Monday, April 11, 2011

The Inevitable Chicken Little Moment

Not long ago I got an email from a distressed colleague.

"What do you do," my friend asked, cutting to the chase, "when a senior comes in after she's been rejected from her top choice and believes her life is over?"

College counselors all dread these moments.

Because what you are dealing with is a minor apocalypse.

A lacerating revelation.

With a cataclysmic end.


No doubt, in those moments, there is nothing to say up front to mitigate the disappointment.

This student's world has orbited for the last year, heck four years, around that one particular school, like the earth revolving around the sun.

And now that sun has imploded,

sending her entire solar system into a state of chaos.

In this line of work, there will always be "chicken little" moments.

Moments where students and families will feel like the sky has fallen.

In late spring, we are showing our juniors and their parents the award-winning documentary film 500 words or less.

Here is the trailer for it.

This is a documentary about 4 seniors who go through the college admission process.

It's a must see for any student, parent, teacher, or coach that works with students in their senior year.

One of the most important questions the film poses involves how are we to responsibly handle the student who gets denied from their dream school.

What do we say?

And not say?

What do we do?

And not do?

Thinking through a positive response to a negative outcome is not something we really want to think seriously about.

All of us on some level would like to believe that we are beyond the vagaries of college admissions.

That our student doesn't have a chink in their armor.

Or a "kryptonite-like weakness".

That somehow all our time, money, and sweat will pay off.

That that A- in Honors Chemistry (the "road less travelled") will make all the difference.

That that project building a Habitat for Humanity home will earn an extra gold star.

That that expensive test prep course will reap benefits.

That our "contributions" or "connections" will come thru.

But in this admission climate,

of record application volume,

and historic low acceptance rates,

there are simply no guarantees at the top of the food chain.

And therefore there will be inevitable heartbreak.

One of the things I've learned is that you have to be proactive and candid earlier and earlier with students about reach school.

When a student comes in with a list of dream schools, for example,

I try not to crush their spirits.

Nobody wants to hear, "You can't get into any of these schools!"

Instead I try to calibrate their expectations.

I encourage them to pick two of their dream schools.

Just not five.

And then I work to help each student shore up the middle.

The more "target" schools,

the better chance that student has not only of getting accepted,

but procuring significant scholarship monies.

It's always a delicate tight rope to walk with students and families,

balancing objectivity and subjectivity,

cautious optimism with veiled skepticism,

always trying to keep the focus squarely on the student

and the schools that are the best fit for them.

I had a mentor once tell me,"Part of your job is for students/parents to leave frowning in the fall (of the senior year) so that they are smiling in the spring."

This is not easy for me.

I'm a "golden retriever" type,

which means I hate those awkward conversations.

I want students and parents to like me.

I want my kids to have the courage to go for it.

But I also don't want my kids to get so mangled by this process that they go limping into college.

I do my students and families a great disservice if I don't speak the truth with grace and love.

The truth may sting early, but it could prevent a gaping wound later.

This student my colleague spoke of,

who earlier got denied from her top school,

she also applied to other schools on the front page of the US News and World Report.

If only she would have been willing to talk about the schools on the second page.

Ultimately, each student and family must decide the path they will take,

and when it doesn't work out as they expected,

that's where we enter back into the storm,

where there are no easy answers,

and no quick fixes,

and no formulaic responses to when a student gets rejected from their top school.

Some things just have to be endured.

But from experience, I've discovered that on the other side of that storm

is a new horizon of possibility.

A new world of opportunity.

And promise.

It's just takes time.

And sometimes an April campus visit to a school that did say Yes.

It's amazing how many times a student who was crestfallen in the spring,

returns in the fall as an alumni,

happy with their college choice,

loving their college experience,

that stormy memory having completely blown away.