Keep It Honest, Keep It Real

Were he alive today, Edvard Munch could visit virtually any high school and randomly pick a senior to model for his famous 1893 painting "The Scream." Most students are already likely to be in the terrified pose Munch depicted. He also could as easily have selected the parents of a college-bound senior. With no compunction, almost everyone in a senior's life (including those having nothing to do with the admissions process) asks inappropriately personal questions—"What is your GPA? What are your SAT or ACT scores? Do you need financial aid? Where are you applying?"—while offering unsolicited and sometimes unwelcome advice. It is no wonder the whole family is ready to scream. The quest to get into college feels overwhelming.

Students' lives are jammed with complicated course schedules, extracurricular commitments and résumé-building summers. When the actual application process begins, everyone suffers from information overload, as well as hyperbole. Catalogs inevitably show trees green or bursting with fall colors. Northern New England and the upper Midwest do include several winter months on the academic calendar, but classes still seem to be mostly outdoors. Everyone has perfect hair, blemish-free skin and perfect teeth.

Pick the correct school and you will, of course, become a Rhodes scholar, Nobel Prize winner, president/ CEO/titan of Industry, managing partner of a major law firm, biomedical wizard—or perhaps, if you plan it just right, all of the above. The college's aura will shield you from everything bad. Conversely, if you don't get into your first choice, life will cease. At least, that's how it seems when you are in the midst of it.

Equilibrium is possible, but it takes fundamental honesty and energy from all parties. Colleges shouldn't oversell, and students need to be realistic about their options based on their grades, test scores, interests and goals. The school that is best for you is the one that suits your talents and work style. Honesty for students also means resisting pressure to make bad choices. Some purchase "successful" application essays online. They may undermine their candidacies because the essay submitted doesn't fit the person described in the rest of the application. I recall with particular pain reading the same essay from three candidates coming from three different countries. We traced that essay to a Web source boasting "Harvard-educated editors improve your college application essay to win admission." All three students were rejected.

Some wealthier families turn to the handful of high-priced independent college consultants who charge—and have clients apparently willing to pay—tens of thousands of dollars for the advice provided. Remarkably, they do this without evidence that the advice actually opens any doors at the most selective colleges. Is this consultancy presumed effective simply because it costs a lot?

For students, a pivotal first step toward control in the application process requires a look in the mirror and asking simply, "Where do I stand?" You may have heard that after a second date, but now it truly demands a self-critical, honest answer. Grades provide some clue to answering the question, but likely not enough. According to the College Board, the national mean GPA among SAT Reasoning Test takers during the 2006–07 academic year was 3.33. While the huge variety of grading systems make using this as a reasonable common standard impossible and ill-advised, it does make a general point. This national GPA continues to increase, meaning B+ is now "average."

Course selections signal to colleges a student's interest in, and capacity for, challenge as much as grades address performance in those courses. Making course choices early in high school is important to allow sequential schedules to play out to a student's academic favor in many areas. Parents can help push even if a student resists. If an incoming senior has missed geometry and advanced algebra or a first course in a lab science, it's hard to catch up.

Some students try to protect their GPAs by taking only three academic courses during the normal year, supplemented by a course or two during summer sessions. It's not a good strategy. A 4.0 GPA achieved with five academic courses during the normal year better reflects the workload we would expect at a college like Pomona than the same GPA achieved by taking three courses during the year supplemented by courses pursued during summer.

In some grade-inflated American high schools, a 4.0 weighted GPA may place a student in the bottom half of a class. To that student, it may seem a lot stronger. In another school not far away, a 3.0 may place a student in the top quarter of the class. Is one school more challenging than the other? Maybe. Maybe not. They may simply use grades differently, and admission staffs must sort through the local contexts. I recall reading a teacher recommendation from a school with tough grading. The teacher remarked that the student earned A-, a stunning achievement in that Jesuit school, where the teacher observed, "Only God is perfect. Only God could earn an A." I understood what that A- meant.

We examine grades along with a student's program of study and standardized testing. The picture of both performance and ability comes more finely into focus with more information. Add authentic personal statements, references from teachers and counselors, and a representation of special talents or an interview (where available), and the jigsaw puzzle comes together. It all matters and all must fit together to form a coherent picture of a real person.

As high schools move away from providing class rank to reduce competitive behavior among students, they may also deprive a student or the college to which she applied any solid context for the performance achieved. Students may over- or underestimate their abilities and capacities to compete well in a selective admissions process. Grade-distribution tables help, but some schools have moved to withhold even that information, or withhold a calculated GPA entirely. The high school may pre-emptively absolve itself of blame for anything going wrong with a candidacy, though it may also have obscured the truth of the performance. Admissions officers don't want to guess and may not be able to offer blanket benefit of the doubt.

As students narrow their list of colleges, they may better understand the values those colleges apply to the selection process. Students could be in a better position to address (not invent!) in their own applications those things the colleges seek to appreciate and understand. This isn't a game but a legitimate part of the process.

College web sites, publications and applications transmit a lot of information, some subtly and some plainly, yet students can miss cues because they haven't directly communicated with any single college until late in the process. Sometimes they read individual application instructions for the first time right on the deadline. They may have neglected to interview or visit the campus, which could shed light on a candidacy for the college while simultaneously providing the student with a fuller sense of the institution. When a student lives a mile away from our campus but never visited, interviewed or communicated prior to submitting the application, I wonder, why not?

Not all admission processes are as selective as the press would have us believe. For the class that entered in fall 2007, approximately 70 of the more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States offered admission to fewer than one third of their candidates. Admission rates describe raw numbers and percentages, but digging a few levels deeper into those figures may allow individual students to see where they fit in the statistics. The lower the overall admission rate, the more likely it is that grades and scores are not the point where a final admission decision will be made by admissions officers. Candidate pools at highly selective colleges tend to be self-selective and academic ability is almost a given. Everything matters, but what draws attention may be something unexpected.

One former Pomona student worked as a garbage collector on Long Island for a couple of summers rather than pursuing more-prestigious internships or travel. He earned much higher pay than his classmates did in their internships, and learned a lot about life from the work and his co-workers. Immediately after graduating from Pomona, he got a job as an investment banker. Was he admitted to fewer colleges or offered a lesser job because of his summer experience? Apparently not.

In the last few years, many students have routinely applied to more than a dozen schools, a huge increase from a decade ago when three to five was more common. This skews the process down the line—and ultimately hurts students. Application numbers rise (far more than population increases should suggest) and rates of admission drop, potentially stimulating even more applications the following year. Waiting lists grow and April notification may become May or June or July notification. As students submit more applications, they inevitably and perhaps necessarily may communicate less with each college where they submit an application and may dig less deeply into the information available that could help them target their real needs and interests.

Students and their families have a wealth of information available about colleges and the admission process, and should take advantage of the resources. Understanding your talents and interests while working to understand the academic structures and offerings of a college is a vital step. Gaining insight into the social fabrics, geographic and even political environments of colleges should help students think more clearly about their own interests as they align with realistic possibilities. It takes hard work and real thinking. No student should have to look at a handful of bad news in April because he didn't take the admission process seriously enough or had insufficiently developed his college list. And none should be left on May 1 with complete confusion and an inability to decide among multiple offers. In this case, homework is not busywork. It is time very well spent.