In my previous post, “Are You Standing on Hot Coals?”, I described the phenomenon of high school students and families feeling like they are standing on hot coals when they believe they are late getting started on the college admission process. 

Hopefully, students who found themselves in that situation called me right away so we could get started on a healthy and productive journey to submitting their college applications. Those who did not contact me have only one option: run away from the hot coals under their feet. 

The moment they run away from the hot coals under their feet, they realize that running away from the hot coals is not enough. Suddenly, they find that they are running in a race against many other students, all working hard to outdo themselves to get into a “good” college. 

This is unfortunate because running in this race is not necessarily an enjoyable experience. Nor is it conducive to gaining real knowledge in high school or probably at any other stage of life. 

Aiming for the “Above-Average” Average

When students and families enter this race, they resign themselves to running as fast as possible. After running for a semester or two, they feel like they are picking up speed. 

At this point, the student likely has buckled down to focus on “above-average” extracurricular activities. They boast several “above-average” items to include in their college applications, such as a good list of AP classes with A’s or B’s and an SAT score better than 80% of all students in the United States. Some even start their non-for-profit organization to raise money for a great cause, join many clubs, rack up volunteer hours and sign up for summer programs on college campuses with brand name recognition. 

About this time, students and parents are feeling pretty proud of themselves. Finally, they think they may just have managed to nail this college admission race and may even “win.”

Falling Victim to the Average “Above-Average” Curse

It is also about this time—late in the junior year or beginning of the senior year—that this type of client comes to me to ask for my expert advice as they apply to a list of well-known, primarily selective colleges. 

They are confident that the list of schools they present is within range because they have undoubtedly positioned themselves quite well. As an above-average student in their school and community, they do not expect me to give them much new information. They typically believe my role is to help them put the finishing touches on the brilliant race they’ve run so far.

This is when I need to tell them the bad news.

They’re suffering from a widespread affliction—being a victim of the curse of the average “above-average.” This little-known affliction can strike any high school student but is prone to target primarily those who aspire to admission to highly selective schools. 

When I break the news, students and families are in shock. “But Dr. Mercer,” they ask, ”how can this have happened? We did everything right. We did everything better than just right; we excelled beyond the average.” 

Above-Average Is Not the Same as Standing Out

Students who knock themselves out in high school to pursue the most rigorous classes, study longer and harder for the SAT than their peers, volunteer for yet another leadership role, or fight to win another extracurricular award often face a harsh truth about applying to highly selective universities. Being an above-average student in their school or community is not the same as standing out in the international pool of competitive applicants who apply to the most selective colleges. 

Unquestionably strong grades, test scores, and extracurricular achievements are the minimum requirements to be seriously considered for most of these colleges. But, once an admission office receives an application like this, it is mixed in with all the other above-average applicants who pursued the same rigorous high school path inside and outside the classroom. 

In other words, a simple click of the “apply” button can turn an above-average student into just an average college applicant. 

Curing the Curse

“Dr. Mercer, there must be a cure!” my students implore.  

Well, yes and no. Some cures might work in the short term, like a “band-aid.”

For example, a student can try to win the race by outrunning, outperforming, and outscoring every other applicant to selective colleges. But that is neither realistic nor healthy. Or a student could choose not to run the race in the first place and give up the goal of admission to a selective school altogether. But, for some students, this is absolutely out of the question. 

What, then, is the long-term cure?

I recommend that students stop the curse in its tracks by doing three important things (hint: #3 is the most important!):

  1. Stop obsessing about the end goal (i.e., getting into a prestigious university). Instead, focus entirely on the process of being a great high school student. Be a good person first and foremost. Enjoy what you are doing and studying. Take pride in all of your accomplishments right now, and don’t wait for some type of approval that you’ve been a good student or person only when you get admitted to a particular college.
  2. Accept that accomplishing anything challenging takes time, hard work, and planning. Great college applications are not created overnight. 
  3. Do not wait until junior year to start planning the college application journey. Students and parents who think they have plenty of time to start thinking about college applications are confusing the practical steps of filling out an application with the hard work that goes into an enriching and authentic high school experience that begins as soon as students start high school. 

I definitely see my role as much more than helping you put the finishing touches on a brilliant race. From the start, I see myself as your coach and game-planner to support you while you enjoy your journey (not a sprint race!) to college. If you’d like that kind of help, I would love to share all I have learned about the path to a successful college admission during my many years as an Independent Educational Consultant.