The Element of Surprise

Each year, in early March, news outlets publish terrifying accounts of the college admissions process, highlighting record low admission rates and profiling students who, despite impressive credentials, are not admitted to their “top choice” school.

From my perspective, these news stories capture a tiny (and distorted) fragment of the overall college application experience. As our office hears from admissions deans and directors, recent GDS graduates, and the parents of graduates, it becomes ever clearer that when it comes to college, sometimes the most unexpected outcome can be the most life changing.

While blogs and bestsellers (we love Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be) provide a great perspective from 30,000 feet, our students wonder: “Ok, what about me?”

The exciting part of my job is when I see these themes play out every day, seeing students rise above uncertainty and leap into the unknown, attending colleges and universities that they had never heard of until they chose to apply.

Erin Gistaro ’12 applied early decision to her “first choice” college. She was prepared to pack her bags and attend immediately, but the decision did not come out in her favor. The next few months were about soul searching, and finding other options along with her college counselor, Matt. Erin ended up enrolling at Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania known for its strong programs in sciences and the arts.

Unsure of what she would find there, Erin threw herself into her classes and the community. Graduating this year, she has served as student council vice president, spoken to hundreds of prospective students and families, and was chosen from among all students in her year to be nominated for the prestigious Truman Fellowship. Erin says that enrolling at Muhlenberg was the most life-changing decision she has made, and that she would not trade the experience for anything.

Zander Guzy-Sprague ’13 knew he loved the outdoors and small classes with intense discussion. In his first college counseling meeting, I suggested that he read about Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. He and his parents had never heard of Whitman, but they took a leap of faith and visited the campus later that spring, and never looked back. Following his first year at Whitman, Zander’s mom wrote that he has never been happier or more engaged academically than during his time at Whitman.

In January, I love seeing GDS alumni back in the hallways, sharing stories about their time in college. They are remarkably honest—some like everything, some like most everything, and some are still figuring it out. What is impressive though is their new perspective—the world is large and uncertain, and yet it is their own response to their daily experience that will determine their happiness and fulfillment, not the bumper sticker on the car, the percentage of students admitted to their college, or the picture in their minds of the “perfect” college back in high school.

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