Why I do what I do

Last weekend I was fortunate to be one of the presenters at a college access workshop presented by Wonderworks, an enrichment program sponsored by Rice and the University of Houston. The pre-written text of my talk, called “Temporary Insanity: College Admission, American Style” is below. I welcome your comments and questions!

If I have time, I’ll explain what I do. The short version is that I write about college admissions, and you can read it all for free on applywithsanity.com whenever you like. I also take on individual consulting clients, but not a lot—I’m currently working with eight rising seniors.

But today I think it’s more important to talk about how I got here, why I do what I do. I’m still relatively new to this space—I’ve only been doing this for three years. Before that I was a high school teacher for 17 years.

My last nine years as a classroom teacher, I pretty much had my dream job. I taught AP Literature and AP Art History at a small magnet high school for gifted and talented students.  All my students were smart (not always perfect students, but always smart). All my students were college bound. My students, from all over the city, had a variety of backgrounds. It was, honestly, beautiful.

Because most of my students were seniors, I tried to be helpful with college admissions. I assigned a Common Application essay the first week of school to make sure everyone had a chance for professional feedback (and because it made me popular with parents). I had lots of one-on-one conversations with students about college, and I had lots of classroom discussions about the process. I started devoting more and more time and attention to college admissions because I saw how incredibly stressful and chaotic—overwhelming, sometimes—the whole process was to so many of my students. And these were some of the most prepared and best trained in Houston! Apply with Sanity gets its name from the insanity that I saw every year, especially in the spring.

When I was applying to college, slightly before the World Wide Web and long before College Confidential, I followed the pattern of a lot of my friends: I applied to four schools. I applied to my top two choices. I applied to the University of Texas, because it was cheaper and the application—which were all filled out by hand—only took about ten minutes. (It was also less impossible to get accepted to UT Austin in those days.) Then I took all the other schools that I’d heard of and thought were interesting that were far away and I’d never visited…and I picked one of them, almost randomly. There wasn’t the time or money or energy to apply to 20 colleges.

Things are different today. The internet makes information about any of the thousands of colleges readily available. The Common Application, Coalition Application, and Apply Texas can make it almost as easy to apply to 20 colleges as 2. Fee waivers sometimes make it as free to apply to 20 as 2. But I’m not here today to blame the internet or “kids these days.” When it comes to the insanity I saw, there was more than that.

Working with seniors going to college, I noticed several troubling patterns:

1. They didn’t have a plan. They had deadlines, and the vague and unhelpful goal of “getting into the best school they could.” But no real plan for how to get there. Sometimes they applied to schools they had little interest in, because they liked the representative who came to talk about the college or because a friend said it was a good school. The Common Application—especially with fee waivers—can make this way too easy. Sometimes they didn’t apply to schools they were really interested in that would have been good matches, just because they hadn’t managed their time well and missed a deadline. The most common way to alleviate these problems was just to apply to lots of schools. Cast a wide net and see what comes up. This approach often made the spring semester much more stressful than the fall. It turns out that getting 6 not-so-great acceptances isn’t better than getting one from a school that’s actually the right fit.

2. They wrote horrible essays. Ok, maybe not horrible. But mediocre, boring essays, which is not what college-bound gifted and talented students ought to be writing. And for admission at a selective university, a horrible essay and a mediocre essay are pretty much the same thing. The weird thing is that the college application essays, where you get to talk about yourself and your own experiences, were generally worse than their other writing the rest of the year. I really believe the problems with essays exemplify much larger issues.

Students were too focused on the prompt itself. They weren’t comfortable with an open-ended, “so tell me about yourself” prompt. They were more used to essay prompts with a clear objective. The personal writing prompts on college applications are open-ended, and people stuck in the “am I worthy” mindset don’t do well with open-ended prompts. So instead they wrote bland essays that answered the prompts in literal ways rather than taking the time—and the risk involved—to really divulge much of themselves.

Related to that is that too many college-bound high school students haven’t always given a lot of thought into who they are and what their aspirations are. Who they are is a top student. What they aspire to is to go to a good college. Outside of that, though, can be a problem. I read a book by a zen meditation teacher who said that one of the most difficult and liberating experiences you can have is to ask yourself earnestly and honestly “who am I?” and to answer earnestly and honestly “I don’t know.” That’s a great experience to have before college admissions season…or after. But to have that kind of crisis in the middle of admissions season makes for mediocre essays and a rough senior year.

3. They hadn’t discussed money with their parents. At all. I’m no longer at that high school, but I go back every year and do a workshop with them. Every year I ask the seniors “how many of you have an idea of what is affordable to your family, in dollar terms. How many of you have had that talk?” At most, a third raise their hands. Imagine making any other purchase this way. Imagine shopping for a car, or a home, or even a family vacation without having a firm idea of what your budget is. Imagine being asked to choose your top six choices for a car first, then finding out how much they cost, and lastly being told how much money you have to spend.

Part of this is built into the system. Everybody can see what the published price of a school is, and everyone knows that financial aid is available. But nobody knows what their financial aid offer will be until they’ve already applied and are accepted. There’s not a lot we can do about this.

Part of this is the student’s fault. Students are often scared to ask. Students have to be prepared to ask hard questions like “what’s our final number? What’s the most you’ll be able to pay to help? What’s the most that I should feel ok borrowing? Can you tell me how you arrived at those numbers? Can you walk me through your taxes?” These are incredibly difficult and scary questions to ask, but asking them can make a lot of the process much less difficult and scary. You have to start early, because it’s going to take several conversations before you get where you need to be.

Part of this—most of it, I think—is on parents. Parents can help by giving honest estimates of what’s affordable and providing evidence to make their child feel comfortable that it’s accurate. The two extremes are common from parents, and they’re the worst. If all a parent says is “we’ll take care of it, don’t worry,” that kid is going to worry. They either don’t believe that you actually have a few extra hundred thousand dollars sitting around, or they can’t believe you’ve been holding back all their life. If all a parent says is “we can’t afford it, you have to get scholarships,” students don’t always know what that means. “What happens if the FAFSA says that you should pay more than nothing? Will that mean I’m not going to college? Does ‘we can’t afford it’ mean that my family is much worse off financially than I thought, and I’m being selfish even thinking about college? Does it mean that my family isn’t as willing to sacrifice for me as I thought?” The repercussions can be much wider and deeper than we think. I’m a parent, too, so I understand how weird this can feel. But we have to do it. We’re going to have that discussion sooner or later, when it’s time to actually choose a school and pay, so it’s better to have it sooner.

Those are the main causes of the insanity of the process. Going into a major life decision with no plan, no idea if you can afford it, and a mindset that’s completely opposite of what it should be? And then punting on arguably the most important part of the application, the essay where you get to show your humanity? That will make you crazy, at least temporarily.

The good news is that most students make it out…fine. The spring, when you have your choices and their costs laid out for you, is difficult. Students often feel a mix of elation and defeat, even when they’re going off to college in the fall. A number of my students switched colleges after their first year, but few dropped out. It will be fine.

Apply with Sanity is based on the idea that, with some planning and fore-thought, we can do a lot better that fine. Thank you.

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 Angela Elisabeth.

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