How to be Icarus but Avoid the Sun: College Planning for the Ambitious but Balanced
As one admissions cycle comes to a close, a new one opens with fresh opportunity, a sense of optimism, but a slight shadow of impending concern: what will happen next year? Many parents are wondering, based on year over year trends, how to help their child reach their fullest potential without burning out: How do we fly like Icarus but avoid the sun? The key starts with your child’s resume. If we conceive of admissions review in two stages, the first is a combination, algorithm really, of recalculated GPA, SAT/ACT, and AP scores, as a predictor of future college performance. The second, what has your child done with their time that informs what they wish to do next? GPA and test scores are data points that provide some indication of future performance. Remember, colleges want students to graduate within four years, aim for high retention and graduation rates, and seek to maintain a population of students that can elevate each other’s overall experiences. To a point, GPA and test scores can indicate proficiency in certain skills that correlate with college GPA; said differently, these discrete pieces of information do not define your child or describe their potential, but they are quite accurate for performance. What is the challenge now? With students applying to too many colleges (10-12 is industry standard – any more than that is counterproductive), colleges have to be concerned with the following: will you accept their offer? This one question is what is disrupting the whole statistical landscape, causing yield protection (we know you are not coming so we will waitlist or reject you as a high performer) or seemingly indiscriminate rejections.
Parents and students have a really special opportunity amid the uncertainty to focus on authenticity, which, in the end, grants your child uniqueness. Here’s how: when reviewing a resume, the student’s major should be relatively clear without knowing in advance, whether something specific, e.g., History, Finance, Biology, or general, e.g. undecided. Students can be equally compelling as applicants with a specific major or undecided, but their choice should be defensible through experience, and logic based on academic performance. The earlier students are taught methods for understanding their choices, their voice, their interests, and the more they sample experiences accordingly, the more likely their resume will stand out among the rest. The more students build a narrative from a position of interest and talent, turning that into skill, the more likely they will be well informed about what they want and therefore can be more appealing as applicants among their future community of learners. That budding interest in coding could lead to joining clubs, learning Python, participating in clubs, and even contributing to Donate:Code, a nonprofit organization that uses coding for good. Skills that lead to benevolent actions are typically worth doing innately, and are seen as noble and therefore desirable.
With more applicants than places available, and with predetermined trends of how many students are admitted from any given high school, data matters. In our work, we liken this model to tributaries, with certain high schools that tend to lead to certain colleges, over time. This precedent is helpful when crafting a well-balanced list. Because colleges are forbidden by law from colluding on who is admitted where, this model accounts for the decentralized and disorganized elements of admissions: so use SCOIR and Naviance to your child’s benefit in terms of selection. Still, the GPA and test scores (for colleges that are not test blind), remain the first hurdle, after which comes your child’s narrative, the bedrock of which is their resume a.k.a. their life experience and how they chose to spend their time over the last 3.5 years. Therefore, choosing what they do and what skills they cultivate will shape the content they use for their essays, the compelling stories they tell in any interview, and how they stand apart from their peers. Your child needs to lean into their authentic selves and focus on what is within their control. With this approach, they can avoid being burned by the searing stress of seeking to control what they cannot, or creating an admissions campaign that fosters unreasonable expectations.
Remember, most admission officers are optimistic, truly seeking to create a cohort of students to elevate their intellect, build community, and move forward. Sure, some admission slots are allocated for characteristics that fall outside of academic performance or sometimes even merit, but the real story is not that: it is navigating with the right information and not focusing on exogenous elements. Icarus’s wings did not melt in pursuit of exploring the world, but for flying higher than was merited with the materials used to craft his wings. As we seek to have our children explore the world with a sense of personal agency, confidence, and fortitude, we should be focused on helping them navigate with purpose based on the materials amassed over their high school career, knowing that it is not how high (how select) but how far (fit and follow through) that matters. With this ethos, our children can fly outward toward their dreams, explore with purpose, and surprise us. The college they attend is important, but it is more about the opportunity amid the pursuit of it that will forge the best flight plans.