The Prestige Trap: Reframing College Admissions

The Prestige Trap

Prestigious institutions, research has found, are a far cry from ensuring a student’s long-term success and satisfaction. Their own efforts, it turns out, matter more. Thus, for a student to sacrifice her sanity and priorities at the altar of college admissions offices (notorious for arbitrary decisions between equally qualified applicants) is to negate her intrinsic self-worth – a process which the education system perpetuates, inadvertently or not. We consider this self-deprecation the central tragedy and challenge of the college admissions story. Unfortunately, it is a tragedy that occurs all-too-often in Marin County, where admission to a prestigious private college is seen as the summa, the culmination, of a process of preparation that begins in infancy.  

College: A Rite of Passage?

Applying to university, many of us believe, is a rite of passage. But, by whose design? Who is the architect of this ritual? It’s certainly not parents – they, more than anything, wish their sons and daughters didn’t agonize in the way they do, and are flabbergasted by the disparities between today’s college applications and their own. Nor is the government the designer: federal and state legislators, aside from collecting on loan interest, have steadily withdrawn from financing higher education for decades.

Are local community members the ones encouraging our students’ pursuit of prestige? Well, considering the fact that high schoolers spend their days being shuttled between AP classes, water polo practice and SAT tutoring (before collapsing from exhaustion), daily contact with their local community has plummeted. Even community volunteer work will eventually be tabulated hour-for-hour, in hopes of quantifying their human worth on the common app. Heck, daily contact with friends has even plummeted.

Then, are students themselves the framers of this process? Let’s think about it. Have they ever been allowed to make a real decision on their own? Do they decide which subjects to study, when academic requirements and standardized tests have been regimented since they could walk? Do they choose to make nonstop, vicious comparisons between themselves and their classmates, when GPA and test scores have cemented quantitative comparisons into their very worldview? Do they really feel that pursuing the arts is an option, plagued by notions of “starving artists,” and immersed in a consumerist dystopia where almost half of the graduates from the nation’s best schools begin their careers by turning money into more money (LINK: PRINCETON GRADUATES STUDY)? Has anyone ever encouraged them to pursue their dreams without assigning them homework in the same breath.

The Transition: Embracing Character Strengths and Inner Drive

Mark Twain quipped, “I never let education get in the way of my learning.” Regrettably, our students today are given no option.

So when the college search begins, our focus as consultants and mentors is straightforward: focus on what matters, and try not to compare yourself. Honor and develop your natural strengths, while learning to build real relationships, social intelligence and concrete skills. Remember Dr. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences? Our education system has effectively renounced all but the logical-mathematical and linguistic. In life, though, these other areas are not “ancillary” or “soft.” As frustrating as it is that high school fails so fully to communicate their importance, the transition to college is an opportunity to turn the tables.

When students realize that using their unique strengths to make real social contributions is their true (non-conditioned) desire, they discover that there are thousands of channels available to make that happen. They needn’t walk through renowned lecture halls or be courted by grandiose, manicured school tours. Rather, they need to reflect, first and foremost, on the impact they enjoy creating. From then on, it’s a matter of seeing education as a stepwise process: a bumpy but exhilarating journey, not a golden-ticket envelope from an admissions office.

Andrew Delman