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.

Sophomore Spring: Laying the Foundation for the College Search and Selection Process

AAAGH! It’s spring of your sophomore year. What needs to be on your family’s radar?

When I was thinking about my own college application process ~ back in the time when we drove “antique cars” (because we had to crank the windows, as my kids say) ~ I think we made two trips (one North, and one West), I sat for the SAT once, wrote my essay, and applied to a bunch of schools, mostly those that had sent me the nicest catalogs. And let’s be honest, I chose the school I went to for two reasons: they were the #2 seeded basketball team (and lost the Championship to the #1 seed by one point) and were therefore on TV in March when I was making decisions, and the school I chose was the largest school I applied to and I decided after a breakup with my boyfriend that I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew my personal business. My parents had absolutely nothing to do with my application process and in fact, I somehow translated their lack of involvement to mean that they really didn’t care if or where I went. But that’s for another blog….

Clearly, things have changed.

Having worked with young people in myriad ways as both a social worker and a coach, I have learned that there are ways to decrease the angst and smooth the process for both parents and students. While it is possible to start as late as fall of senior year, the earlier you start (Spring of sophomore year), the more intentional and deliberate you can all be as you move through the college search and application process.

1. It’s time for The Talk. Parents, beware. Your assumptions about college are just that. They are assumptions. It’s time to have a conversation with your child. And students? You, too. Assume nothing about this process. Set aside some time when you are all at your best – with all of the stakeholders (usually the parents and child) – and ask yourselves some questions.

  • Is college something we all agree on as the next step after high school graduation?
  • If not, what is the next best step and what needs to happen for us to explore that?
  • If yes, continue on to the next step.

2. The Talk….the next chapter. “The Talk” above is often where people stop (if they even have that talk). What I have found is that parents and students benefit greatly from a conversation about “how they want to be” together in the process of the college search. I’d suggest a conversation early in the process and again as a junior and a third time as a senior (and as many times in between as called for). Designing something together will ensure that you are not making assumptions about who is responsible for what and clarifies the ownership for these initial steps in the process. This process may not look any different from how you relate to one another in other decision-making processes, but I have found that this is often the first time a student takes ownership for a major decision that potentially impacts the whole family. Questions to think about include:

  • Who owns the decisions about the process including the schools that go on the initial “list”, what visits take place, when they take place, and who schedules them?
  • How do we deal with disagreement in the process?
  • What is most important about this to each of us?

This is your opportunity as a parent to say “The most important thing to me is that you not graduate with an exorbitant amount of debt” or “The most important thing to me is that you find a school that will allow you to travel abroad”. And likewise, your student gets to say, “The most important thing in this is that I get the final choice where I attend” or “The most important thing is that you are not constantly on my back about college – I want to enjoy my senior year.”

It is possible that you do nothing about responding to these questions at this time; you may just put them into the space, write them down, acknowledge each other for what you are each bringing to the table and whittle away at the details later. Other families may want to address what gets shared: “I am more than happy to give you your space on this and let you take the lead, but how can I know that you are moving ahead and staying on task? Can we have a monthly check-in about how you are moving ahead and redesign this agreement if necessary?” “Yes but I don’t want to talk about it between check-ins.” Again, look at the key things that are important to each of you and move from there.

3. Testing. Make note of the dates the PSAT, SAT and ACT are being offered along with deadlines for registration. In my experience, PSAT registration is done through your high school and testing seats are offered on a first come, first served basis. You CAN get closed out of a test.

The PSAT is a tricky beast. Some students sit for the test as early as 8th or 9th grade (especially if students are looking at athletic recruitment). Others take it as sophomores. The PSAT doesn’t really “count” but the score report does provide a lens through which to look at the testing process moving forward: what are your strengths and weaknesses? How do you compare to your peers? And when taken as a junior, the PSAT is the determinant of some merit based financial assistance including the National Merit Scholarship Program and other scholarship partners. You will also be added to mailing lists of colleges who will make endless attempts to prove that their school is the best fit for you.

4. Get to know who you are. This might be one of the most overlooked aspects of the college application process. As a coach and as a mother, I have yet to find anything universal about the college application process. Students and parents alike identify myriad values when it comes to colleges: affordability, school spirit, rank, safety, homogenous environments, heterogeneous environments, climate, class size….really. Maybe the most universal thing I hear is “I want (my child) to be happy.” But how do you know what will make you (or your child) happy? Most students have no idea what will make them happy. Most students have not lived their lives with intention up to this point ~ they have followed the pack, done the next right thing, and done their best to blend in with friends. Now we are asking them to stand out among many, demonstrate how they are unique, and by the way, be the best high school students they can be while trying to figure all of this out. Setting your child up with a coach is perhaps one of the most efficient, cost-effective ways, to walk through the college process. A good coach will help them identify what motivates them, where their natural strengths lie, what that little voice in their head whispers to them and how it holds them back. A coach can look at learning style, thinking style, and communication style and the student gets to use their day to day life, as it is, as a lab in which to practice and learn. With all of this self-knowledge in their arsenal, students can quickly come up with those parts of themselves ~ their own unique genius ~ that they want to highlight in a college essay or interview. From this place they naturally come up with important questions to ask on tours and meetings with admissions officers. And finally, this self-knowledge helps them to identify schools that are most likely a great fit for them because they now know what drives them, what holds them back, and what they need from a school that resonates with who they are, not solely what they have done with the past several years of their lives. It is an investment in a student’s future not to be overlooked.

5. Support. If you are reading this and are in the spring of your sophomore year, start to think about what kinds of support you think you will need. Do you want to take a test prep class? What support will you need to take the most challenging classes FOR YOU as a junior while also managing your extracurriculars and the college search process? Are you someone who benefits from accountability? To whom do you want to be accountable? Your parents? A coach? If you are not someone whose strength is not in developing systems that include well-designed actions and timelines, whose help can you enlist for that? Look at the challenges you have had up to now and use them to anticipate what challenges you may have moving forward. Then come up with a list of people to help.

6. Perspective. When my children were applying to college, I had to choose a perspective that framed who I wanted to be for them over those couple of years this was on their radar. I used a core belief of coaching to help me: my children are “naturally creative, resourceful and whole.” I was fully aware that the process our family engaged in together to walk through this time was actually as important as the end result. It was important for me that they enjoy their senior year and kept engaged in their academics. Each of them identified owning the process and the final decision about what school to attend as being extremely important. If they could get through this, know when they needed help and know how to ask for it, I would consider it a successful search. And they did not disappoint. By honoring the process they each designed with me, I knew exactly when to check in, how they wanted support, and who owned what. In doing so, we all felt a measure of success ~ like we had accomplished something big together and we have learned that these simple tools can help us make any big decisions we have to make as a family. And with this perspective and our co-active design of the process, we all felt a little less stress, met deadlines, and not only tolerated, but enjoyed, the process.