Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Want to Get Into College? Learn to Fail

By Angel B. Perez — January 31, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I ask every student I interview for admission to my institution, Pitzer College, the same question, “What do you look forward to the most in college?” I was stunned and delighted recently when a student sat across from me at a Starbucks in New York City and replied, “I look forward to the possibility of failure.” Of course, this is not how most students respond to the question when sitting before the person who can make decisions about their academic futures, but this young man took a risk.

“You see, my parents have never let me fail,” he said. “When I want to take a chance at something, they remind me it’s not a safe route to take. Taking a more rigorous course or trying an activity I may not succeed in, they tell me, will ruin my chances at college admission. Even the sacrifice of staying up late to do something unrelated to school, they see as a risk to my academic work and college success.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

I wish I could tell you this is an uncommon story, but kids all over the world admit they are under tremendous pressure to be perfect. When I was traveling in China last fall and asked a student what she did for fun, she replied: “I thought I wasn’t supposed to tell you that? I wouldn’t want you to think I am not serious about my work!”

Students are usually in shock when I chuckle and tell them I never expect perfection. In fact, I prefer they not project it in their college applications. Of course, this goes against everything they’ve been told and makes young people uncomfortable. How could a dean of admission at one of America’s most selective institutions not want the best and the brightest? The reality is, perfection doesn’t exist, and we don’t expect to see it in a college application. In fact, admission officers tend to be skeptical of students who present themselves as individuals without flaws.

These days, finding imperfections in a college application is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Students try their best to hide factors they perceive to be negative and only tell us things they believe we will find impressive. This is supported by a secondary school culture where teachers are under pressure to give students nothing less than an A, and counselors are told not to report disciplinary infractions to colleges. Education agents in other countries are known to falsify student transcripts, assuming that an outstanding GPA is the ticket to admission.

Failure is about growth, learning, overcoming, and moving on."

Colleges respond to culture shifts, and admission officers are digging deeper to find out who students really are outside of their trophies, medals, and test scores. We get the most excited when we read an application that seems real. It’s so rare to hear stories of defeat and triumph that when we do, we cheer. If their perspectives are of lessons learned or challenges overcome, these applicants tend to jump to the top of the heap at highly selective colleges. We believe an error in high school should not define the rest of your life, but how you respond could shape you forever.

I’ve spent enough time in high schools to know teenagers will never be perfect. They do silly things, mess up, fall down, and lack confidence. The ability to bounce back is a fundamental life skill students have to learn on their own. The lessons of failure can’t be taught in a classroom; they are experienced and reflected upon. During my weekend of interviews, another student told me, “I’m ashamed to admit I failed precalculus, but I decided to take it again and got a B-plus. I’m now taking calculus, and even though I don’t love it, I’m glad I pushed through!” I asked him what he learned from the experience. “I learned to let go of shame,” he said. “I realized that I can’t let a grade define my success. I also learned that if you want anything bad enough, you can achieve it.”

I smiled as I wrote his words down on the application-review form. This kid will thrive on my campus. Not only will the faculty love him, but he has the coping skills he needs to adjust to the rigors of life in a residential college setting. Failure is about growth, learning, overcoming, and moving on. Let’s allow young people to fail. Not only will they learn something, it might even get them into college.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Want to Get Into College? Learn to Fail

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion How to Make College More Affordable? Try the Charter School Model
A new organization is exploring how to make space for new colleges to emerge that also challenge the status quo.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness In Their Own Words Stories of Tenacity: 3 First-Generation College-Bound Students Keep Their Dreams on Track
The pandemic upended college plans for more than a million young people, but not these seniors.
6 min read
Araceli Alarcon and Nathanael Severn, seniors at San Luis Obispo High School, pictured in downtown San Luis Obispo, Calif., on June 7, 2022.
Araceli Alarcon and Nathanael Severn, seniors at San Luis Obispo High School, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., will be the first in their families to attend college. While the pandemic complicated their plans, both teenagers persisted in their path to start college this fall.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says 5 Ways to Make Online Credit Recovery Work Better for Struggling Students
Seven out of 10 districts use online programs for credit recovery.
5 min read
Image of person's hands using a laptop and writing in a notebook
Chonlachai/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion High School Graduation Is Down. There Are No Quick Fixes
Online credit-recovery programs are popular, but many shortchange students, write Robert Balfanz and Karen Hawley Miles.
Robert Balfanz & Karen Hawley Miles
4 min read
Illustration of students climbing broken ladders
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock/Getty