Open Letter to College Admissions Departments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” — Ken Robinson

I just returned from a week of touring colleges with my youngest daughter. Its been a few years since the last go round and while it seems the world is changing faster than ever, not much has changed about the tours and the information sessions since I first did this six years ago. The students who lead the tours are poised and charismatic, they have impressive memories and long lists of achievements to their credit. The admissions counselors give pretty much the same spiel with different sets of statistics as are relevant to the institution. They want us, the parents and prospective students sitting in front of them, to know that their student body is full of confident creative leaders who will change the world. They tell us that they choose students who by the age of 17, have demonstrated that they are this type of person. From one college admissions counselor I heard, “We’re looking for students who, when you read their application, you think, “When did he/she have time to sleep?”

My oldest daughter tried that routine. She fell asleep on a Friday afternoon while driving home from a swim meet because she was trying to live on about five hours of sleep a night. She was lucky and only hit a parked car a few blocks from home, but it was a good lesson that sleep has to trump “activities” or “bad things” happen.

When we, the adults, send the message to the next generation that the way they will succeed in life is to fill their lives with so much activity that they don’t have time to sleep, we send a very dangerous message. I’m not talking simply about falling asleep while driving, although that’s a pretty quick way to eliminate a creative mind. What I’m talking about is that if we take the brightest of our children, the ones who are already inclined to push their minds beyond the limits of what they already know, and we teach them to numb their creativity with incessant doing, their minds will not be open to the wildly creative ideas which we desperately need to solve the problems of a world at a tipping point in many arenas.

Wildly creative ideas do not happen when our brains are working overtime on multiple projects which are all directed at some goal we are working toward. Wildly creative ideas “happen”. They arrive unbidden when our minds are meandering in the garden inspecting the peony buds, or wondering when the leaves on the Japanese maple, which are indeed apricot colored as they begin to unfurl, change to the remembered bronze of their maturity.

Sometimes they descend upon us from the shower nozzle, or in a cascade of cherry blossoms blown from a nearby tree. Flashes of brilliance happen when we’re standing still. Perhaps we’re staring at the sky after watching a pair of young eagles seemingly tumble from a nearby tree, looking for sure as though they’re about to crash into the surface of the lake, cavorting like a couple of preteen boys wrestling over some random object, completely unaware of their environment. Transfixed, we marvel as they narrowly avoid disaster and somehow disentangle themselves just in time, rising above the level of the highest trees before we can catch our breath.

This is when the ideas “happen”, not when a student is blinded by all-nighters and dosed up on caffeine and/or Aderall which may or may not have been prescribed for them. This so that they can eek a little more focus out of their overly focused minds… So that they can get a little bit higher score on a standardized test, because they’ve been told that that’s what its going to take to get into the colleges they most want to attend.

While my oldest daughter was swimming in college, a former teammate of hers posted a world record at the world championships in a fancy racing suit. Shortly afterward, the powers that be of the swimming world banned that type of suit. Four years later her record still stands, as do a host of others from that time period. The style of suit literally allowed the athletes to swim faster than they could have without them.

I’ve heard reports from my college kids about the widespread use of Aderall before tests. I now hear the same from my high school junior. In general the students they’re referring to do not have Aderall prescriptions. They simply want the improved focus reportedly offered by the drug in order to rack up higher scores where they think they need them. The drugs are simply an external aid allowing them to achieve at a higher level than they could have without, like a now banned high tech swim suit, or the performance enhancing drugs that have spelled the downfall of high profile athletes.

If, dear college admissions staff, you take those SAT test scores and post them all over the internet, or tout them to prospective applicants, so that anyone who looks at your website sees that your average SAT Math scores range up to 760, there’s no way of arguing that this doesn’t promote an environment excessively focused on achievement as opposed to creativity.

We parents and prospective students need to hear the admissions counselors leading those information sessions say:

“We’re looking for well-rounded students who know how to think creatively and demonstrate that they have the maturity and resilience to handle setbacks; who get a lousy grade every once in a while and bounce back from it.”

“We’re looking for students who excel in the classes where they have a high aptitude and manage well in the classes where they may not be so gifted.”

“We’re looking for students who’ve had time in their lives for friends and family, not students who’ve received letters in several varsity sports, had part time jobs and volunteer jobs, been invited to join multiple different honors societies, are student body president and valedictorian.”

What message would it send if you said:

“We want to read essays about babysitting and mowing the lawn and family dinners. We want to read about the favorite book you’ve read 12 times or growing a vegetable garden or fighting with your brothers. We want to read about how much you hated folding the laundry and the creative ways you got out of it. We want to know what you haven’t done yet that gets you out of bed in the morning. We want to know what you’ve always dreamed of, or are deathly afraid of, or afraid to hope for, because then we know who you really are.”

Or if you said:

“If you have too many activities, we will throw your application in the trash because that means you didn’t take the time to lay in the grass and dream, to imagine a different kind of world and how you might play a part in creating that dream.”

Because we need a different kind of world right now and we need it fast…

The students who will graduate high school in 2015 can have a different kind of experience if you decide to do it differently.

The institutions of higher learning hold enormous power. By changing your expectations, you can ask our children to show you who they are, not what they have done.

You must start asking your applicants to share with you their dreams rather than list their achievements. Ask them to finish the question, “what if…?” and then answer it with whatever they can dream up. Challenge them to ask a question you haven’t been asked and don’t know the answer to…

Asking students to demonstrate their literacy is expected before they attend college, what about asking them to share their creative ideas?

Thank you for listening.

P.S. My children (young adults) have been involved with some wildly creative shenanigans in college. I’m not making the point that colleges are inhabited by robotic automatons, simply that the message I hear from admissions staff is by and large one that promotes over achievement and over doing, that the application process itself further emphasizes those values, and that in general, the process that faces a 17 year old asks them to present a resume that provides little room for creative exploration, and that its past time for this to change.

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5 thoughts on “Open Letter to College Admissions Departments

  1. Right on! I have sent this over to my friend who is the college counselor at SAS. I’ll let you know what she says. She is very well respected among college admissions people.

    • I don’t think I’m qualified for that! The results could be undesirable… Seriously though, I think its very hard to be your child’s counselor in any arena, and at this age, they most definitely need someone other than a parent. The most important thing the “real” college counselors offer is their knowledge and relationships with the various colleges and universities. I’d find someone who’s willing to help Luc discover schools that get him excited and that feel right to him. I think that’s the most important thing, that the student feel like they are going to a place where they will feel free to be whoever they are and will support their academic and social exploration as they grow into adulthood.

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