(Writer’s note: Last week high school seniors across the United States learned if they were accepted or rejected by the college of their choice. This post is for them and their parents but all are invited to read along.)
“Ain't no man can avoid being born average, but there ain't no man got to be common.”
--baseball pitcher Satchel Paige
“Did I get in?” That was and is the question. After months of anticipation, praying even, it all comes down to the mundane act of tearing open a thin white envelope or clicking on a blinking email link. “Welcome to the freshman Class of 2013 at ____ University!” or “We regret to inform you that after careful consideration…”
An admission before I weigh in on this college admissions dance of rejection and acceptance: I’m pretty far removed from it. I have no skin in the game, no children. When I received my college admission letters from two schools, it was the ancient days of Jimmy Carter and disco! Times have radically changed in higher education since then. In 1979, when I applied to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, if you were an average student with average grades and average SATs (bingo on all three for me) and were a state resident, you just got in. No worries. A “yes” was a given.
So it is with a mix of wonder and horror that I watch the yearly higher education scramble. According to The New York Times the average aspirant to the freshman class of 2013 submitted nine applications. Many schools experienced double digit increases in the number of applicants in just the past year: UCLA (11 percent), Saint Lawrence (15 percent), Boston University (19 percent), and Skidmore (42 percent). College admissions are more competitive than ever before. Acceptance rates are lower than ever before. Just ask the 35,000 folks who got the big brush off from Harvard University, 94.2 percent of its applicant pool.
But even more confounding to me than this collegiate competition is how so many young people (parents sometimes too) put so much weight upon and give so much power over to, whether or not this school or that school says “yes” or “no”. How colleges and universities, with their oh so powerful selectivity, seem to possess such a say upon the “worth” and self view of all these young souls. Does it really matter so much where one goes to college? If I fail to get into Harvard or a “top” school and am forced to “settle” for a UMass or a Westfield State College, does this make me “less than”? Ruin my future? Dash my hopes? Destroy my dreams?
And what about the “average” kid, the one who gets “Bs” and “Cs”, who is not in the upper percentile of his or her class rank, who does OK on the SATs but is not a scholar? He works hard but he’s not in the “elite”. She busts her tail on the sports field but is not on the first string, is a good kid but is not really “good enough”, or so it seems. How does it feel to be average this time of year? Any time of the year in our hyper-competitive world? What about the ones who don’t go to college, who join the military or pursue a trade or courageously follow some inner call?
So here’s a radical thought, just my opinion. Where a person goes to college, the address, the setting, the name recognition, the cache or lack thereof: it really doesn’t matter. Not in the largest and most important sense. Whether or not you get picked or overlooked by a college, or study in a lab or build a house or work in a factory: it doesn’t determine who is “in” and who is “out”, not spiritually. Just because “USA University” thinks a person is “good enough” or “not quite good enough” will never, ever decide our ultimate goodness as human beings.
So high school seniors: who you bring to college is what really matters. You, as a person, a soul, an amazing bundle of character and uniqueness. You are a one a kind miracle. No one else in all Creation is quite like you. You may be average, like me, but you are not common. Who you are is so much more meaningful than the specificity of your school choice, the level of your SAT scores or the pile of acceptance and rejection letters sitting on your desk.
Reminds me of the words of the Psalmist, who in a prayer written to God thousands of years ago, declared, “For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” (Psalm 139)
Wonderful: made by God, shaped by God, loved by God, accepted by God: that’s an acceptance letter every last person should receive and re-read on a regular basis! So whether or not a young person finds themselves next September studying on the banks of the Charles River or hunkering down over a textbook at Framingham State University, she, he is already good, very good. Not because of any outward “yes” or “no” but just because of God’s inward lifelong embrace.
You see in God’s view, you already got in. And those rejection letters? Put ‘em in the recycling bin. That’s where they belong.