College Applications: Why top students fail

College Applications: Why Top Students Fail

The college application process is undoubtedly a daunting one. Students spend all their pre-college years preparing themselves to go through unpredictable admissions processes with the hopes of getting into a top college. Indeed, it is likely the first time a student confronts uncertainty. It can be stressful, time-consuming and a lot of students and parents get lost in the process.

Naturally, many cognitive biases will be triggered in both student and parent and cause a host of bad decisions throughout the process. At the end of the day, it’s bad decision-making more than anything else that can ruin admissions to the ivy leagues. But it is also the one area that parents can help their children with. Hence, having a good strategy and following it is the very best, most helpful thing you can do for your child.

This post will show you how to strategize well in order to make the best possible decisions, and consequently achieve the right outcomes.

Let’s start off by looking at why some top students fail to get into their dream schools.

College Applications: Why Top Students Fail

A majority of parents and students begin the college application process in the following manner: they dwell on which colleges to apply to, the best way to tackle the application process and how many acceptances they will receive. That method not only triggers cognitive biases along the way but also makes college applications much more stressful than they should be for both your child and yourself.

Your child is already stressed out about staying on top of classes, balancing academics with sports and extracurricular activities, spending enough time with family and friends, and sleeping at least 8 hours a day. The fierce competition that college applications fuel further impairs their welfare, pressures them to tweak their test-taking abilities and exaggerate their resumes—things which warp the whole purpose of higher education.

You, as a parent, experience anxiety and stress over various things: your goals and dreams for your child and family, separation anxiety, finances, fear of failure and the unpredictability of the admissions process.

The uncertainty and unpredictability are what drive everyone crazy. Students who are used to getting perfect grades, i.e. 100 out 100, are now subject to a situation where even if they have straight As, there is no guarantee that they will get into a top college. That is because there is no standard grading system. In many parts of the world, there is one very hard exam. If you score well on it, you get into the top schools. But the US admissions system is “holistic” so there is no standard testing procedure, and if there is standard testing procedure, then there is still no guarantee.

It is similar to what investors face when they plunge into the markets. Faced with a losing investment, investors would rather take a loss so they can be certain about what’s going on than continue to face uncertain market conditions when their analysis says to stay in. This phenomenon is completely irrational, i.e. it doesn’t maximize returns or, put another way, it doesn’t get you the result you want. It is so common there is a term for it—a very common cognitive bias called risk aversion. What’s happening is that the investor is overweighting certainty, e.g. taking a loss and ending the nightmare, over what is most likely to happen, e.g. the market is likely to recover and earn a profit.

Risk aversion is most clearly seen in families when they decide on where to apply for early admissions. Let’s say a student has a good chance of getting into Harvard, his first choice school, but the family cannot deal with the stress (from uncertainty) of waiting another five months. So they apply to Cornell early. The problem is Cornell is early decision so the student must enroll, thereby forfeiting a chance at Harvard. They know they made a mistake when they start wondering “what if” and then start researching ways to get out of the early decisions binding requirement. I have seen this happen to dozens of students every year. I have seen parents push their students to do this. And I have seen college counselors do this as well. Don’t do this.

Here’s what you should do instead: strategize. More on this in the next post —