“Everything is design. Everything!”— Paul Rand
“Miserable,” “scary,” and “overwhelming” are just some of the words that students and their parents use to describe the college admissions process. And they’re right.
I know this because over the past 17 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of students, supporting them on their journey to college. And though I hate to admit it now, I spent the bulk of my early career being a college counselor known for helping students apply and get accepted to the “best” colleges.
For years, stressed out, exhausted students would attend meetings with me, barely able to keep their eyes open, running from one extra curricular activity to the next, and then to the math tutor before completing five to six hours of homework, getting too little sleep, and waking up the next day to do it all over again. And because these students were gaining admission to the best colleges in the country, I, like many others, took pride in the fact that both the students and I were going about this the “right” way.
But I was wrong.
The turning point
My recognition of this and the seeds of revelation came at a meeting with one of my students one late fall afternoon. A high performer, she’d set up an appointment with me to discuss her college essay for the only 30-minute window she had that week, jammed between the end of the school day and a chemistry tutoring session. Racing into my office, she spoke quickly, wondering what I thought of the essay draft she had submitted.
By this time, I was trying something new with students—encouraging them to bring their authentic selves to the process. Unfortunately, this message rarely carried the day, often drowned out by the siren call of the “elite” school.
Before getting into the details of my specific feedback, I thought this student might best be served by thinking more about why she was applying to the college in the context of who she was and who she wanted to become—a focus I’d begun to integrate into my work with students.
So I posed the following question: “What do you want the admissions officers to know about you as a person?” She stared blankly at me. After a couple of minutes, I tried again, this time with a slightly different question: “What is meaningful for you to have admissions officers know about the growth you have experienced these last few years of high school?”
This again was met with a blank stare, but this time with a head shake and a shrug. “I don’t really have time to think about that,” she said, finally interrupting the silence. “What do you think I should say?” she asked. “I mean, what will the admissions officers want to hear?”
The lack of connection to oneself coupled with the desire to say and do the “right” thing to get into college was never more clear to me than in this moment. Worse, as I gently pressed her during the remainder of our time together, she couldn’t offer anything. She wasn’t being defiant; she honestly didn’t know. And then she ran off to her chemistry tutoring session.
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All college counselors have stories like this one, but this particular incident haunted me, and, as a result, I became even more intentional in posing these types of questions to students. But in more actively asking students questions related to knowing themselves, I found that very few were able to answer them. More often than not, they wanted to know the “right” answer rather than the answer that came from their own hearts.
Though these same students were rich in activities, they were not rich in self-awareness or even the knowledge of how these things would translate to a future they wanted. And worse, I knew this was not their fault. This had everything to do with the prevailing culture surrounding admissions and how we have taught students that there is only one “right” way to be to gain acceptance to college.
I had built a reputation for success in helping students to gain admissions to the country’s best universities—something for which most college counselors are very proud—but with this new awareness, day after day, I returned home from working with these incredibly “successful” students with a pit in my stomach.
Facing the facts and developing a new approach
The conflict I felt only worsened. During my morning runs, I became consumed with thoughts related to my ambivalence: If these students did not gain admission, were they designated “failures”? Were their parents failures? Was I a failure? By not getting in, did it mean they would no longer go on to lead successful lives? Did it mean that the sum total of their high school experience was nothing? Wasn’t it just as important, if not much more important, for these students to know themselves and what they wanted as it was to be accepted to an elite school?
I was faced with the reality of my increasing reticence to support a system that ran counter to my values about happiness and 27 well-being. I imagined my own daughter, just a year old at this time, in the chair across from me as a junior or senior in high school, and I felt sick, realizing that I was responsible for actively contributing to a system I knew was flawed.
Later in my career, the need for a new approach became even more evident. I started to make the connection between the students in my college counseling practice and adult clients in my private coaching and therapy practice who were miserably unhappy in their careers. The career trajectories of my adult clients, which had begun at an early age, unfolded without support for finding and pursuing a path of the heart.
In session, I encouraged and worked with these clients to take steps—both to live and to make a living—in the direction of their dreams. At the same time, I was working with middle and high school students who were receiving little to no guidance as it related to a future that best supported their soul development—the important learning of who you are and what you are called to do.
Through this, I came to two conclusions and a revelation. First, I concluded the prevailing approach to college admissions is all wrong. Call it what you will—stress-inducing, hair raising, or angst-evoking—the fact is that we must acknowledge the flaws in a system that set students on their journey to adulthood through a harrowing and riddled process, one that spends more time and money on test preparation and pursuit of the “right” activities than on helping them to know themselves.
Second, I concluded there could and should be another way. I began to reflect on what might serve to improve the way we approach college admissions. I explored and revisited educational and humanistic theory and became immersed in the new research in neuroscience, all of which serve as the evidence and underpinnings of the need for the development of a different approach to college admissions.
Through these conclusions and my subsequent research came the revelation, my “aha” moment: The prevailing approach to college admissions is missing an important first step; that is, students should begin this process by looking inward rather than outward for the answers. More often than not, when students dig inside themselves, they have the answers they seek as to how to set a true course for their lives.