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I’m thinking a lot about our seniors these days. As they finish up this most unusual semester, many are waiting to hear back from colleges on their early applications and working hard on the rest. It feels like the right moment to share some thoughts about the college process.

One of the questions I often hear from our parents is, “Do the colleges know us?” There’s an understandable fear and insecurity underlying the question. Do these highly selective institutions understand how rigorous BUA is? That a B is a good grade here? That our students are taking undergraduate and sometimes graduate-level classes? That the expectations here are different than they are at many of our peer schools? Will our kids get a fair shake?

This fall, with the help of our college counseling team, I’ve scheduled weekly one-on-one conversations with deans of admission at some of the colleges and universities that our students are traditionally most interested in and which happen to be some of the most selective schools in the country — with admission rates ranging from 14% to 5%. I’ll continue doing that throughout the year. Uniformly, the people I’ve talked to know our kids and our school. They have great relationships with Jill and Ellen. They certainly understand our real grade distribution and the rigor of our students’ BUA and BU schedules, which is clear on our profile every year. But there’s better news. They talk about those things as an advantage for our students, not a disadvantage. Our students have already demonstrated that they can succeed in a highly competitive college classroom. And between the BU courses they take, the senior thesis, clubs, and other special opportunities, students get a chance to show deep engagement in an intellectual area — engagement that colleges don’t always see even from top students at peer independents schools. To quote one dean, “Your students’ passion for learning jumps off the page; that’s what we are looking for.”

Here’s the sobering part: none of this comes close to a guarantee of admission. The rise in applications to the most selective colleges over the past several decades has been tremendous, driven in part by the incentives of ranking systems and by international applicants. These schools regularly reserve a significant share of the seats in every entering class for recruited athletes and give significant plus factors to applicants in other special categories, like children of alumni and development prospects. All this means that funnels for the most selective places have narrowed even further and that colleges that may not have been considered highly selective a decade or two ago are now in that rarified air. BU is a good example, with an acceptance rate in line with Wellesley College, Colgate, and the University of Michigan. Particularly in an uncertain admission season, the BU admission agreement for BUA graduates has never been more valuable.

My biggest concern in all this is that the focus on admission rates at best misses the mark and at worst is a disservice to our kids. I fully understand the desire among some parents (and students) to shoot for the most competitive “name-brand” schools; with an uncertain economic future — where the jobs so many of our students will do one day have yet to be invented and where international competition is rising — we want to give them every possible advantage. And “name-brand” schools seem to offer the promise of economic success and happiness. The evidence I’ve seen contradicts that. I regularly talk to BUA alums and alums from the two independent schools I’ve served at over the past sixteen years. Some went to the most competitive Ivy League schools, others to highly selective non-Ivy schools, others to places that are not as well known or competitive. I’ve found no correlation between how competitive a school is to get into and the fulfillment and career success of these young people. The happiest, most successful alums are the ones who found a college where they could thrive — where they made connections with professor/mentors who guided them; where they made lifelong friends; where they took full advantage of the rich extracurricular life on campus on took on leadership positions; where they threw themselves into their coursework and distinguished themselves from their peers; where they were happy. What they did in college mattered far more than where they went. That’s why our team here at BUA focuses so much on match — making sure our students find in their next home what they found at BUA: a place where they can take full advantage of the resources available to them and where they can be themselves. There is so much research and writing on this theme. I’ve often returned to Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be and William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, but there are so many more. 

I wish our seniors the best of luck during what I know is a stressful time. The team here at BUA is here for whatever you need.

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