College Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Stress, Timelines, and Outcomes by Dr. Erin Avery, CEP
By Dr. Erin Avery, CEP
In the vein of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, let’s ask our young people, “What type of adventure do you want to choose next?” and begin co-journeying with them from there. Young people, particularly students, are looking to orient themselves for the journey, so they can navigate those choppy waters and see clearly ahead. The college process can become one huge Harry Potter sorting hat survey and regardless of whether they end up in Slytherin or Hufflepuff, let’s help them grow in their self-knowledge and self-understanding. Let’s help them cultivate a deep inner self-reflection so they can identify why that specific house (college) is a good fit for their personal strengths, goals and learning styles.
It’s ludicrous to expect a seventeen-year-old of any socioeconomic background to be a specialist in colleges. Public school guidance counselors everywhere seem to be united in ritual laissez-faire handwashing saying things like, “Unless a high school student can do this all on their own, they shouldn’t be going to college” and “If we help them and hold their hand, then they are not learning the skills to be successful in college.”
Please. Young people are either blinded by rankings or beckoned by football and basketball television coverage. They listen to their friend’s boyfriend’s sister’s opinion of a college and take it as a law like a random stranger’s restaurant review. Yes, students need to take the baton, but unless we mentor them and orient them to the fact that they are actually running in a race, they will have no clue what a baton is or what to do with it once it is placed squarely in their hand.
The bottom line is that the college journey is a decision tree. Every choice your child makes, whether active or passive, will thrust them further along the circuitous college-bound path. Both the parent and the student need to take the driver’s seat and become active participants in this journey. Plan ahead for summer experiences and utilize school resources. Perhaps this means joining the environmental club or getting a summer job, or choosing to challenge themself with a demanding course load now. Perhaps this means postponing that challenge until later in their high school career. The goal should be to make progress along the journey so that the best college fit becomes obvious by the end.
College fit is no accident so approach the process as if it is an epic research project with no scientific algorithm; but rather a labyrinth of tedious website navigating, shifting teenaged fickle whims and epic attempts at teaching the art of networking. The onus of finding a best-fit list of colleges from the over 4000 four-year undergraduate institutions in this country frequently falls back on the student and family. So, take that discernment seriously and begin early to complete virtual visits, register for specialty webinars, and troll college websites to learn who precisely will be reading your child’s application. An ethical, knowledgeable consultant is a professional partner who can streamline the process, and usher the child by leveraging their current college knowledge, active listening skills and professional network. Starting the conversation at the outset of high school provides parents and students with a longer runway. In cases where more assistance is needed or desired, locate and secure a consultant’s services in the ninth grade so that these conversations are happening in real-time and the student can become sensitized to the process and begin to reach for the opportunities best tailored to their needs.
If the student flounders freshman year, they will spend the rest of their high school career climbing back out of the hole they dug for themself. Set goals and measure them incrementally. GPA is cumulative, which means that an A freshman year carries as much weight as an A junior year (and, conversely, a C). The coursework during freshman year can also be much less challenging, so start strong and work hard from the very beginning.
Not unlike the stages of grief, individuals navigate stressful trigger times differently. Stress happens at different times in the process for both parents and applicants. All stakeholders must pace themselves. The college search is task-oriented and enumerated by milestones: PSAT scores, campus visits, college fairs, course selection. Although students may carry more stress during the waiting period just before the admissions decisions are released, parents may be biting their nails near the application deadlines. Add a layer of parental “grown and flown” sentiment, and emotions may run high. The tug-of-war ensues between “I’ll love you forever,” and “Now it’s time to launch, ready or not.”
If you are blessed with school guidance or a college counselor who spends more than the national average, approximately twenty minutes, with your child face-to-face discussing the concept of college fit attributes, thank your lucky stars and bake them some brownies! This has nothing to do with your student and everything to do with guidance office volume management. By the time a student reaches the spring of the junior year, most decisions that determine college admissibility have already taken place. That ship has sailed. At this point, the vast majority of school-based counselors are poised to send transcripts and write or aggregate a letter of recommendation. Admit it, you are thinking, “Let’s just hurry up and get this college thing over with.” It’s definitely what your child is thinking. It’s normal to want to fast forward through this uncomfortable period of unknowing and skip to the sticker on the back windshield, but it’s at this early inflection point that both the student and the parents need to course correct and reframe the college admissions paradigm.
The monster of college marketing has convinced us all that getting into the “best” college is the prize and the process is the gauntlet. But we are missing the mark. Successful college outcomes reflect discernment, personal development and a growth mindset. In this economy and postmodern culture, young people will be rewarded if they are life-long learners, agile adjusters who can spot trends and learn difficult topics quickly. As stakeholders, let’s encourage young people to focus on the long game and learn to leverage resources, think critically, network efficiently, and share their gifts graciously for the betterment of humanity. That is truly winning.
Dr. Erin Avery, CEP is the founder of Avery Educational Resources, LLC, an independent educational consulting practice that specializes in counseling students and their families throughout the college and boarding school search and application process. Erin’s mission is to guide her students on a path of self-discovery to uncover their true strengths, interests and passions.