In the fall of 1998, fresh out of graduate school and having just completed a bike ride across the United States, Union College in Schenectady, NY, hired me as an admissions counselor. Clad in a suit two sizes too big and wired on Coca Cola and Dairy Queen Blizzards, an addiction born from peddling eighty miles a day that summer, I traversed the country presenting the college to at least four high schools a day. All of the students I encountered were infinitely more interesting than I could have ever imagined. They were funny. They were kind. They were hard working, and they were filled with energy. By the end of the fall, both my borrowed suit and my new profession fit perfectly.
After my first year as a college admissions counselor, I realized students all shared the same concerns: “Are my SAT scores good enough?” “What if I am not admitted?” “I want my parents to be proud of the college I attend and to stop pestering me.” Occasionally, the most brazen students would ask a question that many of their peers, I presumed, shared, but were too afraid to ask, “Do you think I am good enough?” Now working as a college counselor in Seattle, I may have replaced Schenectady with both a city I can spell and one that doesn’t sound like a skin disease, but the questions students ask remain the same.
And this is what I believe. I believe we are too focused on competition in the college process. We are thereby jeopardizing a critical learning moment, and the subsequent growth and good feelings that unfold, when we do not unite to support students through this rite of passage. I once read the following in a student’s essay: “My friends were obsessed with their college lists. They had favorites. Three friends stopped talking to each other when they all applied to the same college. They saw each other as competition. They were all admitted, yet their friendship was destroyed. And they created a competition when companionship was what they needed most.” Students need companionship during the college process, yet they also need perspective. College admission is not as competitive as students think is; ninety percent of America’s universities admit more than half of their applicants.
I believe SAT scores are not a strong indicator of future collegiate success. Standardized tests are incapable of measuring a student’s work-ethic, soul, creativity, humanity, and ability to think independently. One of my former students who presently attends one of the nation’s most selective colleges recently emailed me to say, “I am a firm believer that SAT scores do not equal success in college or life. Despite being in the lowest quartile of SAT scores of my peers, I have outperformed most of the kids with higher scores. Plus, I have a personality, and I don’t sleep in the library!” Students are far more than a test score.
I believe that the vast majority of parents who are “pestering” their children about college are doing so only out of loving concern. Through the years, I have given the same advice to parents of seniors: set aside a time once a week to discuss college, and for the remaining six days, it’s off limits. For students worried about the “prestige” of the college they attend making their parents happy, I ask the following question, “What is necessary for creating a good life?” The other day a student responded with: “Love, hard work, a significant other, friends, a belief in oneself, and lots of Oreo cookies.” Never do students list earning a degree from a particular college. So when students discuss making their parents proud by virtue of where they matriculate, I often remind them that what they listed as necessary for creating a good life is what will engender parental admiration the most. Earning respect is a life long task.
Not only do I have beliefs about the college process, but I also have wishes. I wish our students and families could sit in my office when alumni return to share their collegiate stories. I wish they realized how well it all unfolds. I wish they could peer a few months or years into the future. Last week an alumnus told me she “loved” college and was earning A’s. Six months earlier she had wept in my office, worried about being able to succeed. Oh what a difference a few months makes. I wish I could do a better job of disseminating this message.
And so to the students who wonder, “Am I good enough?” my emphatic response is yes. You have worked hard and you have the academic and extracurricular foundation to achieve great success and happiness. I don’t just believe you are good enough, I know you are.
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