How is College Admission like Christmas Shopping?

Here in New England, we are bracing for another snowy winter. The gales of November have already arrived, causing thermostats to inch up ever so slightly. Thanksgiving is past, and Christmas trees and menorahs are lighting up in home after home. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone. Malls and local stores across America are filled to the gills with excited holiday shoppers. It is a joyful time in America, as folks all across the land wrap up their Christmas presents and shove them under the tree or mail them off to loved ones in faraway lands. I was marching through the corridors of the Natick Mall, marveling at the sights and sounds of holiday shopping as people of all ages, nationalities, and colors descended upon the holiday bargains, when a strange parallel struck me: the similarities between Christmas shopping and college admission. 

First and foremost, Christmas shopping is all about finding the right present for the right person. College admission is about finding the right college for the right person. Just as not everyone can have the 77-inch LG OLED TV, not everyone can land a spot at Harvard. But, there are lots of other great televisions out there! After all, LG can only make so many TVs, and Harvard only has so many spots to offer for admission. Of the 45,000 applications it will receive this year—all of which represent students of exceptional ability—Harvard can only accept 1,600, meaning that 96% of all applications will be rejected.

Of course, everyone knows that a great present loses its impact if it is not properly wrapped. Conversely, a beautiful wrapping job can make up for a present that might not be suitable. It is the job of a college counselor to accentuate the positive attributes and accomplishments of each student in order to make him more attractive to the college. Rather than focus on the ‘C’ he got in physics, we emphasize the ‘A’ he got in mathematics. Further, we find ways to describe and string together activities that tell a story about the applicant’s leadership ability, or dedication, or community spirit. We also help them come up with great topics for his Common Application essay and college supplements, and help with revision after revision until the final product looks as beautiful as a big box with a bow sitting under a Christmas tree.  Yes, at least part of the value of a college counselor is the ability to create a big, beautiful package that will attract the attention of colleges.

Just as gifts and gift recipients must be matched, so must be students and colleges. After all, a 77-inch LG OLED TV is not the right present for someone who never watches television, just as the latest release of Tom Petty’s anthology is not the right present for someone who does not like rock ‘n’ roll. Even a gifted college counselor is doing his student a disservice if he helps her get into the wrong college. MIT, U-Chicago or Caltech can be a disaster for a student looking for a fun, well-rounded academic experience, while Amherst, Williams, Bates, or Colby are terrible choices for students who want to attend college near a big city. 

As a college counselor, I consider all my students to be gifts, and my job to package them as attractively as I possibly can. That is where the essays and interviews help a lot! Essays and interviews are like the wrapping paper and ribbon that make each gift more attractive. Perhaps essays and ribbons are not going to create a better student, but they are going to make him or her a more attractive or less attractive as the case may be. In college admission as in gift giving, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A great present may lose its luster if presented in a lousy package, just as a wonderful student can miss out on the academic experience of a lifetime if he writes poor essays or flops during his interview. In fact, I know of at least one student who did not get into Harvard simply because he “failed” his interview. Otherwise, he was a strong candidate, but Harvard felt that his demeanor during the interview earned a failing grade. So if you don’t think packaging is important, you had better think again.

It is now early December, just 1-2 weeks away from Early Decision in Early Action notifications. By then, Hanukkah will be over, and Christmas will have not yet begun. But for most of the students the decision will be the Grinch that stole their happiness. For some, the holiday season will be joyous as they revel in their newly framed acceptance letter from the college of their dreams. For others, college admission work put off until after early decisions were rendered must now be resumed and completed in the next few weeks. Happy early decision day and Happy Holidays for all!


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