It is easy for college applicants and their parents to get caught up in the fear, frustration, and frenzy of the admission experience. Those of us who counsel families through this journey have the benefit of having watched hundreds and thousands of students and their parents as they fumble, fixate and flourish. This breadth of experience, and what we have come to know, can be valuable to current families. In a recent blog post
, Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, wrote a “letter of hope” to parents of students applying to college. It was a thoughtful invitation to remain grounded and to “be the example” in their community, on social media, and for their family, providing encouragement, positivity, and perspective. It is in this same spirit that I offer a letter to high school students who have applied or are approaching the college search. It is similarly one of hope and gratitude.
College admission essentially asks, “who are you and what do you want?” Easy, right? It is often talked about as a rite of passage and, for some, it can be a transformative time of exploring identity. For others, it is a more practical pursuit of specific goals. Either way, it can be an experience layered with expectation, doubt, and challenge. Applying to college is not a test or project that you can, nor should attempt to, ace. It is an opportunity to be purposeful and grateful (more on this at the end of the letter).
When I was first starting out in education, a colleague suggested that when planning my classes for the year, I consider what “beach knowledge” I wanted my students to have. What he meant was that when they are sitting on the beach in July, what should students remember about my class and what they learned. Each summer, before I head back to school, I think about that concept. I know that I will again work with amazingly talented students who are bound for success, but who also question that truth most days. I know that I will hear students anxious and disconcerted about whether they will get into college and if it will be a place where they can grow and thrive. And each year, ultimately, my students land well. Talk to your friends who graduated last year, or the year before, from your school and they will tell you the same thing.
So, even though it is the middle of winter, I want you to channel summer and soak up the beach knowledge that I have learned in my two decades of work in this field. As you go through your college experience, my hope is that you will add to this list and take it to heart.
College Admission IS:
- A personal journey. This is your search so own it.
- An invitation to explore identity and purpose. This will not happen overnight.
- Imperfect. It is a human process, so expect “user error.”
- A celebration of your hard work.
- About engagement, so lean in.
- Exciting. The minute it becomes a chore stop and check yourself. Enjoy the ride.
- An investment in you—both short and long term.
- About unity, not vanity, so don’t sacrifice relationships for status.
- A privilege, so take advantage of the opportunities you have.
- Full of choice, so be open and consider all of your options.
College Admission is NOT:
- A value judgment on whether you are “good enough”.
- Life or death.
- About status. Aim high, but for the right reasons.
- A game or prize.
- The final exam for high school. You only do high school once, so live in it.
- One size fits all.
- To be taken at face value. Dig deep and ask probing questions.
- A reason to create an unreasonable schedule, so prioritize balance.
- A passive experience. You are in control so assert it.
- Linear. There are many pathways to your future, so consider them all.
- A search for perfection. There is not one “right” college.
- A test. Like life, this is the real thing, so be in it.
When you are accepted, denied, deferred or waitlisted; when you do not get that invitation to an honors program; when a financial package or scholarship does not work out at your first choice school, I hope that you will remember, and be completely confident in this—you are bound for success. You ARE. Students never believe this in September, and frequently not even in January, but this is all going to work out.
I hope you will look at your college admission experience as an opportunity to grow closer to your family. Done right, searching for, applying to, and ultimately selecting a college should provide you with opportunities to connect and to appreciate your relationship with your parents and loved ones. I hope you will not miss this in your experience. It seems trivial, but you are where you are, and in many ways who you are, because of them.
This experience is about connection, communication, gratitude, and choice. Prioritizing relationships and investing in people will not only dictate the success of your college search and application experience but will also have implications for your college career and life well beyond it. While you may be the one applying, the college admission experience is a team effort that requires communicating honestly, frequently, and openly, in order to stay unified. Do not try to go at this alone. Whether to a parent, grandparent, older sibling, guardian or another concerned adult, be sure to express your love and gratitude early and often.
Here is what I know: When I was in my early thirties, my mother (then in her late fifties) was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease and frontal lobe dementia. This began a five-year deterioration of her memory. Did she remember all of the special moments from my childhood? Did she remember driving me and my brothers from activity to activity? Did she remember the battles we had about homework? Did she know how selfless she had been since the day I was born? Did she remember our visits to colleges and the laughs we shared as I dreamt about my future and she hesitantly anticipated my departure? Did she know how grateful I was? Did she know how much I loved her? I assumed she did, but how often did I intentionally pause and say it?
I hope that after you read this you will go find your parents or the caring adult in your life. Look them in the eyes and tell them that you need them to know two things: that you love them and you appreciate them (you can add a hug for emphasis). It is that simple…”I love you” and “thank you.” My former colleague, Bruce Berk, used to require this exercise of students as they began their college search, and it was amazing how it established a sense of gratitude and closeness that endured throughout. Don’t laugh it off with sarcasm as you tell them. Don’t text it to them. Don’t dismiss this exercise because your love and appreciation is “a given” or “no brainer.” Choose to express yourself and acknowledge the awesome power they have given you.
I hope you are excited. I hope you remain confident. I hope you are ready because you are bound for an amazing college experience filled with opportunities to learn, connect, and grow. Where all of that will happen is a mystery—and like all good mysteries, it should be filled with twists, turns, discovery, new places, and interesting people. My hope is that you will find joy in uncovering the clues that lead you, and that ultimately you will arrive on a college campus confident and excited to embrace the opportunity. Enjoy the journey.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project