Opting Out of the Rat Race

Every single day I feel relieved that we found out about college in Europe at the beginning of our son Sam’s high school experience. As I’ve said before, the college a41zKSAir7mL._AC_US160_dmissions process in this country is something that bothers me just as much-if not more than-the problem of the outrageous cost of college. Since our kids will eventually go to college in Europe, our family will avoid the frantic aspects of college preparation throughout high school.  Instead of going to financial aid workshops or driving kids to and from SAT prep classes, my evenings can be spent in my sweats on the couch with a glass of wine. Sam will have a manageable workload that will allow him free time to pursue his own interests, spend time with friends, participate in family events, have time to relax (aka play video games) and get adequate sleep each night. I will not feel the need to micromanage or monitor homework compliance. Sam will know it’s ok to make mistakes and will be able to learn from them.  Sound like Utopia?  It’s a real option since choosing college in Europe allows parents and kids to opt out of the admissions madness that goes on in this country.  The next few blogs will focus on what I’ve learned while reading Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deresiewicz.  This week I’ll look at the impact the admissions process has on high school students and the difference for students who choose to apply to European schools.

Excellent Sheep paints a picture of the US college admissions process and what it is doing to the lives of high school students and their parents. Deresiewicz talks about how, for high school students, “the purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of leaning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can’t put on your resume. Hence the constant sense of competition”.  He notes the “way of life organized around the production of measurable virtue in children. Measurable, here, means capable of showing up on a college application.”

So, other than kids being busy, what is truly wrong with this process?  One problem is that kids aren’t able to find their passions in life. They’re too busy for such a frivolous goal! Deresiewicz notes that the level of activity leaves teens “no time and no tools to figure out what they want out of life or even out of college.  Questions of purpose and passion were not on the syllabus”.  He says that “young people are not trained to pay attention to the things they feel connected to”.

I think a huge problem is that there is no way that kids can achieve enough. The goal is to be the best, and since the admissions process looks at so many different components of students’ lives, there will always be someone who is better in one of the areas. Deresiewicz says,  “The only point of having more is having more than everybody else. Nobody needed 20,000 atomic warheads until the other side had 19,000. Nobody needs eleven extracurriculars either-what purpose does having them actually serve, unless the other guy has ten?” This ‘more is better’ mentality is so engrained into our society, though. I was recently chatting with a neighbor who mentioned that her son, a rising junior in high school, will be taking 5 AP classes next year.  When I asked why he was planning to do this, I was told that it was because he had friends who had done it.  Even if he graduates with 11 AP course and perfect grades, there will be someone else who has more sports, more clubs, more community service, better SAT scores or a better essay.  It’s simply never enough.

Let’s contrast this with the European admissions process. At most schools, the admissions process is less competitive. There is a set of published criteria and if you meet them, and there is room in the program, you are admitted. Rolling admissions is often used, which means students are being compared to the set criteria, as opposed to other applicants.  Even in the schools that have more competitive admissions, the procedures are transparent.  Alto University’s International Business program makes admission decisions based 100% on SAT scores. Mediocre grades? Doesn’t matter. No sports?  That’s fine.  Total transparency.  At Sciences Po, kids who make it to the final round of admissions are invited to an interview in which they are given an article about a current event and have 30 minutes to prepare a structured analysis, which is then presented to an admissions panel. This is a true assessment of critical thought, not arbitrary achievements.

So what’s different in our lives, since we will be opting out of the US admissions process? Sam will take AP courses since he is interested in schools in the Netherlands, where American students need to have 4 AP courses with scores of 3 or higher (unless he gets an IB diploma).  However, there is no advantage given to those who get a 5 over a 3 on the tests or have 6 AP’s courses over 4 courses.  This takes a lot of stress out of the process!  Sam isn’t looking at any schools right now that require SATs or ACTs.  He will still take them to keep his options open but it doesn’t matter if his score is better than other applicants as long as it meets the criteria.  Thus, we don’t need to worry about extra time in a classroom (and cost) taking a prep course for the test.

Just as importantly, this different mindset allows Sam time to explore his interests. He can try things out without feeling like he needs to commit to them for the duration of his high school career in order to look good on college applications.  He went to a camp this summer to spend two weeks kayaking along the outer banks of North Carolina. Sam enjoyed the experience without feeling pressured to make it a hobby when he returned home. What he does love is learning about, and thinking about, the conflicts in the Middle East.  We get him books he requests and he has long talks with his grandfather about the current issues.  He tried Model UN (which would be a way to “commodify” the interest) in middle school and isn’t interested in participating in high school.  That’s totally fine. What is important is that he is connecting to something and developing passions. We are finding that in doing so he is developing goals based on those passions.  He wants to be proficient in French and Arabic by the time he graduates high school.  Arabic is a hard language, but Sam doesn’t have to be afraid of taking academic risks, since the European admissions system allows for a margin of error not provided by the US system. These classes are now more meaningful since he is connected to them.

I am hopeful that there will be some sort of reform around higher education that involves the hyper-competitive admissions process, but since Sam is 15, we can’t wait any longer. I am thrilled that we have the options in Europe that allow us to reject the lifestyle required by US college admissions process. If you are interested in learning whether this would be a good option for you, we can help.

Beyond the States is here to guide you on your student’s journey to college, whether you just want more information to see if college in Europe is feasible or if you’re ready to opt out of the US college system altogether (like we are). If you just want to learn more, then here’s what to do: first, engage with us on social media, sign up for our weekly newsletters and attend one of our upcoming webinars. If you’re ready to take more concrete next steps, then become a member.

The US Admissions Rat Race

Other than the already sky-high and still increasing tuition, another concern I had about sending my own rat racekids to universities in the US was the high-stress admissions process.  I believe that high school should be used to explore interests and find out what really speaks to you. Instead, college-bound students in the US are often pressured to spend high school performing and producing in order to look good to colleges. The book, Race to Nowhere, spoke to the incredible pressure put on high schoolers these days, Many of who are encouraged to take as many AP classes as they possibly can, resulting in 6 hours of homework a night in addition to the clubs and sports they participate in.  Speaking of clubs and sports, instead of exploring different clubs, sport and activities in an attempt to find their passion, students are encouraged to “demonstrate depth of involvement in extracurriculars as opposed to breadth” 

The reasons for these pressures are real.  It’s no longer just the elite Ivy league that have the incredibly low acceptance rates.   The list of the 100 schools with the lowest acceptance rates from US News had a number of surprises.   Schools I hadn’t even heard of were on the list, like College of the Ozarks (MO) and Alice Lloyd College (KY). Both of these schools had an acceptance rate of less than 9%, which was lower than Brown, University of Chicago and CalTech.  I was also surprised by the number of state schools on the list including a number of CUNY schools, USC (18%) and UCLA (18.6%).  Race to Nowhere noted that the college admissions process is like “going through the eye of a needle”.

navianceThere are all these other admissions based stress enhancers like prep courses for the ACT and SAT and the Naviance scattergrams that compare a student’s grades and test scores to past applicants to help determine their chances of admissions. Really though, we’ve all heard stories that point to the seemingly arbitrary nature of college admissions and point to the crap shoot it has become. Frank Bruni put it well in his book, Where You Go is Now Who You’ll Be, “The admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit”. And yet so many of us do…

My son would not be a good player in the game of college admissions.  He has good grades, but nothing else that would really stand out on applications.  He’s works out, but he’s not an athlete.  He’s more of an introvert so doesn’t enjoy clubs and such.  He’s interested in international relations, knows more about the specifics of the issues in the Middle East than most people I know, and is an avid reader.  While those are qualities that I personally value and think are important indicators of college readiness, they don’t look good on a college application. Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that the admissions systems in Europe are different.

The first thing to recognize is that, in Europe, the schools don’t use admissions rates as an indicator of, well, anything.  The reputation of the school is not generally linked to how selective it is.  Let me tell you about this incredible process used at many schools that is so different from the processes here in the states, that many people have trouble understanding it. It’s called “non-selective admissions”.  At many universities, there are a set of criteria that international students must have to apply.  This might be a certain ACT/SAT score, a set GPA, a certain number of AP courses, or as little as a high school diploma that would qualify them for higher education in their own country.   Students who meet these criteria are accepted. Period.  It doesn’t matter if they have a higher GPA than the one required, more AP courses, etc.  They aren’t being compared to the other applicants, rather they are being assessed to see if they have the qualifications needed to enter the program.  Highly ranked universities, such as the research universities in the Netherlands, use non-selective admissions.

Even schools that use selective admissions will seem like a walk in the park compared to the US.  First of all, these programs often use rolling admissions so if you meet the qualifications and you apply when there are still spots in the program, you will be accepted in short order. Again, rolling admissions means that applicants aren’t being compared to the other applicants as much as they are being assessed based on their own qualifications.  Motivation letters are usually used instead of essay prompts. As opposed to using the letter to sell yourself or answer some strange/creative questions like in the US essay prompts, the Motivation Letter is used to assess whether you and the program would be a good fit. Admissions counselors want to learn through the letter (and sometimes through a Skype interview) not only what you bring to the table, but why you think the program at their university would best suit your own needs and future goals.

Finding a “best fit” school is a crucial aspect of the selection process.  College in Europe will not be right for everyone.  The academic and social life is quite different than that in the US and students need to be comfortable with an experience unlike the one their peers from home will have. That said, with over 1,500 programs to choose from, it’s likely several will appeal to students who are interested in avoiding the US admissions rat race, saving thousands of dollars, and spending 3-4 years exploring Europe.  Beyond the States can help you find the school that is your “best fit” and get you started on your way to an adventure in Europe.