Is Failure the Secret to College Admissions?


In a recent post in Education Week, a dean of admission for Pitzer College ruminates on the benefits of failure in the college admissions race. The author correctly notes that there is no such thing as a “perfect” student, drawing the conclusion that applicants shouldn’t strive for perfection when seeking college admissions. In fact, the author says that he and his peers are often skeptical of students who present themselves as flawless. Instead of encouraging students to present perfection in their applications, he suggests that students should embrace their flaws:

[Admissions officers] get the most excited when we read an application that seems real. It’s so rare to hear stories of defeat and triumph that when we do, we cheer. If their perspectives are of lessons learned or challenges overcome, these applicants tend to jump to the top of the heap at highly selective colleges.

In an admirable effort to protect their children from the consequences of failure, parents too often advise their children to avoid risks. Parents may prevent students from taking classes that they might fail, or engaging in activities they may not excel at, or taking on responsibilities they may not be able to handle, all in the misguided belief that perfection is the only sure route to success.

College admissions officers do not exist in an unrealistic bubble. They are more than aware of the fact that teens are not perfect and, more importantly, that teens are not supposed to be perfect. While admissions officers certainly look for strong students who demonstrate academic commitment and skill, they also look for students who aren’t afraid to take a risk and who are able to cope with challenges, difficulties, and, yes, even failures.

So, while students certainly shouldn’t be encouraged to actively seek failure, they should be encouraged to take risks now and then. A fear of failure can hold students back, keeping them limited to a safe and secure little bubble and cut off from the harshness of reality. The definition of success is not a lack of failure but the ability to learn from failure, a lesson students can benefit from throughout life.

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