By Jack Johnson '21
As Randolph high school students, I am sure we are all used to constantly being asked the question, “Where are you going to go to college?” Most of the time, I would name some random college or say Harvard as a joke because I had no idea where I wanted to go. After being asked the same question hundreds of times, I started to think that people were asking the wrong question. I thought that people should have been asking, “What will you do in college?” rather than, “Where will you go to college?” What I accomplish and study in college is much more important to me than where I do it. This point of view has allowed me to take my college rejections with a grain of salt and approach my application process with more confidence.
Colleges have a limited number of spots to fill and try to entice the maximum number of students into applying in order to make their college appear more selective and prestigious. Schools receive thousands of applications, and to sort through them, your application will only be looked at for five to fifteen minutes. During these few minutes, it is hard to believe that anyone will truly get to know you or appreciate that great essay you wrote. Nobel Prize winner and behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman, provided great insight into the potential flaws of the college admission decision in his study of Israeli judges.
"Rejections do not mean you are a failure as a student, but are a combination of the college having limited number of spots and some bad luck and lunches."
The judges spent all day reading cases while only allocating a meager six minutes per case. While tracking what time every decision was made, researchers came to a saddening realization. After lunch or snack breaks, judges would grant 65% of requests, but as the day went on and the judges grew tired and hungry, the number of requests they granted decreased. By the end of their session, when judges were the most tired and hungry, they granted nearly zero percent of requests. This study is about the idea of ego depletion, which states that self-control and will power use up a limited amount of resources. As the judges grew tired and hungry, they started to lose will power and defaulted to the answer they would give most of the time, which was no. This study serves as great evidence that Snickers commercials are true and you are not yourself when you’re hungry.
These Israeli judges are in a similar situation as the college admissions officer that will look at your application. Readers look at applications all day while spending around six minutes with each application. As the day goes on, they also grow tired and hungry causing their ego to deplete. Some colleges have extremely low acceptance rates. So, for most of the applications, the reader has the default answer of no. Just like the judges, college application readers with a depleted ego will be more likely to respond to your application with the default answer of no. I would love to think that the only reason I will get rejected is due to hangry admissions officers, but that is not the truth. Admissions officers' moods likely play a role in admission, but are not the deciding factor. Feeding your admissions officer or judge Gordon Ramsey’s filet-mignon sadly cannot get you into Harvard or out of jail. Rejections do not mean you are a failure as a student but are a combination of the college having limited number of spots and some bad luck and lunches.
"I have come to realize that rankings are not as important as finding a place that provides great academic opportunities and an enjoyable environment."
To remove luck from the admissions process, parents have paid millions in under the table deals to get their children into Ivy League universities. Hearing about this scandal, I started to wonder if attending an Ivy League is even worth that much. I ended up finding that where a student attends college is not as important as what they do there. For example, class rank can give students greater opportunities at less prestigious universities. A study by Vanderbilt found that a student that is in the bottom 85% of the Harvard economics Ph.D. program will publish fewer papers than a student in the top one percent of a not-top thirty program. The few students in the top 15% of the Harvard program had a great advantage by attending Harvard, but the students who were not in the top 15% at Harvard were at a disadvantage because they were in such a competitive program. If the bottom 85% of Harvard students attended less prestigious programs, they could be at the top of their class and have more opportunities to publish papers. The author, Malcolm Gladwell, put it best when he said, “It is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.” As small fish in a big pond, students go from the top of their high school class to being mediocre as compared to the surrounding students. Eaten up by the competition, some students are forced to switch to less challenging majors so they can maintain good enough grades at their prestigious college. But, as a big fish in a small pond, students can have more opportunities. As a top student, they can achieve a higher class rank which opens many options. Because professors are the people who decide which students get to conduct research, having a higher class rank grabbing their attention is more important than attending a prestigious college. Also, students who chose to attend the less selective schools will get to pursue the major of their choice and not be forced to switch majors due to maintaining their grades. On top of everything else, less selective colleges tend to be cheaper. While looking at colleges, I initially only looked at the U.S. News rankings or how selective they were, but I have come to realize that rankings are not as important as finding a place that provides great academic opportunities and an enjoyable environment.
If I knew this as a lowerclassman, I would have changed the way I approached school work. I just completed class work to maintain a good GPA for college admissions. I would memorize material for a test then forget it the next week. During the sophomore class of Human Physiology, I had to memorize countless bones, but if you asked me about what the xiphoid process is, I would have to Google the answer. I was able to look like I was learning the material without actually remembering a single skill or idea. I believed that there was no purpose to the things we learned except to get a good grade. This was wrong because much of the material we are taught establishes the foundation for the more complex and useful topics that we will learn later in life. For example, I have always viewed studying poetry as completely worthless, but Mr. Gee has proven me wrong. While analyzing poetry, I must find meaning in the text then create a convincing thesis and argument to back up my analysis. I expect and hope to never analyze Shakespeare in my career, but the practice of developing arguments from complicated texts or media is a skill that is needed in most jobs. An investment banker or doctor must be able to develop arguments from business memos or a patient’s weird description of how their shoulder or stomach hurts. As students who were forced to endure the misery of timed essays about poems, we have the foundation of how to form arguments and ideas from seemingly meaningless material. To avoid the same mistakes I made, I would recommend studying your material over time and not cramming the whole test or exam into one night. Lots of the material we learned will be used in our future college classes, and studying material over time allows it to enter your long term memory so you can be prepared.
As Randolph students, we are lucky to be asked where we want to go to college and not if we plan on attending college. College is a fantastic opportunity and attending more selective universities is the right decision for some people. These are things I have come to believe during my college admissions journey, and it is okay to believe something completely different than me. For us Seniors, who will be hearing decisions soon, I would like to remind everyone not to get upset about the places where they get rejected. It’s not the end of the world and you can always just blame it on an admissions officer having a bad lunch or being hangry. For the younger students, I would like to remind you to not make the mistakes I did. Instead of memorizing material like the unit circle for one test, try to learn and understand the concept as it sadly does not go away. Avoid college rankings or acceptance rates while looking for the college you want to attend and try to find a place that excites you as somewhere you can enjoy and excel.