Top tips for college application bliss


A preoccupation with lists and ranking?  I’m guilty.

In my defense, though, I’d like to say that I’m a product of my time.  

For me, as a kid growing up in Minnesota, I was hooked on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 — a window into a much hipper world on both coasts. I was a college freshman when David Letterman aired his first Top 10 list in 1985. By then, Dave was required viewing in college dorm rooms across the country.  

Then came the rise of the internet, and mobile, and suddenly it was so easy, so tempting to seek out palatable, easy-to-digest, simple, and “right now” ways to make sense of the world, to entertain myself.  

And now? Clickbait abounds—with listicles being the worst. As I write this, the top five headlines on Buzzfeed are:

  • 19 useful coffee products,
  • 21 pets with special needs that are adorable,
  • 36 ways to improve your skin,
  • 18 screenshots of people sharing obvious lies,
  • 27 Pinterest cooking fails.

What have we wrought, Gen X? (Oh, but that puppy wearing sunglasses was cute!)

Academic clickbait

And that brings us to the announcement two weeks ago, in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, of another year of record-setting competition for seats in American colleges and universities. And, another year of parents and students frantically trying to make sense of a landscape that feels increasingly fraught and difficult to navigate.  

Enter that alluring clickbait of academia: college rankings.  

There have been volumes written about the problem, but then every year we are bombarded with even more lists.  

US News might have been the first to make the business decision that college rankings grab eyeballs (and dollars), but the game now includes: WSJ/Times Higher Education, Niche, Forbes, Princeton Review, QS World University Rankings, Washington Monthly, College Consensus, WalletHub, Parchment, Unigo, College Prowler, Newsweek, and Money Magazine. The head spins.

Why care? It is just a fun diversion between ogling pictures of cooking fails, right?

If only.  

Too often, parents and students fall into a trap of giving these self-reported “junk-in, junk-out” rankings—which are essentially meaningless when you consider differing academic missions, resources, student populations, etc., not to mention whether they are actually the right fit for any given, individual student—too much credence.  

This chase for the illusive, high-ranking, highly-selective school is contributing to a staggering epidemic amongst our kids.

The statistics are alarming. According to research compiled by the Education Advisory Board, 25% of teens currently meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, and there has been a 200% increase in suicide rates among teenage girls between 1999 and 2014. It is one thing to sense this as a parent dealing with a stressed out child, but quite another to see it when your job is to work with kids in a high-performing secondary school.  

Busting the myths

The sad part is that there is plenty of great commentary (backed by research) that rebuts the conventional wisdom that there is only a small list of colleges and universities worth attending. A favorite of our college counselors is Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.  

Research conducted by Denise Pope at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and shared in this Wall Street Journal piece, makes it clear that it is not where you go to college, but what you do in college.  

According to Pope, a study of more than 30,000 undergraduates showed no correlation between college selectivity and career success or life satisfaction. Taking class with teachers who made learning exciting; working with teachers who cared about their students; finding a mentor; working on a long-term project; participating in internships that applied classroom learning; being active in extracurricular activities—these were the pivotal learning moments that Pope’s undergraduates identified as contributing to their successful college experiences.

There is research indicating that members of traditionally underrepresented groups and first-generation students do benefit from attending highly-selective schools. But for everybody else, the power of college happens when you are in college – wherever you are in college.  

Our responsibility

At the end of it all, the irony is that we do have data that showcases the power of attending a secondary school that prepares students to take full advantage of their college experiences – whether they be at a selective or highly selective, in-state or out-of-state institution.  

In short, the responsibility for our students’ success in college lies, in large part, with us here at CA. We’ve captured our commitment to this responsibility in our current strategic vision:  

Cary Academy will create learning opportunities that are flexible, personalized, and relevant. We will cultivate self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions to the world.  

Hallmarks of a CA experience—experiential learning, committed faculty, extracurricular engagements, opportunities to apply learning in real-life scenarios—all harken back to those that Pope identified in her research as pivotal to a successful college experience. 

And, there are infinite such possibilities to thrive at any school, as long as students see the value in engagement beyond the “traditional classroom.” That’s why we put such stock in preparing students to identify, engage, and capitalize on learning opportunities in and out of the classroom that align with their strengths, skills, and goals—in CA parlance—to “own their learning.”  

During my recent State of the School address, I illustrated how students take advantage of engagement opportunities by highlighting “CA sparks” from a group of recent graduates. While their personal journeys were all unique, each took advantage of the myriad ways students have to stretch and grow in high school — from online classes, to independent study, to travel abroad, to academic clubs and activities, to competitive athletics. In the end, each “owned their learning” at Cary Academy — and are thriving in college as a result.  

In addition to programmatic approaches, we’re also tackling transcript reform to make sure that we are adequately capturing and reflecting these meaningful learning engagements to college admissions officers. To that end, we are a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), an effort by independent schools to break the mold and showcase deeper, more personalized learning to colleges.

Changing the frame

But, beyond program and transcript reform, it is imperative that we change mindsets and tamp down the untenable mania around college rankings and highly selective colleges.  

The research is clear – and we must act to change the narrative. Unless we do, we will continue to perpetuate the myth that the only path to happiness and success is getting into a college with a sub-10% admit rate.  

And that simply is not the case.  

In our fall survey of graduates since 2000 (our first graduating class), 85% of alumni currently out of college reported being satisfied or highly satisfied with their profession (on a five-point Likert scale). Remarkably, more than 93% reported being satisfied or highly satisfied with their quality of life. This is against the backdrop that most of these young people did not attend colleges with a sub-10% admit rate. In fact, in the last three years we have sent graduates to nearly 100 different colleges and universities.

That information, unfortunately, doesn’t generate the same attention as “The top 10 tricks to get into the Ivy League.”  

Instead, I’ll leave you all with this: The Top 10 Things Graduates Can Learn from David Letterman.