March Madness

Boys’ basketball at the State Final Four (PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

As March comes to a close, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief. It’s almost over. The college application season is almost done. Seniors have heard from all of their schools and now they’re faced with making a decision about where they will spend the next four years.

March is a tough month. I refer to it as March Madness. Most people think about college basketball when you ask them about March Madness. And rightfully so. Every March, people hedge their bets on which college basketball team will win it all. As someone who doesn’t play or follow sports, I’m amazed at how intense people become watching these basketball games. Heck, I’m amazed just hearing them talk about it. People who used to be pretty calm now are super intense. I don’t follow basketball, but I know that there are at least a few people here at The Stony Brook School who are really excited that the University of South Carolina Gamecocks (is that a real mascot?) have made it into The Final Four for the first time in school history. Like I said, people are pretty intense about the outcome of March Madness.

March Madness is the perfect way to describe how I, many other college counselors, and thousands of high school seniors probably feel during that two-week window when college decisions come out. And yes, we’re right in the thick of it now. It is March 25th as I write this blogpost. I know that in a week, all of our seniors will have received the majority of their college decisions. And just like the fans watching college basketball, there will elation or utter disappointment.

But unlike college basketball, these emotions are much more personal. Because if we make the analogy complete, the student is the player playing the game, not the fan watching it. Just like that athlete, he/she has invested time and energy into preparing that application. The submission of the application is gametime. The decision that follows feels like victory or defeat.

I suppose that I would be concerned if it didn’t feel like that for a bit. After all, no one enjoys getting denied admission. I choose to use that phrase instead of rejected because I think it is a more accurate description of what’s actually happened. The school didn’t reject students, they simply couldn’t accept them. The truth is that Harvard could admit four classes of freshmen and be completely happy with each class. This could be said of every elite institution with a lower than a 20% acceptance rate. They have more admissible applicants than they have room for. And so they have to start making some really, really hard choices. And at least some part of their decision will be driven by institutional priorities. For instance, does the school need more men/women? More women engineers? More tuba players? It’s hard to know what goes on behind the admissions curtain and guess at why a student wasn’t admitted.

So what perspective can a student take on this whole process? Well, I hope it won’t be the same perspective as fans have about their favorite basketball team in the NCAA playoffs. Because in the Final Four, there can be only one winner. But if a student really thinks that there is only one “winning” school out there for him/her, then they have set themselves up for disappointment. It’s about fit and ultimately making the decision to attend a school where the student’s strengths, talents and contributions are welcomed and wanted.

I’m not sure how it happened, but the college admissions process has taken on a tenor of frenzy and almost being out of control. We have lost perspective on the college application process. We’ve traded self-reflection for self inflation/deflation. If a school says yes, it validates all the hard work we’ve done. If a school says no, somehow the message is “I wasn’t good enough”. . Anxiety and self-doubt have become the companions on this journey. And somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that a single college decision will determine whether we have succeeded or failed. Let’s gain back some perspective. We don’t have to believe that where we go is not necessarily who we will be. It’s far more important what a student does in his/her four years than what college he/she attends. If a student is willing to maximize the opportunities, they can go anywhere and do anything.

Parents can be be a huge help in helping their student gain a healthy perspective after decisions have come out. It’s important to understand the disappointment, but not to express it to the student. And as students are struggling to make sense of “what went wrong”, parents can be a huge factor in helping students recognize all that actually went right.

I want to end with a letter written to a high school senior from his parents. It was written well before any college had decided to accept or deny his admission. I hope that it will give encouragement to both students and parents that as one door closes, another will open.

Dear Matt,

On the night before you receive your first college response, we wanted to let you know that we could not be any prouder of you than we are today. Whether or not you get accepted does not determine how proud we are of everything you have accomplished and the wonderful person you have become. That will not change based on what admissions officers decide about your future. We will celebrate with joy wherever you get accepted — and the happier you are with those responses, the happier we will be. But your worth as a person, a student and our son is not diminished or influenced in the least by what these colleges have decided.
If it does not go your way, you’ll take a different route to get where you want. There is not a single college in this country that would not be lucky to have you, and you are capable of succeeding at any of them.
We love you as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, all the way around the world and back again — and to wherever you are headed.

Mom and Dad

(Taken from Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be)


I meant every word that I shared with you during our class meeting. It really has been my privilege to get to know and work with each of you. Thank you for sharing your stories and your very selves with me. For me, the best part of being a college counselor is getting to know each student.

And while I know that some of you didn’t receive the decisions you were hoping for, I’m confident that you will continue to be the young people of character I have come to know and forge ahead.

In a few days, look at the colleges that really want you to come and be a part of their community. They will be lucky to have you. When you get there, take advantage of opportunities that will allow you to use your God-given gifts and talents. Bless others as you have blessed the community here.

I want to end with the same verse I shared with the seniors last year. It is as true this year as it was last year:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11


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