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Hartford Courant (March 2015)
By Kristin M. White
The pressure on high school seniors to apply to and be accepted at selective colleges is as intense as ever. Applications are up, acceptances are down, and mood swings can vacillate from hope to panic, and back again. Many candidates think a diploma from an elite school is the golden ticket to happiness and professional success. The truth is that success is in your own hands, and not some admissions officer at Harvard.
Students and their parents are on high alert waiting for decisions in the elite college admissions process. For many families, it has been years of planning and preparation, culminating in the last gut-wrenching moment they log onto their computers April 1, hoping for a yeah but fearing a nay.
The sad truth is that the hearts of the vast majority of these families will collectively sink in unison. Yale University, for example, turned away 29,000 applicants last year, with only 1,950 students gaining acceptance.
And it's not just the super-elite schools; there are dozens of private colleges which deny 80 percent or more of their applicants. Large public universities, once considered a reasonably priced, quality option, are selective as well, with UConn now denying more than half of its applicants, and University of California, Los Angeles, turning down 80 percent.
These dwindling acceptance rates has put a stranglehold on our collective thoughts — students worry they must gain entry to their dream college or else become doomed for mediocrity. Parents, on the other hand, have only fear — fear their child will be left behind, or what friends and colleagues might think when they confess results.
Few people, however, are asking the more pertinent question of whether graduating from an elite college even matters to success and happiness in the "real world." A recent study by Gallup-Purdue University designed to measure both the college experiences and the lives of college graduates found the selectivity of the college a student attended mattered less than what they did while on campus. Further studies by economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale likewise found that elite college attendance didn't give top students a boost in future earnings. So while it is true top colleges do a good job of collecting intelligent and motivated young adults, it's likely that those students will be as successful no matter where they go to school.
Thankfully, there are things that any college student can do to ensure that he or she will thrive at college and graduate prepared for today's job market.
First, focus on developing skills in critical thinking and writing. Employers want to hire people who are strong in these areas, so students should choose classes and opportunities where they will continue to improve their writing and critical thinking.
Second, connect with a professor and get to know him or her personally. The Gallup poll showed students were twice as likely to be engaged in their post-collegiate work if during their college years, they had a professor who cared about them as a person, a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals, or a professor who made them excited about learning.
Third, get involved beyond academics. Join a group, or better yet, lead it. Get an internship to help you build job skills, including teamwork and leadership, and gain valuable experience.
Finally, don't take on too much debt. Many young people today are crippled by student loans and finding it hard to move forward in their adult lives. Of course, student-loan debt itself is not a bad thing - it's too much debt that causes problems. There is almost always a cheaper option to consider, whether it is a merit scholarship at a less selective college, a state university near home, or even a community college.
If you were one of the gobs of students rejected by your dream college, take heart — your future is in your own hands, and your success was never going to be determined by the college you attended anyway. Take charge of your own education, build on your personal qualities, skills, and achievements, and academic and professional success will be yours.
Kristin M. White is an educational consultant based in Darien and the author of "It's the Student, Not the College: The Secrets of Succeeding at Any School — Without Going Broke or Crazy." An earlier version of this piece appeared on NJ.com.