The Hidden Perils of Applying to ‘Reach’ Colleges

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With the arrival of summer, the long-awaited college application process is becoming real for rising seniors. They’re visiting campuses, thinking of essay topics, and, of course, honing their college lists.

For all the smart, personal choices that students will make, cosmetic notions of reputation, rank, and the like will lure many students. Famous ultra-selective colleges that figure prominently in students’, and parents’, daydreams will receive tens of thousands of applications. Many will come from students who are just “taking a shot.”

The combination of social pressures, readily accessible online applications, and faux-egalitarian marketing pitches from colleges makes it easy for thousands of students with no apparent distinctions – other than, of course, being good, smart kids – to pin hopes and dreams on schools with bathymetric admission rates: 12 percent, 9 percent, 4.69 percent.

Students who are serious about applying to ultra-selective schools need to affirmatively articulate – first to themselves, then to the colleges – reasons why schools should want to welcome them. Even so, no one gets in to ultra-selective without a little luck. “Reach” schools are reaches for everyone.

But there are reaches, and there are reaches.

The Anxiety of Selectivity
An additional application is a trivial investment of time and money. So what’s wrong with “taking a shot”? Rationally, nothing. But the college application process isn’t always rational.

As a college counselor, I’ll never tell a student that he can’t apply to a certain school. And yet, whenever a student who insists on applying to ultra-selective colleges in the absence of compelling reasons and promises says she’s going to be super-chill about it, I invariably feel the clench of frustration. Human nature dictates that exactly zero percent of people are capable of being “super-chill” when a reward of mythological proportions appears to be within reach.

A college application is not a one-time event. It’s a long, multi-month process, lasting from that first glimmer of ambition, to the submission of the application, the moment of notification, and, finally, the moment of enrollment. That allows plenty of time for passing notions to turn into hopes and dreams. It allows plenty of time for those hopes to turn into anxieties and distractions. And it can cause hopeful applicants to subconsciously denigrate, and therefore be disappointed by, the schools to which they actually are admitted.

Emotions aside, there’s an important reason not to “take a shot”: a throwaway application to some school in Cambridge, Palo Alto, or central New Jersey might – indirectly but palpably – undermine applicants’ chances at and affinity for schools where the student will truly thrive.

School Choice and Self-Awareness
When a solid but otherwise undistinguished student blindly files an application to Harvard or wherever, she isn’t merely setting herself up for disappointment. In “taking the shot,” she’s demonstrating that she may not know herself all that well. She may not understand what she’s learned and not learned. She may not understand how her talents, be they subtle or estimable, fit into the grand scheme of things. She may not really know what Harvard entails. She might not even know why she wants to go to college.

The best way for students to liberate themselves from the constraints of rankings and reputation is to conduct extensive research and pair it with deep soul-searching. The more a student knows himself, the better his choices will be. And the better his essays will be, the more enthusiastic he’ll be about a prospective major or career, the more prudent his choice of prospective schools will be, and, importantly, the more he’ll enjoy and benefit from all the colleges on his list, regardless of which one he attends.

Students should interrogate themselves for each college they put on the list: Will I like this school? Will it like me? How will I fit into the school’s academic and social life? What do I offer that will appeal to this school? What do I want to accomplish by attending this school? Is a school’s reputation accurate and well earned? Do I really like it, or am I applying because of the name or because my parents want me to? What schools am I ignoring?

These are tough questions. They don’t always yield clear answers. Regardless, rarely do those questions, if asked and considered genuinely, result in the answer “Harvard.”

Swinging & Missing
If students don’t know themselves well enough to know that they’re not going to get into an unreachable school, then they may not know themselves well enough to get into a school they can get into. The time, emotion, and mental energy a student spends on an application that is 99 percent hopeless would be better spent on turning a (well-suited) reach application with a 10 percent chance of success into one with a 20, 30 or even 50 percent chance.

Here’s a crude sports analogy: A Little Leaguer who tries to hit only home runs, is not only going to strike out every time. He’s also never going to learn how to hit ground-ball singles.

Students who develop realistic, hopefully upbeat, approaches to their college careers will invariably do better in the fleeting process of applying. They will get more offers and have richer experiences in college than those who focus on prestige at the expense of self-reflection. The student who pushes rankings out of her mind and focuses on who she is, what kind of experience she wants, and what intellectual and personal assets she brings to college will make smarter choices and be more successful no matter where she goes – even, and especially, if she ends up at a coveted ultra-reach.

Should students dream? Of course they should. But, as I’ve written before, dreams should never depend on a specific school. And they certainly should not depend on some crude cultural definition of “success.” They should depend on a great experience, a great education, and a bright future. Students can find all of this at many, many schools.

Better for students to keep a firm grip on their applications, and on themselves, than to try to hang on by their fingertips.

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