An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Applying to college is about navigating ambiguity
Applying to college is about navigating ambiguity

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

Three months after graduating college, Jerry Selingo, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, had his first interview for a full-time reporting job at a newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina. After a brief conversation over lunch, the managing editor left Selingo downtown and told him to "find a story by 5 p.m." Selingo didn't have a car. He had never been to Wilmington. And he knew no one there.

He spent the afternoon talking to local residents and business owners and wrote a story. But after getting the job, he found out the article itself was never the test; the editor was more interested in how Selingo had navigated an unfamiliar situation. Other job candidates, the editor said, struggled without specific instructions. But he was looking for "employees who could cope with the unknown on a daily basis."

In researching "There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow," Selingo found that the majority of employers seek this skill but struggle to find it in recent college graduates. To better identify likely candidates, many companies are changing their selection processes. For example, Google no longer asks applicants for college transcripts and standardized test results. Instead, the company asks them to perform some of the work they would do on the job to observe how they manage new and unfamiliar expectations.

Selingo's book left me wondering where today's students have the chance to learn to navigate ambiguity. So much of their lives is structured and programmed. While they learn to face intellectual ambiguity in the classroom, when do they learn to find their way in high-stakes situations that directly impact them? For many students, it's when they apply to college.

Every day as college counselors, we guide student through the many shades of gray in applying to college. During my first year as a college counselor, one of my students told me the University of Pennsylvania was not a good fit because Philadelphia is too cold. She also felt the university was too big and crossed it off her list, despite its strength in business, the major she wanted to pursue. But when I asked her what others schools she liked, her immediate response was Boston College's Carroll School of Management. When I pointed out that New England is significantly colder than Philadelphia, she became anxious. "There just doesn't seem to be a perfect school for me," she lamented.

I told her she was right — and that there isn't a perfect school for anyone. Rarely in life do we make choices that are without drawbacks. Over our year and a half together, she figured out the cons she was willing to accept (cold weather), and which criteria were top priorities (strong business program in a smaller community). She ultimately settled on Boston College despite the frigid winters.

Just recently I spoke with a Lakeside senior who is choosing between applying to colleges on the East and West Coasts. She's a strong student, very talented in the visual and performing arts, and wants a school where she can pursue a wide array of options, including the arts. She also feels close relationships with teachers and a strong sense of community are important. Having an outdoor program, being near relatives, and not residing in "too sunny" a climate are other criteria. But as we examined the colleges on her list, she realized that none met every criterion. "How are you going to decide which drawbacks to accept?" I asked. She shrugged and smiled nervously. I assured her such unease is normal and that the most important criteria would emerge with time and reflection.

One of the greatest challenges some students face is choosing senior-year courses and balancing their interests with how colleges will view their transcripts. College counselors routinely hear questions such as these: "Can I drop my fourth year of language?" "Should I take an advanced science even if I don't like science?" "Can I take fewer classes since I have enough credits to graduate?" Usually the answers are "no," "yes," and "no" in that order, if students want to strengthen their applications – and if they can earn a B or better in the extra classes. But the tradeoff may be ending up in classes that don't excite them.

Often, students ask us which is more important: taking the class that interests them more or the one that slightly strengthens their transcript because colleges regard it as more demanding. We tell them the only "right" answer is the one with which they feel most comfortable. Are they willing to be unhappy in a class for an entire year in order to strengthen their applications? If they do not take the class and are not admitted to their top choice, will they question their decision? Or, if they take the class and are not admitted, will they regret their decision? In the college application process, there is no way to ensure a particular outcome, and students make choices without knowing what the consequences will be. As adults, we do this each day. But for our students, this is often the first time.

Parents and guardians are great sounding boards for students in the college process. Listen to them think aloud. Play devil's advocate. Challenge them to articulate the pros and cons of their various options. Ask them to draw parallels between their choices and those made by historical figures or their favorite fictional characters. Keep asking questions as long as your student finds you helpful. Most importantly, resist the temptation to decide for them.

My mother always told me that the world is full of gray and I believe it's our duty to ensure that our students can navigate that gray, whether they are interviewing for a job at Google or searching for a feature article in downtown Wilmington. They need to know how to approach either of these independently.

In "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success," Julie Lythcott-Haims writes, "One of the key life skills our children must develop, after all, is the ability to live without us." It's our collective responsibility to prepare our students for this moment. It can start with applying to college.

Reach Ari Worthman, Lakeside's director of college counseling, at