Why to Reconsider Applying to Schools with Under 10% Admit Rates in RD

College admissions can be heartbreaking on many levels, but what’s “the worst” is the number of applicants who think they can get lucky in regular decision—especially at schools with ED II, and who report RD admit rates under 10%. Even for students with a strong resume and “great” numbers, the odds are against you. At the most selective schools, there is not much luck to be had.

You’ll need something special (or a special combination of things) to get a fair look at a top-top school in RD: be at the top of your class with perfect or near-perfect grades, have little/no competition from classmates, be a legacy, and often very important, attend a high school that has an already established pipeline to these schools. You’ll need some awesome essays, too.

It might help to see that a 5% admit rate = 95% rejection rate

I know this sounds negative, and anyone who knows me knows that I am a glass half full type of person, but it’s time to start seeing rejection rates for what they are, especially if your list is full of schools with admit rates under ~25% (meaning the RD rate could dip to under ~10%).

Sometimes [insert uber-selective school here] just needs a new library, or full-pays, or more women from Idaho, or a flute player. So…

Don’t take it personally if you don’t fall into that tiny, tiny pool; you are, I promise, still enough.

 

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October Monthly Action Plan – By Grade

If you are working with us, you get a personalized action plan each month (and you can skip this post!). Here’s an overview by grade:

Seniors

  • Keep writing! You should have quite a few applications completed by this time. Please do not save essay writing (or any part of this process) for the last minute. Submit applications as soon as possible.
  • Talk to your letter of recommendation writers and make sure they are aware of your early deadlines.
  • Continue connecting with students, faculty, and staff. Remember to interview where applicable and take lots of notes. The information you gather is often perfect material for supplemental “Why School” essays and interest letters after you apply!
  • If your school hosts a college fair or individual college visits, please attend and meet the reps from the schools on your list. If you have already met them, it is still beneficial to stop by and say hello to demonstrate interest.
  • Prep for interviews. Remember, if the schools on your list have on-campus or local interviews that are candidate-initiated, you must schedule them. Check the schools on your list. All of this information is provided on schools’ admissions websites.
  • Have standardized test scores sent to all of the colleges on your list, if required; please send scores now, so they arrive before deadlines. Some schools no longer require you send officials, so please review each school’s application instructions to confirm. You can also review the list here: https://www.compassprep.com/self-reporting-test-scores/  *there is no penalty if you send them and they are not required at the time you apply. Many students send them to all of the schools on their list. 

Juniors

  • If you look at your resume, are your academic interests clear? If yes, then your academic narrative is developed. A clear-cut academic narrative is beneficial; if you are undecided, then you should be exploring multiple interests. It is okay to be undecided as long as you are actively working on finding your niche. Please keep in mind that colleges aren’t looking for you to have it all 100% figured out; they are more concerned that you have interests and that you act on them (they want to see that you are intellectually curious and act on that curiosity!).
  • Now is the time to plan the rest of junior year in terms of testing. When will you take the ACT or SAT? Will you need SAT Subject Tests? How many and which ones? When might you take them? Have you started formal test prep? Now is the time to start!
  • Although I do not suggest formally prepping for the PSAT, if you would like to get a sense of what is on the test, you can read more here: https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/psat-nmsqt-psat-10/practice
  • Meet with your school guidance counselor. S/he will write one of your letters of recommendation for college, and it’s a much more personal letter if you know each other. Talk about your plans for this year and next year; let them know about your preliminary college list, any visits you have scheduled, and your testing plan.
  • Visit the websites of the schools you are interested in, and explore the admissions and academics pages. Start to think about your major(s) of interest and how the activities you are involved in support these interests. If possible, we want to determine what major(s) options you will list on your applications sooner rather than later so you can best prepare yourself for talking about these interests in your apps. If you need suggestions for activities based on your interests (for example, Coursera courses, independent projects, etc.), let us know—we help with this!
  • Fall is a great time to visit colleges, so plan a few trips if you can. If you can sit in on a class, meet with faculty or current students, or schedule other experiences while on campus, please do. All of this falls under what I call “extended research and outreach,” and can be beneficial in the college search and application process. Also, whether you can get to campus or not, take virtual tours via CampusReel!
  • Do you have a plan in place to get more involved with any of your extracurricular activities? Look for leadership opportunities in school clubs and activities outside of school too. Remember, leadership is far more than leading a school club or sports team.

Sophomores and Freshmen

  • An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor at most colleges. A rigorous course schedule shows intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge yourself, and that you are comfortable with hard work. Your number one priority this year should be your grades!
  • If you haven’t done so already, get involved in activities in your area(s) of interest both inside and outside of school. Seek out opportunities to develop leadership roles. Depth, not breadth of experience, is key. Most colleges prefer to see fewer activities, but in which you are involved in a significant, meaningful way. Evidence of leadership, initiative, commitment, and meaningful engagement is important. Avoid the laundry list resume.
  • You may also want to consider an internship, research position, job shadowing opportunity or part-time employment in an area that interests you. Starting your own club, website, or community service project can show initiative, dedication, and leadership. If you are interested in creating an opportunity for yourself that is not available at your school or through a formal program, contact us, because we can help!
  • Many schools allow 10th graders to take a practice PSAT.  The experience of taking the PSAT as a sophomore will give you a sense of what to expect on future exams. However, you don’t need to prep for it.
  • Schedule a meeting to discuss your high school game plan with your guidance counselor. Your guidance or college counselor will write you a letter of recommendation when you apply to college, so make an effort to get to know them and for them to get to know you.

 

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August Monthly Action Plan – By Grade

The school year is almost here! Enjoy the final few weeks of summer. And, if you are a rising senior and want to make the most of August (this means completing applications!) contact us! We can help you head back to school with a long list of college application items checked off your to-do list.

Here’s what should be on your radar this month:

Seniors

  • The Common App refresh is complete. If you have not done so already, register for the Common App (www.commonapp.org) and other school-specific applications as per your list (for example, the University of California), and fill them out.
  • Continue to complete essays!!! Senior year fall grades count. The more you complete before you go back to school, the more time you should have for your coursework.
  • Continue to visit colleges and connect with students, faculty, and staff. Remember to interview where applicable and take lots of notes. The information you gather is often perfect material for supplemental “Why School” essays and interest letters after you apply!
  • Begin to finalize your college list. It’s important to know which colleges you’ll be applying to so you can a) work on essays and b) finalize application strategy (when you will apply and where). Will you be applying early action? Early decision? Do you have an ED II school in the mix (you should instead of relying on RD)? If you still have tests to take in August, September, or October, confirm your EA schools and work on those apps.
  • Touch base with the teachers writing your letters of recommendation. They will be very busy once school starts; be proactive and drop them a note now reiterating your thanks, as well as letting them know when you plan to submit your first apps (this can be far in advance of actual deadlines, for example, in September if testing is complete). 

Juniors

  • If you haven’t done so already, schedule a meeting to discuss your 11th-grade game plan with your guidance counselor. Your counselor will write you a letter of recommendation for college, so make an effort to get to know them and for them to get to know you.
  • This year, try to get more involved with 1-2 main extracurricular activities (bonus if these support your academic interest). Look for leadership opportunities, but also keep in mind demonstrating leadership goes beyond leading a club or team. Consider activities outside of school as well.
  • Now is the time to plan the rest of junior year in terms of testing. When will you take the ACT or SAT? Will you need SAT Subject Tests? How many and which ones? When might you take them? Have you started formal test prep? Please contact us if you would like suggestions for tutors and other prep resources. Now is the time to start test prep!
  • Once you have some test scores, come up with a preliminary college list, so you can…
  • Begin to visit the websites of the schools you are interested in. Explore the admissions and academics pages. Start to think about your major of interest and how the activities you are involved in support it. You 100% should be exploring your academic interests outside of your coursework.
  • Fall is a great time to visit colleges and engage in extended research and outreach. Over the years, I have found that students who take these “extra steps” consistently get into their top schools…and many more.

Sophomores & Freshmen

  • An impressive academic record is the most important admissions factor for the majority of colleges. A rigorous course schedule that is in line with your strengths can help demonstrate intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge yourself, and that you are comfortable with hard work. Your number one priority this year should be your grades!
  • If you haven’t done so already, get involved in activities inside and outside of school. Seek out opportunities to develop leadership roles. Depth, not breadth of experience, is key. Most colleges prefer to see fewer activities, but ones that really interest you, where you are involved in a significant way. Evidence of leadership, initiative, commitment, and meaningful engagement is important. You may also want to consider an internship, research position, job shadowing opportunity or part-time employment in an area that interests you. Starting your own club, website, or community service project are also lovely options, but keep in mind you don’t need to do it all.
  • Schedule a meeting to discuss your high school game plan with your counselor. Your counselor will write you a letter of recommendation when it comes time to apply to college, so make an effort to get to know them and for them to get to know you.
  • One of the most significant factors in a strong performance on the verbal portions of the SAT and the ACT is independent reading. Enhancing your skills during high school will not only help you perform better on college entrance exams, but it will also prepare you for success in college and beyond. Regular reading of articles and editorials (e.g., New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist) in addition to studying vocabulary lists and signing up for “Word/Article/SAT Question of the Day” can have a significant positive impact.
  • Many schools allow 10th graders to take a practice PSAT.  The experience of taking the PSAT as a sophomore will give you a sense of what to expect on future exams. However, don’t feel like you need to study for this test. It is just practice!
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Common App Refresh Starts July 28

Reminder: The Common App will be offline from July 28-31 in order to prepare for the launch of the 2019-2020 application on August 1.

In the meantime, you can…

  • Write your essays
  • Update your resume
  • Network with colleges

Once the Common App refresh is complete, you can rollover your account if you created one previously, or open one up and get started. Check out our free Facebook group, Conquer the Common App, to stay up to date.

 

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Start Your Common App Essay Today!

Now is the time to complete a very important part of your application: your essays!

The 2019-2020 Common Application prompts will remain the same as the 2018-2019 essay prompts.

Contact us to learn about how we help students—in a minimal amount of time!—craft  authentic, memorable essays!

 

2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

During the 2018-2019 application year, the most popular topic of choice was: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.” (24.1%). The next most popular topics were: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” (23.7%), followed by “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” (21.1%).

 

And in case you missed it, read Emma’s 10 do’s and don’ts for writing the Common App essay. If you are interested in working with Emma, reach out.

 

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Putting Your Best Foot Forward: The Short List

Photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash

I am going to keep this one short and sweet and welcome anyone who wants more info or wants to understand “how” to reach out to me directly.

Here’s how you put your best foot forward in college admissions:

-Grades that meet or exceed the standards of the schools to which you are applying

-Test scores that meet or exceed the standards of the schools to which you are applying (if the school’s you are applying to require them)

-Authentic and long-term community engagement

-Values that match the school’s

When one of these factors does not meet the standards of the school to which you are applying, your likelihood of admission decreases.

I hope to hear from you all!

 

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Meaningful Engagement in College Matters More Than Where You Go

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

“What matters in terms of career success and lifetime success is not what college you go to but whether you are meaningfully engaged,” says Rick Weissbourd in the new Harvard EdCast on ethics and college admissions.

Intrigued? Listen to Weissbourd’s to what he has to say on Harvard EdCast: Putting Ethics First in College Admissions.

 

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July Action Plan – By Grade

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Rising Seniors

  • As you continue your essay work, open a Common App account, and begin filling out the base data (Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities). Unlike in past years, if you open up an account now, it will not be deleted before August 1, 2019. There is no better time than now to get your CA base data completed. However, keep in mind the CA is down July 28-31 as it’s updated for the 2019-2020 app season.
  • If you’ve finished testing, it is time to review your college list and application strategy. Pinpointing your top 5 or so schools now can help you maximize your time over the summer doing research and outreach (and writing supplemental essays!). Need help with your essays? Contact us
  • If you are not finished testing, continue to prep.
  • If you have summer college visits planned, take advantage of the summer slowdown, and prepare meetings with your department of interest ahead of time. Interview if possible, too. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. Extended research and outreach can make a big difference in your admissions outcomes.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). If you do, aim to complete it over the summer.

Rising Juniors:

  • Continue working on your resume, and think ahead about the activities in which you want to deepen your involvement in 11th grade and beyond. If there are activities you took were involved in during 9th/10th that no longer serve your or your interests, drop them.
  • Come up with a plan for test prep. Summer before junior year is a great time to begin test prep! Here are a few resources to get you started if you are not quite ready to work with a tutor 1:1: = PSAT, ACT, SAT, SAT on Khan.
  • Thinking about how to explore your academic interests this summer? I hope so! There are tons of options, and you should be doing something “academic” this summer if possible. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan AcademyCoursera or edXTed Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

Rising Sophomores:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Explore your academic interests this summer! If you are unsure what they are, that’s even more reason to get out there and do some exploring. Figuring out what you do not like is often just as important as figuring out what you do like. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edXTed Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

 

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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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