College admission is not a zero-sum game.

Shortly before admission decisions were expected to hit inboxes, the parents of a student I had been working with through the arduous process of applying to college asked to meet with me alone. 

When they came into my office, they sat down with worried looks on their faces. “We have made a terrible mistake,” they confessed.

A Drastic Change in Perspective

As our conversation began, they explained to me that up until just a few days ago—ever since their student had started middle school and well before I began working with this family—they had had a very clear set of values guiding their hopes and dreams for the type of education they wanted their child to experience. 

Years before, when we had first met, I was impressed with their open-minded, well-balanced approach to their child’s education. They were focused on their student’s well-being, happiness, and authentic learning. They were aware that their student was stronger in certain academic subjects than others. And while they never expected less effort in classes the student didn’t like as much, they understood it was probably normal to have strengths and weaknesses. 

They also realized that just letting their child “be who they are” and not pushing for more achievements, could result in the student not being as competitive for highly selective, brand-name universities. In essence, they understood the “Second Rule of Applying to College”—that every choice has a consequence.

But now, as they sat in front of me with furrowed brows, it was clear that something had changed. 

When I asked what was wrong, they told me that they believed they had made a huge mistake by not pushing their student during high school to take harder and harder classes and to be busier and busier with extracurricular activities. And by not urging their child to sacrifice well-being and happiness for higher test scores, higher GPAs, and more awards. All of which could translate into getting into a certain “good” university. 

To be honest, I couldn’t fathom why this drastic change had occurred. I was surprised that it happened with this family because they had been so clearly set in their perspective for years before I met them. 

Seeing the Admission Process as a Zero-Sum Game

Eventually, what I realized is that this family had changed their perspective to see the college admission process as a zero-sum game. 

That is, either their child would get into said “good” university or any other result would be simply the opposite of “good.” There was no longer a gray area; it was either good or bad. 

The truth is, it was very clear from the beginning that this one particular “good” university (which was very popular with many students in this family’s hometown) was always going to be a “reach” for this particular student because their grades and test scores were lower than the averages of other applicants for this university. And as such, the student had been focused on other great colleges and universities that truly fit them academically, socially, financially, and all-around felt right. 

In fact, the student was perfectly happy with the list of schools to which they had applied and was looking forward to getting admission letters from several of them.

Realizing When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Once admission decisions had come out, the family asked to speak with me again. This time, all of them together. 

I’ll be honest, I was imagining that this was going to be an even more difficult conversation filled with regret, frustration, and sad feelings about being denied admission to the “good” university. But I was wrong. 

They walked into my office with a spring in their steps and smiles on their faces. And they explained how devastated they were that their student did not get into some of the colleges to which they had applied. But before I could even offer words of wisdom, they enthusiastically described to me how excited they were about the many colleges from which the student did receive offers of admission. 

After nodding my head and listening to all three of them (at times talking over each other), one of the parents said something that has stuck with me for years. And it inspired the topic for this blog post: “You know, applying to college is not a zero-sum game. When one door closes, another opens.”

This is something I hope to impart to every one of my students!

There are many things I have learned during my years as an Independent Educational Consultant—some through professional training, others through working with my clients. And I would like to use my extensive experience to help guide you through your own college admission journey. If you would like to know more, please contact me.