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Thoughts about University, Magic Tricks and Finding the Best Fit
Thoughts about University, Magic Tricks and Finding the Best Fit

Thoughts about University, Magic Tricks and Finding the Best Fit

by Damien Pitter, YIS University Counselor

As a counselor, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is: "What does my child have to do to get into a top university?" It's a difficult question to answer, partly because there is no single answer, and partly because it's the wrong question. It almost equates university admission with a magic trick.

A magic trick is composed of three parts: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige. In the Pledge, the magician shows you something ordinary–a rabbit in a box, or a deck of cards. In the Turn, the magician makes the ordinary thing do something extraordinary–the rabbit disappears, a volunteer from the audience is cut in half. If the trick ended there, it wouldn't be magic, it would just be unsettling. The Prestige returns the extraordinary to ordinary, puts the bunny back in the box, returns the audience member unharmed to their seat. It is the Prestige that allows us to take pleasure in having been tricked.

But back to universities. We have rankings and league tables, standardized tests, percentiles and grade distributions. We use words like "top," "best," "elite" and "prestigious" when we talk about universities. We have a great many ways of designating one the best of all. But what is that really worth? How does one decide on the best? There are rankings, but who is doing the ranking, and based on what criteria? Unless you know specifically what you want to be best at, "best" is not useful as a universal designation. Many universities have moved away from this kind of language to describe themselves in terms of selectivity. It may be subjective to say that one is an elite university, but quite empirical to say that it is "highly selective." But does the fact of a university being difficult to get in to make it better? I think we need another paradigm.

There is no universal best. We have to ask, best, at what? What we need is not a universal scale by which to measure all universities, or all students for that matter, but a question of "best fit." We need to match the specific needs of a program with the required abilities and preferences of the person who might take it, in order to determine the best fit between study and student. When we advise students in the search for universities, we start by helping students to understand themselves­–what they love, what they are good at, and what is important to them in order to search for post-secondary options that will best fit them individually.

About a year ago, the Education Conservancy and the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project put together the Turning the Tide report, which begins with the acknowledgement that by requiring students to be a wider range of things than just smart, the process of admitting students to university could help to make the world a more caring place. The report recommends factors beyond academic scores to be considered in the admission process, such as meaningful and sustained community service; authentic and meaningful experiences with diversity; contribution to one's family; and contribution to others. More than 85 well-known (primarily American) universities endorsed the report when it was written and the list has been growing since.

It is our hope that when universities consider our students, they will do so in the same way they encourage students to look for universities, in the "best fit" paradigm. For this reason, we do not rank students or provide percentile information or grade distributions. Nothing about a student with an IB score of 35 changes depending on how many students had a higher or lower score. That student will continue to be the same person, with the same abilities and attitudes, regardless. We evaluate our students against the standards of our curriculum, rather than comparing them to each other, and encourage universities to do similarly.

Additionally, our Global Citizen Diploma is designed to facilitate "best fit" matches. Rather than placing all students on a universal scale, from best to worst, the GCD is a descriptive diploma that allows students to describe their education and achievements qualitatively. It doesn't seek to demonstrate who the best students are, but to illuminate what is best about each student. Because each student's story is more than numbers.

So rather than ask, "What does my child have to do to get into a top university?" I think the better question goes something like this: "What can my child do in order to become the most authentic, engaged and fulfilled version of themselves that they can possibly be by the time they apply to university?" This would be a great question even if universities didn't exist, but it also happens to be what universities are looking for. Students should do the best academic work they are capable of, and beyond that, there is no checklist of required experiences. It is not necessarily better to play a musical instrument or play on a sports team. It depends entirely on who they are and how much those things genuinely matter to them.

Getting into university shouldn't be a magic trick. There is no Turn that will transform you into what a university wants to see, no Prestige to normalize it afterwards. If you trick a "best" university into accepting you, what happens when you have to spend the next three or four years living and studying there? The Pledge is the thing. Not to conjure the appearance of being interesting to others, but to authentically be interesting by pursuing what's interesting to you and to use the application process–essays and interviews and credentials like the GCD to present who you have become as a result. If you do that and apply to universities that are interested in your particular brand of awesome–the ones that are the "best fit" for you–you stand the best chance of having an enriching university experience.
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