Early Admissions and Hasty Decisions
Given that many high school seniors now comfortably sit with their early admissions letters pasted to their foreheads, I wanted to offer my humble opinion on the notion of early admissions and early decisions at selective universities. I'm assuming that many of you reading this know exactly what the process is, and the fact that more and more students are applying early in their senior years to the schools of their choice. Statistically speaking, more students of incoming freshman classes are admitted during this early admissions wave, and usually, admissions offices persuasively explain the phenomenon as a function of the inexplicable (but consistent) volume of highly motivated, well-prepared, and slightly-above-average candidates flooding this earlier pool. What this means for everyone else is 1) if you don't have your act and GPA together by junior year of high school, you should probably apply during the "normal" season (to give yourself a chance to boost your less "motivated" GPA), and 2) it appears like another unfair advantage in a laundry list of reasons why the college admissions process is a) unfair, b) flawed, or c) both.
I should be one to talk. Twenty years ago, I was enjoying (well, that's an overstatement: I was homesick, had a "Rachel" haircut as a dude, and thought I was just another small fish in a huge, Ivy-laden pond) my first semester in the leafy confines of my first-choice college, the one to which I had applied early and been accepted nearly a year earlier. Therefore, I fully concede the hypocritical nature of the stance I now choose to take two decades later.
First, I had no godly idea where I was applying. That is to say, I knew where I wanted to apply early, but I had no sense of what the place could actually offer me, whether or not my academic interests would be best served there, or how brutal an experience it would be. In other words, I went through the motions of visiting choice colleges during my junior summer (Penn, Georgetown, Cal, Stanford, Brown, and Columbia, among a few others), but I wanted to go to one place, and one place alone. I didn't know if it was a good fit. I had no idea if I would be able to continue the activities I enjoyed in high school there. I didn't realize that I had absolutely no chance of playing on a college team beyond intramurals with a bunch of overweight, goggle-impaired nonathletes. (At the time, the Ivies were kind of an honorary Division I league, except for low-profile sports like rowing, squash, field hockey, and fencing. Now, they're still great at those sports but also manage to produce NFL-, WNBA-, or MLB-quality, Olympic-worthy, & nationally-recognized athletes.) I also hadn't researched enough to know how disconcerting it really was to attend a lecture filled with 800 other students and only meet in discussion sections with admittedly brilliant but overworked, underpaid graduate students. Professors at my campus were inaccessible celebrities: you wouldn't get any face-time with them unless you waded through office hours, usually scheduled to the brim weeks ahead.
Having contextualized my shameful lack of knowledge of the all-important "fit" of a student and school, I'm sure that current parents and high school students are much better prepared now than I was twenty-one years ago. At least, I hope so, because in the interim, things have only grown more competitive, more expensive, and more confusing.
Second, I didn't fully grasp the advantage of having a college counselor who expected you to not only go to college, but to do well there. Even though, in truth, I disliked my counselor a great deal because s/he told me I wouldn't get into the college I did in fact get into (and early), I do genuinely appreciate the work that college counselors afford their students, especially in untenable situations where, say, only two or three counselors minister to a graduating class of 500, many of whom cannot or choose not to attend college with good reason. Like a choice few, I was extremely spoiled because I attended a prep school loaded with talented counselors who each advised maybe 20 of us. They wouldn't automatically get you into college, as many people still believe happen at prep schools, by simply making a call (this ain't the 1920's anymore, thankfully), but they at least assessed your candidacy, offered you (and your parents, if they were interested) a list of safety schools, possible "50/50"'s, and long-shots. And, you began this process early in the fall of your junior year. So, we were prepared well in advance, and thus I still have nobody to blame but myself for choosing a college which ate me up like it did almost a thousand of my first-year classmates.
My point is that the advantages for some students have only exploded exponentially today. Not only do students at good schools (public or private) receive early and professional counseling at school, but they also have the potential financial or social capital to physically visit colleges, to take at least one preparatory course for the SAT I and II, or to interview with a local alumnus/a, a rare bonus for your application. More significantly, these versions of capital allow a student to apply early to the schools of their choices, when many other college-aspiring teenagers are still working summer jobs to help their families make ends meet, or helping to raise younger siblings or looking after elderly members of the extended family. Even if they had the money to enroll in a prep course, or visit Amherst and Smith on a weekend, and gather as many applications as possible (with their exorbitant fees), these students may still be at a disadvantage for the reasons I enumerated above (counseling, access, literal time).
Sure, many students - advantaged or not - wisely opt to wait until the regular deadlines and April decisions after they've made equally informed choices as the early birds: the playing field is presumably level. However, I think you get my drift: just as socioeconomic status serves as a better proxy and better indicator of admissibility than SAT scores do, such status logically (but not fairly) provides that precious access to resources like prep courses, summer college trips, and the like. In the worst cases, these students and their families pay handsomely and gain access to the type of application "experts" who are probably hacking this site as we speak. They "beef up" or "highlight" an applicant's "best" attributes, however strong or weak in reality, and they can "proof" college essays in creative ways. Of course, these are the bottom-feeders of the process, and, by contrast, I know many principled, heart-in-the-right-place, and appropriate application "experts," and they help all kinds of students, regardless of school, socioeconomic status, or ability to pay fees. In essence, these latter folks actually do help level the playing field - not completely, but getting there.
So, after what I've sketched here, should you and your parents give up and concede you're up against the bulwark of elites and the institutions that simply admit early and reproduce them on time? Nah. You're going to make it, and here's why.
First, I know a lot of the readers on the other side of your application: admissions directors, officers, professors, and counselors. These people are also principled, eternally hopeful, smart, and more than well aware of the "expert"-like shenanigans that take place out there. Do one or two bastards slip through the Ivy gates? Yes. I admit knowing a couple of them, and they're still bastards. But that's like 0.00001% of the number of applicants who apply every year. Admissions offices in the top-tier schools know when they have a doctored application before them: essays, recommendation letters, and grades don't quite add up (and not in any good way). So, lesson one: your applications are in good hands (esp. after they cleaned up that mess at MIT).
Second, I'll go back to the theme of this particular post. I ended up in a top-notch school, but for a while there, I wanted to transfer to my brother's alma mater because I just knew my college wasn't the right fit for me. I had done the work, yes, but I hadn't gone the extra yard of figuring out, for example, whether I would like a small, liberal-arts college better (I would have!), or, whether striking out for California gold, away from the East Coast, would have been a wiser choice (it would have, as I still dream of my Stanford acceptance and being an hour's flight from my parents). In the end, though, the college and I were just fine.
In that vein, then, if you're aiming high, well, aim high! But, if the early admissions letter doesn't bear good news, then perhaps the blessing in disguise is that you have more time to research the other places to which you applied - even, yes, your dreaded safeties. Ultimately, what do you want? Name recognition? I can tell you from experience: I can't staple my diploma to my forehead and walk around the city without someone punching me in the balls. I mean, c'mon, right? Or, are you looking for a challenging, sometimes hard as nails, sometimes thrilling, ever emotionally and intellectually engaging college experience? If yes, I can name 100 universities or colleges (just on the East Coast) which would fulfill that criteria. It's not about the school, or its name. Every one of them presents you with a ticket in this country (even in a depression) to do whatever the hell you want, especially in this day and age when the currency of some places has depreciated. Who do you think screwed up our economy? That's right: guys and gals who overpopulate the Harvard-Yale Game every November. Being an Ivy Leaguer, like being an investment banker, isn't such a disproportionate plus anymore, and employers from Manhattan to Mountain View to Milan know that your B.A. is just the beginning. It surely isn't the end-all, and be-all of who you are, or any true predictor of your potential in a given field. It's one stage in a long series of them, and hopefully, your college years won't be filled with regret about where you went, but only with the ear-to-ear grinning regret of why you couldn't stay any longer.
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