A few weeks ago I had the privilege of listening to seniors present their final graduation projects at the high school where I previously worked. There was one senior chosen to share her project with the entire student body. She was picked not based on GPA or the college where she plans to enroll. She was selected by the real measure of a human being -- her individual impact. As I sat there listening to this student speak about her passion for the Special Olympics and working with developmentally disabled children and adults since the sixth grade, I thought to myself: she's far too good for an Ivy League school.
The tough part about the college admissions process is that sometimes the most transformative future leaders never make it past the first round of evaluation at elite colleges. With tens of thousands of students applying to every Ivy League college each year, getting in is about as likely as finding a golden ticket inside the wrapper of a chocolate bar. There is a little bit of luck and a whole lot of strategy involved with getting in. Students can't leave the process to chance anymore. They start building their resume and shimmying their way into the most rigorous classes from ninth grade on.
But if a student's test scores or grades aren't perfect or nearly perfect, they often are tossed aside like a candy wrapper that's anything but gold. Their application technically gets "read," but instead of an admissions officer taking a few minutes to review their meticulously constructed application, they often spend seconds glancing at it. Unless the student with imperfect scores and grades has a special value to the institution, there is zero likelihood of admission.
When I think of this unique young woman, I think about her remarkable dedication and altruism. I also know that if a college's admissions dean really listened to her describe her vocation they would be tempted to admit her on the spot. Her grades are strong; her scores are very good. But it's her heart, undeniable charisma, and pure belief in her work that could motivate the laziest human on the planet to make a difference. No matter how holistic the admissions process is, students like her get squeezed out of the most elite colleges all the time.
As is often the case, the cold-hearted admissions process nearly broke this confident young woman. For a time during senior year, she didn't act like her spirited self. When she didn't get admitted to her top choice she felt unworthy. She ended up being accepted to an excellent out-of-state public university, but it took a while for her to get comfortable with the idea.
What is so striking about her story is that it plays out again and again in households around the country: really good kids who come up short in the Ivy League pursuit. For a time, they believe that all is lost.
With millions of students now applying to more colleges than ever before, there will be more extraordinary yet jilted students every year. This rise of uber-qualified castoffs will slowly change the admissions landscape. Non-Ivy League colleges and second and third tier colleges will welcome these students with open arms. They will spend time getting to know the students in the application process and they will greet them enthusiastically with opportunities once reserved for those "perfect" applicants. This will put non-Ivies on the map. These students will not only make a name for themselves, they will make a name for the college that took a chance on them.
As a new crop of rising high school seniors readies themselves for the college admissions process this summer, I encourage them to think of this magical young woman they don't know. I bet they have moments when they believe they are worthy of an Ivy because of their own impact and charisma. Chances are, they are worthy. But if an Ivy doesn't admit them in the coming months, embrace the college that does. These students are usually just as complex and talented as the students getting into the Ivies. The difference is, they haven't peaked yet. And, that's a really good thing.