I once had a counselee tell me that his neighbor’s friend’s cousin’s whatever (I forgot the specific relation) told him that if he applies to one Ivy League college, he might as well apply to all of them. Ivy League colleges are “all the same.” Plus, he will “never know unless he applies!”
I liked this kid. He was smart, clever, grounded, and hardworking. I tried to conceal my eye-roll at the naïve advice he received, likely unsolicited, from some adult in his orbit. The Ivy League could not be made up of more distinct institutions. And while he was an otherwise impressive young man, his transcript and test scores did not make him Ivy-eligible. To be even considered in the Ivy League pool, this young man would have had to rewrite his entire academic record, earning higher grades in more honors and AP classes. I was excited to work with him and recommend him (in my counselor letter) to colleges for the person he was, not the person he was not.
I didn’t tell him this. Doing so would have iced our relationship before it even started. Instead, we danced around the point a bit and squinted at the telling admission graphs. I told him to “throw them on the ‘considering’ list.” And then I redirected the conversation: “What is it you like about some of the Ivy League schools? Size? Campus culture? Academic programs? Location?” “What are you looking for?”
There are indeed Portsmouth Abbey School students in each graduating class who are Ivy-eligible and even Ivy-admitted, but that’s not the case for everyone. Each year we monitor nearly 1,000 unique application decisions for the graduating class. And then, we compare notes with our friends at peer schools. Then we attend conferences and connect with our colleagues on the college side to better understand that year’s landscape. Such insight doesn’t make us clairvoyant, but it does make us well-informed about what it takes to be competitive at uber-selective colleges. We also take the time to know our students.
Well-meaning adults who are far removed from the acute elation/pain associated with college acceptance/rejection often forget that applying to college asks students to do more than just click send. It demands that students spend, in great quantity, three finite resources: time, emotion, and money. It takes real time to write essay after essay, and most selective colleges require one or two or more supplemental writing assignments. That writing process is intense. It asks students to plumb the depths of their being to figure out what they really want. It asks them to research each college deeply to state exactly why they want to attend that particular place. As any decent writer knows, the first draft is hardly the final copy; revision takes forever. As Stephen King reminds us in his memoir “On Writing”: “To write is human. To edit is divine.”
Then there is the emotional piece. This exists no matter what school the student is applying to, but it becomes intensified when there is a perceived pressure to apply only to Ivy League institutions. The moment a student hits submit, he is thinking, “well, maybe there’s a chance…?” He imagines the feeling of opening the happy email, of the hugs and high fives, of moving into that dorm, of walking across the stage to receive his Ivy League degree. Even if the student’s logical brain knows there is a 3% chance of acceptance (looking at you, Harvard), he still thinks, “well, maybe…” And that magical thinking makes a negative outcome on decision day (which the Ivy League has done all on the same day, historically) particularly devastating…especially if the student applied to every Ivy.
Finally, there is the sheer cost of it all. Each application costs between $50.00-$100.00 to send. Submitting test scores costs $12.00 per school. If a student applies to all eight Ivy League colleges, it would cost them close to $700.00, at a minimum.
As a policy, the Abbey College Counseling Office never tells students they cannot apply to a particular college. But it is also our policy to traffic in reality and be honest with our counselees. One size does not fit all, and students should think about what they want to study prior to deciding where they want to study. As we have noted before, there are great colleges, fantastic professors, and smart kids everywhere.
As for my counselee, he made it through just fine. He did his research, built a college list, wrote several essays, spent valuable hours in my office, and applied to multiple schools, but not to any Ivies. He received both positive and negative decisions and was correspondingly happy and sad. He deposited to the school of his choice and was excited to start his new academic journey.