Challenge Success team members discuss the college admissions process

‘How you go matters more than where you go.’

Challenge Success’ duo of Margaret Dunlap and Jen Coté explained to Mercer Island parents and students that the college admissions process is just a few of the copious steps along the road to a healthy adulthood.

The vital experience reaches beyond being a singular goal, they said during a recent MI Parent Edge virtual presentation titled, “A Healthier Approach to College Admissions.”

Following their extensive research as part of the nonprofit — which is affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education — Dunlap and Coté addressed college rankings, students’ overall well-being and their readiness for their next academic and life journey, reducing unnecessary pressure as the college admissions process unfolds and more.

To ease into the workshop — which was also attended by counselors and educators — the Challenge Success school team members asked everyone how they define success and what life outcomes they most value. Happiness, passion, independence, emotional and professional fulfillment and courage were a few of the responses.

In delving into what is driving the sense of pressure around the college admissions process, Coté noted: “More folks are actually applying to college, and this is good. But there’s a false sense of scarcity that demand is greater than supply.”

She added that along with rankings and competition for “top schools,” it’s tougher for students to be accepted into certain colleges even if they possess solid grades and scores.

“The level of selectivity of a college does not lead to more learning. Lots of studies on this — it turns out that learning is tied to studying,” Dunlap said.

Added Coté about those who were surveyed regarding their level of engagement during their college years: “It wasn’t the school that mattered, but what they did and how they got involved there. How you go matters more than where you go.”

Another concern is the progression from high school to college, Dunlap said.

“This is a huge transition for all of you parents. With students here, you must recognize how hard it is for your parents to see their babies leave,” she said. “It’s an even bigger transition for our students. They’re off on their own for the first time. Maybe living independently and looking for friendships and navigating a whole new world.”

Mercer Island High School counselor Susan Sutherin offered some crucial advice regarding students navigating social pressures and deciding which school is right for them. Dunlap said these questions begin as early as upper elementary school.

“We really try to focus on the student themselves and really asking those key questions to foster self-reflection and to really give them a sense of, ‘This is my journey.’ So really helping them own that and really understanding that they can define their path, and there’s no right or wrong answer to their path,” Sutherin said.

Sutherin encourages students to ask adults they admire about their academic journey. The students find that those people they spoke to didn’t always traverse the straight path that everyone thinks they should be on, she added.

Coté agreed that asking about others’ experiences can be immensely helpful for students in shaping their lives.

“When I worked in schools, one of the most successful college ed events was when we had alumni from the college come back, and they were from all different fields and walks of life. It was just so interesting to me because the students were rapt at listening to the experiences and the stories of these alums who all had very different paths,” Coté said.

The video is available through Feb. 9 at

For resources that were covered in the presentation, visit and