Tuesday, March 20, 2018

March Madness – It’s Not Just about Basketball

What does college admissions have in common with basketball?  You may think not much, but for many hopeful high school seniors, the nervous excitement in anticipation of a spot at their first choice school creates the same frenzy as March Madness.  March is the month many applicants will finally learn their fate in the maddening college admission process. After months of visiting colleges, taking standardized tests, completing applications,writing essays...and waiting, they will know if their hard work is rewarded with making the final cut.  The critical moment may not be a three point nail biter at the buzzer, but during the seconds it takes to open an email, log-into an account or tear open a thin or thick envelope students experience the same adrenaline rush and excitement. The metaphorical buzzer determines whether they're a winner or loser, and students and their families, the equally anxious fans, will either feel ecstatic or deflated.  But unlike the tournament ending loss for a college basketball team, the season is not over for the graduating senior. There is another equally worthwhile match to get charged up about, even if the student has not yet embraced it. 

Viewing college admissions in March Madness terms is not just about the frenzy. It's about accepting the fact that despite all of the time, effort, qualifications and skills, we don't always get the desired results. While the disappointment of not getting into one’s top choice school is natural and expected, it’s never beneficial to wallow in self-pity too long. A good coach doesn’t berate team members after a loss, nor let them indulge in defeatism. Rather, the smart coach finds the lessons in the experience to better lead the team the following season, armed with new insights and perspective. The coach understands the importance of helping the team and individual players tap into their well of resilience to confidently move on and prepare for the next challenge.  For graduating seniors faced with disappointment, that new perspective means letting go of a fixation on the dream school and falling in love with another, one that is attainable and no less worthy. 

There are also lessons to be gained by the short-lived, but history-making victory of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which handily defeated number one ranked Virginia. The dream run for U.M.B.C. unfortunately ended during its very next game, but the upset that inscribed the university  in the record books also put them on everyone’s radar. In the press reports that followed, we learned that U.M.B.C is as much a powerhouse in producing PhDs as it is on the basketball court. That’s a lot to feel good about, despite the team's second round exit.

U.M.B.C must certainly have been disappointed to leave the tournament so soon after it's stunning defeat of a team that by most measures, was out of its league. Not getting into a first choice school for a college applicant is similarly disappointing but not a disaster. As parents, we should urge our kids to see their glass as half full and to turn their focus enthusiastically to a school that is among their options.  Now is the time to get reacquainted with the things they found appealing about their acceptance schools when they initially applied.  Colleges invite students to experience their campuses first-hand before making a final decision.  Encourage your child to attend accepted students days to see one or more schools with fresh eyes and to connect with other perspective students. Disappointment ultimately fades. The half-full glass attitude means choosing to identify the positive and get excited about the opportunities, both offered and those we make for ourselves. 

How we choose to respond to challenge is what will determine our success and happiness, not the perceived prestige of the college we attend.  Without disappointments we would never develop resiliency.  It's our constant reminder that if we encourage our kids to see setbacks as opportunities for personal reflection and growth, the experiences will only makes them stronger. College admissions is not personal, but it’s not completely objective either. Like a college basketball game, the outcome in an admissions office on a different day, in a different year, might not be the same. Colleges have their own ever-evolving institutional needs that factor into creating a desired class. Most often those directives are not communicated to the student applicants or the public at large, so we never know exactly why one student gets admitted and someone equally qualified is denied. Yes, all the decision factors such as grades, course rigor, test scores, extracurricular involvement and character do matter. But like March Madness, there are lots of uncertainties in college admissions. And just like the teams that don’t fulfill the dream of reaching the final four, students who are initially disappointed in their admission outcome need to get back into the game. It's an opportunity to approach their options with new hope, perspective and excitement.