• Dr. Thom

Why Students Should Stop Asking What Colleges Want

Updated: Jun 20


One of the most common questions we are asked weekly is some derivative of: "What would College X think of [insert life decision]?" It could relate to small matters like which club to join or what class to take, all the way up to what town someone should live in, or what school someone should attend (I kid you not). When I worked in admissions on campus, it would not be exaggerating to tell you that we would get calls from parents of pre-schoolers, asking which suburban private school was held in better esteem by our university.

It has always been a question that I am never comfortable answering. Mostly because I think it is the wrong question to be asking.


It is based on a set of tragic assumptions about what constitutes a true North in setting the directionality of a young person's life. Inherent in this thinking is the notion that youth is essentially a series of protracted tryouts with college admission as the prize to be won. It also lionizes the preferences and interests of highly selective admissions officers, who are at once well-meaning, but can also be grievously flawed in their view of human achievement.

One such prestigious school actually describes their admissions criteria like this: "There’s no minimum grade point average or class rank required, but know this: You’re up against the best and the brightest in the world."

Within the walls of highly selective admissions offices, this kind of thinking is obvious and taken for granted. For many years, I, too, would have said the exact same thing.

What I thought was a happenstance collection of the world's "best and brightest,“ I now see for what it is: a highly curated and crafted system of measurement, upon which a thousand thumbs of wealth and power press. What the rest of the world now knows is that human achievement is way more vast and diverse than ever before conceived. But inside these offices, the sacred yardsticks that have measured the brightness of talent and success for decades are annually polished up for yet another admissions cycle.

So what then happens when you ask a group of highly selective admissions folks whether you should take that extra AP class rather than play the lead in "Into the Woods?" They deadpan the response: "Do both." Because that's what the top students in "the pool" do.

University of Connecticut Law professor James Kwak asked a titular question in his 2015 article Why do Harvard kids head to Wall Street? noting the high percentage of graduates going into finance from the historic institution. His answer: it was the next most prestigious thing to do.

"For people who don’t know how to get a job in the open economy, and who have ended each phase of their lives by taking the test to do the most prestigious thing possible in the next phase, [going to Wall Street] comes naturally."

It has never been more important to provide our young people a real framework for making healthy adult decisions without defaulting to what some institution wants. If we don’t, they may spend their lives in quiet servitude to a faceless “they,“ who steers their lives and transcripts. “They“ like to see A’s in AP’s, gleaming activities charts peppered with leadership positions, and summers shadowing neurosurgery. It is a perpetually out of reach, yet wholly worthless destination.

The families in our Stress Free Scholars group are looking for healthier ways to guide their teenagers, and we applaud them. The college search is indeed a teaching ground in which habits can be formed that young people will call upon in the next major life decision. To help them inch closer to truer versions of themselves, we must let them struggle to listen for their own desires and callings. We believe, as do many of you, that asking what the student wants of their lives is a question worthy of asking, and for the sake of the health and well-being of our teenagers, the difficult answer worth waiting for.


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

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