Varsity Blues

To Cure the “Varsity Blues,” Start College Tours with a Healthy, Informed Attitude

By Scott Friedhoff

Just when you thought the bubbling cauldron of anxiety and frustration that is the college search process couldn’t get any worse, along comes the Operation Varsity Blues admissions scandal to drop a helping of righteous anger into the mix.

When friends visiting from out of state, whose oldest son is soon to be a senior in high school, recently asked me about the college selection process, their agitation was palpable. Because I’ve worked in admissions and enrollment at six selective institutions over the past thirty years, the topic is a frequent one when friends and family visit.

The crux of their worries? Their son is not a straight-A student. (And they’re not in a position to offer six-figure inducements to open a “side door” in the process.) They see the college rankings and read national media coverage that focuses obsessively on the increasing and incredible competitiveness of admission to Ivy and near-Ivy institutions, and as a result they are in a near panic about him getting into the right college.

But as I sat and talked with this young man about his achievements, interests and talents, I saw a very different picture develop. As we talked about his academic career, you could see the tension: a C in algebra in his freshman year seemed to him to pose an almost insurmountable obstacle to admission to a good college, even though since that time he has been taking solid courses and earning all As and Bs at a very fine public high school.

When we started to talk about politics, however, this student visibly relaxed. He knew inside and out the issues that seem likely to dominate the next presidential election cycle, as well as where each candidate stands on major issues, and could recount many details of the last election as well. He loves studying about international relations and reads the Economist and Financial Times. His knowledge of global geography compares to most students’ knowledge of their hometowns. He writes well and even writes letters—by hand!—to friends and relatives. He has a glorious hunger to learn.

When our conversation all too soon switched from presidential campaigns and the strength of the dollar back to the college search, I was pleased to be able to rattle off a few dozen terrific colleges that would read his application for admission carefully—looking beyond the C in algebra—and focus on his ability to contribute to their institution’s sense of community and how he would make that college a better place with his interests, skills and talents. The smile on his face broadened with each college I mentioned.

That conversation reminded me that there are many—too many—families who agonize over the college selection process because they focus too much on what their students lack, as if an A in freshman algebra magically opens doors that otherwise must stay closed forever, rather than on what their sons and daughters have to offer first-rate institutions. Many families do not investigate, for example, Colleges That Change Lives, a must-read book by Loren Pope, to discover the truly wonderful places that love students with a passion for learning, a desire to produce new knowledge through research, and who want to be part of a culture where cooperation, not competition, is the norm. Too many families base their understanding of the competitiveness of the college admissions process on the few stories that the media publish, even though those stories typically feature only ultra-selective schools that represent just one or two percent of undergraduate enrollment.

I hope, as the summer tours of colleges begin, that families will explore broadly the many first-rate colleges to be found across the country—and that, rather than mourn a C or worry about whether their son or daughter will “get in” one of those ultra-selective schools, they will celebrate their child’s accomplishments and strengths and find the college that will welcome them with open arms because it is the right fit for both the student and the institution.

Dr. Scott Friedhoff is vice president for enrollment and college relations at The College of Wooster, a private, residential liberal arts college in Wooster, Ohio.