It is mid-February and love is undeniably in the air—as well as the walls, floors, and ceilings of my local supermarket. Remember the simpler days, when a valentine was a note one got from a crush at school? It was that experience of a letter in the mailbox that made one’s heart leap—with the knowledge that the person one loves feels the same. Something similar takes place in college admission. While students and families often think in terms of “because I did such and such, I deserve to get in,” the reality is more like a person who returns your valentine. "I like you and you like me, so let’s make a match.” As Clint Eastwood said in the movie Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Many high school seniors are wondering if they will receive some love from college admission offices in the coming months and juniors are beginning to flirt with their college search. What follows are some love songs and tips for approaching this college courtship ritual with intention:
“Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places”
It is increasingly understood that applying early decision to a college or university often boosts a student’s odds of being admitted. The unfortunate result for some applicants is that they go looking to fall in love with one school, to which they will apply under a binding contract. This manufactured approach rarely ends well and can result in frustration and disillusion. Anyone who has been in a meaningful relationship can tell you that love usually strikes unexpectedly. Those that go looking for love and try to force emotion, can eventually find themselves in a relationship that lacks authenticity and organic connection. One who is intent on finding the perfect match can artificially create an attachment that is not built on shared values or interests, but rather on surface level attraction. Frequently, when one stops searching forcefully for love it strikes randomly at will. Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder." Love is no different. Perhaps it will be found in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the gym, or maybe even sitting in the waiting room of an admission office. The point is, if one is open to falling in love, but not desperate to do so, they might find themselves overwhelmed by an unequivocal connection that is unfettered from strategy and yearning.
“Is This Love That I'm Feeling?”
For a 17 year-old (and frankly for many adults), it is difficult to know what true love feels like. It is a hard-to-unpack emotion and can feel visceral and uncontrollable, but is also subject to the rational mind. “Is this the one?” people wonder, “am I ready to commit?” Eric Furda, dean of admission at The University of Pennsylvania says, “the paradox I see in admission, and love, is that at some point students are compelled to declare their one true love (early admission programs), but at other times in the process need to step away and see the wider field." He suggests that "the concept of the ‘ideal partner’ may not have a place in the college search process, lest we set ourselves up for disappointment and denial.” However, Furda adds, “In the end, I do believe the vast majority of students find their true love, it just may come from previously unexpected places and takes an open-minded person.” By exploring a range of potential opportunities and staying open to being love-struck, we will better know when a match feels right.
“How Deep is Your Love?”
At their best, online dating sites and apps like Match and OkCupid are good sources of introduction and connection. At their worst, they are misleading and demoralizing. Those searching for a partner make snap judgments based on a brief profile or maybe just a picture. With a quick swipe left or right, love seekers narrow their choices with little depth or appreciation for the story behind the image. Cindy Barr, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at Appalachian State University says, “Dating and navigating the college search are more similar today than 15 years ago. Prospective students can research their potential partners and their potential colleges on Google, Instagram, and Snapchat before having to commit to a date or an interest form.” She adds, “Of course, they would be wise to remember that often you are seeing the ‘highlight reels’ in both cases.” Barr believes that it is important “to understand that no person and no institution is perfect.” She suggests that “thinking deeply about the experiences you want and what you value as you navigate your search will help ask the right questions and guide your decisions, whether you are talking about a prospective partner or postsecondary institution.”
Anyone who has had their heart broken will tell you that it can be painful. When one gets “dumped” by a college that they have been wooing for months or years, it can feel equally as crushing. Affirmations like, “it’s not you, it’s me” do not go far in softening the blow from the one you love. Likewise, when admission officers say, “we had a record number of applications,” or “this was our most selective class ever,” it falls on deaf ears. Feelings of rejection and self-doubt prevail. Yes, there are “a lot of fish in the sea,” but this is the fish you wanted to catch and that disappointment can be deflating. In a blog post
about college admission denials, Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech writes, “Get back to your team, your job, your clubs, and your family. Take some time to look around at practice or over the holiday break at the relationships you have built. Be reminded of the community you created and the bond, closeness, and sense of belonging you feel. They want you with them. They love having you as part of it all. Being denied sucks. I feel your pain.” He adds, “Preparing yourself for ‘no’ means looking at a deny not as a hard stop, but rather as a pivot. People think they are looking for the perfect college. You need to be looking for the perfect mentality.” While love can hurt, heartbreak can often lead to new opportunities and connections. It is important to remember that there are many people, and schools, that would feel fortunate to enter into a relationship with you.
“Life I Love You, All is Groovy”
Love starts from within. You have probably heard this idea that to truly love another, you must be accepting of yourself. This holds true in college admission as well. Are you proud of your strengths, values, and accomplishments? Do you have a solid sense of self and understanding of why you do the things you do and why you want to go to college? This is an ongoing process of discernment, but one that is important to continually embrace. Before you go looking for a match, ask yourself, what do I love about my life? What brings me joy and when do I feel in my groove? Then set about looking for a partner in that journey of self and community that will bring out your best.
“Love the One You’re With”
The number of college students who transfer schools at least once in their pursuit of a degree hovers around a third of all matriculants, which while better than the nation’s divorce rate (nearing 50%), is still unsettling. Often we are quick to look for something better when we find fault with what have. Taking the time to make a good match when searching for a college is as important as dedicating oneself to getting to know a partner. Brian Troyer, dean of admission at Marquette University explains that “there are wonderful universities that aren’t a good fit for all students, and there are fantastic students who aren’t a good fit for all universities.” Once this relationship is found, know that it will take work for it to be successful. Troyer advises that “love is at its best when both parties bring something meaningful to bear on a relationship, and when the individuals involved are improved by the relationship itself,” and he argues that “the same can certainly be said about an individual student and their college of choice.” College, like any relationship, will have its highs and lows but if you commit to your experience and to those around you, then you are less likely to become one of those statistics of separation.
As Valentine’s Day approaches and college admission decisions loom on the horizon, do not get discouraged. Embrace the opportunities that await, rather than focusing on the love you lost. In this season of affection, don’t despair if you are not passionate about one person, place or thing. It can be liberating not to be too attached, so welcome the benefits of openness and allow the match, like Thoreau's butterfly, to come in its own time. Meanwhile, whether for a college or individual, be sure to express the love that you do have in meaningful and authentic ways.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project