Things I say all the time

We’ve all got those words, phrases, and sentences that we use all the time. I over-use the word “apparently,” and some quick searches through this blog make me realize I apparently also over-use the phrase “all the time.” But behind the words and sentences that we repeat often are the ideas and worldviews that drive us. So this week I thought I’d explain the thoughts and motives behind some of the sentences I use most in my job as someone who writes about college admissions and advises students on their own admissions paths.

“The best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student.” When people ask me “what do I need to do to get into a good college?” they usually hate my answer: be a good high school student. High school is like Basic Training for college, in all sorts of ways. If you’re being a good high school student, you’re doing well on assessments and making good grades. That part is obvious. But a good high school student is doing all sorts of other things as well. You’re learning to manage your time and keep track of short- and long-term assignments. You’re learning how to form and keep strong relationships, personal and professional. You’re learning to manage expectations: getting good grades doesn’t just depend on your knowledge, but also how you’re able to determine what each teacher wants and adjust how you perform, even when other teachers want other things. You’re learning that independence and responsibility don’t magically appear on a certain birthday or after a certain coming-of-age event, but they’re things that you build slowly and actively over time. You’re learning that there’s a certain balance to what you put into your community and what you get out of it. You’re learning that failure isn’t only inevitable, it’s necessary. If you’re learning all those things and doing a good job of them, then you’re ready for college and will find a good one for you.

There are no tips or tricks. There is no path to being a successful student, being a successful student is the path. Working to be a truly good high school student is a lot of work, and it’s enough work to get you into a good college.

“You don’t know what a college is going to cost you until after you apply and are accepted.” Universities will provide all sorts of data. They’ll tell you the list price for tuition and fees. They’ll tell you the average percentage of need they meet. They’ll tell you the value of the average first-year student financial aid package. They’ll tell you the name and amount of their major recurring scholarships. They’ll tell you what they estimate your net price may be. What they will not tell you is how much their school will cost you. That depends on many factors, both related to you and the other applicants they get in a given year, and there is no final financial aid statement until you apply and are accepted. Unless you know you can pay cash for the full sticker price, never assume a school is affordable. But until you get a package offer that is definitely too low for you, never assume a school is unaffordable. College is the Schrodinger’s Cat of affordability: until you observe the aid award, it is both too expensive and not too expensive. Is this frustrating? Yes. Is this just the way things work, and so you have to apply to a variety of schools at a variety of price points just in case? Yes.

“Most parents I talk to tell me that they’re in that bubble where they make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but they don’t make enough to actually afford to send their kid to college. Every one of them so far has sent their kid to college.” Make of that what you will.

“My target audience is high school students, so my site is called Apply with Sanity. If my target audience were parents it would be called Chill the F*** Out.” We know that a lot of the pressure high school students face to get into “elite” colleges doesn’t come from “society,” “the media,” or “the labor market.” It comes from parents. Take as a recent example John Vandmoer, the former Stanford sailing coach who was just sentenced for his role in the Varsity Blues scandal. Two of the three bribes he accepted (for what it’s worth, the money went to the sailing program, not himself) were from the parents of students who didn’t go to Stanford. The parents were so sure that Stanford was the right place that they illegally paid bribes to get their kids in. The kids had other ideas and ended up at other schools. For most of the parents involved in that scandal, not letting their kids know that there was cheating going on was really important to them. They had their own admissions process independent of their children’s. That’s not the way any of this is supposed to work. I’ve never been part of an illegal conspiracy, but I’ve seen the same thing happen on a much smaller (and legal) scale. The parents push for the big-name schools and high-profile majors. The students have other ideas. If you’re a parent who needs to chill the f*** out, I know it’s not easy. I’m a parent, too. Begin with Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book How to Raise and Adult.

“Well no, they don’t just donate a library.” This is by far the most common response I’ve heard about the Varsity Blues scandal. “Why didn’t they just donate a library like other rich people do to bribe their way into college?” Despite what seems to be common knowledge, it doesn’t really work this way for many people. (“Why don’t they just donate a library?” always reminds me of Kramer’s “they just write it off.”) I won’t say it never happens—I’m not that naive. But it’s rare. Harvard University, for example, has 76 libraries. Harvard is also 382 years old. That’s approximately one library per five years. Assuming that all libraries are just bribes holding books, and assuming 2,000 new Harvard freshmen a year, that means that 0.01% of Harvard students are admitted because of a donated library.

Yale averages a library for every 21 years. Stanford averages one library every 6.65 years. You get my point. If it were common for people to “just donate a library,” there would be a lot more university libraries.

But the people who say this don’t just mean literal libraries. They mean large donations that help get children into hard-to-get-into colleges. But the thing is, that’s also more rare than we seem to believe. Universities don’t disclose too many details of their donations, so I don’t have exact numbers. But if you were to get exact numbers of what percentage of donations to colleges over $500,000 come from people who have a child or grandchild in high school, the percentage would be low. Not zero, but low. Wealth has a huge and troubling influence on who gets accepted to which colleges, but it’s rarely in the form of donation/bribes. So if we want to tackle the huge and troubling influence wealth has on admissions, we have to look past the idea of bribes.

“I’m not too interested in your major.” About a third of college students change their major. Ten percent of them change more than once. So it’s not a great idea to base too much of your decision on a major. You need to find a school that will help you in your intended major…and also help you if you don’t finish in your intended major. Also, the more specific you are about your intended major, the less confident I am that you will follow that plan. If you were to say “I’m really good at math, and I want to do something that uses mathematic problem solving,” I’d think you know yourself. If, however, you were to say “I’m going to double major in Applied Mathematics and Geophysics with a minor in Electrical Engineering so I can get an internship with the Jet Propulsion Lab and then work for RAND, but at their Boston location not the California headquarters” I’d think you have no idea what the future holds. Remember, you’re choosing your direction, not your destination.

“You can’t fake demonstrated interest.” You can probably tell when someone is just being nice to you because they want something. Most people can. And everyone who works in college admissions is a person. So they can tell. When you email the admissions department to ask a question you could have easily Googled, they can tell. When you leave their emails unopened for months, and then open them all on the same day, a week before the application is due, they can tell. When you call to schedule a tour and ask if there’s a sign-in—so you can get credit for being there—they can tell.

In fact, the far bigger problem I’ve had with students and clients is not demonstrating interest. You think this college is your top choice. Have you gone online to put your email address on their mailing list? No. Do you know who the admissions rep is for this area? No. Do you know what special programs they have that aren’t available elsewhere? No. Are you sure this is your top choice?

“I hate to safety school, but….” I really don’t like the idea of “safety school.” When you designate a school as a “safety,” you’re telling yourself that you’re probably a little too good for that place, but you’ll go there if you have to. That’s a horrible way to begin a relationship. On the other hand, you want to do your best not to end up having no fat envelopes. I end up saying, fairly often, “So I hate to say safety school, but let’s find at least a few places that fit your mission statement that we’re pretty sure you’re going to be accepted to. That will give you some options.” More and more, I’m saying very firmly: “everyone should apply to at least one in-state public university. If for no other reason, you want to be able to have a base line for cost comparisons, since they tend to the be the least expensive.”

“Nobody’s happy with their scores.” No client tells me about their SAT scores and is happy with them. 1230? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1330? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1430? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1530? “It’s okay, I guess.” All of my clients, so far, have been in at least the 80th percentile. None of them were proud. Nobody’s happy with their scores. Make of that what you will.

“Run before the bell.”

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

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Photo by Zoe Herring.

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