harmless and encouraging, but it excludes the possibility that children might someday find meaning in ideas and subjects that do not come easy to them. Difficulty can be the starting point of love, rather than a signal to abandon the subject matter entirely. To say I hate math is to say that you retreated too quickly. The question is not whether you like or excel at a subject from the outset, but whether the subject is lovely and worth knowing. Loving to learn requires that you move beyond your initial distaste to discover a subject’s power.

Particularly destructive for aspiring college students is the myth of the “numbers person” or the “word lover,” ignoring the fact that we all have minds and hearts capable of both. (Feeling at home in both domains also makes tests such as the SAT and ACT much easier.) If you don’t at first like math, seek out a better teacher, practice harder, find a connection to something else that interests you. The paradox of loving to learn is that it requires managing pain.

Being a good learner does not require that you keep doing everything without any regard to whether you enjoy it; pleasure must emerge as an essential dimension to those areas to which we devote ourselves. But even when you are engaged with a subject you love, it too can be difficult and forbidding at times. Yet even when you love something at first and are drawn to it, devotion sustains you when it becomes difficult and forbidding. We know that people love to read when they are first defeated by a book, and then reread it to see what they missed.

We need to dispense with platitudes such as “Learning is fun,” and instead admit that learning is often painful. A real love of ideas begins when students stop doing only what they are good at and realize that through practice they can discover new worlds of understanding and joy.

Even without federal indictments of parents who sought an unfair advantage, it’s clear that the American college-admissions system has created unproductive anxiety among families while doing little to foster the kind of devotion to learning that makes an education meaningful. All of us who are involved in this system—including the College Board—should reconsider what we can do to stop the madness.

Advanced Placement can help students discover and pursue a passion, but not if too many courses suffocate their time. Some students cram their schedules with AP courses to burnish their applications. While data show that taking up to five AP classes over the course of high school helps students succeed in college, there is no evidence that more than that is better. We therefore recently announced that taking more than five AP courses should provide no advantage in admissions. Students can take more AP if they want, but not to get into college.

And we need a far humbler view of the SAT. When the SAT began, it was an aptitude measure designed to gauge intellectual potential. We revised the exam in 2014, and the era of trying to measure aptitude is finally over. The new SAT assesses nothing tricky or mysterious: a focused set of reading, writing, and math skills students learn in school and use widely in college. The new SAT does not tell students or anyone else how smart students are, or how capable they are of learning new things. It only says something about whether students have yet attained the reading, writing, and math skills they will use to gain knowledge in college or career training; it makes no statement about what they are capable of learning.

We need to change the culture around exams such as the SAT. They should never be more than one factor in an admissions decision. Low scores should never be a veto on a student’s life. Students should have confidence that if they practice their math and reading skills, they will improve, which is exactly what we are seeing when students practice for free on Khan Academy. Students should take an exam once and, if they don’t like their scores, practice and take the test once more. If they still don’t like their scores, we should offer many other ways for them to show their strengths to admissions officers.

Let’s fashion a new invitation to higher education. We must invite families to invest in durable excellence rather than fragile perfectionism. Students should sacrifice far less for the sake of getting into college and do much more to thrive within and beyond it.

This article originally appeared in theatlantic.com

 

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