I wrote a few days ago about college seniors or graduates who find themselves without job offers. There is an even worse situation to be in, though: think of high school seniors who want to go to college but aren't getting admitted anywhere. The New York Times has been running a blog written by high school students about the college admission process, and last week a Texas student with straight As and a ranking of sixth in his class wrote about getting wait-listed or rejected everywhere, with the exception of UT Austin which offered him a deferred admission in the Spring of 2011, although not in the business college - his first choice. He is putting on a brave face, but this is clearly not a good situation to be in.
Commenters on the NYT blog have made much of the fact that the student did not seem to have any safety schools (or maybe what he viewed as safety schools was regarded as reach schools for everyone else - he applied to UT Austin, Rice, the University of Virginia, UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, Stanford and Princeton.) I think that says a lot about his strong belief that his credentials - "Advanced Placement scholar, four-year varsity athlete" - warranted admission into some of the schools above. If some college seniors hold out for the perfect job, why would high school students apply to schools they don't want to attend? Of course, few of them thought the choice would come down to a gap year or more last-minute applications. But if the student uses his gap year wisely, he might draw attention of some top schools next year. I can't remember the name of the recruiter who once told me he always asked for examples of failure when he interviewed students, because you don't want to discover first-hand that someone cannot handle setbacks.
What struck me most was an anonymous comment (Comment #9), by someone who writes she/he was in a similar situation four years ago ("valedictorian, impressive extracurriculars") and clearly has been unhappy with his/her decision of attending one of his/her safety schools ("nothing can make it a good fit, and I’ve regretted coming ever since.") The commenter sounded dejected, as if he/she had been deprived of that great experience college was supposed to be and would feel the sorrow for years to come. ("I thought about taking a gap year, but... my life was suddenly full of people who felt like I’d already let them down... Transfer options for my dream schools were very limited for my class year–all of them accepted record low numbers–and I never got in despite trying.")
For some reason, that commenter's disappointment at his/her college years, which were supposed to be such a defining part of his life, reminded me of (some of) the first-year students I work with in the Fall through the evoLUtion program - a Lehigh seminar series for freshmen. This year, the students had to write essays about how they viewed themselves and what they expected of Lehigh, or something along those lines (no it wasn't my idea - the Office of the First-Year Experience came up with the assignment). I cannot begin to tell you how many students, who did not know each other, came up with the line that college is supposed to be the best four years of their life, with that exact wording over and over again. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I find that line aggravating. If you haven't, I'll give you a second to think about why.
Still thinking? Here is why: students who enter university with the innocuous idea that college is going to be the best four years of their life go on to graduate with the idea that the best years of their life are now behind them. Frankly, that is just sad. Twenty-two-year-olds nowadays have about sixty more years to live. Spending six decades believing that their life went downhill from the day they got their degree is nobody's idea of a good time. (I am convinced this happens a lot more often than what people let on.) I tell the freshmen they should hope every year is going to be better than the previous one, forever!
I don't miss college at all. I certainly don't think college has been the best four years of my life. I do think the following years have been more challenging, because you have to face the real world after the bubble that college is and you can't just coast by with big announcements about what you plan to do later - you have to actually do it - but those post-college years have also been a lot more rewarding. Seen from afar now, I remember college as this place where I waited for my real life to begin, with apologies to Colin Hay (since I lived in Paris back then, the waiting was very enjoyable, I have to admit); some people just never get over the happy anticipation. Given how much high school students love to repeat that cliche of college-as-the-best-four-years-of-your-life, and how much their parents want them to attend a good school despite the odds and the intense competition, I am not surprised that high school students take college rejection so harshly - and that some who do get admitted proceed to do as little work as possible to make up for the lost teenage years they spent in SAT prep classes or resume-padding activities, trying to gain college admission.
As for the other student bloggers on the NYT blog, they have been writing extensively about getting rejected. One girl gives the standard pep talk: "so many high school seniors today, myself unfortunately included, put so much weight and validation in Ivy League schools... And I think it’s ridiculous. At the end of the day, you can be just as successful going to a non-Ivy League colleges or university as you would be going to Harvard... college, like high school, really is what you make of it", but then she can't resist pointing out that she "did get into one Ivy - Cornell." Another one makes an attempt at dark humor: "Since I’ve put most of my rejections behind me, I can focus on the brighter side of life, like all my unfinished homework or cleaning out my closet." All these blog posts leave me vaguely depressed for their authors, although they try to remain cheerful - their writings appear in the Times, after all. Maybe an admissions officer out there will move them off the wait list after reading their post.
The French system of classes preparatoires and grandes ecoles requires steel nerves because written and oral exams determine which grandes ecoles you get to attend (and then your job opportunities and the salary you can claim for years to come). You don't have any extra-curriculars or other "soft stuff" to help you out. On the other hand, students take the exams with very clear ideas of who has a good shot at the top schools such as Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole des Mines de Paris or Ecole Centrale de Paris because of the extensive training they go through. If someone crumbles under pressure during the Polytechnique exams, he can probably make it up during the Centrale Paris exams. The hardest part of the US admissions system is that some students seem to lack the faintest idea whether they have a chance or not at some of their reach schools, thus allowing themselves to dream they might get in; besides, schools enjoy saying they are selective, and improving the selectivity ratio if you plan on admitting the same number of students as before can only be done by increasing the number of applications. This all creates a vicious circle that does not seem close to being broken.