If you read my previous post, “The Sixth Rule of Applying to College,” you might think it’s not worth applying to a college with a very low admit rate because, statistically, you’ll never get in. You may even think, “Why bother applying to any college since the statistics are stacked against me?” 

These are not the conclusions that I want students to draw. While I do not recommend discarding the lessons I shared in my previous post, applying to college is not a hopeless or impossible endeavor. Within reason, it is worth a student’s time and energy to apply to schools that may be difficult for them to be admitted to. 

How can this be?

Stockdale’s Paradox

As a college counselor, I want students to be realistic about their chances of admission. At the same time, I want students to be hopeful, ambitious, and confident that they will be admitted to great colleges that look like a reach. While statistics do not lie, statistics are not the whole story. 

This seeming contradiction is echoed by Stockdale’s Paradox introduced in the book, Good to Great, by Jim Collins. 

In this well-known book for business students about successful companies, the author introduces us to Admiral Jim Stockdale, a prisoner during the Vietnam War who suffered unimaginably during eight years of imprisonment. Stockdale survived and later devoted his life to studying philosophy through a unique perspective that helped him persevere throughout one of the most challenging situations a person can find themselves in—years of solitary confinement. During his time as a POW, he paradoxically held two conflicting ideas in his heart and mind at the same time: he was hopeful that he would survive and return home, and he also fully acknowledged the hopelessness of his current situation. 

Jim Collins explains the thinking that Admiral Stockdale embraced: “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” This is Stockdale’s Paradox.

What Lessons Can Students Draw From Stockdale’s Paradox?

While applying to colleges should never feel as hopeless as the circumstances that inspired Stockdale’s Paradox, there is a great deal of wisdom to draw on for almost all college applicants. 

I believe all students applying to college should have a balanced list of schools that meets a variety of criteria and that is, at the same time, balanced in terms of admission chances. Regardless of the individual student’s grades, test scores, and other qualifications, they should have a list of colleges that will be easier to get into, colleges that might be a bit more difficult, and probably a few schools that look statistically quite challenging for admission. 

Stockdale’s Paradox provides a helpful perspective for all students—even those who are not applying to highly-selective schools—because they will likely have at least one school on their list that looks statistically difficult for admission. By considering Stockdale’s Paradox, I believe students can find a supportive principle to lean on through what is, at times, a difficult rite of passage into adulthood. 

There is no sense in hiding the truth that applying to college is hard work. There are many important decisions to be made while applying, including costs of college, values, and future goals. And there is a lot of hard work in completing applications, writing essays, sitting for standardized exams, and getting the best grades possible. 

Throughout this process, I always want my students to face the challenges of applying to college with a clear eye about how inherently difficult the process can be while also keeping a positive outlook about all of the profound and exciting experiences that are to come in their future—during college and beyond.

If you are interested in guidance about how to successfully navigate the college admission process from an Independent Educational Consultant with years of experience, please feel free to contact me. It would be my pleasure to help you approach this milestone in your life with balance and confidence.