Ah, Springtime!

Mar 22, 2009

Spring has come, and the thoughts of many of us — well, those of us with teenage children of a certain age — turn to the letters (or e-mails) that will shortly be arriving from colleges. Soon, at cocktail parties throughout the land, we will hear the animated, high-pitched chirping of parents, relating anecdotes of superteens they know of who received those dreaded thin envelopes in spite of being captain of the state champion quidditch team, receiving the Nobel Prize in robotics, and scoring 1600 (well, 2400, these days) on their SATs.

As a parent, over the years I have been hearing — and worrying — about the conventional wisdom that it is increasingly “impossible” for kids to get into top colleges. On the face of it, the CW is credible: at the top-rated (rated, of course, by the CW) colleges, the percentage of applicants accepted has dropped into the single digits. But have things really changed that much? Consider:
  • The number of 18-year-olds in the U.S. increased by 9.6% from April 2000 to November 2008, or about 1% per year.
  • The number of spots in the freshman classes at, say, the 100 top-rated colleges has almost certainly at least stayed constant, and perhaps even increased slightly.
  • High school graduates are not getting smarter or more talented. This is, of course, the personal opinion of someone who was in school, uhhh, let’s just say a while ago, but this opinion of the American education system is shared by talk-show pundits on both sides of the political aisle — the big difference in their views centers around why we are getting those results.
  • It continues to be true that it is only possible to attend one college at a time. Even the superteens of today can’t violate the laws of physics.

So, if we “do the math,” compared to a decade ago we have roughly the same number of high school seniors (OK, OK, maybe 10% more) chasing roughly the same number of spots in college freshman classes. This doesn’t sound so bad. Is there really a problem, or is all this just mythology and urban legends?

Well, obviously there’s a problem, since both students and parents are stressing out about the experience, and this seems to have gotten worse over time. But given the immutable math described above, here’s some additional perspective:
  • The number of colleges the average student is applying to is increasing dramatically. When applications at colleges are skyrocketing (especially at the top-rated colleges) and the number of applicants isn’t, there is no other explanation.
  • Admissions departments are experiencing the same stress. With this many applicants, it’s hard to look at each applicant as closely.
  • College applicants are tactically better-prepared. More and more kids understand the importance of advanced placement (AP) courses. And college counseling is getting more focus at both public and private schools — and private consultants who advise on writing and strategizing applications have become a growth industry.
  • Tactics don’t make you a fundamentally better person. More kids taking courses designated as AP, or spending more time writing college essays doesn’t make them more talented, any more than you can make kids smarter by handing out more ”A”s, or more diplomas.
  • “Playing the game” is necessary. It’s too bad that kids need to take as many AP courses as they can handle, and work harder to prep for the SATs, and polish and polish their application essays, because kids should get to be kids. But times change – there was, after all, a time when SATs weren’t a requirement for a college application.

What the math says to me is that the college prospects of a student of a given skill/talent level haven’t changed that much over the last few years, in spite of the dire and depressing stories we hear, provided we bear in mind:

The odds of getting into the right college have lengthened, even though the odds of getting into a right college haven’t changed much. With this many applications, chance plays more of a role.
You need to apply to enough colleges. Again, those pesky laws of chance at work.
You have to “play the game.” It’s a pain, but it’s not the end of the world. As I think through this chain, I feel better and a little less worried, and I hope you do, too.

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