Illumination Matters

May 25, 2015

I’ve had far more entertaining afternoons, but rarely ones more illuminating.

Sat in the park and read a little bit of this…  even a little was a lot.


Jim and I have both been more than happy to stick our fingers in our ears and hum lalalalalalalalala when faced with the daunting college application and admission process. For sure, until now, it’s been way too soon to start worrying about any of it. We keep saying, thank goodness we’re not there yet!  

But.. now, we’re there.

Peter’s been dabbling in ideas about college for years but, until now, we’ve just listened and not engaged in his [many] fantasies. In our travels and on a couple of random road trips, we’ve walked the campuses of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and listened to his imagination wander. He thinks big. Way big. Too big. But it didn’t matter. All ideas were fine, even the most grandiose, because it just wasn’t time to narrow anything down. I always figure it’s good for him to imagine himself going to these kinds of schools… even as we know the prospect of actually getting in to any of these is remote (by definition). Understanding the universe and range of possibilities is a good thing… context, perspective. I figure it’s a useful carrot.. way out there… keeps things real for him, reminds him what high school and classes and tests are (or can be) all about. The choice has always been his; he gets to decide if he wants to study that hard to get the grades necessary for those schools. He has to deal with the gap between wanting things and the willingness to work for them… a gap I think he’s coming to understand. He knows who gets those grades and I think he knows how they get them. I think he knows where his line of willingness is, though I also think he suffers a bit from a few academic delusions. Well, we’ll see. He’s a smart kid and will figure it out.


We’ve also walked the campuses of UC San Diego, San Francisco State and, of course, UC Davis.  So he understands education for the plebeians, too (kidding, of course). And there will be plenty more before this process is over.

(I never went on a college tour…  and did just fine with my choices.)

The good thing is, that in all his planning for his future (premature as it is), we’ve never had to say that he is better suited for one school or another, or that this or that one is out of reach, or that he’s meeting his objectives or not, studying enough or not, on the right path or not. Just like they said would happen, his peers are taking care of most of that. We listen, we are encouraging (“you can do anything you want to do”) but he’s got his own ideas about where he wants to go. But also, more and more, his parameters are falling into place based on what his friends are talking about and what his interests, grades and test scores dictate. His choices are becoming more Peter-appropriate.

I think he still thinks great schools are within reach. And maybe some are. To be seen.

But, reading Admission Matters, here’s what I learned about “the best” schools….

Elite does not define greatness. I learned that there is a substantial artificiality about the rankings of schools, and that the rankings have lead to a sense of inflated desirability. The schools that are US News’ top ranked schools are among the best and most prestigious schools, but this whole ranking game has created its own monster. One student says, “… no school can ever be as good as most people think they are.” Professionals in the admissions world are saying the system for ranking schools is dubious and flawed; the president of Stanford said, “… much about these rankings — particularly their specious formulas and spurious precision — is utterly misleading.”  About a hundred schools fall into the category of selective (further divided into ultra, super, highly and very selective), and these are, in fact, very hard to get into.  What’s happening is applicants think they have to narrow their universe to the top 100 schools, which increases the applicant pool for these schools and lowers the admission rate. Which makes them more selective… and prestigious. And more people apply thinking they’ll get the best eductation there.

But there are thousands of other schools that are totally great and in many cases better fits for the kid. You just have to get prestige out of your head. This will be a lot harder for Peter to do than for us.

There is so so much more to this. There’s 4-yr versus community college, there’s taking a gap year, there’s the financing. Never mind the test taking, essay writing, application..

Admission Matters seems like it’s going to be a good resource. At nearly 400 pages, I hope so. It does a great job of describing the differences between the process us boomers went through, versus the process the kids of us boomers are going through (echo boomers). She says about us, forty and fifty years ago: “For the most part, the whole process was fairly low key. If students did their homework carefully before deciding where to apply, the outcome was usually predictable.” Now, it’s a national obsession.

Fascinating. And more than a bummer.

Lots of choices, lots of process ahead.

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