‘Set aside time to explore other pursuits’
Applicants I worked with last year have completed their first semester of studies abroad. Most of them come back to talk about how eye-opening and enriching the experience has been. In a nutshell, the resources, exposure and peer interaction they have encountered over the past four to five months has far exceeded their expectations. What is even more wonderful is that this feedback comes from students at all caliber of institutions – from the Ivy league to the large pubic college to the ‘third tier’ private colleges. All of this happy news comes at a time when current applicants are agonizing over unexpected early admissions results, mid-term grades and SAT/ACT test results – will it all be good enough? Can I make it to my dream college? These are understandable worries for applicants and families, but it is also important to remember that aiming for the best college possible does not mean that something less is failure.
Recently Melissa Chen, a college admissions counselor from California published an article for the Huffington Post in which she says that she encourages students to spend less time trying to be perfect for colleges. Instead she claims that students should use the extra time they save on studies to explore other pursuits, get to know themselves and become truly interesting people in ways that guide their lives in a direction of success that is meaningful to them, not just to Colleges. While I always advocate that students create a strong foundation of academics and emphasize that school performance and testing create the base of a competitive application, I also acknowledge the truth of Chen’s claim that competitive students, with their eye on selective admissions “have literally maxed out on all numerical measures of comparison. And the vast majority still won’t get into their top choice schools.” So if we admit that being perfect isn’t enough, should a student really strive for perfection? It does give him/her the best chance, but without any guarantees is there a valid argument for permitting or even persuading students to abandon the goal of perfection?
Chen argues that “not being perfect is not a point against an applicant’s chances.” And indeed this is true, but what is the definition of not being perfect? Is it one B in 9th grade? Or is it 2 B’s and a C in 11th grade or low ICSE board marks surrounded by an otherwise perfect report card and strong SAT scores? I have seen relative success in all cases: In my first year of counseling students, I met a boy who had done “badly” in school (weak CBSE scores) but he managed to do reasonably well in SAT and wrote some nice essays about being inspired by out-of-the-classroom science work. He attended a highly ranked engineering college in the US where he has thrived. I’ve also met a lot of students who couldn’t crack the SAT or ACT but found amazing options at test optional colleges. Even students with less-than-perfect academics can make up for it with highly accomplished talent in music, sports or other pursuits and attend very good colleges, though not the most selective, for these students other colleges are ok. They are happy. And they are the ones who discover and grow the most in their new environments.
Chen’s is spot on when she says, “The problem with the all-out sprint to the Ivy League is that it makes so many students look the same.” To me, it is the sad that colleges in the USA are looking at academically strong Indian applicants and seeing a homogenous pool. I know our students have more to offer than this – some revolutionary thinkers, some innovative scientists or brilliant artists are all there among our best applicants. And most importantly, the students I meet who are well adjusted, successful and happy through the admissions process are those who know themselves, can express themselves in writing and don’t necessarily conform to what school, counselors and society expect of them. These are the most successful products of Indian education, whether they end up in the Ivy League or not.