Your Stake in the World: Write a College Essay that Communicates What Matters to You.

When I was in school learning about the coaching paradigm and how different it was from my worldview as a clinical social worker, it changed my life in so many ways. By and large, I shifted from “you are broken and I am here to fix you,” to “you are perfect exactly where you are, and there is always room for growth; what do you want?” My agenda does not run the relationship; rather, the client’s curiosity does. My job is to ask questions that open neural pathways of possibility for clients and to support them to move into action between our sessions. I do this with employees, managers, parents, millennials, and teenagers. 

During my training, I found I had a longing to bring coaching to young people. How different could this world be if students had an opportunity to explore who they are and then learned to leverage those innate talents and strengths 

to shift how they show up in the world? How significant could it be, if, one student at a time, we went from “I have no idea what I want,” to “I know who I am and what will support me to create what I want (even if I don’t know what that looks like right now).” By using students’ real world experience in school, at home, on teams, with affiliations, or at work as the playground for learning, with coaching as the catalyst, we throw a pebble in a pond and watch the whole pond change.

I was working with a 9th grade student who, after some coaching, noticed that the classes where he had the highest grades, were also the classes where he could identify an ally.  He learned that he needed some level of comfort before he could be uncomfortable enough to be seen by the teacher. Learning requires some level of vulnerability. It requires risk. Not only did our work uncover that, once he discovered how it played out, he was motivated to get in the sandbox and play with it.  He came up with a system that started with how he unpacked his bag in class and made eye contact with the teacher. It involved lots of experimenting with putting up his hand in class, whether he wanted to, or not. He would return to our zoom calls every other week, engaging with me in a different way, as well. I could tell things were shifting, but more importantly, he could, too. His mother called me to ask what we were doing together because she had noticed a difference in their home. He started to feel success and he understood that he could actually have an impact, not just in school, but in other areas of his life, as well. What started with “my teacher hates me,” ended with, “I need an ally to feel comfortable, but I can influence who I see as my allies.”

In thinking about this young man in 9th grade, I know that he already has a moment to reflect on to write his college essay. What?? You don’t have to have a ginormous leadership project? You don’t have to be an Eagle Scout? You don’t have to form a non-profit or even be a candy striper at the hospital? The short answer is, “No.” I have spent the last several years picking the brains of high school counselors, college admissions counselors, and folks who are certified to guide students through the college process in the private sector. Guess what? Everyone gives the same advice: to highlight something that communicates who you are. Most would agree, too, that the focus is on the student, not the thing. When a student writes a great (not fancy, which is another blog post!) essay about who they are, they are far more likely to differentiate themselves from the crowd of other applicants.

My 9th grade student could write about how he took his notebook out of his backpack and made eye contact, and what those moments in time taught him about intentionally engaging with other people. He could even marvel at a world where people did this on a regular basis. The admissions committees would learn that he is curious about himself, is willing to take risks in service of his own growth, and that he cares about what connects people with one another. 

Essays are about communicating what a student’s stake is in this world. It is exciting work and when we let students guide the process and we support their agenda, they do a fantastic job at doing just that.

Are the Kids Home Yet?

Across all areas of my life, my acceptance of any situation is inversely proportional to my expectations. I am grateful that I am remembering this now, at the beginning of our week home together, as opposed to having an “AHA” after a tearful experience later (and who knows, that could still happen!). With two kids away at school and two kids home full time with my husband and I, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought Thanksgiving could be “business as usual”; we are a group of willful people who do not easily embrace a “go with the flow” state of being. Given that, I am sharing my three step process for bringing home the big kids:

    1. Awareness: Being aware, before the visit, that we have all changed since the August drop-off, is imperative. Knowing this helps me to address any stories I have already started to make up about how they will want to spend their time and how they feel about being here. Just being aware that I am only one person in this dynamic of 6 people, is a starting place for me. I take a deep breath, I take a step back, and I ask myself, “so….now what?”
    2. Acceptance: First, I have the kick in the gut. Admittedly, that is sometimes my first reaction. It is the start of my acceptance. Before I can accept that new awareness, I need to acknowledge that I am not 100% in control and my kids may not have the same expectations that I have for this week. I may not know what they want or how this will be for any of us, which means that the story I’ve made up about them wanting to spend oodles and oodles of time with me, having family dinners, playing board games and decorating for Christmas, may not be their truth. So I accept that. And I get really, really curious. I throw my ideas to the wind, and start my wondering of how they DO, in fact, feel? What DO they, in fact, want for their week at home? How do my other two feel about having their older siblings home? We’ve been in a nice groove here – with fewer conflicts, not as much competition for bathrooms, transportation, and time. How will this impact them? Bedroom configurations have shifted and the house is relatively clean on a regular basis; how might that change? Acceptance happens when I give up the stories I have made up and I acknowledge that I don’t know and need to ask some questions.
    3. Action: The action I take comes in the form of openness and willingness to shift my own stories and be open to something different. Action comes in the form of fully embracing that different does not mean worse. Different does not mean we aren’t happy to see each other. What it does mean is that my kids are “grown-ass” folk (their words) with their own wants and needs, and all 6 of us are fully capable of designing something together. Action takes place in the form of listening first, asking for more information if necessary, and establishing boundaries.

In my home, this started in phone calls over the last week or so. When calls came in from extended family about making plans for dinners and gatherings throughout the week, I let them know that I needed to have conversations with my kids about it before committing.

“I know you will want to spend time with friends next week, we’d like to spend some time with your grandparents on XXX day. Does that work with your plans? Can you keep that open for family time?”

Or

“Will you want to go out with friends the night you get home? I want to make a plan for dinner and it would be helpful to know what to expect.”

My awareness and my acceptance has taught me that because my kids are used to having agency over their time while at school, I want to give them that agency while home, too. Some conversation beforehand helps us to manage our expectations and give us all some agency over our time. In my home, action also takes the form of setting boundaries:

“Yes, I would love for you to have your friends over tonight. Here is what is and is not OK. You can eat and drink whatever you can find in the house, but you cannot break the law of the land or the rules of our home. That means there will be no alcohol and no vaping and here is what you can expect my response to be if it does happen….”

Or

“I know you hate the dentist, but you need an appointment. I’m happy to make that for you if you let me know what the best days are for you.”

Finally, we design what the week will look like. We may not plan it all out, but for those who have transportation needs, appointments, work, or other “must do’s”, they are added to the calendar. We are ALL a part of the planning and therefore are ALL invested in working together. Letting go of my expectations is not something that comes easily for me, and let me tell you, cats do not have dogs; my kids have expectations and are highly invested in having them met. This litter of kittens has many, many similarities to their Mama; those similarities call for designing something together, some discussion and compromise, and then stepping into Thanksgiving week with much excitement and joy about being together. And if I stick to this plan, they may even gift me with some snuggles and board games.