The college application process can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be.
It’s easy to get lost in the deluge of college rankings reports telling you that only certain schools are good enough. There’s tremendous pressure to hire consultants and test prep tutors in order to gain or keep a competitive edge. There’s a mercenary calculation as to which and how many extracurricular activities to participate in, which classes to take (always the most advanced, even in subjects you don’t care for), and how much and what kind of community service to do. There’s an assumption that you need to ace every test, be the lead in the play, be the captain of the baseball team, and win every academic award. There are sensational stories of students applying to a dozen schools and getting rejected by all of them.
All of this pressure stems from a simple narrative that students have been told again and again: what college you attend determines how well you do in life. In short, the assumption is that it’s worth it to sacrifice — your free time, your health, your engagement in your learning, and your fun — if that means you can get into a “better” college, because that way you’ll make more money and live a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life. Or perhaps it’s the other side of the story that drives your stress level: if you fail to get into a “top” college, you’ll end up destitute and miserable.
As a former eighth grade English teacher, I observed that even my middle school students would stress out about college. Were they wrong to do so? Is all this stress warranted? Does where you go really determine your long-term success? Now I’m an educational researcher with Challenge Success, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. I’ve spent much of the last year reading and synthesizing research on higher education and college admissions in an effort to understand whether all the stress and hysteria around where you go is really worth it. I wanted to understand the rankings, what they mean and where they come from, and what relationship they have with long-term outcomes.
Here’s what I and my fellow researchers found:
- Traditional college rankings are problematic. They don’t tell the whole story of a college’s quality, and they imply a level of precision and objectivity that is exaggerated.
- Going to a selective school doesn’t equal future success. And vice versa, going to a non-selective school doesn’t equal failure, poverty, or misery.
- What you do in college matters way more than where you go. Whichever college you attend, it’s your engagement, not the name of the school, that matters.
What this means is that you don’t need to worry nearly so much about the name brand, ranking, or selectivity of where you get in. Find a place that’s a good fit. Yes, you’ve heard that before, but here’s what I think the word fit means: opportunity for engagement. Find a place where you’ll have opportunities to do things that are meaningful to you, where you feel like you can connect with your professors and peers, and where you can engage in long-term projects and extracurriculars that you enjoy (and choose to participate in for that reason alone). There are more than 4,500 accredited colleges in the United States. There are likely dozens you’ve never even heard of that would be a good fit for you and will provide the right meaningful opportunities for your engagement.
It’s totally reasonable to have no idea what you want to do or who you want to be at this stage, so don’t feel like you have to go to the ‘best’ school in a particular field of study. Instead, find a school that will support you in discovering what it is you want to do and who it is you want to be. Just like there are more colleges than you realize, there are more careers than you think. Most people don’t know what their career is going to be when they are in high school, nor do they follow a narrow, predictable path through life. They swerve, they fail, and they change directions. College isn’t about setting you up for an easy life, it’s about preparing you for the challenges that inevitably follow.
And, to reiterate, it’s not the college that makes the difference. It’s you. It’s what you do when you’re there, how much you study, the quality of your engagement in your learning and in the community, and the friendships and mentorships that you build. Wherever you attend, your education — and your preparation for the “real world” — is in your hands, not hidden behind the name of your college.
In short, my advice to students and families immersed in the college admissions process is to relax. Consider not signing up for that AP class in a subject you don’t care about. Don’t enroll in that Saturday SAT prep course, and use that time to do something you love instead, or use it to sleep (in fact, sleep more regardless; high schoolers need nine hours of sleep per night, but Challenge Success research suggests that most get less than seven, which can jeopardize mental and physical health). Practice engagement, well-being, and balance now, because those are the skills you’ll need in college and beyond.