A teenager recently told me that he was worried that he might not win admission to the University of Georgia Honors Program. This from a kid with perfect scores on the SAT and a grade-point average well above 4.0.
Given all that, I told him, UGA President Michael Adams ought to deliver his invitation to the honors program in person.
But he’s not alone. This time of year, jittery high school seniors all over the country are putting the finishing touches on their college applications, and they’re worried. (I’ve been through it, and I’m relieved to be on the sidelines this year. With my two oldest children in college, my challenge has shifted to paying for school.)
Somehow, we’ve scared kids — even those in the top 1 percent — into thinking that their chances of getting into the right college equal those of winning the Powerball.
True, admission to the nation’s most selective colleges has never been harder. In 2009, Ivy League schools admitted 15 of every 100 high school seniors who applied.
But there are hundreds of good colleges that have attainable admissions criteria.
“Going to Harvard is not a happiness pill,” says Katie Malachuk, author of the new book, “You’re Accepted: Lose the Stress. Discover Yourself. Get into the College That’s Right for You.”
Unlike college guides that advise kids to load up on Advanced Placement courses or take four SAT II tests, Malachuk tackles the process from a spiritual viewpoint, writing a sort of Gandhi’s guide to college admissions.
While her book offers practical advice, she’s less interested in helping teens discover the perfect campus than in helping them use their college search as a path of self-discovery.
Of course, the nail-biting high achievers aiming for the Ivies might argue that Malachuk can afford to be serene; she already got her admittance letter from Harvard, graduating in 1996.
However, Malachuk emphasized in a recent interview that her path to Cambridge was far from direct or easy.
As a high school senior, Malachuk was crestfallen when Duke University, her first choice, rejected her. She chose to enroll at another prestigious school, Northwestern.
But she found herself increasingly depressed, isolated and dangerously thin from overexercising. (In retrospect, she says her unhappiness had less to do with the college than her own uncertainties and unrealistic expectations.)
In her sophomore year, a despairing Malachuk dropped out, went home to Maryland and took time to decide what she wanted. Her favorite course at college had been a seminar on women writers, which led her to volunteer with the National Organization for Women and to decide to major in women’s studies.
In her essay for her transfer application to Harvard, she opted to be candid and not sanitize her messy post-high school years, admitting, “I’d gone to a college I didn’t like, had a total meltdown, dropped out of college, and moved home.”
Her life has taken some unexpected turns since Harvard, underscoring the main point of her book: Some of the best moments come when people step off track to follow their hearts.
After graduation, Malachuk joined Teach for America and taught third grade in Oakland, Calif.
She went on to become the program’s director of admissions, getting a taste of what it was to read earnest applications and interview candidates.
She started law school, stopped, then pursued an MBA from Stanford. Given her academic track record, a friend joked, Malachuk was the ideal person to offer advice about getting into a college, but the last person to talk to students about staying.
Driven by fear that other people felt she had yet to grow up and get a real job, Malachuk took her MBA and went to work in Boston as a strategy consultant. Several months into the job, she found herself talking to her boss about whether her next project would be cost-cutting for a cosmetics company or a staffing redesign for a credit card firm.
That became her “Aha” epiphany, Malachuk says.
“The thought of actually doing the work made me want to run to the bathroom and weep into my sweater set,” she said. “I realized I could either spend my time trudging along as a consultant, or I could flow through my days as a writer and yoga teacher.”
Embracing her own advice to follow your bliss, Malachuk now teaches yoga in Manhattan and counsels prospective MBA students. She has also done a lot of pro bono college counseling with students and their parents.
“A lot of parents and kids are looking for permission to exhale, to realize that they do not need to be as worked up as they are,” she says. “They need to know that they can make this process something more than someone saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You cannot pin your life on what other people think of you.”
Malachuk acknowledges that it can be painful when teens are refused admission to Vanderbilt or Emory.
“I’m not going to lie; it’s a bummer,” she says. “But having faith means trusting that you can get through anything, and your story sure doesn’t end with your acceptance or rejection from college.
“I want to make kids understand,” she says, “that life is much bigger than this moment of whether or not they get into a certain college.”