Life Lessons From the College Admissions Process

We have arrived at many high school parents' nightmare: five percent admission rates for colleges like Stanford and Harvard. Top public colleges like UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia are not much better either.
06/06/2016 01:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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We have arrived at many high school parents' nightmare: five percent admission rates for colleges like Stanford and Harvard. Top public colleges like UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia are not much better either. Many frustrated parents and applicants criticize the college application process as overly competitive and unfair. While unfortunate that there is not room for more valedictorians, perfect SAT scores and class presidents at these colleges, their criticism misses an important learning opportunity.

It is not getting any easier for our children. If we repudiate how difficult it is to get into Harvard, how do we encourage our children to launch their careers when it is even harder to land a job at Google or Southwest Airlines? Instead of fighting the college admissions process, lets embrace what it teaches us about succeeding in the face of fierce competition and position our children for success in applying to college and beyond.

The college application process calls on our children to do something that they will need to do repeatedly: add value. When selecting an incoming class, admissions officers look for the applicants who will add the most value to their college. Who adds the most value? In a sea of stellar applicants, the answer is athletes for sports teams, musicians for orchestras, researchers for labs, and leaders for student organizations.

Rather than doing as much as possible just to check off imaginary boxes for the college application process, our children should excel in areas that matter to them. Applicants that demonstrate a knack for creative writing, a keen interest in robotics, or a mean backhand on the Squash court earn admission. Your child's passion, skills, and excitement enable her to stand out in the application process by demonstrating what she will bring to that college. Encourage your child to follow her passions and excel in them.

But that is not enough. Thousands of passionate and talented applicants are still not getting in. This leads us to the next lesson: specialization leads to further success. There are close to 375,000 women playing high school soccer this year. That is a lot of competition for the 38,000 women's soccer spots at US colleges. For an applicant hoping to get recruited, soccer does not offer the best odds. On the other hand, there are just 4,200 high school women rowers and 7,800 college women crew spots. With such an unmet need for women rowers, applicants specializing in this niche sport offer more potential value to an admissions officer whose job is to ensure that her college's crew team has enough athletes. Even better for cost-conscious parents, many rowing clubs offer affordable competitive and recreational youth programs that run throughout the school year and summer.

Excelling in a niche field will not only insulate your child as an applicant in the college application process, but also later in life when she is competing for a job, with talented individuals and companies from all over the world. If your child is able to offer a skill that others cannot offer, or meet an unmet demand, she will continue to thrive well beyond college, which is exactly what we want for our kids when it comes to the college application process.

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Greg Kaplan is a college admissions strategist and author dedicated to empowering families to develop their children's skills, passions, and interests and market them as high value applicants in the college admissions process. For more information on college admissions consulting and an advice blog, visit his website.

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