Can you be ‘ordinary’ when applying to college?

by Grace

Alina Tugend tells us that we should be Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary, but it’s hard to tell your child to think of himself as ordinary or unremarkable when he’s applying to college.

We hold so dearly onto the idea that we should all aspire to being remarkable …

I wonder if there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.

While Americans have long had a sense that they are special, this “intense need to be exceptional” seems to be a baby boomer problem.  It manifests itself with particular ferocity when it comes time to apply to college.

More recently, parents seem to be increasingly anxious that there just isn’t going to be enough — enough room at good colleges or graduate schools or the top companies — for even the straight-A, piano-playing quarterback, and we end up convinced that being average will doom our children to a life that will fall far short of what we want for them….

Katrina Kenison, author of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day”, had this realization.

… “My job as a mother is not to get my son in the top college, but to enjoy ordinary life. To swim in a pond on a hot day or walk with a friend or make dinner from scratch.”

After all, most of us have rather ordinary lives.  Ordinary, but special to the people around us that matter the most.  It does not mean we are slackers.

Some people may fear that embracing the ordinary means that they are letting themselves and their children off easy. If it’s all right to be average, why try to excel? But the message isn’t to settle for a life on the couch playing Xbox (though, yes, playing Xbox is O.K. sometimes), but rather to to make sure you aspire to goals because they are important to you, not because you want to impress your parents, your community or your friends.

It’s just very hard to think of your child as ordinary or unremarkable when you get caught up in the frenzied competition of applying to college.  A “pick me because I’m unremarkable” essay just does not sound right.  I think my advice would be that it might be better to fake it and pretend you really are the most remarkable candidate for one of those spots in the freshman class.  While you can focus on what is important to you, you also must face the fact that you are trying to impress the admissions administrator.  It’s one of those times to pump yourself up, but not to the point of becoming delusional about it.

Related article:  Bucks Blog: Some Thoughts on ‘Average’ (


One Comment to “Can you be ‘ordinary’ when applying to college?”

  1. “Most colleges really want ordinary kids – diligent kids who get good grades, show up for class, and graduate on time.”

    I’m sure you’re right, but I think the application has to be crafted to make the student stand out as being “remarkable”. So just having a good attendance record is not enough, for example. The quality of persistence has to be demonstrated in other areas and highlighted so it sounds like special. Well, this depends on the college, but certainly at selective colleges this is the case.


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