What Parents and Kids Need to Know About the Absurd Game of College Admissions

On the night my son graduated from high school, he collapsed onto the couch, head in his hands, and whispered in desperation, “This is not what I thought would happen.”

Sixteen months earlier, we’d begun the college search with the highest of hopes, fully believing that upon graduation, he would be headed to college. Not just any college, but the college. A soul-mate college. We traveled through states and time zones in a grail-like quest propelled by a core belief: somewhere on the horizon, a special university exists just for our son.

Tens of thousands of other American families begin the college search process this summer and fall, each family with its own beliefs and expectations.

Families just like yours.

For some, the dream will come true. Acceptance letters will align with finances to equal a promising college future.

Yet for us and too many other families, the search ends in heartbreak, confusion and anger. Too many times, as a high school teacher, I’ve heard other seniors and families utter the very same words as my son.

“I feel betrayed,” he said. “And used.”

More than ever, media attention is spotlighting the vast and confusing experience of American university. We’ve read those columns and books, too. (Our two must-reads? Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You Are and Jeffery Selingo’s Who Gets In and Why).

Yet we need more voices than these.

Watching my heartbroken son, my own heart ached. I realized: This is a spiritual experience. A spiritual crisis. The college search has the overwhelming power to upend your child’s sense of identity, security, and esteem and, by extension, it will upend yours, as well. If you’re not careful, it can also bankrupt your savings account for decades to come. Built upon the merging of the American Dream and college-leads-to-career belief system, the college search process can activate and trouble nearly all parts of your child’s past, present, and future self.

But it doesn’t have to.

There are legitimate authors — again, Bruni and Selingo — addressing this in clear and powerful ways. Yet, the college search process also needs spiritual writers.

This is our story. Here are the lessons we’ve learned.


The details don’t really matter, other than this: He is a hard-working, high-performing student with a long resume of awards and initiatives. For years, he devoted most of his waking hours to academic pursuits.

(Let’s be honest. Thousands, if not millions, of American students are working 16-hour days. If education were a job, they would be in violation of child labor laws.)

In return, he began to receive a steady form of messaging reinforced by middle and upper class desires:

Where you go to college matters.

And you’re destined for big places.

When he was younger, he’d watch older seniors wear college sweatshirts to school — Dartmouth, USC, Northwestern — and internally, the clockworks began: My GPA is as good as theirs, my resume is longer than theirs. If they can get in, I can, too.

He began to pour over college rankings, subconsciously attaching his worth to the college’s rankings.

So, when the time came and he wasn’t accepted into Dream College — or, if he was accepted, the financial cost was so obscenely large — the impact is felt personally, deep within the 18-year-old mind and heart.

Lesson one: Remember who you are.

The college search process often felt like a band of invisible thieves were pulling at all these parts of ourselves. The most powerful distractions?




It’s unspeakably difficult for teenagers to stay grounded, confident, and true. But, the more they can hear these embodied messages from the rest of us — parents, teachers, college counselors — the more they’ll remember them in the long run.

Knowing how to do this can feel wildly difficult, yet I would suggest this groundedness — this confidence in the face of so much uncertainty — cultivates immeasurable benefits today and tomorrow.

Lesson two: Remember who they are.

Colleges control most of the levers and power in this relationship. They admit who they want without any published or public reason. Merit plays a role in admittance, but so do all these other factors often kept secret.

Students subscribe to one narrative, yet colleges are often playing by another one entirely.

Students? If I do well enough in high school, I can attend an equivalent college or university and will be rewarded for my merit and hard work.

Colleges? We will admit who we want in order to satisfy our own prescribed budget, demographic vision, and current needs.

“World-class achievers have adhered carefully to the prescribed formulas for success handed down to them by their dream colleges,” said Leigh Moore. “They follow all the rules, rushing toward the goalpost, and we want to believe their efforts will suffice.”

Moore is the owner of Moore College Data, a subscription-based service providing immeasurable data on colleges for families and schools. She’s also a counselor, Christian, and friend and for us, often the clearest voice of truthtelling wisdom during the whole journey.

“Most of those high achievers? They are tackled at the one-yard line, courtesy of a bunch of unwritten rules which were never in their playbooks,” she continued. “Then — because they are 18, after all — they typically turn their negative energy on themselves, lamenting that they somehow fell short or failed.”

This is not what I thought would happen. I feel betrayed. Used.

Money more than merit drives this whole ballgame. It’s not unlike going to Las Vegas. You may be a really worthwhile, meritorious poker player. You may have practiced for years, studied late night, entered tournaments, sacrificing free time and sleep. And, lo and behold, you may win in Vegas.

But Vegas is not set up to reward merit. It’s set up for the house to win always. And colleges always win.

So with every rejection and acceptance letter, the whole decision-making process — who wins, who doesn’t — remains hidden from families and students, many of whom have build their entire identity around college acceptance. Was I accepted because of my GPA or family’s wealth? Was I rejected because of my race or the state where I live? Was I wait-listed because I’m not smart enough? Or not rich enough?

“Can you imagine going into Caesar’s Palace,” begins Moore, “laying a thousand bucks on the roulette table, and then watching as the croupier takes your money behind closed doors, only to emerge saying, “‘Sorry, hon. We spun the wheel back there, and you didn’t win?’”

Lesson three: Ask the hard questions.

On most college tours, very few families asked questions. (As a recovering journalist, I can’t help but ask questions.) It felt so passive, not unlike the crowd watching the naked emperor stroll by. Please, for every campus tour you take, just ask one question to any adult in charge: “Why does your university charge [insert full tuition cost] each year, and why is your university worth that much money?”

Then, decide for yourself. Huddle up as a family. Pray, contemplate, trust the still, small voice of wisdom and discernment.

“The matter of value lies with each family and ought to be grounded in the big questions which predicate the formation of a family,” Moore said.

Find a stabilizing voice — Moore was ours — that keeps you grounded, for this process feels like a whirlwind where so many nascent fears are triggered:

Will my child grow into a successful adult? (Answer: Yes, and the reasons why have little to do with college.)

Can we afford this? (Answer: Probably not, but there are college options that are affordable.)

What are we doing and why? What’s the goal here, both in the long term and the short?

And how the heck did America normalize paying $85,000 a year for college? Again, Moore:

Pretend that a visitor has arrived, a time traveler from the year 2025. It is your student, aged 40. They are begging you to watch out for their best interest right now because — no matter how many AP exams they’ve aced — they are not equipped to understand the stakes.

Most of them have never owed anyone more than $20 bucks, and none of them has seen the passage of 20 years. There’s nothing wrong with some debt, for some people, in some situations. The danger comes when a life-altering financial commitment is made based on assumptions, blind faith, or an unwillingness to defer gratification.

Where else in society does your neighbor pay $25,000 more (or less) for something than you? Where else do we allow 18-year-olds to make $250,000 decisions?

“In the words of Lucy Van Pelt,” Moore said, “Bleeeeeeaach.”

Lesson four: $85,000 a year for college is not normal.

Let’s say that a bit stronger: it’s nuts.

Colleges have normalized the idea that a four-year degree is worth $250,000. Then, they put this decision into the hands of 18-year-olds, most of whom have never even held a steady job.

When acceptance letters arrived, we were thrilled. Then, financial packages sent us reeling. One school told us we could afford $68,000 a year. That’s one entire annual salary for us. (Remember, we’re teachers. And we have another child still in high school also headed for college one day.)

Another school told us we could afford $50,000 a year. Another, $45,000. At first, it was laughable. I spent hours going back over our financial aid documents. Surely, I must have added an extra zero somewhere. Nope.

College is set up to steer you toward loans. Or rather, your 18-year-old child.

“If you have ever bought a house, you know how much information you are provided en route to the closing. I read recently that the average home purchase requires at least 100 signatures from both buyer and seller. Those signatures, of course, represent acknowledgements of information provided,” said Moore.

“Please, as parents, recognize that, despite the six-figure cost of a bachelor’s degree, the college choice is not yet regulated with the kind of due-diligence documentation we experience with real estate transactions. There are no disclosure or inspection counterparts which are communicated directly to families. The burden of scrutiny lies on you and your student,” she said.

It doesn’t have to.

Lesson five: Your story can end well.

Faced with no good options, our son, in one of the bravest moves in family history, took a gap year. Refusing to pay $150,000 for a school he didn’t really want to attend, he dropped out of the game entirely, took a job on a nearby horse farm, and, while shoveling horse crap and riding pasture all day, he learned all these things he never did in high school: how to run a tractor, train horses, repair fencing, tack a quarterhorse. In one month, he spent more time outside each day than in four years of high school. (And he made $20 an hour doing it.)

Now, he’s reapplying to different schools with a different perspective. No longer bound by the all the shoulds, messaging, and expectations, he’s looking at schools that are financially affordable and removed from the hyper-competitive world. Simply: He’s going to school on his terms, not others’.

And those schools are responding. Recognizing the authenticity of his story, they also are offering reasonable, realistic aid options. These are outstanding, promising schools.

And he is happy, thrilled even, at the prospects before him. One school? It has offered such kind, personal invitations, sending the message that he is cared for and loved. These places exist.

He just needed time and space to find them on his own.

Lesson six: faith and trust are part of the college process.

Remember my earlier analogy? We began the college search process believing there was one school destined for our son. We chased it like a grail.

Well, there is no grail.

Or rather, there are 1,000 grails.

The college experience can be a beautiful and transformative thing; yes, there is a difference between State U. and Ivy League, and sometimes the better experience is found at State U.

“The great thing about being a Christian is the freedom to do, to parent, as God asks us to, rather than bowing down to the latest set of whatever the College Board offers as its most rigorous pathway through post-adolescence,” Moore said.

College can be life-changingly good and transformative. But it is not meant to destroy our children as they chase what is never attainable: worth in institutions outside their own heart and God.

“I used to hate it when people called admissions a game,” said Moore. “Now, I’m not sure how else to consider it. Official rules, unwritten rules, strategy, and secrecy. It’s not about education, and it’s not a meritocracy; it is, instead, a gargantuan exercise in missing the point. Every minute we spend obsessing about why Billy got into Dartmouth when Sally did not, we ignore the big questions of priorities, student well-being, and the responsible use of a quarter million dollars.”

Scripture says that Christ is the author of our days, the alpha and omega of our lives. Even though it may feel like the thinnest of threads, such faith is a lifeline in the college search process. Hold to it.


For more info on Leigh Moore and Moore College Data, visit Moorecollegedata.com or email Leigh at leigh@moorecollegedata.com.

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