What Students Might Not Believe about College Admissions

When I was in high school, the college admissions process felt like the most important and stressful thing in the world. 

My school was considered “high achievement” and took pride in being ranked in the “top 10 high schools in California.” As students, it felt like we were constantly judged by how many AP classes we took and what our SAT scores were. It felt like school was meant to be a competition to get the best grades and be involved in the most impressive extracurriculars. It felt like getting into the biggest name college was the most important event in our lives. If we didn’t get it “right,” nothing after would ever be right.

As a parent and faculty educator at Challenge Success, I hear from teachers, students, and parents that the pressure to get into college has only ramped up over the past 30 years. One student told us, “Our grades are what make up our future, and if you don’t get good grades you won’t get into a good college, and you won’t get a good job, and will lead a miserable life.”

I feel such empathy for our kids these days. Our high schools so often mirror the values we promote in American society: that worthiness and belonging are attached to achievement. In essence, we’re asking our kids to compete for scarce grades, scarce leadership positions, and scarce admissions slots, all so they can feel worthy of love. And that is constantly reinforced by parents, peers, and school. 

The college admissions process is the climax of this. Our students feel their worthiness is judged by where they are accepted. I felt it as a high schooler, and so many of our kids feel it even more intensely today.

All of this, whether we want to admit it or not, is causing emotional harm. The message we collectively send our kids is that if they go to a highly selective college, we will value them more, and they will have a better shot at a happy life. 

Our research does not back that up. 

As we discuss in our white paper, A Fit Over Rankings, college selectivity is not a reliable predictor of student learning, future job satisfaction, overall well-being, or (with narrow exceptions) lifetime income. 

In essence, as we say in our workshop, it’s the kid, not the college they go to, that determines success. What I wish I could tell every aspiring college kid in America is: 

Despite the prevalent messaging out there, your choice of college won’t determine your life. This is true, despite what you might hear from your peers, the media, parents, teachers, and even your own fears. College is an important step. But it’s not going to make you, and it’s not going to break you. Everything is going to be OK, no matter where you go. Wherever you go, you’re going to learn, get opportunities, and meet interesting people. When you become an adult and look back, you’ll see that how you used college was more important to your success, happiness, and life satisfaction than where you went to college.” 

Right now, for many high school juniors and seniors, college admissions feel like the most important thing in their life. It’s our job as the adults in our kids’ lives to let them know: “Your worthiness is not based on the college you go to. Or whether you go to college at all.”

And they won’t fully believe us. But that’s our job: to lovingly and consistently keep telling them that. 

These messages about achievement and narrow definitions of success as markers of personal worthiness make it harder for our kids to choose a college that is a good fit for them over a more prestigious school. 

Now, in my 40s, I spend very little time thinking about where I went to college.  Almost no one I meet asks where I went. I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. As the adults in our children’s lives, our job is to provide the comfort and perspective that adulthood affords. It’s a long life and where you go to college will neither make you nor break you.

This is an opportunity to tell them to practice the things they will have to do as adults: make choices that are right for them, embrace dreams, AND accept disappointment. It’s a chance to practice not chasing the status and approval of others (including their parents). It’s a chance to find the things that engage them, challenge them, and motivate them to find the path that was meant for them, not the one meant for anyone else. 

We adults have to have the maturity to believe it too. We have to stop thinking that our children’s choice of college says something about our own success in raising them or about our status or worthiness as a family.  Just as important, we need to stop perpetuating the cycle of judging others’ worthiness by their achievements or external displays of success. As child trauma psychiatrist Dr. Archana Basu says, “We all are fundamentally not just touching children’s lives, but each other. We live within relationships and communities.” By becoming more aware of the biases and assumptions embedded in how we talk to our kids about college, we have more freedom to create what we and our communities truly want to be as a society. And that’s the real work, the internal change that transforms us, our kids, and our future.

Douglas Tsoi, J.D., is a Parent and Faculty Educator for Challenge Success. Douglas has had a variety of careers, being a lawyer, schoolteacher, and government sustainability officer. He also founded two schools for adult learners: Portland Underground Grad School and School of Financial Freedom. Douglas’s specialties include curriculum development, classroom engagement, and online learning. He’s passionate about helping people develop resilience and a love of learning throughout their lives.

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