College admissions: What’s really important?

Laura and I talk a lot about what success means, and what our individual students should be looking for in a college. It may surprise you to know that though Laura’s an Ivy League grad, we rarely try to nudge a student in that direction. Instead, we’re mostly concerned about helping students get accepted to the colleges that will allow them to learn the things that are most important to them and to grow as individuals.

That’s why we’re encouraged to see the Washington Post following Brennan Barnard, a college admissions counselor at a top-notch private college prep school in New Hampshire. Barnard caused a bit of a stir when he suggested last month that the college admissions process looks too much like the Hunger Games. Yesterday, he discussed the Colleges That Change Lives list and what students should really be looking for when they make their educational decisions.

We consider one of our most important jobs in this college prep game to be helping our students figure out what they want out of college. Sure, we’ll prepare them for the SAT. But the first thing we tell them is that the SAT isn’t the be-all and end-all. A high school junior who wants to go into social work or filmmaking doesn’t need a 1600 score on the SAT–she needs a good-enough SAT score along with experiences and activities that show her passion for helping people, or a film portfolio that demonstrates her skill in visual storytelling. Likewise, someone interested in engineering should shoot for a good-enough score (especially on the math sections) and spend his extra time working on robotics, coding, or building things. We’ve even suggested to students that the name (and the cost) of their undergraduate institution doesn’t matter nearly as much as its ability to get them positioned for a competitive graduate program.

As for the meaning of success–well, that depends on the person. We’re convinced, though, that a successful college experience is one that teaches a student to think independently, prepares him or her for meaningful work, and feeds a passion that already exists. And for that, there’s no such thing as one size fits all.

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