Earlier this week my niece Lilly started first grade. This got me thinking about the joys of back to school days: picking out the perfect outfit, packing an extremely organized and clean new backpack, meeting your new teacher and all your new classmates, and the excitement to find out what topics you would learn in the coming year. I must admit that I am pretty jealous of my niece right now, and yes I am a big nerd. Seeing pictures of Lilly’s first day of school also reminded me that on back to school days my Mom would always pack a special little note with my lunch and it would include a small piece of advice. So as students all across the world begin to return to school, I thought I would share a piece of advice especially to those beginning their senior year in high school and to those beginning their freshman year in college.
My advice is simple–engage with your educators, or even more simply, speak with adults. I will expand on this nugget of advice in a second but first I thought it helpful to provide context for why I feel this suggestion is important. Having been in the profession of higher education for 15+ years I have been an active witness to the fluctuations in the attitudes and behaviors of young adults as it relates to their final years in high school, their college search and application process, and their adjustment to their undergraduate studies. One of the concerns I have for the current generation is the sources of information they are turning to for educational advice. In my opinion, this generation places way too much weight on advice coming from online sources, anonymous commenters, and social media sources. As well, I often cringe when I hear that a student is making decisions because of what their friends suggested rather than their parents and/or their teachers. I wonder if the “if your friends decided to jump off a bridge” phrase is used more often these days. I am not de-valuing these sources completely, but back when I was young my friends and I placed more value on the educational advice coming from the adults we regularly came in contact with. It surprises me how often I am now debating with prospective applicants our admissions policies or recommendations and the counter-argument starts with, “Well my friend said …” (If you are curious into delving more into this theory of mine, go back and read my “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of College Confidential” blog post.) Enough of my mini-rant … on to the advice.
For those of you about to head into your final year of high school and are knee-deep in the college application process, my advice to speak more with adults and your educators is crucial. Just think about it. For a significant portion of your college applications you need to rely on adults. You need teacher recommendations. You need a guidance counselor recommendation. You may choose to send in an additional recommendation from a coach, employer, extracurricular advisor, or some other adult advisor. You need to work with the staff of your Guidance/College Counseling office to have your transcripts submitted. And of course you need to work closely with your parents for a multitude of reasons. Adults will matter greatly in your college applications.
But you need to engage with these adults and educators not just to get your applications done, but also because they can provide excellent assistance in navigating the sometimes confusing waters of the college search and selection process. Your teachers, counselor, and school administrators are quite experienced and have a wealth of knowledge to dispense. They have worked with thousands of students in the past and can pull from those experiences to help answer your questions and guide you in the right direction. In my years reviewing recommendations, it has become quite clear to me which students a teacher knows well and has been able to mentor, and a teacher that has just been limited to teaching and grading a student. Though I think this a pretty obvious conclusion, I will still state that I prefer the recommendations where a student has engaged with their teacher beyond just the day-to-day lesson and exam. Grades matter in the college search process, but so do relationships. We are not just looking for the smart kids, but those that will contribute and connect with our community.
My advice of engaging with your adult educators also applies to recent high school graduates about to start their college experience. The next four years are going to fly by and I hope you don’t make the same mistake I made in during my undergraduate years. My thought process in college was that I had all the answers and I didn’t need any guidance. Therefore I barely met with an advisor, I never visited the Career Center, and I never inquired about professor office hours until my senior year. When my stress level increased I never visited the Counseling Center, and when I got sick instead of visiting Health and Wellness I listened to the advice of my next-door neighbor, an Egyptology major. In retrospect I missed out on one of the greatest opportunities available to college students; access to a community of advisors, educators, and professionals whose professional goals are to mentor, engage, and connect with the youthful exuberance of students between 18-22 years of age.
So my advice to the new freshmen out there is to make sure to not miss out on this opportunity. Visit with your advisor not just to get answers to your questions but to seek out new avenues for your academic pursuits. Go to professors’ office hours, again not just to ask questions about class material but to get to know these educators and allow them to get to know you. You will be amazed at the doors that will open to you by connecting with these adults. And don’t stop there. Consider your experiential learning options by visiting the Career Center, meet with research advisors, and speak with the staff of the Study Abroad office. Beyond academics be aware that you have support from the Office of the Dean of Student Life, from the Counseling Center, from the Interfaith Council, and from the Health Center. The support network is there to help in times of need, but also to help you navigate all the decisions you will face over the next four years.
As I end, I feel it is necessary to share with you my ulterior motive in dispensing this advice. I have spent my entire adult professional life working in education and though I didn’t enter the field of college admissions initially to engage and mentor students, those opportunities have become the true reason why I love what I do. I guarantee that my colleagues in admissions, in advising, in student life, and all the other offices that make up an institution of higher learning would agree with me that the ability to guide and advise the youth of today is one of the best parts of our jobs. I have had the distinct opportunity to celebrate the successes of the students I know while also console them in their times of need. I jokingly say that I live vicariously through the students I know well, but in there is actually a lot of truth in that attitude. Though I may just be a “gatekeeper” in the world of admissions, I have embraced every chance that I get to mentor and advise students and the greatest professional memories I have are always experiences linked to students. Way back when someone said I would be a good college admissions counselor because I was so comfortable talking to large groups of people and I had an interesting college experience to share. Back then though I never would have imagined that 15 years later I would have a career in higher education and the best part of that career would be the chances to interact and support students in a variety of academic and social ways.
So as you prepare to go back to school I hope you heed my advice. And oh yeah, don’t forget the cardinal rule of always sending a thank you note. Us adults like them a lot.