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march 2012

Perspectives

Life after George School: Competition for College Admission By Nancy Culleton Director of College Guidance If you’re a George School graduate, you came into the school through a selective admissions process. More than likely, there was competition for the spot you were offered. Did you ever wonder about that competition? Perhaps at least one applicant that George School rejected the year you were admitted had higher middle school grades or SSAT scores than you did. But we wanted you, and you came. Then, before you knew it, college application time arrived. Each year, hundreds of thousands of high-achieving seniors compete for acceptances to Elite University X (a fictional name, of course) and the handful of other institutions that turn down ten applicants for each one they admit. The bar will be high in terms of course selection, grades, and test scores, and while earning these credentials is necessary, it is rarely sufficient. When determining how to shape its incoming class, Elite University X considers myriad factors in addition to grades and standardized test scores. Some of these have to do with educational philosophy or social consciousness, others with practical concerns and institutional priorities. Some decisions are subjective and inscrutable to anyone outside the admissions office. The acceptance letter to Elite University X is a moving target, and the whole reason for taking aim can easily get lost in the stress of competition. I remember what I learned my first year of college, in Psychology 101. My classmates and I tracked the responses of lab rats to various patterns of reinforcement with food pellets. The rats’ distress level spiked when we awarded the pellets randomly. In other words, when they couldn’t count on receiving food in response to a specific behavior, their attempts to obtain it grew more frantic. Ambitious high school seniors aren’t rats, of course, but I do see a parallel. They ask, “Will this [insert SAT score, GPA, summer program, or college essay] get me into Elite University X?” and, to their distress, they get the answer, “It’s hard to tell.”

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Best sellers about the college admissions “rat race” portray these students scrambling to get every possible AP course, leadership position, athletic achievement, and community service activity onto their resumes, hoping it will be enough. Many become what Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT, once called “human doings rather than human beings.” Films such as, The Race to Nowhere claim that today’s high-achieving high school and college students are increasingly stressed and less resilient – reluctant to take risks, make mistakes, or think independently. In my world, fortunately, most students don’t present that profile. As a group, George School students abound with creativity and good will. Their altruism is achingly sincere. They celebrate one another’s triumphs and successes, and support each other during heartbreaks. They’re open-minded and ask questions. Colleges that accept our students value these qualities, along with their excellent academic preparation in International Baccalaureate and other challenging courses. Admission officers who visit George School often remark on what interesting questions they ask. Of course, our seniors are stressed by competing assignments and commitments. They have anxieties and sometimes even meltdowns, and they feel deeply the pain of rejection letters. But over the volcanic college admissions landscape they walk remarkably cheerfully. I think this has a lot to do with the kind of applicant who ends up at George School and the values we promulgate. In meeting for worship, students share their hopes and vulnerabilities in a climate of equality. We encourage them to reflect. Our classes and curriculum emphasize spirituality, social justice, and the arts; our athletic teams subscribe to the Friends Schools League philosophy. Our students for the most part like each other, enjoy exploring their differences, and seem comfortable in their individuality. They engage in consensus decision-making with peers and adults. They have high hopes for college, but grounded self-awareness helps most of them keep the college process in perspective.

Georgian, March 2012  

The Georgian is the official publication of George School.