Nov 25, 2014

Manier: Thanksgiving prodding can help college applicants make choices

As featured in the Austin American-Statesman

Authored by Tracy Manier, Dean of Admission

There’s an old line of thinking in the college admission world: get families of high school juniors and seniors talking about your school at the Thanksgiving table. After all, Thanksgiving, the most collegiate of all holidays—what with those football games and the bucolic autumn-ness of it all—is prime college application time. And the Thanksgiving table is ripe for meaningful (or, more commonly, tense) conversations about the future of a soon to be college freshman. “Have you submitted your applications yet?” “What are you going to major in?”  “Let’s hope she gets a scholarship!”—common inquiries made by well-meaning relatives as they pass the mashed potatoes and oyster stuffing. But, as recently reported byThe New York Times, these conversations have taken a complicated turn in recent years. Given the ease of submitting numerous applications, and, in what appears to be exponentially multiplying anxiety over getting into and paying for the “right” college, students across the country hedge their bets and cast out applications to a wide net. Gone are the days of making 5 to 7 applications. Students are now applying to an absurd number of schools—sometimes 20 or 30 or more—to ensure a viable outcome. Favoring quantity over quality, this practice can induce the opposite, unintended outcome as applicants rush through the process to meet multiple deadlines and requirements. Consequently, little time is left to demonstrate genuine interest in the colleges on this long list or to thoughtfully consider a future at any of them—necessary components for submitting a successful application to a selective college. College admission deans are no longer attached to that old saying—students and their families are rarely talking about individual schools at all and, when they are, we’re just one of many. The Thanksgiving dinner conversation has become as unfocused as the process itself—anxiety-inducing and all over the place. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, it’s time to consider what’s meaningful about the college admission process, it’s time to really talk (and really listen) to our 17-year olds about what they want out of college and of life. Parents and well-meaning relatives—it’s time to reign in the conversation—and the process of applying to college.

Just like Thanksgiving itself—the college application period should be a time to consider what’s most important. It’s time to think about and be grateful for the blessings in our lives—for healthy, smart and motivated kids who have the luxury of choosing to go to college. It’s time to think about our gratitude for our individual children and the unique strengths, talents, character and insight they will bring to a campus community. There’s a college for everyone—thoughtfully considering the culture, values, and spirit of those schools will propel the applicant in the right direction. And focusing meaningfully on the campuses that provide challenge, inspire interests and passions, and foster a sense of belonging and well-being, will make all the difference in the long run.

To be sure, application essays must be written, transcripts must be ordered, SATs taken. But instead of focusing on the logistical and the quantity—“Have you submitted those applications, and how many?” make those questions aspirational and meaningful: “What do you care about?” “What inspires you?” “What do you need to be successful and happy?” Thoughtfully considering these questions and actively listening to the answers just might reveal a bold and courageous list of well-selected (and well-edited) college options. And exploring these questions will induce a kind of confidence and self-awareness that selective colleges look for in successful applicants.

And if we reclaim this Thanksgiving table conversation, college admission deans across the country will have a reason to be thankful.