Thinking Inside and Outside the Box

My mouse hovered over the "Review and Submit" button.

I paused and gave a sigh of relief, knowing that my application will travel through a bunch of ones and zeroes into the database of my early decision school. The memories of pulling countless all-nighters to work on essays, sitting four and a half hours in multiple testing centers, and begging students to participate in club meetings seem to hit me all at once. Like Obama, I feel like I've aged 10 years.

As I continuously tell myself that I will not get into my ED school (emotional cushioning), I can't help but wonder how the college process would prepare me for a world outside of academia. Sure, I could list how I've become more mature, more independent, and better at time management. But what have I learned except the rules of the college admission game?

The American college process can be best described as crazy, ludicrous and impossible. Most countries administer a government issued national exam for high school students, and the college decision is based solely on the candidate's performance on the exam. Conversely, the American college process has no magic formula or equation. Attaining high GPAs, scoring on the top 1 percentile of the SAT, and building a slate full of extracurricular activities will not guarantee a place at an Ivy League.

The beauty of the college process is not the creation of a multimillion dollar industry where parents send their kids to SAT classes or hire college consultants; the beauty lies in the cultivation of hybrid thinkers.

The first component of being a hybrid thinker is the ability to think inside the box. While educators continuously advocate students to think outside the box, admission officers rely on assessments that judge how you think within in a box. Students who succeed in high school and attain high GPAs understand the rules of the game: study hard, participate in class, do your homework, and review for the test. Predict when the next pop quiz will come, understand the style of how a particular teacher writes a test, when and when not to argue for points are all skills that an observant student will acquire when he/she plays the game long enough. The same applies to standardized tests: drill and continue drilling on past SAT tests, skim over the passage and spot for key words, eliminate answers, and disregard unimportant information (thank you Princeton Review, Kaplan and Barron). The morale of the story is colleges expect us to be great in the box thinkers, students who are able to strategize and succeed within a set of defined parameters.

The second component is the ability to think outside of the box. Most colleges phrase it under the banner holistic admissions, an approach where colleges with the time and resources look beyond a candidate's GPA or SAT scores. College essays, work and life experiences, and extracurricular activities will factor into the admission decision. Students who have worked on a project beyond the boundaries of school curriculum will be familiar with the fears of wasting time on a project that might not bear fruit, the challenges of working without a set of rules and guidelines, and the passion that seems to extinguished quickly as you enter the third or fourth week of the project. Colleges value students who can demonstrate passion outside of the classroom because it's often a tough and frustrating process. But, it is the same process that will teach you to innovate and strategize without a given parameter, developing skills that cannot be gained through lectures or multiple choice tests. And if you're the person who can only think outside of the box, don't worry. Google has a job for you.

As we enter into a technological era where an increasing amount of universities are providing online degrees, one's ability to think inside and outside of the box is going to be a crucial component in the hiring process. Companies want employees who understand the culture and mechanics behind a corporate environment, but employees who can innovate and think beyond the set of rules will rise to the cream of the crop. The college process might seem brutal, tough, and depressing at times, but it is the set of skills developed throughout the process that truly matters.