Duke University in Durham, N.C. (Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg, file)

The holiday season for many is an anxious time, but for high school seniors facing application deadlines there is an extra level of worry. Although as youngsters many in this generation were routinely praised for almost everything they did or tried to do, suddenly as junior year rolls around, the messages change.

Some are told that college is not for them and that they should do their best to get some short-term training for immediate job prospects. Others are encouraged to head off to a university or community college but discouraged from setting their sights too high. And some talented high school students vying for spots at selective institutions are advised to polish up their résumés with activities that admissions officers will find most exciting. Some are coached not to make any mistakes that might blemish their records; a fortunate few have tutors paid overtime to provide every advantage on what are fictitiously labeled “standardized” tests.

In the process, all too many receive a sorry message, indeed: “The goal of high school is to get into the college that rejects the most people; the goal of college is to gain access to employers or graduate programs that turn away the greatest number of qualified candidates; the goal of life is to have more of the stuff that other people are unable to acquire.” No one puts it quite this way, but that’s what our young people are hearing. It is a message that kills the soul: Value things only to the extent that other people are deprived of them.

The truth is, as Frank Bruni wrote in a smart book a few years ago, “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” that there are plenty of great schools in this country, and what matters much more than how they are ranked is how you make use of their resources. Students forge meaningful career and life paths at institutions of various shapes and sizes in every part of the country. They discover caring and creative teachers who combine deep learning with an ability to inspire young people to discover valuable insights about themselves and their world.

Whatever school they attend, college students should get three things from their time as undergraduates. The first is the opportunity to discover what they love to do. Many smart high school students arrive at college thinking that they will continue to pursue those subjects in which they already performed well. It seems to make sense – “I got A’s in history, or in English, so I should continue taking classes in that area.”

Wrong. College is a time to experiment with new fields of knowledge and new methodologies of discovery. Whether it’s the science lover experimenting with music or the would-be economics major trying out classes in literature, the undergraduate years offer the possibility of finding out what one really finds fulfilling. It’s not just about the reward of good grades or a hefty paycheck. It’s about thriving – and especially about thriving through work.

The second thing one should get from the college years is the chance, even the imperative, to get much better at the things one loves to do. It’s not enough to “discover one’s passion,” as many in higher education like to put it. After discovering what one finds rewarding, one should use the resources of the school to get much better at it.

Don’t be fooled by the grade inflation rampant at the fancier (read: most selective) institutions. Find professors who will be candid about how far you need still to go before the work is ready for prime time. This is as true in physics as it is in poetry. Students might discover that they love a field; professors can make them see how much better they’ll have to become in order to really participate in that field at a level that counts. You don’t go to school to be told how smart you are; you go to find out how much more you have to learn.

Students, regardless of which college they attend, will build resources for lifelong learning if they discover what they love to do and get better at it. But there’s one more thing. They should learn how to share what they’ve gotten better at with others. This means developing the skills to show other people that the work one finds rewarding also has value for them. Students who get the most out of college have enhanced their abilities to translate what they’ve learned on campus so that people beyond its borders understand how they can add value to an organization, a team or a company.

I’ve been teaching college students for over 30 years and a university president for almost 20. When I talk to seniors and recent graduates from schools of all kinds and in various parts of the country, I find that it matters little how difficult it was to get admitted to that school and that it matters a great deal how hard they worked while attending it. Those in high school applying to selective schools will usually find a match that works for them and their families. Focusing on getting into the “best school” – usually the one that rejects the most applicants—is misplaced and produces much unnecessary stress. With support from their families, students should focus instead on preparing themselves for the adventure of discovering what they love to do, getting better at it and learning to share it with others.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”

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