Managing College Expectations
By Peter Van Buskirk on December 04, 2019
As they enter the college admission process, most students hold tight to “dream” schools that they believe would be ideal fits for them. Few, however, truly question why they want to attend their “dream” schools, nor have they come to understand what a good college “fit” really looks like. This article is meant to differentiate between a “dream” school and one that fits—truly makes sense for the student—while giving students and parents actionable advice for developing productive college lists.
The conversation starts as so many do.
“I see Harvard is on your college list. Why do you want to go to Harvard?”
“Well, it’s an Ivy League school!,” the 17-year-old responded enthusiastically and without hesitation.
“Yes, that’s true. So, why do you want to go to Harvard?” the questioning continued.
“It’s a top-ranked college, you know,” the student offers assuredly.
“Sure, but why do you want to go to Harvard?”
“It’s a great school!” Excited exasperation begins to set in.
Still not satisfied, the questioner persists, “So, why do you want to go to Harvard?
Exchanges like this about colleges (take your pick!) take place routinely between students and their parents/advisors. The point of the questioning was not to disparage the place, in this case Harvard, or diminish its educational value as a potential landing place for the student. Rather, it was to push the student to a more substantive articulation of his interest in applying to Harvard. It turned out that he was more in love with the idea of applying to Harvard—and acquiring the reputation that comes with the name—than he was with any real sense of how the undergraduate experience at Harvard might best serve his needs.
And he’s not alone.
Assessing the "Dream" School Reality
Long before any applications are filed, students (and their parents) can be heard telling anyone who will lend an ear where they want to go to college. In seemingly mindless fashion, plans emerge and “dream” schools become bigger than life. Students proudly wear the colleges’ colors while their parents tuck away car stickers for that day when acceptance letters are in hand.
Indeed, the college admission process is a fertile playground for the imagination. Fueled by aspirations of attending the “best” or “top” colleges—terms that are, on the surface, highly subjective and very limiting—students often come into the process with unwavering loyalties to foreign notions. Such musings, however, are akin to the playful “what if…” speculation associated with winning the lottery.
The College Admission Process is Similar to the Lottery
Distasteful as it might seem, the “lottery” is an apt metaphor for the college admission process at highly selective institutions. With probabilities of admission ranging from 50% to 5%—or less—such places are faced with having to make fine distinctions between superb candidates. The students who gain admission at the 5% (admit) colleges are very, very good—and very, very lucky!
Nonetheless, students like the young man referenced above continue to chase the “holy grail” of college admission, seemingly impervious to the low probabilities, just to see if they can get in. In fact, many subscribe to the (bad) logic that applying to multiple colleges with similar levels of selectivity will improve their chances of gaining admission to at least one of them.
This approach to college planning only suppresses the realization of more appropriate opportunities for the student while needlessly contributing to the absurdly low admit rates at many colleges.
Keep it Real as You Assess College Options
Why Are You Applying to the Colleges on Your List?
As you engage in the college admission process, whether as a student or a parent, it is important to manage expectations—“to keep it real” as you assess college options. In particular, how is your sense of purpose revealed in your decision-making? Are you applying to a college because of its name/reputation, or because it presents the best synergy with your goals and learning style?
Is Gaining Admission is Realistic?
Perhaps most important, are your expectations in alignment with the realities of your credentials?
Sometimes, those expectations can be out of whack with reality. A 3.5 GPA is not likely to win the day for you in the admission process at Harvard—but dozens of other really good colleges will find your academic preparation to be just fine.
The key, then, is to proceed with an implicit sense of self and purpose.
- Why do you want to go to college?
- What do you want to accomplish during your college years?
- How would you define a “good education?”
As you grapple with these questions, your objectives will become clearer and you’ll begin to give definition to your priorities. You’ll also find it easier to respond to supplemental college essay prompts that are essentially asking, “Why do you want to come here?”
Is the College in Question Truly a Good "Fit?"
With your priorities in mind, focus on the factors that make sense to you as you assess your options. (Don’t let the eyewash of rankings and prestige get in the way of good decision-making!) The best college “fit” for you will be a place that:
- Offers an academic program that meets your needs,
- Provides a style of instruction that is consistent with the manner in which you like to engage in learning,
- Provides a level of rigor that is commensurate with your ability and preparation,
- Reveals a sense of community that feels like home,
- Values you for what you have to offer.
Pay particular attention to the last element of “fit.” The college that values you for what you have to offer will admit you, give you the financial assistance you need/want, and demonstrate clearly how it will invest in your success.
The Hierarchy of Importance
You can further calibrate your expectations by employing a “hierarchy of importance.” The hierarchy will include:
- items that are essential to your choice of a college—the “must haves,”
- those that are very important, and
- those that would be nice to have.
As you consider different aspects (distance from home, weather, strength of academic program, bumper sticker, etc.) of the colleges on your list, where do they fit on the hierarchy? Be careful not to let the “would be nice” factors drive your decision-making!
Keep Your List of Colleges to Eight
In the final analysis, you should not apply to any college for which you cannot comfortably articulate the synergy you recognize between yourself and the institution. Your applications at such colleges will be regarded as whimsical and quickly dismissed. Instead, focus on “fit” and, with an eye on your priorities, identify a short list of colleges that includes no more than eight. If you care about doing a good job—creating thematically cohesive presentations—with your applications, eight will be a lot of work!
Your list should include no more than three colleges where the probabilities of admission for you are less than 40%, three to four where the probabilities are between 40%-60%, and at least two where the probabilities are greater than 60%.
By focusing on “fit” and managing expectations in this manner, you will put your credentials into realistically competitive situations at colleges that represent a range of selectivity—maybe even places like Harvard. Be careful, though, not to overload on the low probability colleges! Playing the lottery multiple times does not measurably improve your chances of winning!