Many students base their application decisions on prestige. They look to articles and websites listing Top Colleges, and they rely on marketing as their guides. These students believe a “good school” will make them feel more worthy. Others limit themselves to “easy” schools to avoid the unworthy feeling that comes with rejection. Both of these approaches can easily lead to anxiety, confusion, and poor decisions.
It has a very simple and understandable origin: when you apply to a college, you either get accepted or rejected (or waitlisted, which feels like rejected). And getting rejected feels awful. I graduated high school in 1992, but I still remember my college rejections. I remember my college rejections better than I do my high school graduation. Getting the “skinny envelope” makes us feel deflated and unworthy, and that unworthy feeling, that moment of rejection, is the origin of the college application process as it happens today for many students. The mindset of “am I worthy?” has become the prevailing mindset for students, parents, and the whole system. It works in several ways.
For some students, the fear of feeling unworthy dictates their applications. They only apply to colleges they’re already pretty sure they’ll get accepted to. They don’t push themselves very hard in their search or their application. They play it safe. This is usually not done consciously—few people will tell you they only bothered to apply to easy schools—but it’s done all the time. And to be honest, there are some merits to this approach. It tends to be more time-efficient, because you’re not spending nearly as much time looking at schools you’re unlikely to attend. A student told me once, “Everybody applies to a safety school, and most of us end up going there, so why apply to anything else?” The problem with this approach is that there are too many lost opportunities. Even if you do go to a school you easily qualified for, the process of searching for schools—of thinking about what you really want and what you really have to offer—is an impactful and enriching one. Also, if you’re subconsciously settling for the easiest option, you’re also subconsciously feeling disappointed in yourself for selling yourself short.
For many more students, though, the “am I worthy?” mindset works in the other direction: if being rejected feels bad, then being accepted feels good! So they try to see how many acceptances they can get, and they spend most of their time thinking about “good” schools. What makes a college a good college? For students caught up in the “am I worthy?” game, the main criteria of a “good” school are: people have heard of it; people seem impressed when you mention it to them; it ranks highly on national lists; they have a small acceptance rate. When students say “I got accepted to _____,” they want people to say “Wow!” not “Where is that?” They base most of their application process around “Wow!”
And look again at those criteria. They’re all pretty much the same thing, caught in a loop. Lots of students have heard of Stanford (just as an example, nothing against Stanford), so people say “Wow!” when you get accepted. So lots of students want to apply there, meaning there are more applications per available slot. That makes Stanford’s acceptance rate low…which makes people say “Wow!” even more if you get accepted, which makes even more people want to go there. Again, I’ve got nothing against Stanford or any other selective university. But if you’re basing one of the largest decisions of your life around making strangers say “Wow,” you may want to slow down and give it some more thought. There are plenty of reasons to apply to Stanford, but make sure your reasons are sound ones.
Parents fall into the “am I worthy?” trap as much as students do. The range of choices is as overwhelming to parents as it is to their children. The pressure to make a good choice is as high for parents as it is for students. The desire to impress people and feel worthy is as high for parents as it is for students. And parents are often much less informed than their children. Over the past 17 years I’ve talked to a lot of parents, and they often say the same thing: “I want my child to go to the best school possible.” That’s a great start, but until parents think about what they mean by “best,” they often follow the same mindset as their children.
Not surprisingly, high schools contribute to this, too. I taught senior English for nine years at a public college prep high school, and I have to admit that I was as bad as anyone else. When people asked me about that year's senior class, I would usually begin my answer with a statement about the students going to “Wow!” schools. “It’s been a great year,” I would say. “We’re sending two to N.Y.U., one to Duke, and one senior is working on going to Cambridge." I should have said something more like “It’s been a great year! Most of our seniors have thought carefully about what they need from college and what they have to offer, and so most of them have made wise choices that will empower them for decades to come.” Apply with Sanity is about changing that, for all of us.