This is the time of year when the mainstream media is most likely to feature stories about college admission. What are the chances that in the next couple of weeks we will see all of these perennial archetypes?
- This is the most competitive college admissions year in history!
- A student got admitted to all eight Ivies!
- Students with straight-A averages were somehow wait-listed at their flagship state university!
Rarely does college admission produce genuine front-page news. That happened last week, however, when Fox News personality Laura Ingraham was forced to apologize -- grudgingly -- after multiple sponsors announced they would pull advertising from her show.
The sponsor boycott was in response to a tweet Ingraham sent out last Wednesday, linked to an article reporting that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student David Hogg, one of the leaders in the gun control movement started by survivors of the Feb. 14 shootings, had been rejected by four colleges to which he had applied. Ingraham seemed to mock Hogg over the rejections, describing him as “whining” about it. Hogg responded by calling on advertisers to boycott Ingraham’s show, and within 24 hours five sponsors had pulled advertising.
Ingraham’s tweet is the latest salvo in a campaign to attack and delegitimize the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who have tried to turn their tragedy and loss into activism and a crusade against gun violence. They have been accused of everything from being professional “crisis actors” to being naïve to being manipulated by the gun control lobby to being Hitler Youth to trying to profit from their 15 minutes of fame. The vehemence of the attacks suggests that the student-led movement may be hitting a nerve.
Attacking a student for his reaction to college rejections seems irrelevant, personal, out of line and just plain mean, and that’s magnified when the student in question is dealing with the trauma of a school shooting. It is not yet clear what the consequences will be for Ingraham, whose apology seemed to come across as “I’m sorry you were offended” rather than genuine remorse. In the past being offensive enough to lose sponsors has been a rite of passage for those hoping to join Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity in the pantheon of Fox News hosts. But over the weekend, the number of advertisers dropping support of Ingraham’s show multiplied, and she announced that she will take a weeklong “vacation” from the airwaves.
As fascinating as Fox News drama is, this column is more interested in the college admissions implications of the story. Hogg is one of thousands of high school seniors receiving disappointing news this spring. If we agree that going on Twitter to mock them for rejection and how they deal with it is not the proper response, what is?
The college admissions process represents the first time that many young people face rejection, where they may not get what they want or even deserve. As such, it is great preparation for adulthood.
As college counselors we walk a fine line between supporting our students in their dreams and making sure they understand the reality of the admissions process. Part of the reality is recognizing they may not get in.
There are schools where college counselors are not allowed to give students and parents a realistic assessment of chances for admission -- under the guise of being supportive. I must admit that I don’t understand that viewpoint, because it turns college counseling into cheerleading. It reflects a lack of trust in the student’s ability to handle the truth. And it delays, perhaps even increases, the disappointment that students and families experience when bad news comes.
I have always believed in “reality therapy,” that college counseling is about helping students not only to dream, but to plan. All through the college search process, I try to help my students and their parents understand the realities of college admission. I try to advise students based on data, understanding that today’s admission landscape is changing rapidly so that what was reasonable two years ago may no longer be.
That approach requires honesty and diplomacy. I worry that what I say may not be what is heard, and there is an art to providing a realistic assessment without being discouraging. One of my favorite lines is “I would love to be wrong about this.”
I also have come to realize that all of us -- students, parents and counselors -- deal with the college process on two levels, one intellectual and the other emotional. A student may know intellectually that a school is a reach and yet be invested emotionally in a way he or she doesn’t recognize, such that negative news hurts even though it is not unexpected.
That emotional level may mean that dealing with negative college news may become a kind of grieving process. I find that most students need a couple of days to work through the stages of grief after receiving disappointing college news. Most are resilient, but I worry that we will see more students in the future who haven’t been given the tools to deal with disappointment in a healthy way because they’ve never been allowed to face disappointment.
Complicating all of this is that the college admissions process can serve as a symbol, metaphor or stand-in for much larger issues than where one is going to college. Students can see college admission as an early day of judgment, where one’s worth is assessed. Parents may see where their children go to college as a metric for their success as parents. But college admissions disappointment does not equal personal failure. The student is the same person whether admitted or not.
That doesn’t even begin to address more fundamental philosophical issues that come into play in the college process. Is college about prestige or experience? Is admission to a hyperselective college or university a reflection of individual merit, of some merit and more than a little good luck, or that one has helped an institution meet its priorities?
That question circles back to Laura Ingraham. I have previously written about the fact that those who are admitted to the Ivies and comparably prestigious colleges and universities want to believe that they were admitted purely because of their superior merit and not because of their good fortune. Does Ingraham, who graduated from Dartmouth College, buy into that, consciously or unconsciously? Is that why she would tweet about the schools where David Hogg didn’t get admitted?
Like other seniors, Hogg now has the opportunity to make decisions about the next phase of his life. Will going to college help restore a sense of normalcy to him and his Douglas classmates, or is that only so likely, given what they have experienced? Is their crusade for an end to gun violence a higher calling that should be pursued now, delaying college? He is not my student, but I hope he will make the choice that is true to him.
At this time of year, I often tell students, “You have a right to be disappointed, but you shouldn’t be shocked.” That’s probably good advice for all of us.