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Applying to the College of “Everyone Gets a Chance”


Applying to college today is a grown-up’s job.

When I was 16, I learned to parallel park. I was a semi-accomplished pianist, an actress and singer, a lifeguard at the local pool where I worked on my tan and my social life. My thoughts were focused deeply – exclusively – on the here and now – grownup-hood seemed imaginary and remote.

College was the furthest thing from my mind.

Remember it was the early 90’s. Montreal kids lived at home, went to CEGEP, a then minimally challenging educational pit stop, and then it was onto McGill or Concordia. That was my path. It was all of our paths.

But we now live in a different world.

The stakes are higher. College applications are a Darwinian contest where fitness – and everything else – matters.

High school seniors are conditioned to be anxious and competitive. Though their physiological wiring remains consistent with teenagers through time, today’s teens subscribe to a psychology that is cutthroat and unforgiving. They may not be able to vote – some can’t even drive – but there is an expectation that today’s crop of college applicants be well-rounded, well-travelled, worldly, empathetic, and emphatic.

The available literature pushes the narrative that colleges are unwavering in their recruitment campaigns; they want ‘the best,’ the top 1%, the ideal on-paper applicant that, to be sure, does not exist in real life.

It’s simple math: nail your ACTs. Build schoolhouses in the developing world. Get elected class president, be captain of the varsity, maintain a flawless GPA. And hire consultants, because normal humans are not capable of perfection.

The essence of the perfect candidate is a construction, a man-made mythology that serves as a basis for teenage angst.  But here’s a truth: everyone can go to college, maintain their sanity, and have a happy life.

Try this idea on: ditch the culturally engrained logic. Research what’s out there – because there’s a whole lot of college for all sorts of smart. Be strategic. Be savvy. And never forget: be yourself.

*Elaine Carsley is counselor-in-chief of collegial., a Montreal-based admissions advisory firm

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