What Colleges Want and Advice for High School Students and their Families
When people come into my office to learn about the college process they often ask, “What do colleges really want?” My answer for the last ten years has been universities want students who are intellectually curious, show initiative, and practice introspection—the three I’s. Colleges value students who make the most of the opportunities around them and pursue their interests. We are now in an era of COVID-19, shelter-in-place, pass/fail grades, test-optional admissions, and canceled summer plans which will change the way students apply to college, but my message to students and families remains the same.
INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY comes in many forms, but most often we confuse getting good grades with intellectual curiosity. Getting good grades is valued in the college process, but what helps students stand out is their curiosity. Every once in a while (like five times in the last ten years), I encounter a student with so much intellectual vitality, no one can stop them from researching and learning everything about the world. However, this is not the norm for high school students. Most students are just trying to get through the five core subjects and a few electives, which is very limited in terms of piquing their intellectual curiosity. Sometimes students connect with a concept in class or with an inspiring teacher, but more often students get bogged down with just getting it done. Many will need to look outside the confines of their high school curriculum to find concepts that really get them excited. I believe it is essential that they find a way to stay curious about the world.
Now I know many of you reading this are rolling your eyes and feeling worried that all your teens seem excited about right now is binging seasons on Netflix, spending hours on TikTok, and playing endless rounds of video games. Your teens just don’t seem to be motivated to put any extra effort into learning anything, helping the community, or contributing positively to your household. Let me tell you, as a parent of a high schooler and a middle schooler, I see you, I hear you, and I totally get it. What’s worse is that so and so (fill in your friend or colleague here) is posting on social media that their son or daughter has raised $1,000 for healthcare workers, sewed 1,000 masks, or enrolled in a college coding course to improve their skills. I absolutely do not want to diminish the incredible initiative and accomplishments of young people during these trying times; however, the students that are stepping up are the exception, not the norm. Not all teens respond to a crisis with increased initiative. It is totally developmentally appropriate for our teens to be lost, moody, and selfish. However, in the world of COVID, the optimist in me hopes there is a bit more space and time to uncover interests of any kind.
At College Calm, we try to meet kids where they are. Fascinated by politics? Watch Knock Down the House on Netflix. Super into comic books? Listen to # Who Would Win. Love music? Try out audio production through Audacity. Check out our blog posts on what to Read.Watch.Listen and Learn.Create.Grow. We help them see that there is chemistry involved in acrylic nails and making bread. We applaud teaching your sibling to ride a skateboard or making a slideshow for your grandparents as valuable undertakings. Intellectual curiosity comes in many forms. We believe every student is curious, it sometimes just takes a little time for those interests to surface.
I am the first to admit that INITIATIVE can be really tricky because students and parents often interpret it as being president of multiple clubs, getting an internship, doing medical research, or changing the world. I believe initiative is just taking one step forward towards something that piques your curiosity. It doesn’t have to cost money, it is about letting your ideas thoughtfully drive your actions. I think part of the stress in Silicon Valley is that there is an abundance of opportunities for students and this can be completely overwhelming. One of the possible by-products of the COVID 19 situation is that many of those opportunities may not be available, so students will need to get creative.
Colleges value students who are open to searching for something that sparks their imagination and then willingly pursue it. This may take many starts, stops, iterations, and transformations over four years, which is completely fine. For students that are feeling stuck right now and having a hard time motivating, we see you and we hear you too. I have been trying to write this blog for at least a month and I have been successfully avoiding it by cleaning bathrooms, taking long walks, and creating sugary snacks. The best thing you can do is spend a moment thinking about why you are feeling unmotivated and honor those feelings. Then think about what it might look like to get past them.
Colleges have always rewarded insightful students, but I think in the next couple of years colleges will be looking even more for students who look inward and have a sense of who they are and how they function in the world. INTROSPECTION is a very hard thing to ask any 16,17 or 18-year-old. It does not often come naturally to students, especially in pre-COVID times when students were on a programmed treadmill with no time to even consider if they liked running. Sometimes students are running from their thoughts as it is hard to be introspective and it doesn’t always feel great. However, taking the time to understand why they do what they do can help them understand what they need and value. This is a lifelong endeavor.
We recommend families try a simple exercise called “More or Less” which takes approximately five minutes. Start by setting a timer for 2 minutes and divide a paper into two columns. In the first column, write down things you are doing more of during shelter-in-place, and in the other column, note what you are doing less of these days. Maybe you are spending more time exercising, editing, or painting? Perhaps you are spending less time commuting, studying, and playing team sports? Think about how you are spending your time. Then take a look at your list and add (+) to things that feel like positive changes and then add (-) to things you miss. Inevitably less homework feels good, but less time with friends might be a minus. More time with family may have a plus and minus. Talk about what feelings might be behind the +/-s and where you are finding moments of joy. This is just a way to spark a conversation.
We often ask our students the tough and direct questions like, what do you think is holding you back? Or, what do you think you need to be more motivated during this time? We try to do this with a heavy dose of compassion, a dash of humor, and most importantly without judgment. Getting students to look inside themselves and think about what motivates them is not for the faint of heart. It can also be a tough conversation to have with your teenager. The parent-child relationship is incredibly complicated and filled with boundary setting, room cleaning, laundry folding, and many other moments of “nagging” (direct quote from my family). So if you are done in this area, send them to us. Finding the best in students is what we love to do.
I think right now is an incredible opportunity to pause for student insight. Maybe you learn that you need structure to be productive, or that your peers are really motivating to you? Maybe you don’t miss anything at school except the woodshop studio or the theater community or your favorite teacher? Maybe you have totally forgotten about journalism or leadership? Maybe you enjoy teaching yourself or setting personal goals? The more you can connect with your core values or even uncover them, the more you can shape your high school experiences based on your personal notion of SUCCESS. This is a powerful undertaking and one that will dramatically reduce the stress in the college process.
We know this is an uncertain and scary time for students and families. As summer approaches, let’s be creative and have some fun. Let’s look for the good and try something new—and let’s bring some joy and creativity back to learning. If you want some support, we are here for you. Three years ago we created a summer program called the Student Synergy Project to help students to explore their interests, take some initiative, and learn something about their values. We believe if students find the right idea, it fuels intellectual curiosity which enables them to engage in something meaningful over the summer. Our program is flexible and easy to do virtually with our amazing coaches. It will make students better college applicants for sure, but more importantly, it will prepare them for whatever lies ahead.