Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Wrong Story on Applying to College

By Patrick O'Connor

High school counselors may see an uptick in anxious college students this week.  NBC Nightly News recently ran a piece on college essay writing, and since the title was “Cracking the Code”, you can probably sort out it was not intended to be a soothing, reassuring, in-depth discussion on the purpose behind college essays and the quirky questions some colleges ask.

To be sure, there were some helpful bites of advice in this two minute (!) story. One college admission officer talked about the college’s need to see students in a three-dimensional way—and creative questions bring out a side of the student test scores and grades can’t convey.  This same officer was later quoted as saying “Relax.  Be yourself”, another sage piece of counsel students should cling to.

Instead, most parents and students are focusing on the mayhem portrayed in the two minutes of mashed-up quotes and out-of-context comments that surrounded these two very sane ideas:  The college association official who saw the questions as degrading; the stressed-out parent who felt the response length of the question required their child to write a general answer, not a specific one; the well-meaning counselor who said the real purpose of such essays is for colleges to discover the next Bill Gates.

Combine this in a series of  four-second quotes, and it would be easy for a viewer to feel like they just got off a roller coaster—a sensation that could be seen as helpful to students, since Emory University’s quirky question asks students to describe their favorite ride at an amusement park.

But to those who are investing more than just two minutes into the college selection process—and that would be us, our students, our families, and our colleagues in college admission offices—the NBC piece was more of a hindrance than a help.  Since the deadlines have passed for most colleges requiring these essays, the story is so forty-three seconds ago. Because the tempo of the story created a whirl of impressions rather than a substantive discussion, it’s easy to think the producers of the story wanted to create that effect and affect, since they feel applying to college must certainly make students feel the same way—but how does that help anyone?

It would be easy for students and parents to cave in to the conventional wisdom that college admissions is either a code to be cracked or a recipe to be followed; the only problem with these conclusions is they are wrong.  Applying to college is all about what’s next in student’s lives, the building of a plan that will lead them to a larger sense of self, increased opportunities in the world, and more chances to give back to a culture that has given them so much.

Stories like this might lead counselors to want to throw in the towel, but all of those students coming by your office should tell you something else—they want to believe in what you have to say, because deep down, they know you’re right.  It’s too bad the media has once again offered the wrong message about college admission, but this creates an opportunity for us to teach and reach out to those who may have doubts—and it may irritate us enough to do this with an even greater sense of purpose.  It isn’t the best motivational method, but let’s see where it can take us.

So now, one more time, we say with newfound purpose—“College admission is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

And that’s the way it really is.

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