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A New Response to College Rejections: Surrender

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It had to happen sooner or later.

Two years ago, colleges created waitlists that put more people on hold than Peggy the Customer Service Agent. A few people sighed, but no one really complained.

Last year, colleges ramped up the process of sending student acceptances by e-mail -- in the middle of the school day. Significantly less Calculus was taught for one day, but nothing more than that.

This year, things are different. This year, people are disillusioned.

As highly selective colleges report more record highs in applications, these same colleges are (naturally) reporting record lows in the percentage of students offered admission.

In the past, this news was met by students with a shrug and even a smile, as if they were saying "It's OK. Hey, who could get in with odds like that?" This year, fewer students are looking at it that way, and when you listen to what they are saying, it is a cause for concern.

They generally say something like this -- and this isn't hyperbole:

"This is unbelievable. I have a friend (neighbor, cousin) who applied to an Ivy League school with straight As and a 35 on the ACT. She wanted to volunteer at the local homeless shelter as a ninth grader, but there was no local homeless shelter -- so she started one. It now has a board of directors, a $50,000 budget funded by local donations, and it feeds and houses 100 people every night in the winter -- the same season she captained her school volleyball team to a second straight championship in a five-state super tournament and was a third-place finisher in a national science fair."

Students who raised these points in the past had very strong grades and test scores, but not near-perfect ones; there was usually enough of a gap between where they were and the pinnacle to give the colleges the benefit of the doubt.

The same was true with extracurricular activities. 80 hours of community service is well above the mean, and leads to important societal changes -- but there were always students who had a broader vision; did a little more; showed more innovation. That can no longer be said when students of profitable start-up tech companies and mega-volunteers are hearing no.

"She thought she was going to have to give up her position as CEO of the shelter when she went to college, but since each of the 12 selective schools she applied to denied -- denied -- her admission, she's going to the honors program at a state college, so she doesn't have to."

This is far from the shoulder shrug students gave to Fate in the past, and it's more than loss -- it's genuine disillusionment, a surrender which is echoed in a very common last line:

"What does it take to get into one of these schools?"

This is the largest cause for concern. Colleges seem poised to continue to solicit more applicants without increasing the number of admission offers, and students may continue to try and be all things to the admissions office in the hopes of getting an offer that will only become more coveted over time.

Still, the student response to this year's scantier yield of yeses is calling the value of work ethic, selflessness, and industry into question in a way not seen in previous years, and the cost of that reflection may soon be much higher than reassuring Suzie the honors college at State U is a pretty great education. This could turn out to be a life lesson that just isn't very pretty.

We all need to watch this very carefully.