"The Case for a Bigger Target" by Director of College Placement Kate Ramsdell
We begin every college counseling cycle with opportunities for “self reflection” – in writing and through conversation – and we are routinely intrigued by what we learn when we sit down for our first few meetings with our counselees.
A few years ago, we had a student who was an accomplished archer. I’ll call him Sebastian. In one of those first meetings, Sebastian’s college counselor asked him to share more about how he got into archery and how, exactly, he practiced.
Sebastian described in great detail how he and his brother practiced at home for hours on end. When the weather was good, they set up targets in the back yard. Over time, they both improved significantly; Sebastian’s older brother even went on to compete internationally. As the boys developed their skills, the targets moved from 15 meters, to 20 meters, and eventually to 30 meters away. Soon, they were practicing year-round. In the winter, they would move inside the house and increase the challenge by putting a small target at one end of a long, narrow hallway.
I have a hard time imagining hitting any sized target with a bow and arrow. It gets my heart rate up. Trying to imagine hitting that target while also avoiding side tables, artwork and a bookshelf here and there seems paralysis inducing.
And, that is pretty much what Sebastian shared. Outside, the target seemed huge. A calm would blanket him as he drew the bow. Sebastian could hit it with his eyes closed (literally). When they moved inside, the target, even though closer, seemed terribly small. Hitting it felt impossible. What if he broke a vase? What if a bookshelf got knocked over? That portrait next to the target… priceless. Sebastian would grow frustrated because he knew he could do it – he had done it a thousand times before – but the stakes felt higher and so his performance tanked.
I heard this story right around the time that Dr. Joann Deak visited the Nobles campus to speak about stress and the adolescent brain. She shared her research on the theory that when students feel a little bit of stress, it can stimulate higher performance; however, when the stress curve gets too steep, adolescents have the opposite reaction. They freeze up and cannot accomplish the very tasks that they have trained to perform well on, like a physics test or a U.S. History in-class essay.
I find this is also true when talking about colleges with students. When the target feels impossibly small (i.e. “I can only go to an Ivy” or “I have to play Division I”) our counselees become quiet. They diminish the importance of their own activities, summer jobs and contributions in class. They don’t allow us to get to know them as we hope to, and it’s because nothing they’ve done seems important enough or big enough or good enough to get them to the target.
So, what can you, as parents and guardians, do to help your child? It’s pretty simple: make the target bigger.
This doesn’t mean set lower expectations – far from it. Instead, we ask that you widen your conception (and your child’s conception) of quality and success when it comes to colleges. There are well over 250 colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad where students can get an excellent education taught by superb professors, and where they’ll be surrounded by smart, engaging and accomplished peers.
When we get to know your children, we’re simultaneously trying to develop a college list that will fit their key criteria and academic profile, and it is so important to us that they can hit the target. Most of our students hit bullseyes. In fact, in recent years more than 70% of our students gain acceptance to a “first choice” college or university, and an additional 10% or so earn a spot at a second choice.
A “seasoned” parent of one of my new college counselees wrote to me shortly after her second visit to a college (her older daughter had also made the visit over a year ago): “Amazing how much more I can ‘see’ second time around.” I smiled at her wisdom. I can tell the target has grown already. Everyone’s heart rates are down, and so I know this one will be a bullseye.