The month between Halloween and Thanksgiving marks the peak of college application writing for CPE students—an exciting, nerve-wracking rite of passage for our university-bound teens, who are full of energy, excitement, apprehension, and wonderment about their immediate and long-term futures. It’s a precious time, psychologically speaking, when the window of vulnerability and teachability may open wider than normal.
I believe it’s one of the most important times to try extra hard to be encouraging rather than discouraging. I say this from two and half decades of walking kids and their families, my own included, through the admissions process and the gates of universities nationwide, and from my own experience going through the process, gulp, 32 years ago.
It feels like just yesterday when one of my favorite teachers uttered one of the most discouraging things anyone’s ever said to me, and I’m sure he said it without even realizing its impact.
In April of 1982, I was fortunate to have the choice of attending the top two colleges on my list, Brown and Harvard. Looking back at age 50, I find it comical how much angst I suffered over such a luxury problem, but at the time—hey, I was 18—it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. I told myself it was the most important decision of my life, with heavy and unimaginable lifelong consequences, so I sought advice from the people closest to me, those whose opinions I trusted and respected. (I didn’t have to ask my parents, as they made their position eminently clear: I could go to whichever school I liked better, as long as it was Harvard ;-). Kidding. Mostly.)
One day after Calculus, I accosted one of my favorite and smartest teachers, the chair of the esteemed math department at my school, a veteran educator and undeniably super-brilliant man. He knew me well, as he had taught me math five days a week in a class of no more than half a dozen every week for my junior and senior years, and he was the coach of Varsity Golf all four years I was on the team. I asked whether he thought I should go to Brown or Harvard. He batted his eyes a few times as his eyes rolled back and forth in his head they way they always did when he was thinking, and, finally, he looked right through me and said, “You should go to Brown. You’re not Harvard material.”
I’d rather he had punched me in the solar plexus.
Looking back now, I’m pretty sure he was on the Spectrum, but the thing is, he was simply being honest and gave me his straight opinion, without much apparent thought to how he gave it. And the 50-year me wishes he hadn’t been quite so honest, or at least massaged his opinion a little to keep my hopes alive. My point is not so much that history proved him wrong—fortunately for me, I had other advisors and managed a perfectly respectable, even award-winning, career in Cambridge—and that we should be careful about offering opinions that are more subjective than objective, though that’s clearly one of the lessons here. My main point is that my question contained far more than what appeared on the surface, a simple inquiry about what college my teacher thought I should attend: just underneath that was my still developing identity, my inchoate vision of the future, my very self-esteem.
We adults need to be extra careful about what we say and how we say it. There’s often tremendous fear and personal investment behind the seemingly simple question, “Do you think I should apply to xxxx university?” A knee-jerk or thoughtless reply may pop right out—“I don’t think so; you don’t have the Naviance numbers,” for example—and it may indeed have merit grounded in fact. But it also just may send innocent and perhaps starry-eyed teens into invisible spirals of self-doubt, or worse.
The college application process is a time to be positive, hopeful, and forward-looking. I don’t mean to suggest we set kids up for failure by encouraging them to pursue long shots only, but I do mean to suggest that this is a time to be our most supportive, to put on our pom-poms and cheer. Speak words of nurturance and encouragement. You never know what kind of material your words are potentially shaping.