Message from Terry Ward, College Counselor
COLLEGE ADMISSIONS: One counselor’s perspective.
I believe that the process of college admissions is a learning experience, an opportunity for students to discover more about themselves and their capacities. I believe a college counseling office should encourage every student to engage in this process as a substantive personal search, not the careless pursuit of a “name” school.
But the college counseling process should not be the first time a student thinks carefully about their future. There is certainly no need to “lock in” one’s future plans for education and occupation in Grades 9 or 10. But there is great virtue in encouraging students in those grades to explore their proclivities, attributes, and interests, starting with the very first days of high school. Such an intentional process of self-discovery will prepare them well for adult life. It also might help them find direction in high school. And this effort certainly will serve them well in the college search. They will be well equipped to make college choices that suit them best. This is crucial, because the greatest goal in college counseling is to make smart choices that lead to fulfilling undergraduate college careers that prepare them well for whatever comes next. Life is long, at least we hope it is, and college is but a first step in a substantive adult journey. One’s college education should be a springboard into the future.
The College Admissions Process
The college admissions process is interesting in that while there are a number of processes and activities that every student must perform in more or less the same manner, at heart it is and it must be an individual process.
The college admissions process is undeniably competitive, but the best question to guide this journey is not, “Am I good enough?” but rather, “What do I want out of college?” The student who concentrates first on this latter question will find the most success at the end of the day. In this great wide world of ours, it is always possible to find someone whose level of achievement exceeds one’s own. This is one of the things one discovered as one grows older and one’s world grows larger. But this should not distract us. Indeed, it is the big fish in the small pond who makes too much of present distinctions who ends up ill-equipped to deal with the wider world that awaits. Bigger ponds await us all. A student hung up on “adding up” will not be able to handle that fundamental reality with any kind of success.
So, this is a time to seize the day and take advantage of the opportunities within one’s grasp. This is not the time to just see how you measure up. There are opportunities aplenty for every student graduating from high school and proceeding on to college. The key is to be in a position to take advantages of the opportunities that come one’s way. The notion that the admission to a college with a well-regarded name is all one needs for future success is an illusion. One’s life is not a zero-sum game defined by a college admissions decision.
The Admissions Decision
I don’t want to minimize the disappointment students feel when they do not gain admission to their choice college(s). Students work hard on college applications, send them off, and wait months to see what someone they don’t know has to say about their future. And the word that comes back is unequivocal. Even the ambiguity of a “wait list” or “deferral” offer is not contingent upon the student’s reaction. Whatever the news from the college, the student has to live with it. And of course if they have their heart set on a college that does not offer them admission, that news stings. It hurts. It takes some getting used to.
On the other hand, an offer of admission from a college, accompanied typically by a letter replete with flowing words of praise, induces a giddy kind of excitement, especially if the student had, or thought they had, some reason to doubt the outcome. There is no doubt that this is a sweet moment. (And of course, this is what usually happens – well more than 2/3 of college admissions decisions are positive. Only 100 colleges in the country deny more applications than they accept.) An offer of admission feels good. It should.
I certainly want students to exult when the offers of admission come. But whatever the colleges say, I want students to put these decisions in an appropriate context. I want to urge them not to cede their self-worth to the administrative process called college admissions selection. Whatever the outcome of a college’s deliberations, the student’s talents and the student’s promise remains intact. No college can claim ownership of that. In truth, no college admissions operation is perceptive enough to pronounce definitively upon the worth or the value of a student, never mind the extent of that student’s accomplishments and certainly not their future promise.
I would hasten to add that no college admissions operation would presume to do so. At bottom, we must remember that every college has the same goal – to admit enough students so that they can open in the fall with a full first-year class, whatever “full” happens to mean. That’s all they are doing. So, it’s an obvious point, but a good one to make – the college admissions process changes nothing about the talents and gifts and potential of the students who go through it. It may define where they are going to exercise those gifts, but it neither creates those attributes nor takes them away.
The great Quaker educator and writer, Parker Palmer, gave me the gift of this story:
There once was an old woman in a village who was renowned and feared for her wisdom and her knowledge. It was said she could perform magic. The young boys of the village decided to test this notion. They gathered and their leader hatched a plan. He said that the next time they saw the old woman in the main square of the village, they should confront her. He will hide a small bird in his hands. And he will ask the old woman if the bird in his hand is alive or dead. If she says it is dead, he will open his hand and the bird will fly away. If she says it is alive, he will crush the bird and show her that the bird is dead. One way or the other, they will prove her magic amounts to nothing. The day came and they confronted the old woman in the village square, with many others watching. “Old woman!” the leader of the boys said impolitely, “This bird in my hand, is it alive or is it dead?” She stopped, took a long look at the boy, and, looking right in his eyes, she replied, “It’s in your hands.”
This is a parable for the college admissions process. Whatever the outcome of the college search, the student has to invest themselves fully in the process to take advantage of these opportunities. Parents and teachers and counselors and others are here to help and to guide and to support every step of the way. But the student cannot abdicate responsibility for the journey to anyone else. The student has to run the race.
This is so very important. I knew a student I counseled once whose mother had basically taken over the child’s college search. The mother had raised four quite talented children and she had decided that she, the mother, knew what the fourth and youngest needed and “that was that.” And so this child, as talented and as appealing and promising as she was, did not feel as if she had ownership or authorship of her own college search. She went to a fine university because she was a fine candidate, but that place always will be, at least in part, her mother’s college.
No student should cede her college search or her college experience to anyone, including one’s parent. No student, no person, should willingly cede the definition of their journey to someone else.
I rather wish the story for all students would be what I encountered with another graduating senior once. We were talking about which offer of admission she was going to accept. One of the colleges in consideration, a renowned art school, seemed a great opportunity, but also something more of a challenge to this young woman whose self-confidence, it seemed, was just emerging. It seemed a big step from a small day school to a fast-paced urban art institute. I was delighted when she told me she had chosen to attend the challenging art school, but even more delighted by the way she expressed her decision. She told me, “I just felt that that school was calling to me.” We looked at each other and smiled, the both of us knowing she had made the right choice. Carpe Diem. Off she went, embracing her future, stepping out into the world. Every student deserves the chance to feel that way about the college they attend.