This time of year, my inbox overflows with students seeking support as they make their final college choices. Virginia Tech or UVA? Wake Forest or UNC Chapel Hill? JMU or Elon? The questions are valid and are extensions of the conversations we’ve been having all along: what do you want to study? What do you want in a college? What are your non-negotiables? Often we just talk through the options—looking at location, major, cost, etc.—and the obvious choice pops up. However, I occasionally get the student who just swirls in the decision, made dizzy by the possible options and input from others.
Saturday, I was at Virginia Tech for Hokie Focus, aka, admitted student day. I walked onto the hotel’s elevator and was greeted by the sister of a friend I’ve known for longer than I’d like to admit. She was in town to tour her daughter around Tech. We chatted a bit; she knew what I did as I had worked with her W&M older daughter. This daughter, however, just couldn’t decide between schools. “Virginia Tech has a strong PT program, but it’s at Tech,” says the mom. “She got into William & Mary, which is where she really wants to go, and I think she’ll choose there.” I invisibly roll my eyes and then this cartoon popped into my head.
This is the time of year I find students (and parents) looking for the right thing in the wrong place. It’s understandable in a way. For the last year of their lives, at least, they’ve been mired in college rankings: national reputations, departmental strengths, best food, excellent Greek life. And what’s more (and what’s worse) is that their friends (and parents) have been too, which means each time a student mentions a school they get reinforcement—positive and negative—about their choices. All of these voices start to drown out the student’s, making it difficult to decide based upon her own actual needs and wants. Instead, these students inevitably make a choice based not upon the best fit but on what’s the best shirt she can wear on May 1, College T-shirt Day at school or how great it will sound to say, “I’m going to Cornell” rather than JMU.
I know how this story will turn out for the VT/W&M student; after all, I’ve known the parents and heard their language for a while. She’ll end up at W&M. W&M is a great school with a great reputation and could be a great fit in many other ways, but it is not a school known for its great PT program or its great rate of articulation from the undergraduate PT programs to advanced ones. She will go to W&M because her parents—W&M and UVA grads-- have spent years pooh-poohing Tech. She will look for her quarter in the wrong place just because the light’s better—and she will never find it.
So, what’s the message I’m trying to offer here? Do not be swayed by others’ opinions. As Frank Bruni discusses in his great work, “Where you go is not who you’ll be.” You do not need to impress your friends with the fancy T-shirt. You do not have to justify your decisions. Your first act of adulting is not in deciding where you’ll go to college. Your first act is in not deciding based on what others have to say.
A mom of a client emailed the other day:
"I found this link to "real actual essays that colleges liked." I'm curious what you think! Most are very different than my way of thinking."
Before even opening the page, I knew what I would find. Great, well-constructed narratives offering insightful, pithy, and meaningful language to aptly and fully explain the exact nature of who the student is. I was right, and then I was irritated.
Here's my response to the fretting mom:
I read the essays, and they are what I feared they would be: super strong, interesting essays. Why is that necessarily bad? It's not--if your'e a naturally gifted writer. However, what if you're just a normal 17-year-old boy who thinks in images or in 3D? What if writing is torturous for you, and just getting the words on the page is fully exhausting?
The implication is that an essay other than literary perfection--complete with well-constructed metaphors and deeply humbling insights--will fall short of an admissions offer. This isn't true. While a well-written essay--such as the one by Max Amar-Olkus--can certainly help ameliorate other deficits, regular old essays can also gain an admissions offer too.
I worry that the stress of not living up to these perfect essays will keep students seeing their own stories and their own writing styles as less than. In fact, what particularly bothers me is that all of these essays are written in similar narrative styles. Where's the variety? Where's the difference in voice? Where's the juxtaposition of tone with content?
I realize I'm on a bit of a rant, which is certainly not aimed at you. It's aimed at all the books and websites that purport to give examples of essays that worked, but neglect to show less impactful or less well-constructed narratives that also worked. It's akin to looking at Vogue and thinking, "Gee, I'm a size 6 and too damn fat to be considered pretty." Vogue and these websites create an ideal that is set too high, which causes undue stress for the majority who will certainly miss that mark.
During my writing seminars this week, I showed the students intros from students' essays and then told them where those students went to college. The example really helped them understand the expectations, possibilities, and impressions--and lowered the anxiety as they realized that the essays they could actually write could still be considered admissions worthy.
So, what's the end-all here? Don't feel you have to be anyone other than the best you that you can be. If you're a great writer, then wonderful! Use this time and space to practice your art and shine. If you're a workaday writer who can craft logical, organized writing, then do that. You don't have to be a size 00 to be beautiful. You're fine just the way you are. It's going to be ok. Trust me.
A College Counselor who asks and answers the tough questions.