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Three Reasons to Stop Treating College Admissions Like a Contest

It’s easy to play the contest game. The media continue to inundate us with college rankings, the record numbers of applications, and the increasing selectivity of highly selective schools. And many admissions articles use the word frenzy to describe the process. “Ack! How am I ever going to get in?” you start thinking. “I better take up another instrument/enroll in a weekend language immersion program/do more community service/play another sport/enter my photographs in a contest…” It’s an endless list, and while any of those choices in and of themselves can be good, jamming more activities into an already crowded schedule, and stressing out about becoming a “winner,” is not a great strategy (colleges’ number one criteria for admissions is the grades you get in college prep classes).

Here are three reasons to stop playing the contest game, and get some perspective—and maybe even some free time—in the process:

1. Quite simply, it’s not a contest. A contest has just one, or a select group of very few, winners. Everyone else loses. But tens of thousands of students are admitted to the more than 2000 colleges in the United States every year. Unless you plan to major in something very, very obscure, or you’re hell-bent on getting into the Ivy League (whose schools routinely reject valedictorians with perfect SAT scores), there is no one “right” school. Focus on the selection available—it’s huge!—and on finding a few great matches for you. They’re out there.

2. It will make you crazy. Parents and students who play the contest game put incredible pressure on themselves. They can become antagonists instead of partners in the process. And high levels of stress won’t help you perform better in your classes or on standardized tests. It can also weaken your immune system and cause lots of other physical problems. Not to mention make you miserable—who wants to hang around with someone who’s miserable?

3. If you’re reaching for the proverbial stars, it probably won’t get you the results you’re after. No matter how high your grades and test scores, how many activities you participate in and distinctions you receive, if your goal is to be admitted to one of the nation’s most elite schools, the odds are not in your favor. It might not be nice, but it’s the truth.


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