Friday, April 4, 2014

April 1st is no joke for some gifted high school seniors

April 1 can seem like consolation day for many gifted high school seniors. And it's no joke. College admissions letters have been received, and many families have to accept that their gifted child will not be attending the college of choice. With acceptance rates less than 10% at many highly selective colleges, even exceptional students are shut out. 

How can a family know what to expect? 

When gifted children are young, many parents assume that high school success will translate into an array of college choices. A recent blog post highlights the surprise that occurs when a highly gifted child is rejected from a wide range of schools. The author was astonished, and admonished U.S. colleges for overlooking truly gifted children. 

And on April Fool's Day, many families are left with feelings of bitterness and anger. They may believe they have been deceived and betrayed; their student’s hard work and effort was ignored, and raw talent and ability overlooked. It feels like consolation day and it's not very funny.

Why do so many gifted children get rejected from colleges they are presumably qualified to attend?

When highly selective colleges are inundated with applications, they have to draw the line somewhere. They have quotas, priorities and long-range goals, along with financial burdens. While most would likely prefer to admit the most talented, high-achieving students they can find, selecting who fits this criteria is complicated. And the sheer number of academically successful applicants is astonishing. National Merit Finalist Valedictorians with 2300+ SAT's are viewed as commonplace, and most will be rejected without some additional, compelling characteristic. 

College admissions officers at these selective schools will tell you they are compiling a well-rounded, diversified class of students. They claim to use “holistic admissions,” viewing the whole student and not just grades and SAT scores. Yet this term is often seen as a thinly veiled excuse for achieving quotas based on geographic location, race, ethnicity, first-generation status, athletic ability, wealth, and legacy connection (otherwise known as “hooks”). A 2012 study of priorities among admissions officers, for example, identified “underrepresented minority status” and having an “exceptional talent” as the factors that were of greatest importance in decision-making. 

While parents on forums such as College Confidential bitterly argue about the “fairness” of admissions policies, the reality is that most “unhooked” students will get rejected by many of their top choices. Debates rage on, polarizing accepted and rejected students alike, creating suspicion and bitterness, and implicating colleges as disingenuous about the admissions process.

Those “unhooked” gifted students often need to create a profile that is quite exceptional and well beyond the norm. When a gifted, high-achieving student does not possess the "hooks" that will ease the admission process, he or she will need to stand out from the crowd. This may mean performing independent research, excelling at college courses taken as part of dual enrollment, exceptional mastery in the arts, or truly innovative volunteer work. They need both breadth and intensity of focus. Their efforts need to clearly convey their giftedness.

Before applying to highly selective colleges, students and parents need to clearly assess their chances for admission. Look at the highest percentiles for admission at the colleges in terms of grades, SAT scores and other requirements. If your child is in that range, he or she may stand a chance. But realize that application to an ivy league or comparable school (such as Standford or MIT), is almost impossible to predict.

It is essential that these talented students identify less competitive schools that would be a good fit and would readily welcome them. Many schools offer honors programs and other specialized tracks that can provide a great education. Gifted students can excel wherever they go and will find mentors, excellent professors and innovative programs that can stimulate their creativity. Attachment to an "ideal" school is a set-up for disappointment in the capricious, uncertain world of college admissions.

A note to current seniors:
If you have just gotten your letters of admission, hopefully you are relieved and excited. If you received rejections, it is important to appreciate the competitiveness of these schools and not assume it is a reflection on your abilities. It may not seem fair that you didn't get into the school of your choice. But you can use your abilities to thrive wherever you go. And perhaps this experience will help you gain perspective and develop resilience when facing future challenges. Good luck with your decisions!