An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Applying to college is about learning if and when to take risks
Applying to college is about learning if and when to take risks

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

Our students are intellectual risk-takers. When I'm writing my recommendations, I marvel at how often I read about a student who prompts a teacher to consider an issue from a new angle, or who shares a unique perspective that is contrary to the leading literature on the subject.

But as I wrote a recent recommendation, I found myself wondering: Do they take risks in their personal lives? Do they know how to assess risks and make informed and thoughtful decisions about whether to take them?

Certainly our students make hard decisions. Giving up activities and trying new ones and taking a class in a subject that really challenges them are tough choices. But they're not risks. By definition, risk entails potential for loss or injury. As adults, they will face lives replete with risks. Some will be financial, and others will be personal: Do they relocate their families to another country for a job? Do they change careers even if they are unsure whether they'll meet success? Being an adult requires weighing when to take risks.

For many students, the college process is the first time they must decide whether to take a personal risk. One aspect of their jobs that college counselors love is guiding students through these decisions.

Examples abound of these "risky" choices. One of the most common involves whether and where to apply Early Decision (ED), a program where a student applies to only one college in early November and signs an agreement to enroll if offered admission. Both national data and Lakeside's internal data show that ED offers an advantage to students whose grades and standardized test scores fall within range of that school.

A common dilemma is when a student's top-choice school is unlikely to offer them admission, even in ED. If they apply to their second choice school in ED, they might be admitted, but only if they apply ED — they're unlikely to be admitted under regular admission. Do they follow their dreams and apply to their first-choice school, thus risking not being admitted to either college? Or do they choose the safer route?

In "Seven Choices for Success and Significance: How to Live Life from the Inside Out," author Nido Qubein offers one of my favorite frameworks for evaluating risk. For every such decision, he asks himself three questions: What's the best thing that can happen as a result of taking the risk? What's the most likely outcome? What's the worst that can happen by taking the risk? He then uses the following rubric to guide his decision:

  • If the most likely thing to happen will get me closer to my goals and I'm willing to live with the worst thing that can happen, I march onwards.
  • If the most likely thing to happen will not get me any closer to my goals, it's futile for me to be discussing this risk. I move on.
  • If I am not willing to deal with the worst thing that can happen, I must run away as fast as I can.

One of our recent alumni faced the tough choice of applying ED to Williams, a first-choice school to which he was unlikely to be admitted, and Bowdoin, his second choice where he might get in ED. As his counselor, I took the first step of helping him answer Qubein's three questions. If the student were to take the risk:

  • The best thing that could happen is that he would be admitted to Williams.
  • The likely outcome is that he would denied from Williams in ED and then rejected from Bowdoin in the regular pool.
  • The worst thing is that he is denied from Williams and Bowdoin in the regular pool, and thus does not attend one of his top two choices.

As we talked, he realized the likely outcome (being denied from Williams and Bowdoin) did not help him reach his goal of attending a top-choice school. He also realized that he wasn't willing to live with the worst-case outcome; he worried that upon being rejected from Williams and Bowdoin, he would immediately regret his choice.

In the end, he applied ED to Bowdoin, where he was admitted. He has been very happy there. Today, Williams is a far-gone memory.

There are other cases where students have taken the riskier route: They applied to their top-choice school and were denied and were then denied from their second choice. But these were students who felt they would always wonder "what if" they didn't at least try. They were willing "to deal with the worst thing that can happen" in order to have that opportunity.

Whether the risky choice produces the desired outcome does not determine whether it was the right or wrong decision. In many of life's biggest decisions, the outcome is out of our control. All we can do is make decisions of which we are proud and that we can "own" — ones whose processes were sufficiently thorough and thoughtful that we do not regret them — regardless of the outcome.

As educators, it is our responsibility to teach students how to make these choices. For many students, they learn how to make such decisions when they apply to college.

Ari Worthman is Lakeside's director of college counseling. Reach him at
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