University of Michigan psychologist Clyde Coombs developed an innovative theory of risk. If you are going to make a risky investment, you protect yourself by playing it safe in other investments. Successful people do the same thing in their daily lives balancing out risks in their portfolio. When we embrace danger in one domain, we offset our overall level of risk by exercising caution in another domain.
This is a good way to think about building your college list.
Some students like to take a big risk with their top choice school. Not always a good idea, but here’s where making good use of different application plans might be beneficial in balancing that risk. If you know Cornell is an “aspirational” school for you—beyond a reach—I would advise to not apply there ED. However, if a student decided they wanted to go for it (and I could not change their mind!), I would strongly advise they balance that decision by applying EA to a range of schools with different levels of selectivity that they liked. For example, UNC, U-M, Penn State, Ohio State, Richmond, and Clemson. I would also advise applying to all of these EA schools if the ED school choice was a bit more reasonable, say, Wake Forest. It is just a good strategy to apply EA along with ED!
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:
Commit yourself to tidying up your list
Imagine your ideal college
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
Evaluate your list by category.
Follow the right order
Ask yourself if each college sparks joy
The categories to consider, in order:
Financial considerations, cost
Extracurricular offerings, social life, and happiness of students
Eligibility and competitiveness for admission
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.
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.
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.
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.”A 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.
Not a news flash: Getting into the country’s most selective colleges is more fiercely competitive than ever, with many schools reporting a record number of applicants (again). To many, this news is fear-inducing. How will I (or my child) 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 most applicants won’t get admitted to the top-top schools. Instead of trying (too hard in many cases) 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.
There are schools outside of the top 30 ranked on US News, and they are excellent. We help families find these schools, and we’ve seen that when they can think outside of the box, they end up with incredible options and look back on the process much more fondly than those that are laser-focused on the same set of schools at which the rest of the world is aiming.
Here are some numbers from an earlier Boston Globe article noting the 20-year admit rate changes at a few of the country’s most popular schools. I’ve been saying this for a few years now, but it is time to start looking outside of the bubble of these and the other “most popular” schools, and these numbers should provide a nudge in doing so. Interested in looking into amazing schools that don’t often find themselves on the most popular list? Check out College That Change Lives as well as this list I have compiled.
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