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Authenticity is King

Each year a number of my students are admitted and a number are rejected. Such is the life of an admissions counselor.

And on this day, my colleague and I had a similar task: we each were asked by parents of our students to explain the decision their child had received from X dream school. My colleague had the unenviable task of explaining to a family “why” their daughter had been deferred in the early round, and I had the welcome task of explaining to a family “why” their daughter had been accepted when the school seemed such a far reach for her particular profile. Neither of these questions actually have answers, but there are some clues:

The family that was disappointed complained incessantly that other students must be getting different advice, that their parents were doing the work for their children to pad their profiles with science fair accomplishments, and that some were even writing their children’s essays. These things do happen. A lot, sadly.

Yet, the remarkable thing is that this student hadn’t even been rejected. In fact, the school had merely deferred her application to the regular round, which in this case, for this particular school, meant that she was seriously being considered. But the parents described a scene of total chaos and desperation when they read the decision online: “my daughter was sobbing uncontrollably,” the mother said. I wondered if the tears were less about the decision and more about failing to fulfill the astronomically high expectations imposed by her parents.

While this conversation was unfolding, in another office, opposite my colleague, I was writing this email:

Dear ___________,

Of course, I cannot know what exactly went through the minds of the admissions officers as they read your daughter’s application, but a short answer to your question might be the trusty adage: “hire for personality, train for skills.”

Research internships, while impressive are also often attained through either family connections or paying for extremely expensive summer programs. I am not trying to diminish the value, because I do recommend both of these options to students who want to pursue research, but the research experience does not make the scientist (per se). What your daughter displayed in spades throughout her application was a unique combination of determination, grit, compassion, authenticity and self-awareness. You can’t underestimate the value of sincere self-awareness coming through in a college app.

At best, I think I play the role of helping students have the courage to really write what’s true for them and focus less on what colleges “want to hear,” though that may sound ironic coming from a college counselor. Your daughter risked putting who she really is out there for colleges to see and her enthusiasm for her chosen career was both evident and believable because of her authenticity.

I have no doubt that when she encounters the inevitable challenges of college life, she will move through them with the same grace and determination that were evident in her application and life experience thus far. That is the kind of student colleges like __________ are looking for 😉

***

This same mother had written to me a week before early decisions were released and said that she was so proud of her daughter and so grateful for my guidance and that these feelings would not be changed by the outcome of college decisions because she could see reflected in her daughter’s writing the maturity, growth and inner wisdom that had emerged merely from the process of working on college applications.

So on the one side, we have a family and a child who believe that future success is so contingent upon the extrinsic variable of a college decision that all the hard work and energy of a lifetime of academic success have been forever diminished by the evaluation of one school.

On the other side, we have a family and student who believe that even the process of applying was itself a learning and growth experience, as will be the next step and the step after that in this student’s lifelong journey. This dichotomy calls to mind Carol Dweck’s theory of the growth vs. the fixed mindset.  But it also touches on the very heart of why I love my job, why I really do what I do, and what in fact it is that I do when I work with students (at least as I think about it):

I mentor students in becoming the authors of their own lives.

This aspect of my work is present with younger students, but is most evident in drafting personal statements for college applications. When I begin the application process with students, I tell them that if they are open to it, this process does not have to be an onerous task, but holds intrinsic value in the form of self-exploration, reflection and values clarification. When else in your life will you be required to spend weeks, maybe months thoroughly and thoughtfully answering questions like: What matters to you and why? Talk about a time when you challenged a belief or idea, what prompted you to act and would you do it again?

The personal statement, I tell them, is its own genre of literature: it is a short story, in which you are the protagonist and everything that happens is true. And, most importantly, you are both protagonist and author. You may not have control over the events in the story, but you decide what they mean. You cannot be wrong, you can only be honest, and more honest as you peel back the layers and get to the heart of how each story reveals an essential fragment of the whole you.

In her now famous TED Talk, Brene Brown asks the audience: “How many of you associate vulnerability with weakness? Be honest.” Everyone raises their hands. And then she asks, “And how many of you, when you saw vulnerability up here on the stage throughout this week perceived it as ultimate courage.” And just as quickly everyone raises their hands.

That is where the power of the personal narrative lies: in the willingness to be vulnerable, to be seen. As readers, we know it when we see it and it is hard to look away once that courage shows its face.

It doesn’t mean you will get in; it doesn’t mean your great American novel will get published; it doesn’t mean people will like you or will appreciate what you put out into the world. But it is the recipe for building a meaningful life and if you do get in, get the job, get recognized, chances are it will not be what you said, but what you revealed of yourself to which the school, the manager, the audience said YES! 

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