Saving the World One Teen at a Time - Column on Parenting Tweens and Teens

The College Admissions Race.

by Abby Margolis Newman


Our oldest son is a high school sophomore, so we are still two years away from the college application process, but from what I'm hearing, there is ample reason to start freaking out now.


Anyone who has read anything about the insanely competitive nature of the college admissions in the 21st century will tell you that we would never, in a million years, be admitted today into the colleges from which we graduated decades ago. In fact, a valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA and 2400 SAT's no longer has a surefire ticket into America's most selective colleges.


Ready for some depressing information? My husband has been doing alumni interviewing in the Bay Area of potential applicants for Brown University, from which he graduated in 1987. For the incoming class of 2013, Brown received over 27,000 applications and accepted 2,500 kids (about 9%), for a matriculating class of around 1,350.


Here's the scary part: of those 27,000 kids, more than 2,000 of them had perfect SAT scores in reading and math - and Brown accepted only about 20% of those students. About 1,500 applicants were class valedictorians - and Brown accepted only one of four of these kids.


This atmosphere of almost laughable competitiveness is much worse than 20 years ago, when we were applying to college (OK, so it's closer to 30 years ago, but who's counting?) And the increase in pressure surrounding college admissions has real and lasting consequences for today's high-schoolers. A new documentary by director Vicki Abeles, "Race to Nowhere," looks at - among many other facets - how this "college application madness" is negatively affecting our kids.


At Yale, the number of acceptance letters sent out to high school applicants has dropped from 20% in 1980 (when there were about 11,000 applying) to 7.5% today (26,000 applicants for an incoming freshman class of about 1,300). Applications have doubled just since 2000, when there were about 13,000 applicants. The situations at Brown and Yale are sadly typical for "highly selective" schools in today's admissions environment. And it's not just the Ivy League schools who are seeing remarkable increases - colleges throughout the U.S. are noting similar surges in applicants.


What does this intense competition - and the crushing disappointment that inevitably follows when many, many students are rejected from these schools - do to today's high-school students? According to "Race to Nowhere," it can lead to acute stress, paralyzing anxiety, and depression. Not to mention the hours and hours of time required to complete all those applications: the numbers of colleges kids typically apply to has also gone up; wanting to hedge their bets, it is not uncommon for students to apply to ten schools or more. (For some firsthand accounts of life in the college application lane, check out the New York Times blog, "The Choice.")



Jonah is indeed smart.

Parents have allowed — encouraged? — this insanity. And, for what? To ask, "would you like whipped cream on that Frappuccino?"

For some reason, we base "success" on the "right" schools, the McMansions and the luxury SUVs. I don't, and I hope my kids don't either.

My younger son is in the same grade as yours, and he's happy making his YouTube movies that I'll bet will get him farther in life that whatever college he ends up going to (and it was his choice not to take any AP classes). My older son is at COM and working (unlike so many recent grads!)

I went to four colleges/universities before finally graduating, not one a "name" school. Who cares? I have loved every minute of my career (although as I write in Tired of Work in Around the Watercooler, I am, well, tired of working!)


Agreed that competition is fierce. But the fact that Brown does not except every valedictorian or student with perfect SAT scores, in my opinion, is a very GOOD thing. Each applicant is more than just grades and test scores. Being the best of the best in academics should not be an automatic ticket to wherever you want to go to college.



Great article! Your boys are wise beyond their years.

As Jonah keenly notes, you have to love what you do and do it for yourself. Not for your high school, neighbors, or (ahem) even your parents!

In today's competitive environment for college, it is so important to know why you're looking at going to college in the first place and understand that there are more than 30 schools in the whole country that are actually "good!"

Where do you think all of those valedictorians have been matriculating over the past 15 years, if not at the Ivy League? That's right, the "other" selective schools - and those so called "second tier" schools 20 years ago, have suddenly become "first tier" because they've had such wonderful students, professors, etc., you name it...

Loving to "learn" and knowing why you as an individual want to go to college, are the keys in starting the search as sophomores and juniors in high school.

I wish them the best!

Todd Weaver


Part of the problem is parents (and kids) who think that a selective college degree is more valuable than another. I have taught at both selective and open admissions colleges and can tell you that is NOT the case. The degree granting institution is only important in terms of whether it is accredited or not (despite any literature you receive from college recruiters). As long as you go to an accredited institution, your degree will be valuable. After the first job, the degree becomes much less important as future employers will look more closely at your work history.


I'm a senior this year who went thought that college race this past fall. I applied to 5 'top' schools. Now I had near perfect grades and was in alot of extra curricular activities. However, I did not take AP everything so each of my letters came back with the statement that I was not competitve enough. Seriously.
I didn't mind so much about the other four but the one I wanted the most came back first and I was crushed, especially when I read that I wasn't 'competitive enough'. But you know why I wasn't? I took classes suited towards what I was actually interested in, would enjoy, and were geared towards what I was aiming to do in college.
Ironicly enough a school back home in wv, a nice private institution got ahold of me and it was a perfect match in EVERY SINGLE WAY! I love every single thing about it and I'm LOOKING FORWARD to going there and realized that none of my orginal choices would've made me happy. So be sure to tell your son to look for something (even if its not ivy league) that will make him happy.

I've also got a blog going on the time leading up to college and (eventually) the time spent in college so feel free to check it out.


Thanks for this. Just transitioning to middle school now but already the anxiety - my own and other parents - is ramping up about high school and college. I recently blogged re: the "Rug Rat Race" study that argues that parents are spending more time with children because of the increased competitiveness of college.
I think the anxiety - and to some extent the actual increase in the tough odds - is from an underlying economic insecurity so many families feel. And the belief in college education as a ward against it. Thanks for the reminder to keep it all in perspective.
Kristin Maschka
Author, This is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today