Educational Planning

It’s Like Riding a Bike

One of my favorite activities is bike riding. Like many other Americans, I started out as a preschooler trudging around the house on a tricycle. As a kindergartner, I advanced to rumbling down the sidewalk on a kiddy bicycle with training wheels. Then, I was riding on my own, off exploring other areas of my neighborhood, other neighborhoods within my town and other towns. Just as I do now and have done for nearly a half century. Of course, the most significant part of the process of learning to ride a bike occurs when the training wheels are removed. It’s at that point that one acquires the essential skills of steering, balancing, breaking and paying close attention to surroundings.

Since I began working at McMillan Education a few months ago, I’ve thought a lot about how similar bike riding is to the process of finding and being admitted to the right school. For our youngest students, i.e. those looking at independent elementary schools, the training wheels are still on. It wouldn’t be safe to take their training wheels off and let those students drive any part of the process without them. No, it must be their parents who retain all control – although a professional educational consulting firm like McMillan Education can be quite helpful in pointing those parents toward a better understanding of their child and the available schools that would be a good fit.

At the next level are our students who are searching for an independent middle or secondary school. They are like young bikers who recently have had their training wheels taken off. Although these students have their own sense of what they want, they still require intensive guidance. Indeed, at the outset of their search process, it is inadvisable for parents to simply “let them go.” Instead, as is the case with a novice cyclist without training wheels, their parents should at first stay along side giving support, advice and instructions. And even after that, the parents must continue to advise, instruct and set reasonable limits, just as they would in telling their new bike riders where they’re allowed and not allowed to ride, and where and how they should cross streets.

For adolescents, the extent and specificity of the advice and instructions they need are quite child-specific. Just as some beginner bike riders show advanced balance and appropriate judgment and caution, some students looking at middle and secondary school options have a mature and balanced perspective, and require only gentle prodding. Perhaps more common, however, are the new cyclists who seem to be careening out-of-control, with little ability to brake or notice the cues provided by their situation. They are equivalent to the many middle and secondary school candidates who need more vigorous guidance and support. McMillan Education and other professional educational consultants can help parents not only discover what various middle and secondary schools have to offer, but also assist them in determining the type and level of guidance and support that would be most beneficial for their children.

Our college candidates are in a different category altogether. At this point in their lives, most have gained, through their educational, extracurricular and general life experience, a better sense of who they are. Other than for financial support, they think of themselves as largely independent of their parents. Back to the bike riding analogy, those who successfully navigate through the college process have much in common with anyone who happily completes a marathon bike ride (like the upcoming Pan-Mass Challenge). The most important part of both endeavors is choosing a “good fit” college or bike route that matches the student, or rider’s, personality, skills and interest. But that’s easier said than done. For both pursuits, it first requires an honest and thorough self-assessment. That kind of strong metacognition or deeper understanding of one’s self is not something that comes easily to anyone, let alone a seventeen year old. But it is something that McMillan Education’s consultants have had success bringing out in our college candidates, thereby helping them present themselves in an optimal way.

Although I assist all levels of students, my focus is on graduate and professional school candidates. These young adults come to McMillan Education with a clear path already mapped out – a graduate or professional school that will lead to a career. That does not necessarily mean that my only role is helping them navigate. Before doing that, I try to discover how and why each came up with their chosen path. It’s a check to ensure that their choice makes sense given their passions, interests, experience, skills and outlook. If it seems like it’s not a good direction for them, then it’s time to invoke some of my own experience and training as a counselor and “life” coach.

More often than not, our grad and professional candidates have chosen an appropriate path, and do not need any re-direction. In most cases, I’m like their navigator, planner, bike mechanic, editor, drama coach and advisor all rolled into one. I’ll be there to make sure they thoroughly understand and are prepared for each different part of the route – from academic prerequisites to typical GPAs of admitted students to standardized testing to the types of prior experiences expected to personal statement essays to interview preparation to portfolio compilation. Sometimes, I might recommend a shorter preliminary trip, kind of a warm-up to their main bike ride. That might include additional course work or workplace experience as a way to bolster their readiness for the main trip. Other times, the focus might be on one stretch of the path or another that presents a candidate with a particular challenge – such as interview preparation for a scholarly but reticent med school candidate or composing a meaningful personal statement essay for an accomplished and confident MBA candidate who struggles as a writer.

In all cases, it’s important for graduate and profession school candidates to prepare meticulously, to pay close attention to all the details. It’s like what I go through as an experienced bike rider. Before the upcoming Pan-Mass Challenge, as is the case before any long ride, I will make sure to check the brakes, gears and tires, to bring along a repair kit, water and energy bars, and most important to put on my helmet. That preparation makes me ready to deal with both foreseeable and unforeseeable encounters. Indeed, something as simple as wearing my helmet once saved my life. For the graduate or professional candidates, they also need to show the highest level of preparation with each part of their application and candidacy, as a way of proving they’re ready for all that awaits them in their future career.

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