Media commentary aptly warns about the highly competitive admissions standards, discourages students from placing so much value on any one school, and reminds us that a good education can be found just about anywhere. Elite colleges are sometimes the target of harsh criticism, though. Sometimes it seems that journalists highlight every possible drawback to reassure the rest of us that we're okay despite never having attended one of these colleges.
Unfortunately, some critique moves beyond the colleges and targets the applicants, themselves. Applying to these institutions is viewed with suspicion, and perceived as merely a stepping stone to Wall Street. Students are stereotyped as entitled, prep-school kids or anxious superachievers, obsessed with the outward symbols of success.
Parents of student applicants are portrayed even more negatively. Labeled as pushy elitists preoccupied with their child's future earning potential, they are accused of turning their poor children into bleary-eyed overachievers, chained to the desk... or computer... or piano... or ballet barre. Rumors and accusations regarding how a child (possibly could have) gained admission become the subject of hushed speculation. Bitter, snarky comments suggest that it must have been a legacy admission, or that thousands were spent on SAT test prep, or the family must have donated to the school. The heightened competition can bring out the worst in families and communities.
Okay...yes, there are some parents who hover, indulge too many of their own personal hopes and dreams, and pressure their children. This behavior is not exclusive to gifted children, though; it happens everywhere. And yes, some gifted teens are overachievers who place added burdens on themselves and expect to always succeed. But overachievement, perfectionism and high expectations are not exclusive to giftedness either.
In reality, the majority of gifted teens are not overachievers in hot pursuit of perfection and awards. Most just want a good education.
A challenging education has eluded many gifted children due to rigid school policies that have marginalized their needs. So college looms large as that one last chance to grasp an enriching learning experience. Many believe that they finally might be able to rekindle that intrinsic love of learning lost long ago. And at the very least, they no longer have to hide their curiosity and academic interests to fit in.
Five reasons gifted teens pursue admission to elite colleges
It is time to dispel the speculation and myths about college choices. Here are five reasons gifted teens consider a highly challenging college (and they are not what most people assume).
1. Finally, they can learn
It is well-documented that gifted students are undereducated, often bored, and frequently coast through classes with little effort. Most schools focus on at-risk students and/or teach-to-the-middle, and the needs of the gifted are overlooked. Gifted students often breathe a sigh of relief when they arrive at an elite college, where the academics are intensive and fast-paced, and where class discussions include like-minded peers.
2. It's the money, honey
Elite colleges typically offer the most generous need-based financial aid. This is a critical and decisive factor for many low-income and middle class families, who find that these schools are sometimes more affordable than their state flagship university. Elite colleges are much maligned for their sticker price, which unfortunately shuts out upper middle class students from aid. Even then, the price is often no higher than costs at many other private institutions.
3. A place they can call their own
Many gifted students feel like outliers in high school. Although some mask their abilities to fit in, others never feel they belong. School seems built for other kids - the athletes, the popular kids, the students who appear to thrive with the education that is offered. College presents an opportunity to embrace a new setting and culture, a place where innovative ideas are encouraged, and a diverse environment where students hail from many regions. Gifted students might even feel pride about their school - for the first time.
4. Finding their niche
As outliers, gifted students often struggled to fit in during high school. If they found a niche, it may have included other "outliers" as well - for example, in theatre, robotics, chess, debate team, or band, But the niche expands and becomes normalized in a college environment filled with other highly talented, intellectually engaged students. It is no longer weird to display intellectual curiosity, passion for learning, intense drive, and a thirst for knowledge. And it is a comfort and a relief to find like-minded peers who feel the same way.
5. Testing their limits
Gifted students just might get to challenge themselves for the very first time at an elite college. As suggested in a previous blog post, there are disparities in the demands and intellectual challenge of classes at different colleges. When students coast through high school, they never gain perspective about what it means exert effort, build resilience, or learn from failure experiences. Some may hit a wall in college, where they find that a class or subject seems too difficult, and they must ask for help - often for the first time.
Of course, most students can find a way to meet their academic and social needs at any college of their choosing. Even those gifted students who might benefit from the intensity and challenges of an elite college may not be accepted or choose not to attend. It takes a particularly well-developed "resume" to gain admission at most elite colleges, the likelihood of acceptance is uncertain, and many families cannot afford the cost if they do not qualify for need-based aid. Success in life does not depend on attending a highly competitive college.
However, an elite college may offer the best fit for some gifted teens in search of a challenging education. They should not be discounted in response to media critique or disparagement. Some of the critics may not have had personal experience with these schools, may be responding to an encounter that went awry, and may be cherry-picking information to support their opinions. Before you completely dismiss elite colleges as an option, understand your financial needs, learn more about admissions requirements (and whether it is worth your child's energy to apply), and most importantly, determine if a particular college would be a good fit for your child.
Final note: I have no stake in the game with this commentary. I attended state universities for both of my undergrad and graduate degrees, so I have no personal "attachment" to elite colleges. I am commenting based on my observations as a psychologist who works with teens and college-aged adults, a parent, and an advocate for the gifted.