Advice on What Really Matters in the College Process

Each year the whole college process just gets more intimidating as ever more scholars throw their applications into America’s top colleges and universities. Acceptance rates now hover around 5 percent at the most elite colleges. Many applicants, as always, are specifically admitted for special skill sets or attributes such as athletics, diversity, alumni connection, or development promise. The remaining slots go to the geniuses.

The resources brought to bear into this process are astounding: The love, care, devotion, worry, anxiety, and dollars of the parents; the hard study and work of the seniors themselves; the relentless counsel, guidance, advice, and intervention of the School’s college counseling staff—for those few schools privileged enough to offer this kind of help; the support, encouragement, and letters of recommendation from the faculty and coaches; and the army of profiteers enlisted by the willing and able—private counselors; essay coaches; SAT and ACT special prep coaches with their vacation, weekend, and weeknight boot camps and test prep lockdowns.

Lost to the mists are the good old days before the advent of the common application, college rankings, and the Internet—when you could fill out the application (no rough drafts necessary, thank you very much), snail-mail it in, and wait for the results. Looking back to when I applied to colleges, before the Civil War, there was a general sense of pride about just going to college. Peers supported each other (at least as far as I can remember), and we were happy for our friends who got good news. Today, the pressure to go to college is greater than ever, and yes, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for that good old well-rounded, hard-working generalist to be accepted at the top colleges and universities.

So what to do? This is a tough question. If going to an elite college is your primary ambition in life, then I guess your job is to make yourself so special that they have to have you. This might mean an entire youth spent honing your athletic skill for one specific sport: a dicey play at best, given the high propensity for injury and burnout despite your wondrous natural athleticism. The second approach is to spend all your waking time in a lab, concomitantly pursuing a Westinghouse or Intel Science grant and award. This will give you lustrous appeal assuming your grades and scores match your achievement. Or, if you are not in this single-minded, one-passion kind of pursuit, you can spend all of your free time taking the hardest courses, getting all As, studying incessantly for standardized tests, and then making your mark in the leadership venues thereby demonstrating your energy, ambition, drive, good heart, and appeal. But, alas, despite all you take on in this fashion, this last approach is no guarantee of success. You are just one more ambitious good student in a sea of the same.

So there is something wrong with all of this, isn’t there?

Here is my real advice, however horribly clichéd: work hard, do good, and light the fires of your own genuine curiosity. The more you really want to learn and know, the more powerful you become. The colleges are tired of seeing burned-out, highly stressed high school kids who matriculate and then implode or explode. If you can cultivate your own native curiosity and drive about learning and growing; if you can find your passion and interest regardless of what the colleges are going to think; if you can take on the mantle of real scholarship rather than cram for the exam just to look good, you will actually be the kind of student colleges really want: one is who is more interested in the question “What am I learning?” than “What is my grade?” Then you are the real thing—not someone just trying to look good.

You also become free. Free to do your best because you want to learn; free to be comfortable in your own skin to be who you are; free to build your best self. Free to enjoy college rather than survive it.

And here is the next most important thing:

America’s colleges and universities are the best in the world. Going to a big name might open doors for you initially, but it is all up to you in the long run. You are better off focusing on being the best person you can be, going to the best college for you that you can get into regardless of its rank, and showing by example that you are trustworthy, dependable, and hardworking. Doors will open for you and good things will happen.

Your success in life is about who you are, not where you go to college.

Michael K. Mulligan is the Head of The Thacher School in Ojai, California. A graduate of Middlebury College, The Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he has taught, coached, and counseled teens for 38 years.

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post November 12, 2015.

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