Between the Lines: What a College List Does Not Tell You

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Editor’s note: A version of this post originally appeared on Admitted in May 2015. It’s being republished as part of NACAC’s Best of the Blog series.

It has become customary for many schools to publish a list of college decisions each May. The Ellis School, where I work, is no exception. Our students are so bright and involved and — with 30 students accepted to more than 80 colleges and counting — every girl has excellent options.

But after more than 13 years in the college admission field, I have come to understand that, no matter how impressive, a college list alone does not convey what is truly important and meaningful about a young person’s college admission story. What matters most are the truths they discover about themselves during the process.

Here are a few of the things that a college list, on its own, cannot tell you:

A college list does not articulate how students find their voice. Each student invests so much in understanding themselves and their goals. Where they intend to apply and where they actually apply and ultimately enroll often evolves profoundly during this process. There is a real self-knowledge that develops along the way. Ultimately, a college list shows you what decisions were made, but not the many ways in which students came to know themselves and define what they want from their future, especially if the school selected is not an instantly recognizable brand name. Behind every college list are well-developed, independent, exciting student voices. As college counselors, we are privileged to have heard them.

A college list doesn’t begin to capture the maturity, bravery and seriousness of most seniors. Students pour themselves into their applications and, as such, deal with tremendous potential for rejection. Some students feel enormous pressure to apply to Ivies, to legacy schools, to those that fulfill family or cultural expectations of success, or that reflect financial realities. Despite these pressures, at Ellis, the Class of 2015 applied to the schools that spoke to their authentic aspirations. They almost never made the easy or obvious choice. Our students came to know, deeply, what they want from their futures. They went for it.

A college list does not reflect how carefully students and their families weighed the financial implications of a particular choice. College costs continue to rise in levels disproportionate to family incomes, making cost and value an increasingly important part of the college decision process. A highly selective school that offers little financial aid or scholarship funding might place graduate or medical school out of a student’s reach. Many students pay close attention to such considerations, Some of our students were offered financial packages that were just too good to refuse. Students are thinking through how their choices now may affect their choices later. That type of careful planning takes real maturity and vision by students and their families.

A college list does not express the support classmates often provide to one another. I’ve had the privilege this year to participate in and overhear many heartfelt college discussions. I’ve witnessed students cry tears of joy when their peers were admitted to college. I’ve watched students lift up one another in the most respectful manner imaginable when the path to college took unexpected turns. I applaud students who have the emotional intelligence to be both ambitious and profoundly supportive at the same time, and who know when to ask probing questions and when to step back to allow their peers to feel confident in their decisions. The type of empathy, teamwork, and friendship students demonstrate during the college admission process will sustain them far beyond their time in high school.

Finally, each list represents an unscripted and hopeful future. A college name on a list does not set a student’s course. No matter where students enroll, their futures depend on the choices they make while they are there, the opportunities they seize, and the connections they make. It is gratifying when students have the maturity to take intelligent and strategic risks, and when they demonstrate confidence, creativity, and competence in equal measure. Those qualities, ultimately, are far more meaningful than the brand name of the college each student selects.

When you look at a college list, I encourage you to read between the lines, and see the diversity, individuality, and promise of every student.


NACAC member Lauren Lieberman is director of college counseling at The Ellis School (PA). Contact her at liebermanl@theellisschool.org.

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