In my last post I shared an email from a mom whose is concerned that her family makes too much money to qualify for financial aid at schools on her son’s list. If you missed the post, here it is:
I had intended to write a followup post that focused on the finances – and I will do that in the next post – but I veered in a different direction today. I have to confess that I experienced a visceral reaction to the mom’s email when she shared the schools on the teenager’s list – CalTech, MIT and Stanford.
All these schools are huddled near the top of US News & World Report’s college rankings. In fact, the three institutions are currently tied for 5th place in the prestigious national university category.
This touches upon one of my biggest pet peeves about the college process: bright students from affluent families often are determined to fish in the same pond. Too many upper-middle class and rich students seem to believe that if they are highly intelligent that they should aim for the same two or three dozen schools.
Rejecting Nearly Everyone
Schools like MIT, CalTech and Stanford, however, reject nearly all applicants including valedictorians and test takers who can boast of perfect ACT and SAT scores. There are, after all, roughly 37,000 high schools in this country, which means that there are at least that many valedictorians. And, of course, in reaction to the college admission arms race, plenty of schools are bestowing valedictorian honors to multiple students.
I checked the stats for CalTech, MIT and Stanford and found that they accepted a grand total of 4,846 students during the latest available admission season. These are miserable odds even for valedictorians and yet spurned applicants are often stunned when they get rejected.
Just last week during a college presentation that I gave in Orange County, CA (a magnet for rich, smart, stressed-out teenagers), a mom mentioned that a brilliant girl she knew recently got rejected from all 12 institutions that she applied to. Apparently, the high school counselor had told the girl that she was smart enough to get into Ivy League schools so she applied to a bunch.
If this young woman had constructed a solid list of schools that represented great academic fits – and applied to elite schools sparingly - she would have enjoyed lots of wonderful choices. Instead, the girl’s only offer came from the University of California, Merced. She didn’t even apply to that school, but since she was rejected from the premier UC campuses, she was given this opportunity as a consolation prize.
The Race to Nowhere Crowd
It’s no wonder that students get stressed out when they severely restrict the universe of schools that they will consider. Students, along with their parents, who take their cues from the college rankings, are typically the ones who are also stressing out about the documentary The Race to Nowhere.
This over-hyped documentary makes it appear that colleges and universities across the country are rejecting the vast majority of applicants; teenagers who have sacrificed their teenage years by spending their waking hours taking obscene numbers of AP classes and who have devoted the rest of their time to extracurriculars that they think will wow the admission gods at places like Harvard and Amherst.
Here is a post that I wrote about this movie:
Who Is and Isn’t Worried
I really do think this elite-college fixation is largely confined to private and public high schools where the student body is largely affluent. This spring when I was back in my home town of St. Louis, I had a conversation with a mother whose children attend a prestigious private high school – Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School (MICDS). She told me about all the elite colleges that had recently rejected students she knew. I asked her what percentage of teenagers that she thought get accepted into their first-choice schools across the country.
Ten percent?” she replied.
I laughed, which prompted someone else in the room to blurt out, “Five percent.”
Actually, I laughed because the mom was so far off. The true figure, according to the latest annual UCLA survey of freshman nationwide, is 76%! And here’s another fact that some will find amazing: Only 2% of colleges and universities reject more than 75% of their applicants.
Where You Won’t Find As Much Stress
While I was back home, I gave a talk at my high school – Incarnate Word Academy. This private girl’s school (St. Louis has an extremely high number of Catholic single-sex high schools) doesn’t attract a lot of wealthy students and it’s not located in a fashionable part of town. (I grew up a half block from the school.) When I asked the parents in the audience how many were stressed at the prospects of their girls getting into good colleges and universities, very few raised their hand.
I think the reaction of parents at my alma mater is more common among families across the country. Most of the students at my alma mater will end up attending state universities within Missouri that aren’t that selective. What these families are worried about is paying the tab, not getting into schools that impress U.S. News.
When I get Incarnate’s yearly newsletter that contains the collegiate choices of the graduates it makes me sad that few girls are attending schools beyond public universities in Missouri or some regional Catholic universities. Some of these girls should be aiming higher.
In contrast, the students at the most prestigious high schools in St. Louis and elsewhere should end their fixation with the same prestigious universities. They are often aiming too high when they apply to schools (Aiming high isn’t the right term because that implies that the most elite schools are always the best institutions for undergrads which I don’t believe.).
I wish more students, regardless of their financial wherewithal, would do a much better job of developing solid lists of schools. And that means casting a wider net!
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution: A Guide to Everyone Looking For the Right School at the Right Price.