Unconventional Guidance For College Admissions: “Be Honest”

I have spent most of my three-decade career working with teenagers and young adults who come from low-income families, including those who are homeless and runaways.

I occasionally get involved with a young person who is not from that demographic. This was the case when a few years ago I encountered a young man, a friend-of-the-family connection, who was a senior in high school and in the midst of trying to decide where to apply to college.

This young man was attending a private high school and had done well academically, a B-plus, A-minus student, with respectable SAT scores. He played varsity sports and participated in a service trip to a Third World country.

I could see he had an impressive high school resume, one that would probably gain him admission into one of the more competitive post-secondary institutions of higher learning.

But he was being encouraged by family members to apply to one of the top five universities in the US. They were doing this because of their connections there; in fact, one family member had even served as a trustee at this university. It looked very likely that if he applied, he’d get in — not based on his record in high school, but based on his last name.

I had a chance to sit down with this young man in late November of his senior year, just as he was about to apply formally. We talked about this university, and I asked him what he liked about it, and what he thought he was looking for in an education.

Then I asked him, “Who is the smartest student in your class?” He named a young man, and I asked what he was like. His response was what I expected — close to a 4.0 GPA, near-perfect SAT’s, class president, head of the National Honor Society. And then I asked, “Is he applying to this university too?” It turned out he was.

“Do you realize that as smart as he is, and as impressive as his credentials may be, he may very well be turned down by the admission office there? I know that university, and it is unbelievably competitive. And if that happens, and you are accepted, what will you say to him if he asks, ‘I don’t understand. How did you get in?’ What will you say to him?”

He paused and thought for a moment, then answered, “My family got me in?”

I looked at him and said, “Right. Because of your last name.”

And I walked away.

And he later decided not to apply to that school.

And he instead applied to several very good but not excellent colleges, got into them all, picked one, and spent all four years there. I am told he did very well, even met the love of his life and married her after graduation, and now has a very successful career in which he is thriving.

There is one thing I neglected to mention which is important. When this episode was unfolding, when he was trying to decide where to apply to college, I would run the scenario by others, and almost universally people told me I was wrong, I was giving him poor advice, that “this is the way the world works…you have to use your connections where you can, and if family connections can get him into a better school than his high school record on its own could so be it, he should do it.”

I can only recall one person who agreed with me, who felt that using connections to get into a school for which this young man did not really qualify was setting him up for academic failure, and that, “You’re teaching him a valuable lesson, that it’s more important to achieve things in life through your own efforts rather than through what your last name can do for you.”

The practice of “legacy admissions” is alive and well in many universities, in particular, the elite ones. I think it is a disgrace that this continues; in my view it serves only to widen the income and achievement gap in this country.

That being said, while universities deal with modifying or eliminating the legacy practice (or not), I would encourage parents to dissuade their children from taking advantage of their last name when it comes to college admission. Or anything else for that matter.

They should encourage their children to do what my young friend did: take stock of their character and decide, “Do I want to achieve things in life based on what I can do? Or on my last name?”

This young man made the right choice. I was and still am proud of him. And I am glad I did not listen to those who believed I was giving him poor advice.

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Originally published at www.parent.co on November 6, 2015.

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