In the mid-day haze following a 4 AM After-Prom chaperoning experience at an arcade, I’ve been reflecting on the year before and the year ahead. Perhaps this is what four hours of go-carts, laser tag, and skee-ball encourage you to do. More likely, it just happens to be May. In the world of education, this is my New Year’s Eve, my time for reflection and resolutions.

a75942xaadnAs a college counselor at an independent school, late May is especially conducive to rumination. The seniors who once (rightfully) complained about the roller coaster ride of the college admissions process are now in the thick of choosing roommates, selecting fall courses, and nursing quite significant bouts of well-deserved senioritis. The have been accepted, and a certain contentedness–not unlike the joy referenced by David Brooks in his interview with Christianity Todayreigns supreme. At this point, our conversations are less about submitting applications and financial aid forms and more about the excitement of what’s ahead. This is a refreshing development each year. Underlying this quite joyful spring, however, is a disconcerting fall.

You see, each fall begins with a seemingly interminable fear of rejection. I try to teach my students to use the term “denial” instead of “rejection” with the hope that they don’t attach their college admissions decisions to their own self-worth. The fact is, students are worried that their hierarchy of needs will be woefully unmet come May 1st, the nationally recognized deadline for students to submit deposits at their collegiate home. They will have either been awarded an acceptance and showered with all the love commensurate with such an achievement, or they will have been rejected and deemed worthless and, frankly, not-good-enough.

cover_where_you_go_is_not_who_youll_beThese well-informed students are keenly aware that, at the most well-known institutions, the cards are stacked against them. Take Stanford and Harvard, for instance. Both of these schools admit around 1 out of every 20 applicants. And, these applicants are not your typical cross-section of American high school students; they are the best and brightest from around the world. It’s not uncommon for American seniors, knowing these dire statistics, to shoot off 15, 20, or even 30 applications. Frank Bruni’s new book, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, documents this rise in applications well. This mud-slinging method is predicated on the faulty logic that if you throw enough, something has to stick. Right? Please?

It certainly does not help that much of what gets reviewed during the admissions process are data points: GPA and grades, a litany of test scores, and, class rank. Where would we know how “good” we are without a class rank that compares us to our peers? The Law knows no bounds.

More existentially, the students–and their parents–from around the country ask the same question: Am I good enough? Sometimes this question might be phrased differently–Haven’t I done enough? or What do I need to do to get in?–but the core belief underlying this fear-laden quandary is that an offer of admission is nothing less than a confirmation of one’s work and one’s worth. All of the activities, the obligatory community service, the late nights foregoing shenanigans in favor of that AP Biology lab report have led to this moment. Did I sacrifice enough? Will I get rewarded for what I’ve done? Or, if these works don’t lead to an offer of admission, enter absurdism. All is for nought.

I’m amazed each spring when, in spite of the Law, grace abounds so abundantly. My students tend to fare well. They are all admitted somewhere, and most, I hope, are happy with their choices. As in years past, the fear of fall has thankfully given way to the joy of spring.

What I worry about–and what I was thinking about at After-Prom at 3:30 AM in the middle of my third game of Escape from Jurassic Park–is whether or not this process has only instilled and encouraged the continuation of this futile rat race for acceptance. For some, the college admissions process or the “I need to be accepted by whatever means necessary” may never end. When we rely on external judges to determine our self-worth, our broken desires can never be satiated. We will never be made whole by a thick envelope from ________ College or University.

On the flip side, we will never be less loved because of a thin envelope either. This is the Joy of the Gospel (ht Francis I). Some parents have taken note of the need for grace amidst the harshness of highly selective college admissions.

One of the most grace-drenched articles that I’ve read this year was a Bruni column about college admissions. At the end of the article was a letter written by two parents to their son on the day before he was to receive his big news, some of which would be very painful for him. In their letter they wrote:

Dear Matt,

On the night before you receive your first college response, we wanted to let you know that we could not be any prouder of you than we are today. Whether or not you get accepted does not determine how proud we are of everything you have accomplished and the wonderful person you have become. That will not change based on what admissions officers decide about your future. We will celebrate with joy wherever you get accepted — and the happier you are with those responses, the happier we will be. But your worth as a person, a student and our son is not diminished or influenced in the least by what these colleges have decided.

If it does not go your way, you’ll take a different route to get where you want. There is not a single college in this country that would not be lucky to have you, and you are capable of succeeding at any of them.

We love you as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, all the way around the world and back again — and to wherever you are headed.

Mom and Dad

These parents know the kernel of truth that is too often overshadowed by the rankings and high-stakes testing: Our kids need love, and their worth is not tied to their résumés in the slightest.

Regrettably, the contemporary admissions brinkmanship is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. I’ll continue to assuage parents and seniors in the fall that an offer of admission will materialize. But, perhaps this reality serves as a reminder or even a corrective. We must seek our value not in “the process” but in unconditional, unending, and all-forgiving love.

For this spring and the upcoming fall, my prayer for our students and their families is that they would not forget that we have been accepted and even invited to dine with the Lord at his own table. We are loved, we are desired, and we are accepted–even if we earn a couple of denial letters along the way. Where there is Law, let grace break through.