As I look forward to working with new students and families on their educational plans, I often think back to my own college application essay that focused on the process of education rather than the end product as seen in a final grade. If the process is drudgery with only the desired grade in mind, the product that comes at the end of all the painful slogging is tainted at least and quite possibly only a reminder of an unpleasant struggle. As I have done in my English classrooms with junior boarding and high school students as well as in my work with students on their application essays, I focus primarily on finding joy in the process and making it all as authentic and positive as possible.
In my English classroom, I especially enjoyed reading students’ journals. Even when we were reading a common novel rather than independent book choices, each journal opened wide a window into students’ hopes, dreams, interests, and unique way of seeing the world. By working to understand, inquire about, and honor the experiences and thinking they shared in their journals, I demonstrated to students that I knew and respected them. This proved to be the best motivational tool in my arsenal, and often the fruits of this motivation weren’t completely visible until years later.
In my classes, Jimmy often struggled a bit with some of the conventions of English and with the details of our more formal assignments, but his journals showed both a love of sports and an incredible facility with language around the details and the elaborate dance that make up a lacrosse game. His nuanced writing about the middle school team’s most recent game showed the grace and command of a writer who knows his subject as a true insider and can describe with clarity and energy the subtle movements and decisions that he and his teammates make on the fly in the heat of battle. Jimmy’s grade in my class was decent and his overall performance wasn’t especially memorable, but I loved his sports writing and hopefully encouraged and recognized his passion and ability in this area. He didn’t go on to become an English teacher, but I learned years later, in a link sent to me by his father, that he had his own sports blog and was clearly both a student of sports writing and a well-known writer and contributor to the scene himself.
As students and families consider various schools and prepare their applications, unearthing, nurturing, and celebrating genuine interests and talents will always be more fruitful than manufacturing them to suit an imagined audience. It is the vitality of these interests and talents, after all, and their inevitable and unpredictable offshoots, that will give rise to circles of friends and a fulfilling life long after the diploma has been framed or filed.
In terms of the application process, if the whole enterprise is filled with fear and loathing and a neurotic worry about doing it right, chances are that the groundwork is being laid for future school days that are actually quite similar. On the other hand, if the process of seeking the right school is one of self-discovery, kindness, and acceptance of our particular gifts and talents, then we’re building a much more healthy base and model to shape our school days along similar lines.
I always hope to keep in mind that the way we go about choosing and applying to schools may well be a model for the way those school days themselves unfold.