Cultivating Our Garden

This past summer, McMillan Education’s team was taking some time to deliberately and intentionally look back on a couple of years of rapid and consequential change. The landscape of US colleges and universities, and their admissions policies and realities, had been radically altered during COVID, and the ripples of those impacts continued to form waves of ongoing change throughout the whole school- and college-going ecosystem.

The students with whom we were working had all been impacted by COVID in myriad ways, but it was also plain to see that the ongoing feelings of scarcity and increased pressure to be remarkable in a growing sea of applicants to selective schools and colleges were extending the pandemic’s effects long after we stopped seeing daily reports of case numbers and positivity rates. We had continually worked to stay well ahead of the impacts of these shifts in our work with kids, and like our school planning colleagues, it had been all-hands-on-deck through a volatile time. Additionally, we had just completed a many-months process of updating our Owl’s Nest platform, which had been a great deal of work, all completed and tested while continuing to serve our students and families on the first iteration of the platform. After a few years of rapid-fire evolution, and embracing wild change, when it came time to choose a theme for 2024 we chose to take a literal and figurative breath. The theme we chose felt right for these times for us: Cultivate our Garden.

It was no accident that our whole-team summer reading last August was Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – And What We Can Do About It. The importance of slowing things down, of keeping kids and their healthy development centered in a climate that often pulls the best-intentioned parents, mentors, and students far off course in that worthy journey, could not be overstated. We renewed our vows to look after kids, to give them confidence and wisdom to stay on their authentic path, and to be clear with them about what’s true and what’s myth when it comes to charting their unique course.

In a system where unprecedented numbers of schools are actively seeking scarcity and higher rates of rejection in order to become more highly ranked and prestigious, and where the tools for accomplishing this are now so powerful, we decided that cultivating our garden meant both committing to living in and refining our evolved best practices, and staying focused on the fundamentals of taking care of kids. To check in on our own growth, and to take care of our students, was to Cultivate our Garden.

Part of what keeps me grounded in my work is trying to remember who I really was when I was 18 years old. When I tell people about my college years now I have the luxury of having grown a remarkable amount during my four undergraduate years and all the years since, but when I was graduating high school and starting college, I was truly just a kid. I was trying my independence on for the first time, experimenting with different blends of my identity and seeing how they were received. I was an athlete, and leaned heavily into it to be known for something. I was curious about other people and authentically enjoyed connecting, but I also had a deep sense of un-belonging rooted in uncertainty about my intellectual ability compared to the rest of Harvard’s kids, and also in being a Pell Grant financial aid recipient in a sea of conspicuous wealth. I was utterly unfinished, naive, and just beginning to figure things out. Sound familiar?

I’ve come to appreciate that naive kid: to understand that he was right where he should have been, and exactly who he should have been. All the room that existed for growth gave him plenty to do when college was over, and allowed me room and a path to become the person I was meant to become.

So now, when kids and parents are knocked off course by the ridiculously unhealthy climate around selective admissions, I have learned to take joy in helping them to stay true to themselves and their best instincts. It is great to compete: you can learn so much about yourself and can grow so much from pushing yourself to evolve and from testing your limits. With my own two children, and with all the kids I work with, I commit to helping them continue to compete for themselves. Push yourself intellectually for you. Dig into that new team, or creative venture, or club for you. Do it for the sense of accomplishment and for the pride in your new skills, for the impact you are able to have on others. Do it for you, and you will crush it wherever you go to college, and anyone that doesn’t take you will be foolish to leave you out. But if they do leave you out, you will still have that growth and those skills, and you will soar, long after college is over. And they’ll be lesser for missing out on the chance to have you on campus.

Your growth continues long after this brief college process is over, and focusing on building a strong foundation for that journey, positions you better for admissions and life than any resume-motivated steps ever can without that broader purpose. Colleges that admit 3% or 7% or 10% of their applicants do not deserve the adoration they have gotten from us, and even as I help ambitious students walk the fine line between that absurd scarcity and their desire to push themselves to open every door they can, I’m constantly reminded how important it is to slow down, to help them remember that they are the goal: their own growth, their own fulfillment, their own development of an abiding character, and their impact on others. Tuning out all the noise that pulls them away from that message? That’s trimming away the unhealthy branches, that’s tilling the soil and lovingly watering when needed. That’s “Cultivating our Garden.”

About The Author

Peter Olrich, MBA