My oldest child is a high school senior and just starting to gear up his applications to college.
Ha ha ha, I kid, I kid.
We live in an affluent, well-educated suburb in Massachusetts: College has been on the agenda in our house for at least a year.
Still, as applications begin, I get to see how this process has changed since I applied in the mid-1980s.
Perhaps the biggest difference is how much technology has facilitated the process. The common application (a single form that lets students send one basic application to many colleges) is now pretty standard. This makes it much easier to apply to several schools. Further, the common app software plays well with high school software programs that collect student data on grades, test scores, extracurriculars, student résumés and recommendations.
I speak, of course, of Naviance. It is software that eliminates much of the drudgery. It is offered through many Long Island high schools, so if you have a child applying to college, you should be worried if Naviance sounds unfamiliar.
Naviance is a nifty, award-winning piece of software. The thing is, I would very much like to destroy every copy of it in existence.
Naviance serves two purposes: It holds information that can then be transferred to a college application. It does that job well. Its other purpose is to tell students about colleges of interest. A senior who uses Naviance can enter the name of the college in question, and the program will spit out an informative scattergram. The X axis shows the SAT scores of every applicant to that college from that student’s high school in the past three years. The Y axis shows grade-point averages. Naviance then computes the average SAT score and GPA of the students who were admitted into that college.
Oh, and Naviance also does one other thing: It highlights how your child’s test scores and grades compare with those of other applicants.
In the abstract, this is a very useful feature. Seniors can use Naviance to determine which schools are beyond their reach and which are conceivable. Used logically, these scattergrams are extremely useful.
The problem is that I do not use Naviance logically. I am a parent of a child who is close to making the most significant economic decision of his young life. So I obsess over the data.
And the data are absolutely terrifying. The average test scores and grade-point averages to get into very selective colleges seem impossibly high — much higher than how I did when I was in high school.
I know, rationally, that these diagrams are not perfect summary statistics. They do not incorporate extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. But the irrational part of my brain becomes convinced that the scattergrams are as reliable as those election forecasts from last year.
And so, every time I get on Naviance, I cannot help but look up college after college. Will my child be likely to get into the Prestigious Liberal Arts College That Shall Remain Nameless? What about the Expensive But Still Pretty Good “Safety School”? Would the Really Good College On the Other Coast be more receptive?
Let’s be clear: The fault lies with my obsessive personality and not Naviance. This program has cursed me with excessively precise data that I cannot expunge from my brain. Naviance is a good program, but it should really come with a warning label: DO NOT OBSESS ABOUT THE SCATTERGRAMS.
Do not be like me, parents of college-bound students. Use Naviance wisely.
Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. He wrote this for The Washington Post.