“Finding the Student’s Voice in the College Planning Process”

By Peter Van Buskirk

The college admission process is right around the corner. For many would-be college applicants, the next three months represent a critical staging period as they prepare their applications for admission. In the coming weeks I will use this space to provide guidance to students as they assemble their applications that will put them in the most competitive position possible. My objective: give them the tools and insight necessary to compete for admission at the schools that fit them best.

An important preamble to this discussion involves the question of ownership. Specifically, who is going to manage this process?

On the surface, the answer seems clear. The student should manage the process. After all, it is the student who is going to college. It is the student who will be committing to four years of new educational and social experiences. And it is the student who will be setting out on this new adventure in an environment set apart from everything that she has known thus far in life.

Yet, quite often as I watch families engage in college planning and listen to their conversations, the student’s voice is noticeably absent. While parents talk excitedly about colleges “we’ve been hearing from” and the campuses “we have visited” with the conclusion that “we’re leaning toward XYZ college,” students shrink to the background. In this “committee of we,” they have become spectators. Rather than making the things happen, they are resigned to allowing things to happen to them.

As a result, I find it enlightening—and instructive—to talk with the students without their parents present. I want to hear, in their voices, the perspective they have to give to their life experiences. It is good to hear about their joys and concerns as well as their aspirations as they contemplate an uncertain future. More importantly, it is good for them to hear their own voices on matters of such importance in their lives.

The choice of a college is intensely personal. Making that choice or, should I say, making a good choice, requires the engaged involvement of the person who will be most affected. It requires reflection, careful analysis, an attention to detail and a voice that speaks of ownership—all of which will power the decision-making process. It may be tempting for parents to simply charge ahead and manage the college application process in light of the student’s relative lack of experience and/or the inevitably burdensome workload their student will encounter during the school year. When that happens, however, the student’s voice is lost.

There is something to be said, then, for a partnered approach—an approach in which students are supported as they take ownership. This might be challenging for parents who are accustomed to taking the lead all the time. On the other hand, it is a good time (and opportunity) to begin vesting responsibility in the emerging young adult. While the short-term efforts (and outcomes) may be maddeningly erratic, the long-term benefits will be undeniable. By learning to take ownership of the process, including all of the potential frustrations and disappointments, the student will also find much greater satisfaction in the successes.

Finding the student’s voice and encouraging its emergence is an underlying premise of student-centered college planning. It is at the core of my live programming and it frames my approach to the one-on-one discussions I have with students. It is my intent to empower them with insight about college admission as well as with self-awareness and confidence that will carry them through the college planning process.


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