College Admissions as an Experience, Not a Possession

We’re all familiar with the adage that “money can’t buy happiness.”  However, research suggests that some purchases yield more happiness than others – namely, experiences make us happier than material possessions.[1] [2]  

We can apply this same idea to the college admissions process. Families often pursue admission to a highly ranked university as though such prestige is a commodity that can be possessed.  However, we would encourage families to view the college admissions process as an experience of self-exploration; an opportunity to identify long term goals and search for a suitable environment to help achieve said goals. Like the research regarding discretionary spending reveals, adopting this approach helps families to enjoy the overall admissions process and enables them to be more successful at choosing a college that is the right fit for each student's individual aims and aspirations. 

The same idea applies to standardized test preparation. We tend to treat our desired test score on the ACT or SAT as though it were a possession. However, a standardized score has little inherent value by itself. ACT and SAT scores often help students gain admission to selective colleges or earn merit-based scholarships, but even those ends are only valuable insofar as they lead to the life experiences from which students can learn from, grow, and enjoy.  Moreover, the reality is that a standardized score is never evaluated in a vacuum. Rather, it is assessed among our other achievements such as grades, extracurricular activities, and leadership roles.  Thus, when students view the process of preparing for the SAT and ACT exams as an experience of growth rather than as a pursuit of a commodity, they transform the process into an opportunity to learn valuable skills including, but not limited to, growth-mindset, learned optimism, resiliency in the face of setbacks, overcoming anxiety in high-pressure situations, and successfully achieving long-term goals. 

To sum up, treating college admissions and test prep as experiences for growth rather than possessions to be obtained will achieve two ends: it will benefit students’ and parents’ overall well-being and life satisfaction, and it will help them to be more effective in their pursuit higher ACT and SAT test scores and admittance to selective colleges.


[1] Van Boven and Gilovich, “To Do or to Have? That Is the Question” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dec. 2003)

[2] Gilovich et al., “A Wonderful Life” (Journal of Consumer Psychology, Jan. 2015)