Bridget Gwinnett (January 2024)
I’ve done this exercise with my students in Advanced Placement Psychology at the beginning of the year: “Write down what you see.”
Almost always, in the eyes of a 16/17 year old, the answer is “a black dot/circle/sphere.” What impresses me the most is that I have yet to hear one of them recognize the white background. Did you see the white background?
And it strikes me that this is often a metaphor for the college search process. There’s such a focus on the black dot [THE college] and it’s hard to shift the focus to the white space [campus life, programs, internship opportunities, the culture, extra-curriculars, etc.] that may be more in line with students’ goals, their interests, their choices.
I’m not naïve enough to think we can remove the dot from the conversation, but I do believe there are ways to give attention to the white space. Attending to our students’ senses of autonomy, building relationships, and supporting their ability to approach the next several years of their lives can change the dreaded process. Disclosure: I am a parent of a graduating high school senior. She’s my third one, but each one has been a different experience. None of them have been through this process without the angst. And as I write this, I am filled with angst awaiting my daughter’s decision regarding her first choice.
Imagine you are a student and your job is to apply to colleges and make the decision about where you will attend. The amount of pressure that is typically placed on high school seniors about where they will go to college is enormous, especially in independent schools. Some of the things swirling around in their heads include cost, admission rates, and where their friends are applying. Is their essay good enough? Do they have the right extra-curricular activities? Did they do enough service? And there are pressures surrounding SAT scores, GPAs, and AP scores. All the while, they are still engaged in rigorous coursework, athletics, working after school, and dealing with the usual rites of passage for adolescence.
An autonomy-supportive college application experience provides a foundation for the important work they will be doing once they leave our halls and make their mark on the world. An autonomy-supportive experience would include advisors, guidance counselors, and college counselors working with students to learn more about the guardrails for their choice of school; cost and selectivity are at the top of that list. The more choice provided to our kids about the schools to which they apply, the more they will feel that sense of control over their lives and the more likely they will be to own their independence when they are away at school.
The college counseling relationship is one of tremendous importance! Trust is essential and trust happens when we create a sense of connection. Remember, relatedness is a basic human need, not just a good idea, and college counselors can play an important role in helping students fill this need. At the very least, college counselors and advisors should know their students, and take notes about the personal things they share — about their pets, their siblings, their interests, even their dislikes. If you are involved in college counseling, make sure you are consistent in your interactions and connect to this information whenever you meet with students. Those letters of recommendation will be so much easier to write, and filled with a true sense of who that student is and why they will be successful.
Another important aspect of an autonomy-supportive application experience is to provide our seniors with a sense of competence. Focus on the skills your students have gained — and ask them to focus on how they have grown. Help them envision tasks to complete within the process (like making pros/cons lists for the schools they visit, etc.) to help them in the decisions they make. Support them with any information they need, and praise the thoughtfulness in the decisions they make. College counselors and advisors often have to get real with their students about the likelihood of acceptance. Relatedness is strengthened when this can be done with compassion and a focus on “right fit.”
Finally, a note about parents. It can be very hard for parents to let go of expectations for their kids, but parents, too, need to be autonomy-supportive. They’ve been dreaming about this important transition ever since their baby did something genius in the crib. But it is most important that this be the child’s college experience. We administrators, advisors, or college counselors, need to help parents understand this point.