Don’t Do Anything that Can Kill You

How do you even decide to go to college or not? and,

Is the admissions process a good one?

By Scott White (Montclair High School)

Does it really matter in life where one goes to college? Yes and no. Late adolescence is an important time in one’s life, a time to try out new personalities and ways of thinking.  Psychologist Erik Erikson called it a psycho-social moratorium, a time when you try out for who you want to be without the same consequence you might see later in life.  As long as students follow my axiom:  “Don’t do anything that can kill you,” there is little one can do that would have permanent consequences.  College is a time when one should be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and opinions and with people with a similar degree of intellectual curiosity.  That, for almost all students, can occur at hundreds of colleges.

Many students feel that they can only succeed in life if they attend one of the 23 colleges that both admit fewer than 50% of their students and have average SAT scores over 1900.  I hear repeatedly that this will have some magical impact on a student’s future career.  My experience, as one who has worked in the field, hired others and interned in the personnel offices of some of the world’s largest corporations, is that this is simply not true.  It may have an impact in some very limited situations.  However, in virtually every other case, employers want to see what you have done in previous jobs, where you went to graduate school and what skills and talents you bring to the table.  A similar case regards the belief that the “contacts” one makes at these elite colleges will open doors.  You may have heard of or read that some political appointee was a college friend of the governor or president, but this is a rare occurrence.   I ask you to look into your personal experience and think of examples where attending one college instead of another had a profound impact on someone’s life or career.  I doubt you will find instances where this was true.

College Admission “By the Numbers” [1]

Everything you read in newspapers and magazines or hear on TV or radio about college admission would lead you to believe that it is almost impossible to get admitted to college unless you’re super strong academically, have high test scores, have wealthy and/or famous parents, or have more “game” than anyone else around. This is not so. Let’s take a look at some numbers:

3600    There are about 3600 two and four-year colleges in theUS

1600    About 1600 of these are two-year colleges. Virtually all (with the exception of a literal hand full) are Open Admission, which means that they admit anyone who holds a high school diploma.

2000    That leaves about 2000 four-year colleges. Roughly 300-400 of these are Open Admission, meaning that when combined with two-year colleges, anyone who graduates from high school has at least 2000 colleges willing to offer them admission. A few hundred more admit more than 95% of those who apply.

135      The general public tends to regard “selective” admission to mean that a college admits fewer than 50% of those who apply. Colleges don’t look at it that way, and call themselves selective as long as they don’t admit EVERYONE who applies. Only about 135 colleges actually admit fewer than 50% of their applicants.

50        The 135 figure doesn’t take into account ACADEMIC expectations, just what percent of total applicants are admitted. If we look at colleges that admit fewer than 50% of their applicants AND who have freshman SAT averages of 1250 or higher (on a 1600 scale), the number of colleges drops to 50.

24        The media tends to concentrate on looking at admission to the “best-elite-toughest-choosiest” colleges in the country, measured by acceptance rates and the academic profiles of freshmen. This tends to narrow the scope of vision to colleges that admit fewer than 25% of those who apply and that report freshman SAT averages of 1250 or above. This leaves only about 24 colleges.

Given the large number of excellent colleges and universities that do not fall within these three “elite” groups, selectivity alone is not an accurate measure of quality. The reality is that there are more and better college options available to students now than at any other time in our history. Though ever more costly from an admissions perspective, higher education is more accessible to a wider range of people than ever before.

Admitting less than 10% of the students who apply should not be a source of pride but embarrassment. 

When there are multiple sections of the same course with random distributions of students, sometimes there are teachers who, year after year, have substantially higher student failure
rates than the other teachers.  These teachers almost always reply that they are merely maintaining higher standards.  But you notice that there are other teachers that seem to keep up high standards with a significantly lower number of failures.  One cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is not merely the students who are failing but that the teacher is failing the students, both in the literal and figurative sense.  And so it is with the outrageously low admit rates “achieved” by the most selective colleges.  Admitting less than 10% of the students who apply should not be a source of pride but embarrassment.  Selectivity measured by popularity rather than the quality of the incoming class or the experience of the undergraduate education is clearly something that rewards failure over success.  The method used by rankings and the media to determine the top of the heap exacerbates this trend.

A true success in college admissions would be a very high admit rate along with a high quality class.  How does one do that?  University of Chicago has done that for years by putting essay questions that discourage those who are not erudite or intellectual from applying.

There is an alternate philosophy, that of making the application relatively easy to complete in order to find that “diamond in the rough”, that kid in a rural Midwestern state, who is relatively unsophisticated but truly brilliant; who could, but never would, answer the questions on the Chicago application.  But to find that one kid by encouraging 100 otherwise inadmissible applicants to apply is simply abusive.   Many in the media have decried the Common Application as the cause of this trend of increasing ‘ghost’ applications.  I have to admit that I was taken aback originally when I heard that U. Chicago, the college that prided itself on having the “uncommon application”, was jumping on the bandwagon.  But then I realized that they were just making the data entry simpler and keeping the complexity where it should be. Criticizing the students or the Common Application for the increasing number of applications coming into colleges is a red herring.   If the colleges, the media and the rankers truly accepted the reality that an increasingly lower admit rate is really a failure of the admissions process and took genuine steps to address it, the trend would change.

But doing so would take integrity, concern for students and a genuine desire to move to a healthier process.  I do not believe that either the media or most of the colleges with these low admit rates have the stomach for this. What could they do to achieve this?  How about denying more kids early decision or, as Northwestern does, only have two ED decisions, admit or deny?  How about requiring more thoughtful and complex essays?  How about simply returning applications and application fees of clearly unrealistic applicants?  How about more insight into the process of admissions, such as the rating sheets used?  How about going to truly rolling admissions?  The time when many in the Ivy League were announcing their decisions, 5:59 pm on May 1, was more like the announcement of the American Idol winners than the results of a thoughtful process.


Scott White is the Director of Guidance of Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey. He received his bachelors from Swarthmore and a Masters in Education from Harvard. He blogs at White’s World ( This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming e-book on college admissions.

[1] © “By the Numbers”, Edward T. Custard, College Masters

Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

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