My family had a New Year’s tradition that was different than most, one that often led to tears and retribution between me and my brothers. At breakfast on January 1st every year, we gathered around pancakes, and instead of crafting our own New Year’s resolutions, the group would decide what each family member should commit to change or improve in the coming year. Having a spotlight on our shortcomings was no picnic, as you can imagine, but in retrospect, it was a valuable exercise.
College admission is an imperfect system. With each new year, it grows more complicated, and produces more anxiety and finger-pointing, for everyone involved. It’s easy enough to assign blame, but rarely are we willing to address our role. So, in the spirit of the Barnard family tradition, I want to suggest two simple New Year’s resolutions to all the constituents involved in college admission: communication and kindness. Imagine the ways that our culture could start to heal if we all stopped blaming each other, and instead of defaulting to extremes, embraced the ways we can contribute to a healthier global community. Whether you are a student, a parent, or a high school or college educator, this coming year I beg you to continually ask yourself, “what am I doing to be a better communicator and to be more kind?”
As an applicant, it is too easy to approach college admission passively. The whole process may feel like something that happens to
you, but in reality, it is full of opportunity to own the experience and exert choice
. Your generation is poised to be the most accepting and inclusive generation ever, and if you can look at admission to college not as a “Hunger Games” competition
or prize to be won, then it will be a much more collaborative, enjoyable, and meaningful. So in 2019, resolve for more:
Communication. Look, I get it, I was a teenager once and now I have two of my own. I know that a free flow of communication with adults is not at the top of your priority list. When it comes to college admission, however, make it one. Whether you are a junior just beginning your college search, or a senior finishing applications and waiting for decisions, be sure that your parents and school counselor know what is going on with you. Tell them what you are excited about, what you are afraid of, and the areas where you need support or perhaps a little breathing room. A free flow of information will keep everyone more grounded and unified. And speaking of communication, when you learn decisions from colleges, by all means, share this with the teachers and others who advocated for you. Let them understand your disappointment or include them in the celebrations.
Kindness. Maybe you are a straight-A student in high school with strong standardized testing. You have toiled over your essay and done everything else that our culture tells you is a must to be a competitive applicant. Now ask yourself this, “how have I demonstrated kindness?” Not in a manufactured way as another “checkbox” for admission but genuine, authentic compassion for yourself and others. Be kind primarily because it is moral and will help make the world a better place. As a byproduct, you will likely find that doors to your future open wide. Whitney Soule, dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College explains that,
Operating from a place of care and concern for others, understanding that you are in relation to others – all the time – is incredibly important for how students open themselves to learning. If students are generally aware of others, interested in their well-being, thoughts, feelings, and needs – in addition to their own – then they are better equipped to take in new information, test it, consider it, and problem solve it with more perspectives and options than what they would have started with on their own. Plus, it’s a kind and positive approach to being stretched, challenged, and acknowledged.
With the goal of building a college community that supports these values, she adds,
When we are selecting students for Bowdoin, we are looking for evidence of student’s willingness to be in a considerate space, a relational environment that will require resolve and generosity to confront stressful information, situations, choices and to grow. We find these qualities in how students spend their time, what they choose to write about, and how others describe them. And those examples are not always showing up in connected dots that make straight lines. Sometimes the signals are subtle. But we know what we are looking for because we have evidence of it in our community with each new class.
The take-home message is that if you are sincerely kind, it will be naturally evident as admission offices review your application, and it matters.
Admission to college for our children can feel like the final exam and litmus test of the first two decades of parenting: did we do it right? It’s the wrong question. As teens approach this experience, it is important to separate ourselves from their journey and refuse to see it as a referendum on us, a chance for a do-over, or a test of anything. With that in mind, if you have a student who is in the midst of searching for, or applying to, college, resolve for more:
Communication. Every parent would love better communication from their teen, but we also must consider our role. It is easy to assume that our children know our perspective, but it is important to be more direct in articulating our intentions. Talk to your children about your hopes and fears for their future, and why this can make you act a little crazy sometimes. Be honest about your biases as they look at colleges and then work hard to address your preconceptions on your own, rather than saddle your children with the weight of your expectations. Be upfront about family finances and other factors that will influence the college search. By resolving to be more transparent you are more likely to enjoy 2019 with your child.
Kindness. The kindest thing we can do for our children is to empower them to make their own decisions and mistakes. We must listen to what they are saying and allow them to stand on their own two feet before they have launched off to college. By modeling kindness and dedication to others, we can show our children that it is who they are and what they do that matters, rather than acceptance to any given college.
Mediators, guides, teachers, protectors, a source of inspiration—the roles of high schools are many. While not every student who graduates from secondary schools is destined for college, our nation’s high schools still have a responsibility to provide the foundation and opportunities for those who wish to follow this path. When it comes to college admission, the messages and framework that schools establish for approaching this experience are crucial, and in 2019 high schools can resolve to focus on:
Communication. What are the messages that high schools send about college admission? Are they consistent to students of all backgrounds? Too often schools feel at the mercy of admission to college and before long, every aspect of high school becomes about how to position students as applicants, rather than developing young people. Secondary educators can resolve to talk openly with students and parents about the difference between college preparation and college obsession. They can also be aware of the subtle cues that students take from how teachers and counselors talk about specific colleges and what is “acceptable.”
Kindness. The best way for high schools to promote kindness is to create spaces for students to experiment with it that are not framed around admission to college. Schools can also build daily schedules that are humane and allow for exploration, innovation, and play. Kindness means setting clear limitations that protect students from their own propensity, and that of their parents, towards trying to do and be everything in the name of a college acceptance.
“With great power comes great responsibility”—so said Uncle Ben to Peter Parker in Spiderman, though it is surely older than that. Nowhere is this more applicable than in college admission—like it or not, the truth is that the power that admission offices have in evaluating applicants trickles down, dictating many of the decisions and actions of high schools, parents and students. With this reality in mind, colleges can resolve in 2019 to improve:
Communication. Often what families read or hear from colleges becomes gospel, guiding their every move. Admission offices explain that competitive applicants take the most challenging classes offered by their high school, and soon students have loaded up on every advanced course in the curriculum guide and are spending four hours each night on homework. Colleges encourage students to find their passion and suddenly students feel like they must be sure of their future and career choice. Colleges publish rankings in their marketing materials and families begin to believe that they should be making decisions based on a school’s position rather than opportunities offered. The list goes on, which is why colleges should resolve to do an internal review of the unintended consequences of their messaging.
Kindness. What would a kinder admission experience look like? Less standardized testing? A limit on the number of activities a student can report? A more developmentally appropriate timeline for submitting applications or a lower cap on the percentage of their incoming class that is filled through early admission? More candor about the chances of admission? Perhaps colleges could resolve to ask students and their parents how the experience could be more meaningful and less stressful. In the meantime, schools can take Bowdoin College’s lead and agree to keep reinforcing the importance of students expressing concern and commitment to others.
New Year’s resolutions are meant to be lofty and are often most successful when they are collaborative, even if they can be hard to hear or achieve. Rarely did my family members end the year having accomplished everything that we hoped to. However, we resisted pointing fingers and bet on the best intentions of each other. That alone allowed us to move the needle on our resolutions and has had a lasting impact on each of us.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project