Getting into a good college is nothing to be proud of

As school is starting, incoming high school seniors (my son among them) are ramping up their college application process.

The parental hope is that our kids will make it into their desired school. If only they can do that, all will be right with the world! We will have achieved the ultimate in parenting, and we will be so proud of them.

But is that the right thing?

Consider a hypothetical: Let’s say your child (if you don’t have kids, just imagine) has really applied themselves throughout their high school career; they’ve participated in activities that challenged them, they’ve studied hard, and they’ve pushed themselves to learn and grow. It wasn’t easy, but they did it. They have their heart set on a particular “top-tier” college.

But they don’t get in.

Of course, you feel bad. Of course you share in their disappointment. But are you any less proud of them? Most of you would probably say, no, you are equally proud, you’re just disappointed for them. But if that is true, then shouldn’t the reverse be true? That if they did get accepted into their college of choice, you wouldn’t be any more proud of them?

Maybe the feeling of pride should be independent of the actual result. What are we proud of anyway? Let’s take a look at what we know about the college application process.

We know that college acceptance is not a pure meritocracy. There is an element of merit – however you define it – but it is also true that some of the “best” (a.k.a. most prestigious) colleges have admissions policies that are clearly not merit-based: children of alumni, children of prominent people, and children of donors all get a boost. That’s not individual merit. We now know that it was possible to get accepted to some of these schools by paying someone to take your child’s SAT test for them and by bribing coaches. Again: not merit. Schools also try to balance out their student body along various lines such as geography, race, income, or gender, factors that matter to the overall school composition but are not related to the merit of your individual child. Just to complicate things, “merit” doesn’t have a single definition – there’s scholastic merit, athletic merit, merit based on individual circumstances, and other types.

Moreover, colleges usually have more qualified applicants than can be accepted. If there are twice as many qualified applicants as openings, then half of the qualified applicants will be turned down. What determines which half gets in? Probably a lot of chance. I had a medical school classmate who was originally rejected by our school. He called to ask why and they responded that they had no idea why, he was just in the “reject” pile. They reconsidered his application, and then he was accepted. How random is that? How unfortunate would it have been if he hadn’t made that call, and allowed the rejection to affect his confidence?

Many universities are also looking for something specific. Some, for example, want high schoolers who know who they are, what they want, and are able to pursue those interests at a young age. That’s their own strategy for the success of their organization. But what about the kid who doesn’t know what she wants, and needs an environment in which to discover her interests? Or the one who needs to learn how to discover his interests? They might be just as successful in life, but they need a different kind of college environment. We forget that the applicant-college relationship is as much a match as anything else. If your child is not a musician, they probably don’t feel bad that they would not be accepted into a conservatory, so why should they feel bad that they don’t meet other specific criteria established by colleges for their own benefit?

The actual college acceptance is merely the outcome. What is important, what should be the source of pride, is the process and the effort. The acceptance, aside from the practical considerations, is just a symbol; it’s a symbol for the effort, consistency, growth, grit, and maturity that got the applicant to that point. But like all symbols, it isn’t identical to the thing it stands for, nor is it necessarily as closely related as we might like. In this case, the symbol depends a lot on chance, family history, money, and social standing, none of which should be sources of individual pride.

I realize that I’m writing this to myself as much as anyone else. It’s hard to shake off the way that I’ve been enculturated to think about college admissions. But an exaggerated focus on outcomes goes far beyond college; it seeps into every part of our lives. In the US, we are extremely outcome-oriented, even when it’s obvious that the outcome is due to chance or other uncontrollable factors. We ask lottery winners to reveal their secrets. We lionize successful entrepreneurs who lucked into an exploding market. We applaud those who attain high position, even if their roles were gifted to them from relatives. Gold medalists get famous while bronze medalists are forgotten, even when only a fraction of a second differentiates the two. Yes, there are times when the outcome is the most important thing, but we err heavily on the side of valuing outcome over process. This is especially damaging when the true goal, like with college, is the eventual success of the participant, not the individual outcomes along the way.

You probably don’t have to think too hard to remember a time at work when someone was praised for a good outcome they did little to earn, or when someone else was punished for a bad outcome over which they had no control. With a little more thought – and a touch of honesty – you might even think of a time when you perpetuated that way of thinking.

So to all the high school students out there, do work that will make you proud and then be happy with the work you’ve done. That’s success, no matter what else happens. And don’t look down on those who don’t achieve the goals they hope for. To parents, when you congratulate only the result, you’re feeding into the already high pressure, prestige-based college application system. Encourage and congratulate the effort, not the result, and do it now before the applications are in. You might feel you have to play the game, but you don’t have to believe in it.

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