Friday, December 23, 2011

The College Decision--Public or Private?

     You wouldn't think that I, as head of a school ending in 8th grade, spend too much time thinking about college admission. Normally I don't. But I have been recently. The New York Times education section has been chronicling several high school seniors' college application adventures, with many of the decisions documented this past week. Also, my 9th grade daughter came home last week, full of stories about all the loud declarations of college notification and the reappearance of the Wall of Rejection. I'm not sure just what she made of it all.
     Since I used to work at her school, I know the scene. It's being repeated at schools across the nation. A certain date arrives, and crowds gather for the e-mail to be opened. Sometimes parents come to school for the event. Massive drama then ensues. Repeat several times.
     A once private event has taken on a very public dimension. That's not surprising, given how much more of life has become spectator sport. More and more we seem willing to make multiple aspects of our lives, many formerly deemed personal, accessible to all. Indeed, more and more people seem to crave the attention, no matter how it comes. Some even expect that everyone should care about each part of their lives, and they are offended at any indifference. With the college decision being such a massive rite of passage, of course that becomes a chance for a major announcement.
     To a degree that last part always has been true. However, over the past two decades, it has taken on a profound, even concerning weight. I understand why. We are living in particularly anxious times. A struggling economy, rapid and profound change, global competition, political distrust--the reasons for our discomfort are many, any one of which could prove unsettling. Because of that uncertainty, we seek guarantees, even when our rational sides know such things don't exist. For our children, those guarantees become admission into the "right" school. It can become rather narcissistic. As one of the students in The Times pieces put it, "I don't have to fit the institution; the institution has to fit me." She said this while comparing the process to buying a wedding dress. I can imagine the reaction of the admission officers feel at the schools to which she is applying.
     The idea of a single perfect school for anyone is, of course, wrong. One could go to any number of wonderful colleges and have a fantastic, life-altering and life-affirming experience. I've seen many students who were convinced a letter of rejection meant their lives were ruined. They ended up flourishing where they matriculated. Or one could, as I did, spend four years at college and enjoy it but feel no particular affinity for one's alma mater. That is not the college's fault. It's mine. I chose not to become very engaged. There is the real point. The college matters, but only to a degree. The real determinant of the experience is what any individual makes of the opportunities that appear.
     Ultimately, we have responsibility for our life-long educations. When we focus too much on one college, we cede the power we have to determine the quality of our experiences. That's true in other life arenas as well. When it occurs, we also tend to quickly assign blame. At times it seems everyone blames the media for everything. Students and parents blame teachers; one political party blames the other. The two scenarios have much in common, and the result is the same, literally and metaphorically: gridlock.
     As the adults in the situation--meaning the ones with life experience and perspective--we have to help young people break through this. That is easy to say, much harder to achieve. From the beginning, we have to be very careful about the subtle and overt signals we send about everything. Consider grades, for example. They are important, certainly. More important is how we discuss them with our children. Grades can be examined as markers of effort and progress. They also can be seen as currency which buys entry. Both are to an extent true. The pointed question involves which you emphasize. The answer has massive implications.
     In just a couple of years I will become heavily involved in the college application process with my daughter. While I have written references for students, it will be my deepest foray into this jungle since I was a college counselor over twenty years ago, when the landscape was less foreboding. We will see how well I can practice what I preach. I do know one thing: we won't let it resemble a TV reality show.

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