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It's actually not broken: What needs to change in US admissions (& you're implicated)

None of this is a surprise. Humans have always tried to beat the system, trying to find an easy way in (or out) of a difficult process. (Think Lance Armstrong.) Rich and entitled humans have always tried to buy their way into (or out of) a meritocity. (Think our President.) None of this is new. None of this is shocking. All of it is wrong, of course. Ditto for the college admissions bribery case going on right now.

Yet, those of you who say that the process is rigged, fixed, corrupt or broken are wrong. These pathetic, rotten souls who are trying to game the system (and for whom justice will be served) are not exposing what a flawed system we have. They have exposed what clearly needs to be fixed. This was bound to happen and will probably happen again in some form considering such complex, holistic, multi-faceted and long process. There are simply many links along the chain that can be manipulated. But, again, this is part of the definition of a holistic process. The same process that is, I believe, the only one in the world that offers a young adult the first experience in her life to really discover who she is, champion that, and discover a place (that’s college) where she will be supported, developed and thrive. Of course that is if she goes through it ethically and genuinely.

And, most do. And we can and should be helping them to get there. This is where we can come in and together to fix those links that are in need of repair. And, in doing so, these changes can help us develop this meaningful process into an even stronger one with outcomes that will develop our youth into more independent, open-minded, thoughtful and confident young adults. And happy people. Here’s what needs to be done by all of us:

  1. Stop using the terms “top tier”, “elite”. It’s obnoxious, inaccurate, and teaches kids and parents that there are castes, when in reality life is not about where you went to university (and if it is you’re pathetic and haven’t managed to amount to more than that) but instead about you being a passionate, interesting, hard-working, articulate, open-minded and happy human being. That’s hireable. That makes good friendships. Your college name does not. (And if it does, it sounds like a lousy place to work or to be friends with.) The more we collectively eschew these notions of “top tier” and “elite university” the closer we get to students and parents looking beyond brand, potentially relieving the frenzy (and loopholes). (And, in terms of "outcomes" studies show that there is no "benefit" for the privileged to attend that more selective university. It's more hubris that's at the core.)

  2. Obliterate, destroy, render non-existent the SAT, ACT, Subject Tests. They serve *no* purpose. The whole point of holistic admissions is to really “get to know” the applicant; a test score for which you pay loads of money to take and prepare for and is done in one or two sittings (once you’ve done three you’ve really lost sight and perspective) simply cannot and does not add much if anything to that huge application file. Make these obsolete and save parents and kids the time, money, anxiety and fear that goes along with it. Test companies will have to find something else to do.

  3. Start asking questions. Of the young adults around you. I don’t care if you’re a parent, teacher, neighbor, friend, uncle, postman: when you’re with an adolescent ask him questions. Stop with the “Where do you want to go to school?” or “What do you want to be?” These questions only imply to kids that they should know. They shouldn't. (And if they do, ask them why that school or why that career? Most often they don’t know.) Ask young adults what excites them. What kind of people motivate them? What are they curious about? What would they do to change the world if they could and how would they do it? I wonder if the kids whose parents bribed coaches to make them look like rowing stars ever had these types of conversations with their kids. You’ll be surprised what you learn...and what the young adult starts to learn about herself just by pondering these questions. (Yes, this relates then to college environments that will or will not suit them and moves us forward beyond just brand name and into more depth of what a college can specifically do for you.)

  4. Be a responsible parent/mentor/adult. Your actions, words and opinions have immeasurable influence.

  5. Give guidance. Here’s where I believe responsible college coaching is imperative and my hope is that it can reach all socio-economic levels (although paying 1.5$ million seems like irresponsible “coaching” to me...sometimes a price tag is just too high to justify what’s being sold). This can be formal (by way of college counseling or coaching young adults through the next stage of their lives post-high school) or informal by engaging young adults in your life in truly genuine questions about them, their interests, their strengths. The more we can help young adults recognise their own unique strengths (and not force them on them...what was a parent thinking making their child into a polo player when she’d never played before…), the more they will accept themselves (and not try to be someone they are not) and learn to champion who they are. This brings happiness and fulfilment. It’s tied to the holistic admissions process.

  6. Stop saying “it’s not fair”. Sure, if someone's breaking the law it’s not fair. Yet, a holistic admissions process teaches us that life is not fair but that we give it our best and most genuine shot. Colleges are doing a good job overall--no other country’s higher ed system is taking such a dramatic and unified approach, for instance, to try to level the playing field, focusing on first-generation and minority students. Hell yes, a lot more work needs to be done. But, US colleges are leading the charge on this and genuinely doing good work.

  7. Stay holistic. Don’t ever think that a non-holistic process is better for our young adults and youth. Yes, it makes the process less black-and-white, more subjective and therefore potentially “less fair”. It mimics life. The alternative? Selecting students based on a test, scores or not asking about who they are in the application process. Australia, for instance, chooses most of its students based on grades only. Personality, character and interests don’t matter. For a young adult I think it’s hugely important that their potential college knows who they are, and at least makes an attempt to do so. Fit matters and has a direct impact on the student’s well-being and future. Holistic admissions must stay.

  8. Preparing young adults for failure. And, again, we have life mimicking the application process. Young adults have to learn how to accept and process failure. Teaching them otherwise is irresponsible. Any young adult I have met who has dealt with and processed failure is more open-minded, more of a risk-taker, is more humble and knows herself better than she who has been shielded from failure. Give me a co-worker, friend, mentor, colleague who has experienced failure any day--they are more open-minded, creative, humble, flexible and realistic.

Who’s to blame? Many, but ultimately it boils down to this: a process exists that suits the very nature and foundation of higher education in the country. It's open-ended, holistic, subjective and non-scientific. It begs the student to learn who she is and show that, to be proud, humble, open, and reflective. There's no other process like it and while it has its flaws we're losing sight of the benefit it can play on our young adults because of some 50 rotten players. Time to move this forward.

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