What’s Worse Than Waiting to Hear From Colleges? Getting Interrogated About It

As anxious high-school seniors await admissions letters, they face a barrage of questions from adults, forcing them to employ avoidance strategies; ‘How did you do on the SATs?’

The Wall Street Journal

March 8, 2017

By Sue Shellenbarger

Allie Dreier, a 17-year-old from Glen Ridge, N.J., attended a friend’s family gathering recently when the question came up. A relative asked her friend, “What’s your SAT score?”

Her friend fired back, “How much do you get paid?” Ms. Dreier says. Embarrassed, the relative backed off.

At a family gathering two years ago, Ms. Dreier’s sister Missy and her cousin Emma Wishnow grew so weary of intrusive questions that they made signs reading, “I don’t want to talk about college” and held them up for all to see. Their relatives laughed and mostly kept their distance, says Missy Dreier, currently a sophomore at Harvard University.

Ms. Wishnow, a sophomore at Syracuse University, says a few sidled up and said quietly, “I know you don’t want to talk about it with other people, but will you tell just me?”

Anxiety over college admissions is reaching a fever pitch as high-school seniors await decisions from colleges for next fall. Making it worse, students and parents say, is a barrage of unwelcome and inappropriate questions from prying adults.

Sales of T-shirts reading, “Don’t ask me about college. Thanks,” are rising on Redbubble, says Martin Hosking, chief executive of the online marketplace based in Melbourne, Australia. Some parents make their homes a college-free zone and ban all talk on the topic.

Spencer Neville, 17, has started dreading social encounters with adults.

Ms. Neville, a senior at Derryfield School, a Manchester, N.H., preparatory school, is awaiting word from colleges about whether her applications have been accepted. Although she won’t know for several weeks where she’s going next fall, she gets grilled every time she leads visitor tours on her high-school campus or attends family gatherings.

“Every adult you meet, all they want to talk to you about is, ‘Where are you going to college? What do you want to study?’ ” she says. She wants to be polite, but “talking about college is the last thing I want to do.” Ms. Neville says. “They ask, ‘What’s your top school?’ and I say, ‘Oh, I don’t have a top school'”—and changes the subject.

All the talk is driven partly by growth in college applications overall. More high-school students are going on to college, and each is applying to more schools on average.

Applications rose 6% in the fall 2015 season compared with the 2014 season, according to an annual survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an Arlington, Va., professional group. “That makes everything feel a lot more competitive,” says David Hawkins, a senior executive for the association.

The admissions process is dragging on longer for more students. Some 10% more students applied early for a Dec. 15 decision in 2015 compared with 2014, NACAC says. And 16% more students were offered wait-list positions in 2015 than 2014, leaving some in limbo as late as August.

It isn’t uncommon for students aiming for competitive schools to apply to as many as 10 colleges these days. Harvard says it received 39,041 applicants for its Class of 2020 and accepted 5.4%.

Also, admissions data fly so fast and freely on social media that some adults treat it as common knowledge. “People aren’t going to walk up to someone at a cocktail party and ask, ‘How much do you weigh?’ But they’ll ask a student, ‘How did you do on the SATs?'” says Brennan Barnard, Derryfield’s director of college counseling.

A college-selection tool called Naviance used by many high schools enables students to compare their grades and test scores to others from their high school who have applied to a college in the past and been admitted or rejected.

“Parents start talking about the data and they talk to their neighbors and their kids about it until it permeates the town,” says Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington, D.C., educational consultant and author. In some affluent suburbs, “it’s in the water,” he says.

The ability to mine data is turning more adults into oddsmakers. “Some parents will parse to death the statistics and achievements of competitor candidates already accepted or rejected by their child’s target schools, trying to predict outcomes,” says Sally Rubenstone, a senior adviser at CollegeConfidential.com, a forum on college admissions and selection.

The speculation peaks just as students most need a break. Many have spent two years or more making college lists and visiting campuses. By the time applications are in, “a lot of seniors feel like, wow, I can finally be a high-school student,” says Derryfield’s Mr. Barnard.

One mother kept quiet on Facebook when her son was admitted early to his No. 1 school, in an effort to be considerate, says Jane Shropshire, a Lexington, Ky., college consultant. She later learned that because she hadn’t trumpeted the news, other parents assumed her son had been rejected.

Many students try not to reveal their No. 1 choice. Asking teens their dream school is like making them announce that they have a secret, unrequited crush, says Shannon McGinley, a Bedford, N.H., parent. “What if they don’t get in? Then people are saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, you didn’t get into your No. 1 choice.’ And it’s #Loser.”

En route to a family gathering over the holidays, Ms. McGinley warned her son Corey, a high-school senior, about such queries and suggested he “divert the question like a politician: ‘I don’t know about that, but I’m really looking forward to being on the East Coast somewhere.”

“It certainly felt like an interrogation every time I crossed paths with a family member” at the gathering, Corey says, adding that he didn’t mind answering some of the questions and can understand why people are curious.

A good rule of thumb for adults is to avoid all acronyms, says J.D. Rothman, a Santa Monica, Calif., TV writer and author of “The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions.” “Don’t ask about ACTs, SATs, GPAs, UCLA, UNC—anything with initials.”

After all the applications are in, Ms. Shropshire advises students to tune out the noise from peers and adults and immerse themselves in arts, sports, academic or community activities they enjoy.

Encourage teens to have fun, Ms. Rothman says. Rather than asking, “What are you going to do if you don’t get into Wesleyan?” she suggests, “What are you going to do if you don’t get into Coachella or Bonnaroo”—popular music festivals happening soon in California and Tennessee.

And to adults who approach with questions, Mr. Goodman suggests a friendly rejoinder: “Uncle Joe, if you don’t mind, I’m taking a month off from this.”

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