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.

The Red Sweatshirt Strings

There was recently a Facebook post in our community about purchasing sweatshirts for a school trip for elementary students. This trip is a tradition in town, and families are invited to purchase red sweatshirts that both provide much needed warmth for all the outdoor fun and memorialize the event for years to come. Because I had kids in elementary school for what seems like forever and was a chaperone on the trip and a parent helper leading up to the trip, I am well aware of the concern over getting just the right sweatshirt. Here’s the thing: all the sweatshirts look exactly the same. Exactly. You can buy one with a hood or one without a hood. And you can buy youth or adult sizes. But wait. The youth sizes do. not. have. strings. in. the. hood. OMG (picture a car screeching to a halt).

With 100% good intentions – really and truly – when the sweatshirt sales start, parents are warned that they must. buy. the. right. sweatshirt. There must have been a year when a child had a meltdown over their sweatshirt not looking like someone else’s, because for years, parents have been warned that if they don’t buy the right sweatshirt, it would ruin their child’s trip or they’d end up having to buy a second sweatshirt when their child noticed theirs was different. The right sweatshirt was clearly not a youth size. and clearly not a crew neck.

Remember 4th grade? Remember how different kids are, physically? Some are babies and some are grown people? All different shapes and sizes. Some call for youth sizes and some call for adult sizes. But “Oh-holy-hell-I-don’t-want-to-risk-a-crappy time-for-my-kid-the-first-time-they-are-away-from-me-overnight-so-I-have-to-buy-the-right-sweatshirt-oh-crap-what-if-its-too-big-and-looks-like-a-dress-on-them-but-I-have-to-buy-the-one-with-strings-because-what-if-the-other-kids-make-fun-of-my-kid-and-I’m-not-there-to-help-and-oh-shit-what-do-I-do-I-need-to-have-strings-in-the-red-sweatshirt!!!” It is so clear to me that this manic worry about the right sweatshirt comes from an abundance of love and care; from the schools to the parents – no one has anything other than generous intentions. I’m actually so grateful for this dilemma, because it has allowed me to see something in myself that I did not necessarily want to see.

The implied message in the red sweatshirt string proposal is, “You Must Fit In.” What may be true for you, doesn’t really matter. Happiness is in doing it right. Show up with the right clothes. Avoid being an outlier at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t embarrass me.

But when we talk “about” raising kids, parenting kids, teaching kids, don’t we do just the opposite? Don’t we preach “you be you”? Don’t we talk about creativity and following your dream and “it doesn’t matter what they say!”? In our generosity of love and care, adults can confuse the crap out of things.

The red sweatshirt strings have become a metaphor for me. I use it. Not in judgment, but as a point of reflection and a way of asking myself, “What are my red sweatshirt strings?”. Even more profound in the metaphor, is the fact that all six (+) sweatshirts purchased for my family lost the sweatshirt strings as soon as they were put through the wash (yes, I bought the “right”sweatshirts for all of them!).

First, with my kids: Where do I send them mixed messages? I can tell you that I teach them about being kind and loving, but then I may try to connect with them by gossiping about someone. Or I might encourage them to do whatever makes them happy, but then hover over them to make sure that their “happy” fits into my expectations for them. I may even offer “you be you” but “you” better also be “me”.

And then, with myself: Where am I so afraid that if it doesn’t happen perfectly, I feel like my life might fall apart? Where am I holding the reigns so tightly that I don’t allow for an opening of experience or a surrender of results? What fears keep me trying to control every detail instead of relaxing and simply noticing what actually is as the process unfolds? And even more so, where do I engage in frenetic activity, instead of just sitting and noticing what I feel?

The red sweatshirt strings have offered me a checkpoint to pull me back and put space between the thought and what actually leaves my mouth. When I feel my body tighten, or my heart race, or my brain race, I know that the red sweatshirt strings are being activated. I know that I need to put them through the wash. Get rid of them by doing any number of things. I know I need to check in with myself. I know I need to return to the present and notice what is and choose how I want to respond. My wake-up call to the red sweatshirt strings is my awareness that I am trying to control the outcome of something that I have absolutely no control over. It’s that frantic speech pattern of worry and decision and control and “what if?”. And then I need to put the damn sweatshirt through the wash.

When I blog, I blog for me. Not for the reader. I guess that somewhere inside, I am worried about the outcome of something. Instead of yelling at my family, tuning out on social media, manically engaging in activity around my house, I’m going to sit. Notice. Breathe. And see what shows up. And I guess at that point, I’d better be ready to do some laundry.