What do I get asked the most? How to get into college
Dear Class of 2024:
You have finished your first semester of high school. I’m guessing it’s not exactly what you thought it would be a year ago. And while some of that is because of this constantly evolving health crisis keeping everyone at home, some of it is just what high school is.
I see you. You’re looking around, thinking about the colleges that these people in your Zoom room are going to get into – and wondering where you’ll end up. You’re not entirely sure what it means to go to college, but you’re pretty sure that’s what you want to (for over a decade more than 95% of our freshman class has told us they want to go to 4 year colleges upon graduation).
Maybe you think everyone else has this all figured out? (spoiler alert: they don’t, even if they look like they do). Or maybe you see this entire four year chunk of your life as a stepping stone, a means to an end?
I have spent your entire lifetime in high school. Your experience will be what you make it. If you want, it will be an opportunity to grow, to learn and to connect with others. Otherwise it will feel like a long passing period while you are waiting for the “rest” of your life. Here’s the reality – this is your life, so make the most of it.
And, ironically, this is how to get into college? Live in the present, not the future.
First things first: focus on high school. On a scale of 1-10, how badly do you want to graduate? I ask students that question all the time. You should ask yourself that question regularly. Because many of the adults in your life already have a diploma, the question is, do you? We can’t want you to get a diploma more than you want one for yourself.
Whether or not you are working during high school, your big “paycheck” during your teenage years are the credits that earn a diploma. If you had a boss you didn’t get along with, would you just skip payday, because you didn’t want to deal with them? I didn’t think so. Translate this to school. You may not love all your teachers. You may not be thrilled by each and every class. But each teacher’s class is tied to credits – which you need to treat like cash. Don’t throw away a paycheck because you don’t like your boss.
You can’t wake up at the end of four years and magically have a diploma land in your lap. You have to want it every day. You can’t let anyone get in your way – especially not yourself. Get out of your own head. You belong here. You have the right to learn. And the opportunity to be an incrementally better version of yourself each day. Set an alarm. Put on real clothes. And focus.
And I do recommend, if possible, that you get a job; my students who have jobs gain essential social skills, learn a lot about what they might want to do in the future, and earn money to boot. It’s imperative that this is a “real” job – regular babysitting (or pod-sitting!), bagging groceries, food service – not a week-long “internship” or job shadow.
Flexibility is what all the adults in your life have learned, and yet, still, we somehow try to shield you from the situations that will help build your own skill in this realm. The pandemic has been a crash course in flexibility for all of us – with some fantastically creative results. Zoom dance parties and birthday car parades, quarantine recipes (with no yeast or flour), and reimagined graduations.
We are all very much on the type of squiggly lines that Madeline Levine references in her latest book, Ready or Not. But, importantly, these lines are each our own – your line cannot and will not ever be the same as anyone else’s – even your twin sibling’s. This line is your pathway – it is how to get into college FOR you, AS you.
The challenge is to embrace the squiggles. To strive for progress, not perfection. No one is perfect – at any age – so try very hard to remove that limitation from your teenaged viewpoint), as Whitney Dineen points out in the anthology You Do You, “Mistakes are a stairway to growth.”
And she’s not alone:
- Marie Forleo lays this out this philosophy clearly in her book Everything is Figureoutable. She quotes Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who shares the regrets of her patients at the end of their lives. The number one regret? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
- Jessica Lahey in the Gift of Failure asserts “There was dissent among these teenagers about how far to let kids travel down the road into dangerous behaviors, but they all agreed that when parents attempt to control teenagers’ social lives their children are much more likely to become deceptive.”
- Which brings us to the reason it’s so key to gain and practice your own flexibility, summarized by Michael Altshuler: “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” It’s time to start flying.
Rather than spending four years of high school aiming at a particular college or university, instead spend the time examining what you need to thrive – what academic supports, what social constructs, what physical environment will bring you joy. And remember you learn just as much, if not more, from things that don’t work out – the “nos” in life. In nearly every aspect of life – dating, paint colors, and college selection – it’s hard to figure out what a “yes” is without a lot of “nos.”
Only then will you have the conviction to really answer the “why college x?” question that is the absolute core of the application. If your answer is generic, you should reconsider your application entirely – because you either need to learn more about the school, or yourself – or both – to make a compelling case for investing the cost of the application fee.
“You do You” is the name of the game – as asserted by Jen Mann and her team of authors in the anthology of the same name. Contributing author Susanne Kerns is even more specific on fit (though, sadly, with financial numbers reflecting a different era) in her piece “Do As Grandma Says.
“You can learn a lot at a $40,000-a year university university or at a $4000-a year university. You can also waste a lot of time and money at the same universities. Your time is even more valuable than money – don’t squander it. Never again will you have the dedicated time and freedom to immerse yourself in things that interest you and things that bore you and learn the difference between the two.”Susanne Kerns, Do As Grandma Says
Most teenagers think of freedom as the ability to do what others (usually adults) don’t want them to do. Instead, I encourage you to step away from that facade of “freedom” and instead see it as a way to be yourself. The freedom to belong – and not fit in – is something that author and researcher Brene Brown distinguishes for us.
Each week on the Unlocking Us podcast, she implores us to be awkward, brave and kind. And I can think of no better freedom for a teenager than to embrace all three of those characteristics with authenticity and gusto. And that’s how to get into college, too.
You are a teenager which means you absolutely should be having fun. When you choose your classes, do what’s required and then do more of what you enjoy. Find your people – whether they are on the field, in the lab, or on stage. Focus on your relationships, not your resumé. Because neither one can guarantee college admission, but your friends – and whatever you did for fun – will long be remembered. You don’t need to get paid or recognized for what is meaningful – the change it creates in you shows!
And as the pandemic has pared down the extracurricular Olympics, I hope you feel less over-extended, and more able to focus on the basics. I am seeing more and more teenagers rekindle old habits and hobbies – cooking, running, knitting and music-making. And these simple things are often the most fulfilling. Double bonus if they are also supporting your overall well being and thus establishing meaningful, lifetime habits that will benefit your mental and physical health for years to come. As James Clear sums up so clearly, “When you lose track of time, you’re either living your best life or wasting it.”
So how to get into college? Focus, flexibility, fit, freedom, and fun. And your life will be all the better for it as well.