The original theme for this month’s blog was Creativity. While the past year has certainly challenged those of us in College Counseling to be creative – especially in our use of various technologies like Zoom to work with the students in our care – it has also been, as I look back, a year characterized by two other words that start with C: Consistency and Character. Very much to the credit of our soon-to-graduates, who stayed steady when all around them changed, sometimes from one day to the next, 64 of them filed 557 applications to 190 colleges and universities, all 64 earned at least one acceptance, and they will soon enroll in 40 different institutions, located on the East and West Coasts as well as in the Midwest, including some of the very most selective in the nation. If you knew nothing about Covid-19, there would be nothing in those numbers to tell you that anything has been amiss this year.
How did our seniors come through more than a year of the Coronavirus with such fine results in the college process? They worked with consistency and character, especially resilience and tenacity. As more than 500 additional colleges and universities joined the 1,000 that were test-optional prior to the pandemic, our seniors stayed focused on their Wardlaw+Hartridge academics: they challenged themselves with rigorous courses and performed to the best of their abilities in disorienting circumstances. They stuck with extracurricular activities - in athletics, the arts, and online service – in truly impressive ways. In addition to their achievements, the most successful of them demonstrated the qualities of character that are part of what is called a “holistic” evaluation of their applications. As I have written before, including when I was blogging for Forbes.com, selective college admission – confusing and maddening as it can sometimes seem – essentially means answering two questions: 1. Can and will the applicant be successful in our academic program, to thrive, grow, and graduate? 2. If the answer to that question is Yes, what does the applicant bring us that we, as an institution, truly value and that the other applicants do not offer in equally compelling ways?
My outstanding new colleague, Sarah Honan, who will be Co-Director of College Counseling going forward, recently presented at the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA) Conference alongside the Character Collaborative, an organization of schools, colleges and universities that exists, as stated in its mission: “…because character is fundamental to an engaged life, the fullest consideration of human potential, and a humane society. Guided by this belief, we believe admission officers should recognize and assess character in admission and signal its importance.” While the college admissions process is very much about being watched and evaluated by strangers – or sometimes by admissions officers whom applicants have only briefly met – the best way to stay steady, consistent, and demonstrate your character is to follow the advice of the late great basketball coach John Wooden: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are…the true test of a person's character is what they do when no one is watching.”
Year in and year out, and in my case that’s a lot of years, because there are men in their late 50’s whom I helped with the college process starting in the early 1980’s – those who succeed most and best are those who do what they do for the intrinsic meaning of the study or the activity, not for its extrinsic valuation by someone else. A way to think about a satisfying career is to ask yourself, “If I didn’t have to earn money to support my family and myself, how would I spend my time?” The trick is to determine what that task would be, figure out how to get paid to do it, then show up with consistency and character to do it to the best of your ability. The same is true in the college process. Ask yourself: If I were not applying to college and no one would be evaluating me in that way, what would I do? Figure that out, consistently put your heart and soul – your character – into it, and guess what? You’ll find more satisfaction in what you choose to do. And, if and when it comes to it, you’ll probably get into the right college, too.