I recently had the pleasure of attending a conference that brought together Directors of College Counseling alongside Directors of Admission and VPs of Enrollment Management from schools across the country. In our three-day summit, we discussed a variety of topics from the mental health crisis we’re seeing in our young people, to the future of test-optional admissions, to the changes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the way counselors (and by extension our students) connect with admissions folks across the aisle. Interestingly, one topic that repeatedly found its way into the conversation was the role of “authenticity” in the college admissions process - why schools care about it and why students seem to be struggling to “just be who they are” more than ever.
There is no doubt the past two years have posed immense challenges for our young people. Many of our rising seniors - the Class of 2023 - were only able to experience two trimesters of “normal” Upper School before the world seemed upended. Learning disruptions, extreme isolation in the face of quarantines, social distancing, and remote learning, the fear of sickness, the grief of loss, witnessing horrific incidents of civil unrest and racial violence - the list goes on. During a time of life when these students (and their classmates ahead of them) were supposed to be exploring their intellectual passions, discovering new hobbies, and building their skills as young leaders, we were, unfortunately, living in suspended animation. Field trips were put on hold, science labs were canceled, sports seasons and spring musicals were suspended, and clubs limited in their scope. This was the backdrop our young people faced as they set out to “find themselves” as young adults in high school.
To add to the anxiety of the moment, the “scarcity” narrative - or the idea that opportunities for students to attend selective universities were quickly diminishing - became the dominant story in major media outlets, social media accounts and dinner tables around the country. In the wake of test-optional admissions, many highly-selective universities saw application numbers explode: Colgate applications increased by 102.6% and NYU applications broke the 100,000 threshold for the first time during the Fall 2021 admissions cycle. Without more seats to offer students (or, more accurately, dorms to house them), this increase in applications but steady state for enrollment capacity resulted in all-time low admit rates at many institutions. This trend, unfortunately, continued into the Fall 2022 admissions cycle. While application increases slowed at many schools, over-enrollment from the previous year - precipitated by the pandemic making it nearly impossible for enrollment leaders to predict how many admitted students would, in fact, enroll and attend their institutions - meant that there were once again a smaller number of available seats for sometimes very large applicant pools. Suddenly acceptance rates at schools like Northeastern, which had been 18% for the Fall 2021 dropped to just 7% for the Fall 2022.
Is it any wonder then, with anxiety around college admissions rising and students’ ability to fully explore their own academic and co-curricular interests limited by the pandemic, that students would feel more pressure than ever to ask colleges: Who do you want me to be? What are you looking for?
The problem with this, of course, is that many students will end up spending their entire Upper School experience - formative years of their life - contorting themselves into versions of who they think they should be instead of discovering who they truly are.
In the words of Grant Gosselin, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Boston College, “Students should spend their high school years participating in organizations and activities that bring them joy. It always saddens me when a student or parent asks which clubs or organizations they should join to increase their chances of admission to college. Living one's life simply to please others is never a good strategy for happiness and personal fulfillment. By exploring genuine, authentic interests as you move through high school, you'll learn a lot about yourself and will be best able to showcase your talents to colleges when the time comes.”
The reality is that the vast majority of colleges, even during this most recent admissions cycle, continue to accept more than half of the students who apply to their institutions. In fact, only 3% of four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. accept fewer than 30% of their applicants. But these stories and anxiety-ridden anecdotes about highly-selective admissions tend to consume the national narrative at a time when we need to be lowering the temperature for students and families for the sake of mental health, not raising it.
In truth, and as decision letters from colleges have stated for years, there will always be more qualified students in a given applicant pool than available seats. This means that for those pursuing highly-selective institutionswith acceptance rates in the single digits, you could ruthlessly pursue perfection - ace every test, take every AP course, lead every club at school - and still not be selected. Given that possibility, what makes more sense: cultivating an identity based on the perceived priorities of one institution (knowing those priorities could shift in any given cycle and without warning) or building an identity based on your genuine interests and talents? What if your dream school changes between 9th and 12th grade, as it almost inevitably will, and you realize you’ve spent your high school career contorting yourself into the perfect candidate for a school you’re no longer even interested in?
Although my own high school experience is now more than two decades behind me, I can still clearly remember the angst of course selection senior year, how overwhelmed I felt researching colleges with my Fiske Guide (there was no Scoir back then!) and how uncertain I was about the future. Should I declare a major in Political Science or go Undecided? Should I take an AP science course to show colleges my strength across the disciplines or instead double up in English and take that senior elective I’ve been eyeing since 9th grade? In the end, I took three AP courses in my strongest areas - English, Math and History - and loaded up on senior electives that fascinated me: Anatomy and Physiology with its dissection, American Literature with the transcendentalists whose names were part of the tapestry of my childhood in Massachusetts, and British Literature with striking characters like my personal heroine, the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet. My college application spoke of a small-town girl who saw theatre, Model UN Conferences and her AP English Literature syllabus as a way of exploring worlds and cultures completely unknown to her - places she longed to see and people she hoped to meet in college. My college essay talked about standing up with my MUN teammates in front of our local school board to fight to keep funding for our club when budget cuts threatened it. Would any of the 10 schools I applied to (an incredibly long list for the time in question) value my experiences and interests? I’m happy to say that seven out of 10 of them did, chiefly among them my alma mater, The George Washington University, which offered me a Presidential Scholarship to attend that I gladly accepted.
Now, two decades and two degrees later, I can say without hesitation that I have no regrets. I spent my high school years engaged in classroom discussions that captivated me, my hours after school with friends who shared my curiosity about the world and commitment to activism, and my summers working part-time jobs that taught me valuable lessons about the kind of person and colleague I did (and did not) want to be. I spent my college years meeting the people who would eventually become my mentors, my husband, and the honorary uncles and aunts to my children. I backpacked across 14 countries, published an undergraduate thesis, joined a sorority, interned for law firms, publishing houses and art galleries, graduated summa cum laude and ultimately found a career I love. These experiences laid the foundation of who I am today. What if I had just focused on those three schools that said “no” and spent my high school years trying to be whoever I thought they wanted? How much I would have missed.
While there are so many unpredictable elements and moments in the college admissions process, one thing has held true for time immemorial: the happiest students at the end are the ones that hold fast to who they are, who take the time in high school to join clubs and sign up for classes that will allow them to learn more about that person, and who apply to a variety of schools at all different levels of selectivity that will nurture their burgeoning academic and co-curricular interests.
So, as we enter our final days of the school year, I hope our students will spend their summers taking classes that expand their minds, engaging in service that builds their character, and pursuing interests that are meaningful to them. Because as Thyra L Briggs, VP for Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvey Mudd College, so aptly states, there are literally hundreds of colleges out there who want our young people and value them for exactly who they are right now. And in the end, aren’t those the places - the ones where our students will be admitted and celebrated for who they truly are - where we want them to be?