Dear High School Seniors,
T.S. Eliot famously wrote that April is the cruelest month. Personally, I think it's March. You busted your tail last fall to do well in school and to get all of those college applications submitted, and you've spent months now waiting to hear back from your schools. And the time has finally come: March, the month when regular admission decision letters drop (traditionally - of course, since the Department of Justice sued the National Association for College Admission Counseling and forced the organization to withdraw important clauses regarding ethical admission practices, we are now seeing a "free-for-all" where the Ivy League decided this year to release their decision on or around April 6. That means students have less than a month to make their final decision - FYI, just because Harvard et.al. decided to extend their deposit deadline to May 6 doesn't mean that the remaining thousands of colleges in the U.S. can extend their deadlines, too! In other words, the Ivy League schools have, yet again, made a decision that benefits them instead of students at large). So get ready, students - buckle your seatbelts because this month is going to be quite a ride!
What do I mean by that? I mean that, in addition to the nervous energy you may experience every day when you check your admission portals online or the snail mail arriving to your home, you may also experience the dizzying highs of elation when you get that long-awaited "YES, you're admitted," as well as the abject lows of heartbreak when you read those words "We are unable to offer you admission at this time." And, as an adolescent, everything feels amplified.
Rejection may or may not be in the cards for you this March, but, no matter what happens, I truly wish all high seniors to remember one very important thing: college admission is NOT a meritocracy. Merriam-Webster defines "meritocracy" as the following: "a system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit." Ok, but what does that have to do with college admissions? My answer is EVERYTHING!
Here's the thing: the college admission system in the U.S. has never been about acknowledging and rewarding hard work and excellence. While the higher education system has grown and transformed over the centuries it has been in existence in the U.S., it just isn't designed to do this. How do I know? Because I've seen it happen over and over again, and it has certainly happened to me! Students who appear almost inhuman - they have perfect GPAs in the most rigorous curriculum with 1600s on their SATs and incredible accomplishments by the time they are 17 years old, accomplishments that some adults don't achieve EVER in their lifetime - are waitlisted and/or denied by schools EVERY YEAR. Did they do everything in their power to be an amazing candidate? Of course! Would they find success at that college/university? I have no doubt. But they don't get offered admission because IT'S NOT ABOUT THE STUDENT!!! Seriously, seniors, it's not about you!
So what IS it about? It's about complicated, sometimes mundane, sometimes seemingly silly institutional priorities that you have ZERO control over. Yes, that's right. You could have done absolutely everything "right" since you learned how to walk and you may still not be offered admission to "brand name" schools because the college admission system isn't about who deserves to go to their school. It's just not fair, and it never was meant to be fair. It's about enrollment managers hedging their bets on which students will be "the most likely" to send in their deposit and actually show up in the fall (that's called "yield protection"). It's about schools making sure that they can brag about their incoming first-year class being made up of X amount of students representing X states and X countries. It's about finding that academically competitive tuba player to be in your school's marching band because the current college senior who fills that role is graduating in the spring. Sometimes it's about raising a school's ranking in the U.S. News and World Report. Other times, it's just a lack of space - admission officers have to turn away students who would be wonderful additions to their campus community because there just aren't enough space available in that incoming class. And sometimes it's truly just plain luck.
But my point is that it's NOT YOU! You, my dear seniors, did nothing wrong! You are amazing human beings just as you are. SO please know that, if you don't get the answer that you had hoped for from an admission office, it's truly not your fault. You did the best you could during an incredibly stressful and often scary time, and I am proud of you. AND, if you created a balanced list with likely and target schools in addition to those reaches, chances are that you have choices awaiting you when it comes to where you will begin your college career. Try to see this as an opportunity to reframe your point of view: instead of feeling dejected about those denial letters, focus on those acceptance letters! Get excited about your future and channel that energy into making the best possible decision for yourself! You want to be sending in your deposit by May 1st to a school that thinks you're awesome and wants to welcome you into its community with open arms. Because those schools are out there, just waiting for your wonderful self to say "YES!" to them!
Maruta Z. Vitols is an independent educational consultant in the metro-Boston area. When not helping students achieve their dreams, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, exploring new places with her husband, and doing yoga.