Opinion: Why take the college application process seriously?

Like many of you, I cannot stop reading about the massive college admission scandal dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the FBI. The FBI. It’s hard to believe getting into college is now associated with undercover operations and federal offenses.
As I dig through the details of parents, coaches, test proctors, and one morally bankrupt college admission counselor, I am appalled and furious at the self-absorbed people involved in this unbelievable betrayal of college admission.
As a college admission counselor, teacher, and former guidance counselor I want to share another side to this story. I want to talk about what the young adults involved in this scam missed out on and what an honest college search and application process offers the rest of us. The students caught up in this scandal were robbed the journey of self-discovery that evolves from an authentic college search. I ask students I work with to ask themselves questions they often cannot readily answer: What are you looking for in your college experiences, what passions drive you, what kind of environment will help you thrive?
Some students answer tentatively, some have no idea. Some students answer with confidence and then completely change their mind over the following six months. But over the course of our time together, pushed to research and visit colleges and repeatedly analyze what they read, see and hear, they come to their own answers. And it’s always a revelation worth the time and effort it takes.
The students caught up in the scandal missed the opportunity to develop grit and determination that comes from challenging themselves. The students I work with set their own (reasonable) goals for their SAT and ACT tests, study over a prolonged period of time, and take the test multiple times. When their scores go up, they are proud of their progress.
And oh-by-the-way, they actually filled in a few holes in their math learning and increased their vocabulary along the way. They challenge themselves with more rigorous coursework in the subjects they are most interested in. Not because it looks good on their application, but because it will prepare them for the more rigorous expectations of college. This is the same grit and determination that gets these students through college, something only 47 percent of students who start college actually do.
The students caught up in the scandal will not develop the resiliency and perspective that comes from dealing with a college rejection. (Good practice for other rejections that will inevitably come.) Nor will they experience the self-advocacy that is inherent in choosing which of their multiple college acceptances they will respond yes to. Many of my students go to multiple Accepted Students Days and spend the month of April weighing their offers and deciding which one is the best fit for them. This is an invaluable life lesson that will serve these students well throughout adulthood.
Finally, the students caught up in this scandal’s greatest loss is their own sense of agency. There is so much joy and celebration in a hard-earned college acceptance. I see it all the time in students’ eyes, I hear it in their voice, and I can tell by the number of “!!!!” in their emails. But their greatest reward is knowing that they own that acceptance, they belong on that campus, and they executed every step to make it happen (with an appropriate amount of help from adults in their corner). Every student deserves the opportunity to have that feeling.
I love being a college counselor. I love meeting new families, seeing the promise in young adults, learning about how I might help a family overcome their challenges and reach their goals. I love listening to their hopes and dreams, answering the questions that I can, and leading them to the answers they need to find for themselves. I am inspired by their stories, their discoveries, and their successes. And every year, over and over, I tell my clients that they can trust the process. I tell them that if they start by understanding what they are looking for, do their homework by researching and visiting schools, they will find the right schools for them. I still believe that.
Yes, special considerations have always be a part of college admissions. But overall, I’ve always felt that there’s a balance between open opportunity and special consideration. Having been in this business for over 25 years, my overwhelming experience is that college admission counselors are incredibly thoughtful and devoted to making fair decisions and that students are admitted to schools where they will thrive. Experience has repeatedly confirmed my firm belief that there is a post-secondary experience for all students, from all walks of life, all socio-economic groups, all academic profiles. Going to college is about wanting it, working for it, and finding the right fit.
I will continue to share my beliefs and my experiences with students and parents, despite this unfortunate news. These unethical few are the exception, not the rule. The reward of getting into college the right way is well worth it.
Andrea L. Torello is a former Guidance counselor at Rice Memorial High School and Senior Associate with Strategies for College.

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