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Growing ‘Authentic’ College Applicants

By Dan Golden — September 09, 2009 5 min read
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As America’s newest graduates were packing for college, high school juniors spent their final summer vacation in anything but a relaxed state. Many juniors and their families look on these months as a last chance to pad a growing list of extracurricular activities and experiences that will be meticulously outlined when they fill out college applications in the fall.

Unfortunately, many of these decisions remain driven by perceived “brand value” based on myth, cohort pressures, and word of mouth. As a high-school-based counselor who has many conversations each year with college-bound students, I would like to suggest an antidote to the many unhealthy pressures and groundless expectations: growing “authentic applicants.”

Authentic applicants take the long view of an educational journey, as they look at what the college years will actually contribute in the form of skills, knowledge, and values to their goal of living a meaningful life. They avoid getting locked into the quest for a “dream school,” a path that would restrict their options. They consider their families’ finances, and they research all the options available, including some little-known ones available at the least-expensive schools. At the same time, they don’t shy away from a selective school that’s right for them simply because it doesn’t fit their budgets.

Authentic applicants value the fact that there are many higher education choices. After all, even though magazine rankings continue to yield a reductive list that contains the same 250 colleges year after year, around 3,500 other four-year institutions have reputable programs and dedicated professors that can provide a successful college experience.

The authentic college applicant needs to bring his or her explorations to two venues: first, around the kitchen table, where a family can talk about all aspects of the college experience; and second, with educators—a high school counselor, college adviser, coach, or favorite teacher—who know the student best and can guide him or her in creating a list consistent with the student’s individual learning preferences and aspirations. It takes a lot of reflection and no small amount of courage for a student to make a college choice that, on the face of it, might seem perplexing to others. That is why we, as educators and caring adults providing guidance during this time, need to help add thoughtfulness and long-term perspectives to the student’s college-application process.

Colleges and universities are spending record amounts on marketing to increase applications, resulting in increased rejections, which in turn raise their selectivity rankings in the press. Students and their parents are obsessed with collecting GPA points, extracurricular activities, service credits, and exotic trips to construct a marketable résumé, regardless of the personal value of those experiences. The disturbingly high dropout and transfer rates among college freshmen demonstrate that we are not preparing students for college success, only college admission. A recent study by the Education Trust, in Washington, showed that only 63 percent of full-time college students at four-year colleges graduate within six years. The rates are even lower for minority students and those from low-income families, exacerbating the great divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Our head of school recalls that his seatmate on a recent plane ride was a prep school sophomore returning home from a weeklong college tour. She and her classmates had visited some 25 campuses in the Midwest and Northeast, all well-known names. She plans to file about the same number of applications as a senior, but only after tours in other regions of the country. She complained about the desperate pressure she and her classmates feel, and the erosion of cooperation among them as the competition heats up. She also expressed concern about the rise of cheating, drinking, and even suicidal thinking among her peers. So much for the happiest years of one’s life.

How can we help students build a template for evaluating the true, value-added nature of an institution’s education? What about the numbers of national and international fellowships secured by graduating seniors? What about employment in relevant fields within a year of graduation? What about surveys that reveal the levels of student engagement on college campuses? Along with helping students answer such questions, we can encourage them to seek answers to overarching questions for themselves: What kind of learner am I? Whom do I want to deliver most of my teaching? Is there really a career and prestige “bump” accorded to me by attending well-known University X vs. not-as-well-known-but-just-right-for-me University Y?

A rigorous and supportive approach to self-assessment, practiced early and often in high school, can help students explore what they really seek from the college experience and what institutional qualities will contribute to an optimal fit. I am proud of all my seniors who brought thoughtful self-reflection to their college searches; I am proud of the senior who will be the first in her family to attend college. She applied and was accepted to nine schools, with merit scholarships at all of them, including Mount Holyoke, Claremont McKenna, and Amherst, and after careful thought, will attend Princeton.

I’m equally proud of the young woman who was accepted to three faith-based colleges that were aligned with her values and her aspirations to attend medical school. When they were unable to provide the level of assistance she requires, she made the financially prudent decision to meet her basic requirements at a community college, rather than start medical school with a crushing load of student-loan debt along with her bachelor’s degree. Other students of mine are heading to historically black colleges and universities like Hampton and Spelman, and to single-sex institutions like Smith.

I am also proud of the students who made their final decisions based on their interests and on the program strengths of specific institutions, rather than the perceived name value. One student will attend the University of California, Santa Cruz, for its strong linguistics program and range of offerings, instead of Reed College, and another who looked beyond better-known New York University and Boston University to choose Northeastern University for its state-of-the-art graphic design program.

In the end, I’m proud of all these students, because they turned the college-search process inward, learning much about themselves and sharpening their project-management skills along the way. With greater self-knowledge and confidence, as well as an authentic sense of purpose, all our high school seniors can comfortably apply to fewer colleges and expect success—not only in March, when admissions letters come out, but also in September, when college doors open and the real test begins.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Growing ‘Authentic’ College Applicants

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