Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Gentle Art of Applying to College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counseling offices across the country are reporting an uptick in college application activity this time of year. What used to be the “big rush before Christmas” has now become the “big rush before Halloween,” as more colleges are offering early admission programs, and special scholarship incentives for students who apply early. Convinced that earlier is better, students are taking the colleges up on these offers in record numbers, hoping to score an offer of admission or extra scholarship that cements their future.

Much of the colleges’ rationale for doing all this is based on data. Research continues to show that a student is more likely to attend a college if the college is the first, or at least among the first, to offer the student admission. Combine that with an “unexpected” scholarship offer, and it’s easy to see how a student can get caught up in the moment. First admit, plus extra cash, makes an offer just too good to be true.

But that’s where students, and our profession, need to be careful. Getting excited about college is a natural and expected part of the process, but excitement isn’t a data point; it’s a feeling. The minute the college selection process ventures into the affective domain of seventeen year-olds, all bets are off. A college that costs less isn’t much of a bargain if it doesn’t offer the right mix of support, challenge, and opportunity. This isn’t to say every day of college is a life of bread and roses, but if a college student’s biggest daily challenge is working up the energy to get up, perhaps they’re in the wrong place in the first place. If only they had more time to think.

I thought about all this as I was reading some counselor comments about the high levels of stress students are experiencing, not only in applying to college, but with life in general. Reports (again, back to data) tell us students are using college mental health programs (now back to feelings) like never before, and the number of students turning to opioids and vaping to relieve the pain of growing up surpasses anything we’ve seen in substance abuse usage. The point of the counselor comments basically boiled down to this: In our interest to be “first—in the hearts and minds of our students, in the rankings, in the media—are colleges putting too much pressure on students?

Two students come to mind. The first one was wise beyond her years, someone who glided through the college selection process without a care in the world. She’d started visiting college campuses in ninth grade, and while she wasn’t obsessed with choosing a college, she thought about it often enough to make sure she was doing everything she needed to do to keep her college options aligned to her interests. She took the tests and completed the applications with time to spare. By mid-October, she was back to being a high school student. By January, she’d been accepted to the five colleges she applied to early.

The second student saw applying to college as more of a performance art experience. Every step of the process was a life and death decision, a surprise, something they hadn’t thought about until it was almost too late to think about it. Applying to six colleges (without having visited any of them) was an experience that dragged out through after Christmas, and choosing among the three colleges that offered admission in April almost required an all-school assembly for them to decide what to do. Throughout their meetings with their counselor, their mantra was all too familiar—“The college application process is killing me.”

Thankfully, the student wasn’t speaking literally—but the differences between the two approaches are telling. What are we, as school counselors, doing to make sure students have the opportunity to pursue their college interests more like the first student, as an attitude one embraces, as a natural part of growing into self? Media portrayals of the Angst of Senior Year may seem to be the more popular approach to college choice, so much so that students may feeling they’re missing out on something if they aren’t in there, freaking out with everyone else. But are they really?

Counseling offices throughout the country are looking forward to a little down time next week, and rightly so. As we catch our collective breaths, November might be the time to consider how our existing counseling curriculum treats college choice—is it more a natural part of who students are, or is it an event thrust upon them, ready or not? Doing what we can to make it a more gradual, gentle experience may be the best thing we can do for all involved.

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