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Yes, The College Admissions Process is Flawed. Here's What It Teaches Us About Life.

In my Princeton University college admissions essay, I wrote about this quote from Dan Millman’s book Way of the Peaceful Warrior: “Life has three rules: Paradox, Humor, and Change. Paradox: Life is a mystery; don't waste your time trying to figure it out. Humor: Keep a sense of humor, especially about yourself. It is a strength beyond all measure. Change: Know that nothing ever stays the same.”

Little did I realize at the time how perfectly this quote encapsulated the world of college admissions.

Over the past 10 years, I have worked with hundreds of families on the college admissions process. My work through the College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP) has been founded on filling in gaps in college readiness at local K-12 schools. However impactful my work has been, I am self-aware that I have been building a sturdy foundation on an ever-shifting landscape. When a federal or state policy modifies the system, we must pivot. When a college or university changes their admissions priorities, we must adapt. What works for one set of applicants one year will not necessarily work the next year.

Representing Princeton University at CSLAP's PSJA ISD Alumni College Fair

It can be difficult to be a realist in the world of college admissions. It is tempting to idealize the college application process as a rite of passage that enables tens of thousands of teenagers to achieve the American Dream through higher education. This vision affirms the power of education as the great equalizer, and it elevates colleges and universities as symbols of merit, status, and success.

But when we accept the fact that hard work is not enough to gain acceptance into many universities across the country, when we come to terms with the inequities that largely predetermine who goes to college, and when we realize college is not serving all students as it is currently structured --- we must reckon with reality in order to change the reality of college admissions.

However, people like me who work in this world understand that such a reckoning is not happening anytime soon. We understand our work is important, but also patchwork. We understand our guidance is invaluable, but also subjective to a degree.

Presenting on CSLAP at PSJA North High School

Yes, the college admissions system in the United States is flawed. The Varsity Blues affair illuminated the more scandalous aspects of how privileged families have exploited cracks in the system. But the system has been structured unfairly in other fundamental ways. Statistically, higher standardized test scores on the ACT and SAT are strongly correlated with higher family incomes. Legacy students and students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds gain acceptance into top-tier universities at a disproportionate rate.

Moreover, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban race-based affirmative action admissions practices is projected to significantly decrease the percentage of college students of color. Although most universities in the state of Texas have not considered race as part of their admissions practices, the recent Supreme Court ruling will leave a lasting impact on our burgeoning minority population. Even the “Top 10% Rule” is not the viable alternative advocates make it out to be; the state’s automatic admissions policy works as well as it does because of our state’s segregated student population.

On a more individual level, the mythos of becoming the “well-rounded applicant” leaves tens of thousands of students stumbling in the dark throughout their high school career. Students dedicate years of their lives pursuing activities they believe will make themselves more competitive applicants. Objectively, no student truly knows how much weight this service organization or that internship will have on their chances of admission. But, rightfully so, they join every organization and spearhead every initiative they can to demonstrate their diversity of involvement.

Occasionally, I will meet consultants who proclaim to have “insider knowledge” or “relationships with admissions staff.” Some might have formerly worked at an admissions office, suggesting they carry invaluable institutional knowledge few professionals have. Others transform a relatively simple process such as writing descriptions for the activities list into a months-long process, replete with flashy worksheets and academic terminology that suggests they have indeed grasped the “Theory of College Admissions.”

Frankly, it’s nearly all nonsense. Yes, a former admissions officer sharing what goes on “in the room where it happens” might provide valuable insights into that particular university’s practices, but we must recognize these insights are relevant to that specific institution at that point in time. College admissions is an evolving system, and every applicant pool varies along with the diversifying needs of each higher education institution.

Facilitating the CSLAP Empowerment Summit

Surely, there are evidenced-based practices and systemic patterns that many specialists take into account while formulizing their programs and services. But any person who claims to be an “expert” in this field is kidding you. Surely, people like me can expand opportunities, increase chances of admission, and mentor applicants to and through college. But there are no guarantees. There are only individuals adept enough to identify the cracks and guide others around them.

That being said, I wish more individuals working in all areas of the college admissions process would ground their practices in character development. We must be clear to students that flawed systems should not define their self-worth. If there is a single lesson to be learned from the college admissions process, it is that we cannot allow forces out of our control to dictate the quality of our lives.

I do not believe “everything happens for a reason.” Students who are rejected from their top choice universities will naturally feel not good enough, and they will believe they are settling for less. However, reframing the story around any college acceptance or rejection is crucial to forming a strong foundation for healthy identities not based on achievement or merit. We infuse meaning into the choices we make and the outcomes that shape our lives. We might not have power over our college admissions decisions, but we do have power over the decisions we make after the college admissions cycle.

On one level, we can analyze the myriad factors that a college must weigh and compare across thousands of different students and discuss how these factors do not reflect the worthiness of any given student. Such an approach will bore many teenagers. On another level, we can show students success stories from individuals who have attended a diverse range of colleges and even those who did not attend college. This approach shows students that life is not predetermined by forces out of our control, but rather by how we take advantage of the choices before us.

Final huddle at the 2014 CSLAP Summer Institute

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