Another May 1 is in the history books, which is especially meaningful for those high school seniors who had to choose a college by this, the National Candidate Reply Date
. Senior spring has arrived and the perils of senioritis
threaten to infect even the most diligent students. As graduation nears, and students anticipate the opportunities that lie ahead, the theme for these final months of high school should be “have no regrets.” It is too easy to say to one’s self, “if only I had prepared more and taken the SAT one more time,” or “I wish I had taken AP Spanish rather than that extra math course,” or “I should have been more involved outside of class.” Perhaps these statements are all true, but more likely any one choice did not impact the admission decisions that colleges made. Instead of living in this could have, should have, would have
space, students have a lot to learn from the study of history and how ironically it teaches us not to look back.
There are a lot of myths surrounding college—most notably that there is one perfect school waiting to be found. The reality is that there are any number of colleges where a student could thrive and there will also be aspects of each school that are frustrating or disappointing for anyone. Another myth is that college is the best four years of one’s life. If approached with this expectation, students are destined to be disillusioned and disenchanted when they face adversity or feel discouraged. Yes, there will be amazing experiences, quite possibly ones that will create lifelong memories. There will also be low moments, however, when students express doubt and feel like they are at the worst of times. Confronting these two myths before stepping on campus in the fall will go a long way in improving the quality of the experience and the likelihood of college success.
Instead, the myth that college matriculants should internalize is that of the Greek prophet and musician, Orpheus. According to legend, his wife, Eurydice, suffered a fatal bite by a viper at their wedding. The grieving Orpheus went to the underworld where he convinced Hades to allow Eurydice to ascend back to earth. The only caveat was that Orpheus was to walk in front of his bride as they returned and he was not to look back. Despite these warnings, Orpheus anxiously glanced back and Eurydicedisappeared forever. The message for students beginning their journey is clear—the college experience is rife with opportunity, and also fleeting. Rather than focus on what is behind them, they should appreciate the possibilities that lie ahead. If college is spent second-guessing one’s choice, there will be inevitable disappointment and lack of meaningful engagement in the moment.
Burn The Ships
In his recent blog
, Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech reflected on one moment in history from which students can learn. He writes,
"In 1519, Hernán Cortés sailed to Veracruz, Mexico upon the direction of the King and Queen of Spain, in order to find gold, silver, and a new place to settle. When they arrived, his crew talked incessantly about returning home. They were thinking about home, family, their known life, other places, and an easier path. As they came ashore, Cortés ordered them to ‘Burn the ships!’ Why? So they could not look back, and instead would be fully committed to the expedition."
Clark tells students, “once you put down your deposit, that is your job as well. Be all in—buy the t-shirt, put the window decal on the car, start following student groups on social media, donate or trade the shirts you have from other school (don’t go all Cortés here and burn them), close/cancel your applications from other colleges, and start planning on orientation in the summer.” He adds, “Don’t look back. You made the right choice. Embrace it. Enjoy the end of your senior year and a well-earned summer. Too many students second guess themselves and spend their summer in angst. Burn. The. Ships!”
The Campus Green
Were you denied admission at your first choice college? Did the school you had hoped to attend come up short on financial aid? Did your parents ultimately decide that ten states away was too far? Are you second guessing your binding Early Decision application from last fall? Did the coach you had hoped to play for leave the college where you have enrolled? Life is full of moments with the temptation to regret—let this not be one of them. The grass will inevitably be greener on another campus’ quad. Social media, hallway chatter and other noise in the college admission process can lead students to wonder if they have made the right decision. Lingering doubt is to be expected with any big choice or life transition—how one responds to this doubt is what shapes the experience.
Go all in, prepare to engage, anticipate the ways you will contribute, look for opportunities, bet on the best, be willing to improve upon what isn’t working and be the change. If you cannot approach college with this attitude, accept that for what it is, and don’t consider this as a shortcoming. Perhaps you need to step back and defer for a year, instead embracing an interim experience or GAP year program (many admission leaders like Bill Fitzsimmons
, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, encourage this). If you are not prepared to “burn the ships” as Cortés ordered, then you might need to keep sailing before coming ashore. In other words, if the temptation to look back is too great, then ascending to college will be full of missed opportunities. Higher education comes at a great cost to students and families and you need to be invested in your own success and ready for a meaningful, purpose-driven endeavor.
"In our reading of the research on student outcomes—learning, financial, and otherwise—this theme arises: the students who benefit the most from college are those who are most engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources their particular institution provides. Engagement is the key."
So students, as you sit daydreaming in your final high school classes, get ready to immerse yourself in experiencing all that college has to offer. No matter where you enrolled by May 1, refuse to look back. Benefit from the lessons of history and create your own future. Commit to celebrating the choice you have made and be confident in what is ahead. You can reevaluate in a year if needed but give it that long. While there may be rocky times of doubt, your first year of college will be full of excitement and opportunity. Be sure to take it all in.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project