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Hold on Tight to You

Hold on Tight to You
Sarah Honan

Some things never change. That’s why I’m holding on tight to you. 

- Anna from Disney’s Frozen II

If you are the parent or sibling of a Lower School student caught up in Disney’s Frozen fever, you probably find yourself humming these lyrics more often than you’d care to admit. As the mother of a toddler, I (begrudgingly) catch myself reciting these words in my head most days. However, as I sit here in the midst of a school year and application season that has been unlike anything I’ve experienced in my college admissions and counseling career, I find these words have taken on a new meaning: a mantra of reassurance.

As my colleague, Chris Teare, outlined in his blog post last month, the 2020-2021 admissions cycle has been one defined by innovation. In a very short time colleges have had to redesign the way they introduce students to their campuses and cultures. Tour guides equipped with Go Pros narrate a “day in the life” of a student to virtual audiences, overnight stays have been replaced with virtual “student salons” and other social events to give students a sense of dorm life on campus, and pre-recorded elevator pitches sent via social media have become the new interview. 

Some of the changes brought about by the pandemic have been incredibly positive, even overdue, allowing students from all over the country to connect with schools in meaningful ways they may not have been able to in the past when restricted by time or money. Others have been incredibly frustrating for students, hindering them from being able to make informed Early Decision commitments or present themselves in the way they may have wanted with standardized test scores. However, amidst all the shuffle and chaos, one thing about college admissions has not changed: the way we approach the process. 

In their new book, The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, Rick Clark and Brennan Barnard open by explaining the importance of students understanding their why in the college application process, saying: “It is your foundation for the entire college experience. Why must be asked first, because from it, where takes its direction.” Indeed, exploring the why (and reading Barnard and Clark’s book) is the bedrock of W-H’s College Counseling Seminar, which students take in their junior and senior years to help guide and prepare them in the college application process. In this class, our counseling team not only aims to help students better understand the college search process, but to better understand themselves. With almost 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States, the possibilities for where students can apply may seem endless. Even more challenging, after hours of flipping through brochures, watching virtual info sessions, and exploring websites – they can all start to sound the same.  

So where to begin? How is a 16-year-old supposed to narrow thousands of colleges down to a manageable list of 8-12 by their senior year? Our answer: know yourself. Yes, while it’s impossible for a student (or counselor for that matter) to know everything about every school, it is possible to know what works for you in a learning environment and what doesn’t, what core values resonate with you, what activities excite you, and what experiences you are longing for. Establishing these organizing principles can help a student begin to narrow an expansive list of options and ensure that they are asking colleges the right questions to make a school stand out. Engaging in the self-reflection necessary to determine these organizing principles is at the heart of what we do in college counseling. Because one thing we know from experience, and research has confirmed, is that a school where students feel challenged intellectually, supported emotionally, engaged socially, and nurtured professionally – where they feel they belong – is one where they will be successful.  

So, in this moment, when so much about the future is uncertain, I encourage our students to hold on tight to their loved ones, their school community, and to the person they are (hopefully) coming to know better than anyone: themselves. Hold on tight to you.