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The College Search and the Flooded Mailbox

Photo by Nong V on Unsplash


“Because of your outstanding grades, leadership potential, and desire to contribute to the field of medicine . . . we have selected you for recognition . . . “

My oldest son stopped reading and looked up with a wrinkled and confused brow.

“But I don’t want to contribute to the field of medicine, what are they talking about?” he asked.

“It’s okay son, it’s not a real honor, don’t worry,” I replied.

While I won’t name the organization, I will say that their marketing is quite elaborate, complete with a “Certificate of Selection for Award” printed on impressively expensive card stock. It could lead one to think it is a legitimate honor, which it is most certainly not.

A college counselor once asked a Facebook group consisting of hundreds of college admissions professionals about whether a similar “Honors” organization was looked on favorably in the admissions process. To clarify, this organization was NOT the National Honor Society, which is a reputable organization that is widely respected in an admissions review.

Of those individuals who did not respond with the red-faced anger emoji, here’s a sampling of answers:

  • A college "publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes"

  • If you have to pay for "the honor" of having your name listed, it is most likely a scam.

  • 100% not worth it. We do a ceremonial "ripping up" of all of these types of predatory organizational marketing efforts. Total scam.

My son and his apparent leadership potential, just recently signed up for the PSAT. He is also taking an AP class. The PSAT and Advanced Placement classes are part of the College Board. The College Board’s Student Search Service is a part of the organization that can sell a student’s contact information to colleges, various education-related organizations and potentially dozens of companies. When he and his fellow juniors in high school sign up for the PSAT/NMSQT (as well as the SAT or ACT) there will be a specific question that indicates:

“Fill in the ‘Yes’ circle in box 8 to let colleges, universities, scholarship programs, and educational opportunity organizations know that you are interested in receiving information about the educational and financial aid opportunities they offer. Colleges, universities, and scholarship programs that request it will receive information you provide to the College Board. They will NOT receive your actual test scores or telephone numbers.”

Mind you, I had informed my son about the importance of answering question 8 with intention, making sure he understood that if he wanted to get flooded with mail and email from colleges and organizations honoring him for career interests he likely does not have, then answer question 8 in the affirmative. After all, I spent the better part of 20 years managing and deploying marketing campaigns for dozens of universities. I knew what was coming. I suppose he, and many students like him, are naturally curious about what it must feel like to be apparently wanted by these grandiose institutions.

The allure of being recruited is powerful.

So here we are, looking over the first few pieces of mail that have started to trickle down the college marketing hillside, like pebbles before a massive rock slide. By the time my son will go to college he will have received stacks of mailings from colleges all over the world. Don’t believe me, just Google search “College Mail” and click on “images.” Here's a hint at what's in store:


In addition to sharing our mailing address, he also indicated colleges could contact him via email. So now his inbox is also filling up with virtual campus tours and other solicitations.

So what does it mean? If your student did answer yes to question 8, does that have any material affect on college admissions outcomes? Does any part of the flotsam and jetsam that will flood your mailbox and inbox mean anything?

To quote my sons when I ask them to clean their rooms, “No.”

It does not mean that your student would be a fit at whatever college sent him a brochure. Trust me, they have not “vetted” your student in any substantive way.

It does not mean that your student will be admissible to a particular college. Yes, it is true that a college that “purchases names” from the College Board’s Student Search Service will have the option to select students with a certain grade range and PSAT/NMSQT score. It is also true that many top colleges recruit students with test scores and grades well below their averages in the interest of increasing their applications and keeping their admit rates low.

It does not mean that you have to pay fees for “honors” for your student to have a “leg up” in the admissions process.

The allure of being recruited is powerful. But it is just an allure.

As we have talked before on this blog, the marketing industry in higher education creates a wall of noise trying to convince you that happiness and success is scarce and can only be found in certain places, and to get access to those places, you must amass from an early age a collection of honors, achievements, and who’s who’s.

The wonderful reality is that opportunities for real growth come not from institutions or awards, but from a decision: to care, to act, to think, to reconsider, to inspire, and to make a difference in any way you are called to make a difference. And the best news of all, is that there is a true abundance of communities, organizations, and colleges that are put on this earth to help teach your student to make those very decisions.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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