Podcast: Don’t Force It: An Intentional Approach to College Admissions

Join me as we dive deep into the college admissions process and explore the three essential phases that set students up for success. We’ll uncover the importance of building a solid foundation, strategic preparation, and crafting a compelling narrative. Discover how an intentional approach can transform the college journey into a rewarding experience.


Sheila Akbar:As they grow in independence, you know, they have to have room to grow, which means moms, we got to step back, we got to give them that room to grow, right. But it’s important that we just don’t pull the rug out from under them, we’ve got to step back in the right ways at the right times. Hey, folks, we’re gonna do something a little bit different here today, on the podcast, I want to introduce you to our flagship program here at Signet, which is called Pathfinder. And it is a combination of our admissions, advising and our life coaching services for students starting in ninth or 10th grade. And instead of just telling you about this package, I really want to break it down into its component parts, and focus on the why, of why we do it this way. And really, it comes down to a certain wisdom we’ve developed over our 18 plus years of doing this work, that when students have practice reflecting, getting to know themselves, and feel some sense of ownership over the journey that they’re on, the outcomes in high school and in college admissions are just better and better in so many ways, right? better grades, less stress around academics, better relationships, and the family better health, you know, more sleep. And then, of course, better college admissions outcomes. Because what college doesn’t want a student who can articulate why they’ve done all the things that they’ve done, and what’s meaningful to them, and how this particular college is going to help them on their very inspiring journey towards whatever life goals they have. They know that a student who can do that is going to be ready for the college experience. So we’re going to start with, why is there all this hype over where kids go to college? And why are people so stressed out about it? And why is the process so stressful? And nerve racking? And why does it destroy family relationships? Like, let’s get under that? And understand what are the real goals of this process? And how do you navigate it without losing yourself in the process. So the name of this podcast is don’t force it. That is a saying I’ve sort of become known for this is really If your kid is going to be one of those Ivy League kids, you shouldn’t have to force it, they will be so intellectually curious that they will want to do all of their homework and, you know, explore all of their interests to the most extreme way that they can and you know, do all the summertime extracurricular academic programs and get internships and all that, you might have to guide them, but you’re not going to have to force it, right. So it’s really about kind of understanding who your kid is naturally, knowing how to push, right teenagers all need a little bit of a push, but not to that level of forcing it. And so everything that you’ll hear me talk about is kind of created with that philosophy behind it. And I talk a lot about taking this intentional approach to college admissions, because one, it leads to more success. And two, it leads to less stress. And the college admissions process really does start the first day of high school in ninth grade, everything your student does, from ninth grade on is going to be represented somehow on their college application. So you don’t want to be flying blind for too long. It also does not mean you want to over orchestrate every single thing that they do. Right? It’s a delicate dance. And intentionality is not control. So we’ll get into that a little bit here. But first, I want to start with what are we so afraid of? What are some of your biggest fears when you think about your child applying to college, going off to college, you navigating this process? What really scares you? What makes you worried about it? Where do you think you’re going to need help? I like to start any talk I do with this sort of line of questioning because if you don’t know what you’re afraid of you more fear will end up driving the process for you. And that’s just not a good thing. Right? You want the process to be driven by what your kid is inspired by what they actually want for their lives, what’s meaningful, you want it to be driven by a healthy relationship between the two of you, and not a fear. You know, you don’t want to be making decisions in fear, right. So I like to start there. Now, if we dig in, to what this fear could lead us to, in the extreme, there’s a really excellent book that just came out. It’s called Never enough by Jennifer brainy Wallace, she is a writer for The Wall Street Journal. And I’ve just been soaking up every word of this book, because it is putting language to things that I have seen for so many years, and I’ve been in this business for over 18 years. And the most extreme versions, the toxic version of achievement culture, which is that kind of hamster wheel we want to get our kids on, that they will probably never get off of many of us are probably on it, still on it, or maybe just starting to think about stepping off of it. The most toxic version of this is a really intense form of parenting where there’s a lot of control and like dictating what a student is going to do, and their time is all spoken for. kids end up feeling valued only when they are performing at some unrealistic best. And it might be unrealistic because nobody can achieve it. Or it might be unrealistic, because that child cannot achieve it with you know, their skills or their time or their executive functions or what have you. It can lead to study addiction, which is students feeling like they have to use every spare moment to study and they can never study enough, even if they have mastered the topics that are going to be on tomorrow’s quiz or next week’s exam. They keep studying, they do not know how to stop, they experienced burnout, because they are giving 100% 100% of the time. Right? That is not sustainable. It can lead on the other end of this to disengagement. Students don’t they just don’t want to do it. And they don’t know how to say they don’t want to do it. So they just stop. They just don’t engage. And in some cases, their disengagement can also come from seeing friends, maybe older peers that have gone through this process, and gotten totally burnt out because they were trying to achieve so much in high school, and then still not getting into the colleges that they were aiming for. And then it’s like, what’s the point? Why should I work so hard if it’s not going to pay off in this particular way. And then, you know, on the dangerous side of things, I again, just told you, I don’t want you to lead with fear. And here I am scaring you. But the really scary stuff is substance abuse, anxiety, depression, self harm, and things like that. And this is really everywhere. It’s worse in some schools and some zip codes. But it really is everywhere. And it may not be something that you are imposing on your kids, it’s just in the air. But I show that to you, because I want you to see like where your fear could take you and what you shouldn’t do. If we go back to all of those fears. I think what we are all actually afraid of is that our kids won’t get to grow into the person they’re supposed to be. And, you know, as a mother myself, of course, I have such hopes and dreams for my kids. And we want them to grow intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally, in terms of their maturity, responsibility, independence, there’s a lot, right. And we are so afraid that they’re not going to be able to grow in those ways and survive the harsh realities of the world that we then try to control. We say, here’s how you do it. I’ve been through this, I made a bunch of mistakes, I’m going to save you this trouble. I want you to do this, or I read this book, or I talked to this expert, and this is what we need to do. And what that actually does is sabotaging your student’s growth instead of helping them grow. Right, so we are hamstringing ourselves by trying to force it. The way you break free is through the psychology of mattering is we show them that they matter regardless of what their grades are, and I am 100% sure all of you love your children no matter what their grades are, but it’s about making your behaviors and your words match up with that feeling. Right? We help them find their strengths. We support their goals as they grow in independence. And as they grow in Independence. You know, they have to have room to grow, which means moms we got to step back. We got to give them that room to grow right? But it’s important that we just don’t pull the rug out from under them. We’ve got to step back Get in the right ways at the right times, and you know, your students, your kids better than anybody else. So you’re the one who’s going to know, okay, I can give them a little bit of a longer leash here. Or they can come up with a plan for how are they going to navigate their extracurriculars this year, and every student is gonna need their own kind of scaffolding and their own kind of support from you. And you’ve got to figure that out. But the thing that I want to share with you today is that the college admissions process is actually a really wonderful place for your kid to practice becoming that person that you hope that they will grow into, right, they’re still at home, there are not too many mistakes that they can make that they can’t come back from. And you are there as their guide to help them navigate some of these big decisions and learn how to make these big decisions. And it’s gonna take practice for them and for you. But if you can do this, what you’ll have at the end of high school is a kid who is ready for the college that they get into. Right, not a kid who lived in a bubble, and had everything, you know, all of their decisions made for them. And then you know, they you ship them off to college and hope that they can figure it out. Right, which is what happened to me when I was growing up, right? Why? Why I do this work, and I’m so passionate about it. So everybody’s like, Okay, how this sounds great, but what the heck, how do you actually do that? The solution is very simple. But it is very hard to implement, especially with your own child. So I’m going to tell you kind of the secret sauce at Signet and what we do, and give you a couple of tools that I know you will be able to implement, not all at once, and probably not in the exact way that I show you them today. But you will be able to figure out a way to start peppering some of this into your conversations with your kids, maybe even explicitly and sit down and do one of these exercises, and get yourself on this path of you know, open communication support, growing independence, and room to grow. And a more meaningful journey through their current education, not everything that has to be focused on what’s coming up next in college, but a more meaningful way to engage with the opportunities in front of them right now. And a great way to envision a meaningful future for what happens after college. So that the goal is not just getting into college. It’s this beautiful life that they want for themselves. And then they can see how college might fit into that. Right. So over the past few years at Signet, we have piloted a new approach to college admissions, it’s not just choose your school and write your essays and you’re off. It’s one that combines our life coaching practice with our college admissions practice. And there’s a really special kind of magic that happens when a student learns to reflect learns to be resourceful learns to communicate their values, and use their strengths to solve problems early in high school, and then apply all of that knowledge and self knowledge to the college process later in high school. It’s a really beautiful thing, and I’ll show you some of our results a little bit later. But this is it, this is really the secret. we chart the path to college through self discovery. When we do this, we have better outcomes. And I mean outcomes in terms of the colleges, they get into the readiness for that college, the relationships in the family, you know, happiness all around, right. And it’s really a beautiful thing to watch a child grow in this way. So the first tool concept I’m going to share with you is about reflection. I had lunch with somebody earlier today, who also kind of does this work. And we were talking about how schools do not teach students how to reflect how to look inward, you’re memorizing all these facts about the outside world. But you’re not ever taught, in most cases, how to look inward and make sense of what’s going on in that world. Right? So we want students to learn to reflect early and often. And think about reflection as a muscle is gonna feel awkward at first. And certainly a parent having a conversation with the teenager about reflection can be very awkward. I can imagine that. But you start small by taking something that happened and asking a deeper question about it. What was good about that experience? What was bad about that experience? If that ever happens again, what do you think you might want to do differently? That’s reflection, right? Getting to turn their gaze inward, and think about what they want, or what they’ve learned is really, really valuable. And this is sort of the thing that underlies the entire foundation. So try asking those questions. Try getting them to look at the series of events that happened in a day or a week or a month or a semester. Are through that lens, right? And you want to celebrate the wins, share the gratitude, and call out areas for improvement. But they should be areas of improvement that your child can identify. Right? Like, oh, man, I really procrastinated on that paper and then it came back and bit me in the butt. Because I had to pull two all nighters to get it done, and I got a pretty crappy grade, I know, I could have done better. I don’t want that to happen again. Right. And I know, we all have things that we want our kids to improve on. But unless they are ready to see it, and acknowledge it as something that they want to change, it’s not going to change, it’s going to be a battle. Right. So the process of reflection should be gentle and student led. And pretty soon, they will start seeing or talking about, they probably already see all of the other things that you see. But they might be willing to acknowledge all of those other things and start working on them as well. But we got to start slow, right. So that’s the first one reflection. And here’s a tool that you can use for reflection, it might look familiar to you, a lot of people call this the wheel of life, we use this with students this exact thing. And we do it kind of every three months with them. And we say right on a scale from one to 10, how you feel about your academic performance, or your time with friends, or the amount of fun that you’re having. And it’s not a 10 is perfect. This is a satisfaction exercise, are you happy with the way things are going there. And if you’re perfectly happy with it, maybe it’s a 10? Right? Maybe you could imagine a different state of affairs, but you’re satisfied with what you’ve got, right? And one of my coaches always talks about this as a wheel, right. And as they start to rate things you’ll color in, you know, maybe this one is a seven, and this one is a 10. But this one’s a two, right. And if this is what your tire on a car look like you would have a pretty bumpy ride. Right. And that is a metaphor that really does hit home with kids, because they start to see oh, we’ve been focusing everything on are academics. And we are not thinking about how all of these other aspects may be impacting not just our sense of happiness, but also that academic performance. We like to show them that this can change if you start paying attention to one of these things. So we might do this reflection exercise. And they say, you know, my friends are really at a level two, there are more friends that I want to see. And I know that when I see my friends, I feel better about myself. And I’m a little more relaxed, I keep some perspective about my academics and how much time I should be spending on that. So I kind of want to improve that category. And then over the next several weeks, months, you know, they’ve set some goals around, okay, I’m going to reach out to one friend a week, or I’m going to have a study date with a friend, you know, once a week or whatever it might be, we check back in on it. And they’re going to see that that has moved, right. And research shows us that the real root of happiness is feeling that you’ve made progress on something. Right, and this is a great way to visualize that progress if you do this over and over again. Let’s move on to the next one. Reflection necessitates that you have to reframe failure. And I’ve got this beautiful Kintsugi bowl up here, right, this is a Japanese art of mending broken pottery with gold and making it both stronger and more beautiful than it started. Right. And that really does encapsulate the way we want students to think about failure or struggle. It is an opportunity for learning and to come back even stronger. Right and that’s what reflection when you start asking those questions will help them do this that paper I mentioned that they procrastinated on really kind of sucked was a bad experience and not not as good of a great as they know that they could get. Well, you could think Okay, I gotta be my I’m terrible in English I’m giving up. But you could also say like, what can we learn from that? We got to start sooner. We got to find ways to beat this procrastination. You maybe we revise that paper and see if we can resubmit it? Right, and let’s learn from the teacher’s comments. Let’s learn from that experience and not let it happen again. I like to tell this story about Sara Blakely who is the CEO of Spanx. And she tells us really great story about growing up her father really reframed failure for her. She used to come home from school and he would ask her what did you fail at today? Not how was school? Or what did you learn? What grade did you get on a test? What did you fail at today? And I think one of the stories she tells us that she went out for the soccer team and she was really horrible. And she didn’t make the team. And that’s, you know, the failure she was sharing and her dad’s like, well, what’s the thing that you learned out of that failure? Or what’s the thing that you gained out of that experience? And she said, You know, I think I met, I met my best friend. I also know soccer is not for me. And so there are ways to kind of shift our perspective around things that, you know, normally, students might feel shame around. Right. And as parents, the more we can treat everything as data, not something only to be praised or criticized, but treated as data so that we’re learning more about our students strengths, they’re learning about their own strengths, they’re becoming more aware of the changes that they can make, or other ways that they can view things, the better off we’re all going to be. Another thing we do with students is we help them create a vision, a meaningful vision for their lives. And the first time you ask a kid, they’re gonna look at you like you have three kids. So we’d like to, you know, start small, that life will exercise sometimes is very helpful with it. If you think the friend rating is a little low, well, what you are imagining is a better life for yourself, one in which friends play a bigger role. That’s it right there. That’s meaningful to you. Now we’re going to figure out what actions do we need to take to make that happen? Right, some people call it we’ll call this goal setting, I like to think about it a little more holistically. And also goal is like a, I mean, it literally is a four letter word. But in that sense of it’s a word students don’t like, I think they’re a little tired of hearing about it. So if we’re talking about vision, it feels like, oh, there’s potential there. It’s a little like, inspiring, it’s creative. And often, we’ll sit down and we’ll say, Okay, tell me about, you know, a day in the future. That is just a really great day. And it might be next month, it might be two years from now might be 10 years from now, where do you living? What are you wearing? What does your house look like? Do you have pets? Right? And most of the time, when we ask kids about their future, we say, What do you want to be when you grow up? And they answer with a career. But I think that’s some conditioning we need to undo. Because, number one, we’re all still figuring it out. Right? I don’t feel like a grown up. But number two, our lives are about so much more than work, the job that we do the career that we have, right? And the more you can show kids that the better off, they’re going to be navigating this whole thing, right? We want them to paint a picture of their life, and a cruise part of that, but it’s not the whole thing. And another piece of creating the vision is like, Okay, well, who am I? Who am I? Now? What’s my current state? And like, Who do I want to be? And how am I going to get to that vision of myself. And that’s where values can come in. I’m a huge believer in having a set of personal values. And we want our students to have a sense of their values as well. And, again, this is one of those questions where they’re gonna look at you like you have three heads. But one of the ways that we get students to kind of engage with this question is to show them a list of values, when we say let’s, you know, read through these and do any of these just resonate with you. It can you tell me a story about a time where fairness was something that you just were striving for, or your loyalty to your family or to a friend was really a defining characteristic of a of a situation that that happened? And sometimes they’ll be like, no, none of these work more, we might look at more words. And then most of the time they see three or four, maybe five, that are like, yeah, that’s, that’s me, or I want that to be me. And these are things that are going to change over time, just bringing their attention to like, where do you think you are now is a really good start. And this is a thing that, you know, you’ll want to do with them over and over again, until they are really sure what their values are. And then they can use this as a framework for making decisions about jobs, relationships, colleges, essay topics, a whole bunch of things, right? And it’s a really valuable tool, also, for coaching, once they have a set of their own values, and then it’s going to take some time, but they’ll get there. If they do something that pisses you off. You can tie that to some value that they picked for themselves, that maybe they weren’t quite demonstrating in that choice that they made. Right? And then it’s not just oh, mom’s mad at me. It’s, uh, oh, I let myself down. And let me see, is that really my value? Or how would I navigate this challenge using that value better the next time I have it. So those are values. And like I said, this can be a guide, and it can help us students stay open to exploration. We always say you got to be a mix of strategic an opportunistic as you’re pursuing your education in your early career stages, you want to stay open to exploration, but you use your values and your vision to be a filter to see is this opportunity, something that I really should pursue? Is it worth my time? Does it fit my values? Is it going to get me closer to this vision? Does it change my vision. And as I mentioned, you can use this in you know, really clear academic contexts, like choosing classes and extracurriculars. If you’re aiming towards a particular vision, you can use it to build relationships with teachers to identify colleges, and to articulate your story, what we’re seeing more than ever, since the kind of hyper competitiveness in college admissions that has come along with COVID is that colleges are looking for students that reflect their values. So if a student knows their values, and lives, their values, it’s going to show up in their college applications. And then you’ll target the right colleges, because they’re the ones that share those values. And it will be a match made in heaven. Let’s talk about the three phases of college admissions. It’s a process, it takes time, you have to be gentle, it is really about foundations. And the biggest piece of our pyramid here is building candidacy. Now, this is usually ninth and 10th grade, sometimes the beginning of 11th, just depending on your kid. And that’s where you really want to be paying attention to kind of those foundational skills, the knowledge that they’re gaining about how to move through high school, how to navigate the social scene, managing their time, communicating with other adults, right, their teachers and coaches and all that stuff, and building good habits. They should be exploring their interests as much as they can, and trying out new things, and ninth and 10th grade, try everything that is interesting to you. And then as you find those things that do interest your students, they should be getting more involved in those things, they could be narrowing their focus, they should be learning what it’s like to be mentored, right, they should be seeking out mentors, building relationships with teachers, athletic coaches, maybe some older students, people in your community or your religious community. Mentorship is extremely valuable, especially since at this age, they are striving for their own independence and don’t want to listen to mom and dad. So find a mentor that your kid likes that you trust, right? Really, really important. And then in those early years of high school, ninth and 10th grade, we shouldn’t be looking ahead to what are we going to do with our summers? What’s the progression of things that you’re going to do? Are you going to work? Are you going to go to a camp? Are you going to be a camp counselor, are you going to do an academic program at one of these points, get a kind of broader view of that. And you know, that plan can be flexible, but you kind of want to start thinking about that. And then alongside of that planning the courses that your kid will probably take over the four years of high school. Now you can’t lock those in all at once in ninth grade, you kind of have to see how they’re going to do and how those interests develop. But having a sense of that working through the choices that your high school gives you, which can be very overwhelming, just start somewhere and get yourself a rough plan. And you’ll adjust that as you go. And that’s the foundation of any good college applications. It’s going to be about the grades and the relationships and the things that they do outside of school. And you lay the foundation for that in ninth and 10th grade. The second layer here is preparing to apply. That’s when we’re doing a lot of planning, getting some of these building blocks in place. We are navigating standardized testing if that’s the thing your student needs to prepare provide about 70 to 80% of four year colleges in the United States, our tests optional right now. And it’s not an automatic No, you don’t need to take tests, it really does depend on how well your student can score. If your student is going to test, they shouldn’t be doing it like summer of 10th grade into the fall, maybe spring of junior year. In the fall of junior year, I like to see students starting to build their college list taking that information about their values in their how they like to learn and who they want to be around to translate that into Okay, here’s some specific campuses, maybe we should go do some visits, I could do a virtual information session and research a college and see if it really is a fit for me or not. And then start to develop that strategic narrative. So given your experiences, your academics, your college list and the values that you share, what is the story that you really want to tell the college about this student? Right? And that narrative is not just the essay, it’s how all of the pieces of the application fit together to tell that story. And where are you going to deploy different aspects of that narrative across the main essay across the activity list in its descriptions across the supplemental essays. What are your teachers going to be saying what’s the counselor going to be saying? How much are they asking for your input on what they should say. So there are a lot of variables that you can actually control. And you want to have, you know, an intentional approach to what goes into all of those different aspects. And that’s what we’re starting to do kind of like Junior fall into the winter. And then we have the smallest section of our pyramid, which is finalizing that college list, deciding if you’re gonna apply early anywhere, and then developing and revising all of the materials and submitting in the winter of your senior year. Now, the top of the pyramid is usually what people think about when they say college process. But it’s like an iceberg. It is so much more than that. Right. And it’s really about having a really great engaging educational experience. And then the crowning achievement is documenting that in your college application, right. So we shouldn’t be letting that document determine all of the things that they’re going to do. Right, they should never sign up for a club just because they think it’s going to look good on a college application. But they shouldn’t be pursuing things that are meaningful to them and worthwhile for them because they are enjoyable, or they fulfill a need, or they you know, scratch an itch that they’re curious about. And then they’ll document it later. And because they’ve had such an engaging time in their education, and build great relationships, and take advantage of all these opportunities, that document is going to be pretty good, right? So we don’t want to put the cart before the horse. And by doing it this way, it really offers just so many benefits for life, right? Not just you’re gonna get into a great college, which is one of the things that’s on here. But there’s a lot of stress relief both for the student and for the family, your kid’s going to come out of this knowing themselves a lot better, you’re going to be amazed at the growth, you’ll see the difference. Overall, they’re going to come out of this with just a sense of confidence that they can tackle these hard things, these hard decisions, and they know how to manage a project and they know how to ask for help, and they know how to keep themselves on task. So we’ve come back around to where I started, this program helps students get the most out of the opportunities that are right in front of them right now. They’re not just thinking obsessively about how to get into college, they are fully engaged in their actual life and their actual education. And we have kids go off to college, and we’re all feeling you know, we’re feeling the student is feeling that parents are feeling really confident that this student has got the life skills, the tools, the practice, to be able to navigate whatever’s coming up next. So that’s a little bit about you know, what we’re really excited about here at Signet and how we like to do our admissions process. There’s a lot of this that of course you can implement on your own without having to bring someone like us in. But we are talking about teenagers here. They don’t always want to do this work with their parents. But there’s a lot in here that you can start doing that will just create the conditions for some of these realizations, change the tone around the college discussion or academics, and hopefully, take some of the pressure off so that you and your students can really focus on on what truly matters at this point in their lives. Well, there you have it. I hope this was interesting for you. I had a lot of fun talking about it. I love talking about this program. If you want to learn more, reach out to me, follow me on LinkedIn, join my community on circle, and we’ll continue the conversation there. Thanks, everybody. Have a good week.

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