Colorado Academy’s Upper School students are in the midst of course selection, and the process always produces some stress and anxiety. This year’s sophomores are like most of the classes before them at CA, and they are much like their peers at similar institutions. They care about their academic work and their activities, and they know that their junior year is important for the college admissions process.
Recently, I was invited to speak to the sophomore class about choices, perspective, and authenticity. I asked them what was producing the most stress, and most said they felt the weight of the college process looming over them. Some were anxious about their course selections because they wanted to get into certain classes. Some felt that they “had” to take certain courses because they think those courses are what colleges want to see on a transcript. Others felt that there were classes that were just “so interesting” that they were hopeful they could fit those into their schedules.
While we want students to try lots of different things and to take full advantage of the CA experience, there is also a time when students have to make choices. And at CA, we want students to make choices for the right reasons.
In my talk, I tried to pull back the curtain a bit on the college process and hopefully, introduce some sanity into the students’ lives. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Some Elite Colleges Review an Application in 8 Minutes or Less.”
Of course, colleges take a range of approaches when deciding on applicants. Our College Counseling Office can give you a sobering look at how this process plays out at various schools. It is not a system designed to be fair or comprehensive; it is not easily gamed and ultimately, the colleges are simply building a cohort of students based on their own mission-based needs. Some years, a school might just need a tuba player or a speech and debate leader, and those needs have nothing to offer in the way of a value judgment on students as individuals or as applicants.
I reminded students about the Wall Street Journal article and the headline. My goal was to push these young people toward making more authentic choices rather than playing a guessing game of what they think colleges want. If a college is only going to spend eight minutes evaluating your life, what do you want to show them? Or, better yet, maybe students should live their lives based on their own authentic passions and interests rather than trying to please an organization that will never truly get to know them by way of this flawed college process.
Let’s think about the absurdity of what the college admission game has done to childhood. There are students and parents throughout the country who sometimes make decisions about courses, clubs, sports, activities, and volunteering based on what they think might “look good.” I challenged the students to think about steering a course for themselves that is less predictable and based on their own genuine interests. It can be good to be a maverick and to stick out a bit. It can be worth trying things that others haven’t tried. I noted that the Common Application only has a few lines for listing extracurricular activities. Looking around the room, I noted that every student in the class already had weighty and meaningful activities that could easily fill that list (an advantage of CA is that our mission encourages students to try a broad variety of endeavors in academic, the arts, athletics, co-curricular clubs, and community service).
Clearly, there are times when we all have to perform or conform to some expectations. That is part of life. But, within the course of excellence we have already established for CA students, they can wander off the path a little and be just fine. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget that.
A CA sophomore who took part in a recent student panel fielding questions from members of our Board of Trustees says, “At CA, there are so many ways to find your passions, and the teachers do a great job of setting us on our way.” We want students to find those strengths and talents. And we want them to discover things that, while they might not be so good at them, they will try them and enjoy them anyway. It was Mark Twain who said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”