Getting (with)in: college, acceptance and the new year

The new year is here, and with it, resolution season: our chance to kick a habit, be kinder, pursue a new interest, dedicate ourselves to a cause, hit the gym, the list goes on and on. As the calendar resets, it is an opportunity to start anew and to imagine what might be different. Over the years, my resolutions have run the gamut from concrete commitments like learning to play guitar or getting more sleep, to less tangible aspirations such as finding more joy each day. Inevitably the more specific resolutions fade by February (don’t ask me to play a chord or about the bags under my eyes in March) but the broad, indefinite goals allow for interpretation at year’s end. Because they are more vague I am less likely to beat myself up or focus on a specific outcome. Was I joyful in 2017? I can certainly point to evidence of intentionally finding delight in ways I had not before, appreciating opportunities to laugh, connect and relax. With these more nebulous resolutions we are able to approach the year as an ongoing process of discernment about how we live our lives. In 2018, I am resolving to foster acceptance, and will encourage my students to do the same.

College bound high school seniors may be quick to interpret this hope through a concrete lens of “getting in” to college, but I suggest that we consider acceptance in a wider context. Despite the college admission hype, believe it or not, getting in can be uncomplicated, but getting within is much more challenging. We live in a world that is increasingly filled with distractions—addicted to our devices (both electronic and otherwise) we are constantly reinforced by external stimuli. Meanwhile our culture tells us all that we have to fear, and we are fed reasons why we should not accept who we are. In my role as a college counselor to high school students, I see too many young people on a treadmill of expectation without a clear understanding for what lies ahead, and disconnected to what lies within. They wonder if they are bright enough, talented enough, athletic enough, or simply good enough.

Our culture encourages students to view college admission decisions as validation of their worth, the sum of the work they have done and evidence of the accomplishments they have achieved. In its worst form, it feels like a referendum on one’s intrinsic value—like the final exam of our adolescent years. An “A” means we are successful and have been accepted. If we fail to be admitted, it must be because we are flawed. And so I ask: What if we flipped the whole college search paradigm and began with acceptance within and let the rest play out as it should?

If you are a high school junior starting your college search in the New Year, don’t start with where you will go, what you will do or how you will get there. Instead I invite you to pause and ask yourself “why?” Why do you want to go to college? Why have you been involved in the activities you have chosen? Why did you select the classes you are in? Why do you surround yourself with the friends that you do? This is the “getting within” search that will serve as a foundation for articulating purpose and path forward.

Seniors, it is not too late for you either. Perhaps you are dealing with the disappointment of a denial or deferral from early applications and/or you are waiting for your regular application decisions. This can be a time of great angst and uncertainty when students will fill the period of limbo with thoughts of insecurity. As the calendar turns to the year that you will graduate high school, try this exercise and answer the following questions:

What is one accomplishment from the last four years of which you are proud?

What is one kind thing you have done for another person in your community?

What is one unchanging positive quality about your personality that you hold dear?

What is one challenge—either big or small—that you have overcome in high school?

When you have found the answers to these questions, write them down and then ask yourself if being admitted to any given college or university changes the reality of what you have done or who you are. Still not convinced? Ask three adults in your life to tell you about their journey from the end of high school to where they are now. Are they in a career that they anticipated? Has their definition of success changed? Are there aspects of their experience that made them doubt themselves? Inevitably you will find that their paths were not linear or free of disappointment. If you can accept that and accept yourself, your year is destined to end with greater courage and confidence.

Perhaps we can all learn from this. If we are going to make one resolution for the coming year, let’s try acceptance on for size. I am not suggesting we don’t challenge stuck patterns or seek to change unhelpful behavior. Rather, I am proposing that we withhold judgment about our perceived shortcomings. Wanting to be better versions of ourselves is a noble pursuit, but this will only materialize if we appreciate our imperfections and believe in our inherent worth separate from the messages we receive about what we should fear, improve, want or condemn. This year, instead of fixating resolutions on our inadequacies, what if we each identified three (or more) traits that we value in ourselves, or gifts that we have, and then spend 2018 trusting in those strengths. Having trouble? Try asking a family member or close friend what they appreciate in you and then be willing to embrace the potential they see. After all “to accept” is to be open to believing in the truth and couldn’t we all use more of that this year?

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