Manage Expectations in the College Planning Process

Many students and parents fail to recognize the nature of the competition at selective colleges.


Expectations. Everyone has them. In fact, they are such a part of our daily lives that we rarely stop to think about how our expectations influence the choices we make. When we expect certain outcomes, we tend to think and act accordingly, as though those outcomes are certain to become reality.

This phenomenon is all too familiar in the college planning process. For many, going to the right college, not just any college, is a long held expectation. If not an end in itself, it is regarded as a means to a greater end. The implications are clear. Regarded as critical to leveraging desired outcomes, the choice of a college often holds greater significance than the fact of college attendance itself.

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Across the spectrum of credentials presented by more than 2 million college applicants each year, reasonable expectations regarding admissions competitiveness would project favorable outcomes for most at institutions that represent good fits for them.

The key word is "reasonable." Not surprisingly, many students (and their parents) fail to recognize or understand the nature of the competition they will encounter at selective institutions. As a result, their expectations exceed the likely outcomes. And at the end of the day, we are left with a reprise of last year's headlines about talented students who are not admitted to their target schools as elite institutions become even more selective.

Facing this reality isn't easy if you are a top student who has lived with the constant reminders that "smart, high-achieving students can go anywhere!" Lost in the shuffle is the fact that having the requisite credentials to compete for admission—being "qualified"—at selective colleges is not enough to secure admission in competitions that demand higher levels of distinction between great candidates. Selective college admissions is not an academic meritocracy—and it certainly isn't fair.

Finding happy—and appropriate—outcomes is truly a function of managing expectations. Having the "goods" academically simply puts you on the "competitive playing field" at a selective institution. It is not a guarantee of admission at places that are bound by increasingly complex admissions agendas that cater to special interest groups and students with unique talents, as well as agendas related to yield (who will show up if admitted?) and ability to pay.

The implications of institutional agendas are especially impactful for students who may require financial assistance. While colleges may award tens of millions of dollars in financial assistance, they are directing it strategically at the students whom they value most.

[Does "need-blind" admissions exist?]

It may be helpful, then, to view the pending application process as an attempt to acquire "invitations" rather than offers of admission at colleges of choice. Whereas the latter would play to the misguided notion that "all good students get the positive outcomes they deserve," the former reflects the reality of the competition—selective institutions are guided by values and priorities that are influenced by unseen internal agendas. Taken in this light, the "good news" letter for which you strive is truly an invitation to join an exclusive gathering.

As a prospective applicant, then, you need to be thoughtful, reasonable, and deliberate in your decision making. You are in a much stronger position to influence the outcomes than you might imagine—if you put yourself on "competitive playing fields" that make sense for you, because you will be valued for your potential contributions. Those schools are more likely to extend an invitation and provide the financial support you might need.

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