Four Inspirations to Stay Centered During the College Application Process

Inspiration # 1 of 4: When students feel the college process is unfair….. Acknowledge its imperfection and bias and embrace the growth that awaits you for thriving despite it!

The college process is many things, but it isn’t always fair. I hear kids everywhere complain about an injustice.  Those who can’t afford private tutoring lament that standardized tests scores correlate with financial privilege. Kids whose scores are outstanding lament the trend away from requiring score submission. Colleges found that there is no significant difference in college graduation rates or college GPA’s between those who submitted standardized tests and those who don’t.  GPA, is now considered a more reliable predictor of college success.  So of course you have the college senior who is frustrated that GPA doesn’t come associated with a check box on the common app qualifying if the student was:  tutored, had a good or bad teacher, an easy or tough grader, or a long term substitute, etc… GPAs aren’t exactly an ideal measure of aptitude either. A study conducted in 2005 showed that GPA correlates more with self discipline and effort than intelligence. The process thus highly favors those youngsters with good self-regulation and discipline skills typical of those, for instance, with a mature prefrontal cortex. Since research has shown that brain maturity isn’t even reached until around age 25, colleges are certainly missing out on the late bloomers!  Families who require notice on financial aid packages prior to committing to a college resent those who can submit Early Decision applications, which often soften a college’s admission selectivity. The list of possible complaints is endless!

With so much reflection on how the system is stacked against X in favor of Y, an opportunity is lost to prepare a young person for the world they are entering. All social, academic and professional systems are imperfect and often unfair. We have opportunities to build resilience and self worth in our kids through this process.  My youngest was recently evaluated in a musical audition. She placed in a second tier of applicants, only to learn that her peers, who are a few years behind in training and indeed ability, earned first tier placement. While I acknowledged how the process had its flaws, I offered compassion towards the challenges adjudicators have to truly calibrate assessment when students audition independently. I also focused on how she felt about her audition and her preparation for it.  Was there reason to feel proud of her efforts, the seriousness and diligence of her rehearsals? It was a baby step towards teaching her to seek worth from internal reflection more than external measure. Acknowledging the imperfection of the system, with compassion for the accompanying pain, helps a young person prepare for the randomness of suffering that comes our way in life. Illness and injury, just to name a few, come everyone’s way, and in good time all healthy adults need to learn to thrive despite them. Surviving rejection or imperfect systems builds character. A wise friend confided how pleased she was that her 17 year old’s boyfriend (whom she liked very much) broke up with her daughter. She was so happy that her daughter would have this important lesson in rising above heartbreak, while still at home before moving off to college. How much character, resilience and sticktoitiveness did J.K. Rowling possess to withstand 12 rejections from publishers prior to becoming the popular book series author she is today?

Inspiration #2 of 4: Complaining excessively about one’s ability to get into a dream school has few benefits. Highlighting privilege and opportunity creates habits of perspective and gratitude that will serve students well throughout life!

While it is true that the American education system is falling behind other world nations in various measures, we still have much to be grateful for. Only 36% of 25 - 29 year olds in 2016 completed bachelor degrees. So when a youngster fears not getting into his dream school, remind him what a privilege it is to even attend. When my husband immigrated to this country 30 years ago, we drove by my high school - a large, suburban, but modest campus, with somewhat unkempt soccer fields, crack-filled tennis courts and an aging, but solid, poorly lit football stadium. He thought it was a college campus! He grew up abroad,  playing soccer on makeshift fields, many of them, concrete, deserted parking lots, and at that time wondered what a college campus would look like if that was only a high school. He was on to something! American colleges offer more than an academic education and much more than just 30 years ago. Countless campuses have entire departments dedicated to student life, clubs, community engagement, international study, research, performing and fine arts, health and wellness, student orientation, athletics, campus safety, alumni development, and career placement, just to name a few.  

In short, reframing fears and frustrations, by practicing gratitude for the opportunities in front of students today, has numerous social, emotional and biological positive outcomes. Practicing gratitude reduces aggression and stress, improves sleep, self esteem, physical and psychological health, enhances empathy and helps students make new friends.

Inspiration #3 of 4: Don’t let the college process become the only slice in a student’s proverbial life pie, and make it known - loud and clear -  that its measures fall painfully short of defining him or her!

Jeremy cares deeply about what his best friend is going through as his parents divorce. Angelica feels the frustration of not having time to participate in her community’s local beach clean up. Andre loves to write poetry, Eloise can’t wait to read John Green’s newest novel and Susan strives to perfect her crane pose. These young folks value friendship, caring for others, making the world a better place, connecting with their artistic self, and taking care of their bodies. They need reminders that these passions have such value and must also define their last two years of high school. They need help to make sure their days and weeks include these experiences, no matter how busy their demanding course loads and common app requirements feel.

When talk turns to exam scores, make sure to query and reflect on effort, study strategies and integrity. Young people might benefit from a mutually agreed upon pacts amongst friends, and with parents  to have “college talk-free zones.”  When catching up on others, ask less about their process and more about their soccer game, date on Friday night or outing to the local fro-yo restaurant. Remind students to ask how others are doing and get out of their college application “bubble.” 17 year olds should also ask how their mother’s day at work went or how their father’s Friday night baseball game was.  It teaches plain old good manners, and at the same time reduces self-absorption and its partner in crime, college obsessiveness!

Inspiration #4 of 4: Use organizational strategies to take a little of the sting out of the bite of the application process.

You will manage college application stress better if you proactively and systematically work towards your goals, rather than racing through things last minute.  A solid timeline, which organizes college visits, essay writing, test taking, resume building and financial aid filings, reduces anxiety, as you can feel more confident that you will meet deadlines. Find and accept support from trusted adults - parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, a school counselor, a trusted teacher, college consultants or professional coaches. Surround yourself by those who ebb positivity and avoid those who facilitate competition and put downs. When parent and child’s (college applicant) styles and needs clash, seek support. I have met young adults who complain that they can’t get their parents out of the office to help, those whose parents have no idea how to guide them, and those who feel completely smothered by their parents’ concern or ambition. While each of those relationships are rich in love, they have a challenge of “fit” for the college process.   All need to take a deep breath, and identify a plan to manage the “fit” to the student’s advantage. Often, a  supportive coach can help de-stress, maintain balance, pursue an application process with integrity and confidence and at the same time support healthy relationships at home.