The College Admissions Process: How Do We “Turn the Tide?”

by Stefanie Manalo-LeClair

Almost everyday I either overhear students say they want to volunteer for a group or organization so that it “looks good” on their college application. Other times I have students ask me directly, “What should I do to make my application look good to colleges?”  As a counselor, I am concerned that by asking this question, students are not realizing the intent or message they are sending.  And I wonder: Am I supposed to guide them to do what looks good or guide them to ask the deeper question of what moves them to “serve others” for the greater good? How many high school students know how to, or have the time to, reflect on what moves them to serve others? They are so busy with their academics, extracurricular activities, jobs, and surviving high school that the connections that should be made are put on hold. I think this piece of reflection and connection to the bigger picture is missing.

Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern For Others And The Common Good Through College Admissions is a movement spearheaded by college admission offices across the country. Their goal is to transform the college admissions process by encouraging students to focus on “meaningful and ethical intellectual engagement” and reduce the emphasis on intense academic achievement.  It deemphasizes the “what” and weighs more on the “why and how” we do what we do.  Relationship building, stepping outside our comfort zones, connecting with others unlike ourselves, reducing the laundry list of experiences to what actually matters, discovering what inspires “us” to keep learning–those are what really matter.  Although academic preparation is vital to the success of our future learners, interpersonal and community qualities are equally important.

I am currently meeting with juniors to discuss their post-high school plans. My hope is that by meeting now, I can provide some support and guidance through the last year and a half of high school.  There are light moments in our discussions, but I see the look of defeat and stress on some of their faces.  Many lack hope in finding the right college.  Maybe I’m an optimist (actually, I have to be as a counselor), but I believe their lack of hope has been misguided.  I talk with them about the small percentage of colleges to which many students apply (UCLA, UCB, USC) versus the number of lesser-known colleges that could be a great fit for them.  We talk about casting a wider net when it comes to colleges on their list. We discuss acceptance rates and what factors into these rates. We talk about testing, recommendation letters, and whether they have had the “money conversation” with their parents.  I don’t want to overwhelm them, but I definitely added more to their list of things to think about.

I understand why our students feel the need to “look good on paper” but I want them to realize the importance of taking time to reflect on how their academics, community service, and extracurricular activities have shaped them into young adults.  After reading the article and meeting with students, I am wondering how we provide them with both the skills needed to succeed academically and the desire to ask more difficult life questions such as: What truly motivates me to learn?  What does it mean to have passion?  Who am I as an individual and can I risk sharing this with others?  How can I have a positive impact on my community?

I hope Piedmont Unified School District will add their name to the list of endorsers that support “Turning the Tide.”  Collectively, schools, parents, and community leaders need to be part of the movement for change and communicate the value in higher education so students are able to recognize its value within themselves.

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