The Truth About College Admission

Ask most high school students or adults to give word associations with “college,” and they typically respond with: freedom, opportunities, friends, learning, or other broad and generally positive, hope-filled language. Ask them to respond to “college admission,” and you’ll immediately see facial expressions change, breathing quicken, and language narrow to terms like stress, judgment, expensive, tests, denial, or even fear. Recent admission scandals have only served to augment consternation and negatively reinforce a tension-filled, limited approach.

The Truth about College Admission is a guide designed to help families bring hope-filled language into their college search and selection in a way that is desperately missing. It is intended to broaden readers’ view on the landscape of American higher education; to give families tools for having intentional and honest conversations about broad subjects like aspirations, as well as practical matters like money and time; and to approach visiting, applying to, and ultimately selecting colleges in a healthy, unified, and balanced manner.

Unfortunately, at most high schools around the country, the counselor-to-student ratio is several hundred to one. Families do not have access to basic information about the best way to go about creating a college list, maximizing their visits to college campuses, or understanding how and why admission decisions are made. After working in colleges and high schools for two decades, and with the help of colleagues from around the nation (who we consulted and quoted heavily in this book), we not only make all of that information available— but also digestible and enjoyable for families to read, consider, and discuss.

We co-authored The Truth about College Admission because the media and college rankings too frequently focus on a limited set of universities in our nation, and because there is too little information about how college admission really works— and simultaneously a great deal of misinformation and speculation about what is really happening behind the scenes in admission committee rooms on college campuses.

The truth is that too many people talk about the college admission “process” and view it merely as something to endure or survive. There are tests to take, deadlines to meet, essays that “have to” be written, incessant waiting for admission decisions to come back, the fear of being rejected, and ultimately the painful reality of paying for college. Our guide challenges that mentality and approach. We implore families to view college admission more as an “experience”— as an opportunity for students to consider why they want to go to college— to articulate and focus on their hopes and goals. Experiences teach us and shape us. And by nature they are meant to be shared. This guide helps families to do just that.

Much of the market is filled with how-to books about “getting in” or tips and tricks that seem to imply there is a formula to follow or a precise and universal path to specific colleges. Our guide is different—we do not attempt to walk anyone directly to the gates of a particular college (which, based on recent national events, may instead lead to the front page of newspapers or the gates of a prison), but instead point families back to what they can control.

Families cannot control the competition within, or volume of, specific applicant pools. They cannot control how an essay will be received by a particular committee on any given day. But they are able to control how they support and encourage one another. They do control how they walk into their living rooms and classrooms each day. They can control if they are going to gossip, brag, ridicule, deride, or contribute negatively to threads on social media.

We wrote this book because while we believe deeply in helping students find the college that will be their best match, we know it is equally important for families to arrive on campus healthy, unified, and truly together.

Brennan Barnard is the director of college counseling at the Derryfield School and US Performance Academy. He also serves as the college admission program manager for the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project. Rick Clark is the director of undergraduate admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Together, Barnard and Clark are the authors of The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.