An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling 

The summer before senior year is an important time in students’ college application process. Students are often less busy, allowing time to be reflective and focus on what is important to them. Many of our rising seniors visit college campuses, and all of them are required to work on a personal essay – an important part of their college application.

Lakeside college counselors meet individually with each rising senior in August, to discuss the first draft of the student’s main college essay. I simmer with anticipation at the start of every meeting, eager to see what facets of themselves students have chosen to convey. Sometimes it’s their robust imagination and penchant for creativity. Other times it’s a deep love of learning, perhaps for a specific subject or topic. Some students are unabashed intellectual risk-takers, young people who explore ideas without restraint, even with the occasional misstep. Others express a profound care for their communities and collaborate with fellow community members to improve the world around them.  

After I work with the student to hone the essay’s message, my mind races ahead. How can my recommendation (most colleges require a letter from the college counselor) underscore the student’s message? What examples from teachers, coaches, classmates, and even my own interactions with the student can I recount to make their application even more compelling? Helping students tell their story through essays, interviews, and recommendations is one of my favorite parts of being a college counselor.

As I ponder Lakeside’s future as part of our re-envisioning process, a piece I think will have high value is students gaining a better understanding of what they are actually learning at Lakeside: not only the content, sometimes referred to as “domain knowledge” (dates, equations, grammar, etc.), but also the skills, competencies, and mindsets which they will gain over the course of their time here. I know that students will be able to articulate, more than ever before, what they believe, what they value, and what they can accomplish. This will make their stories even deeper and more compelling in the college process. 

In a book several of our administrators read this summer, “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School,” academic authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine distinguish between “performance” and “learning” orientations. In “performance” orientation, students strive for right answers, often focusing on compiling credentials; for example, numerous Advanced Placement (AP) and SAT Subject Test scores, perfect grades, or lengthy resumes with fancy titles and numerous achievements. In contrast, a “learning” orientation “emphasizes that learning is a process, that failure is part of learning, and that getting the right answer is not as important as struggling with the question.” If students focus on performance – on getting that right answer – creativity and imagination are stymied. They’ll take fewer risks, and without the joy and rewards of deep thinking, they’ll be less engaged in the topic at hand. 

Students with performance orientations have less compelling stories in their college applications. After all, how interesting is any story with a plot that can be summarized as, “I did as I was told, found the right answers, and never made a mistake.”?

While Lakeside students tend to be more learning-oriented, many still feel pressure to focus on performance because, in their minds, perfect grades, many 5s on AP tests, multiple high scores on SAT Subject Tests, and being “president” of umpteen clubs is the recipe for admissions to selective colleges. 

It’s not. 

How it used to be 

When I consider the history of college admissions, there was a time when they would have been right. With the advent of the AP program in the mid-20th century, high schools developed curricula that focused on breadth rather than depth to show colleges that students were “college ready.” The AP program still prioritizes breadth and challenges students to demonstrate how much they know rather than how deeply they understand and think. 

Breadth, both in and out of the classroom, became a primary educational objective. In this context, academic and extracurricular breadth (eventually coined “well-roundedness”) became what colleges valued in the admissions process.

What it is now

Times have changed. Unprecedented economic growth and technological innovation have produced demands for a new type of workforce. How much a young person knows is no longer an indicator of success. What is more important is what they can do with their knowledge. 

This is the new context within which college admissions offices are making decisions. While standardized testing results and breadth of involvement are still factors (and Lakeside is committed to ensuring that students present these strong credentials) such “credentialing” alone does not distinguish students in highly selective applicant pools.

When admissions officers from highly selective colleges share feedback about applicants, I never hear “I was wowed by all their AP results,” or “I was so impressed by the number of activities in which they participate!” Instead, admissions officers are moved by the authentic and personal stories told in essays, interviews, and recommendations, of learning what students can do by thinking imaginatively, creatively, boldly, and empathetically. 

At the start of the new school year, we all will be looking ahead, ensuring that Lakeside develops more opportunities for students to learn in ways that will help them thrive in the future.

Parents and guardians: You, in particular, play an important role in helping students orient themselves toward learning rather than performance. Their learning, and the stories that emerge from it, will be more compelling to college admissions officers and have a powerful impact on students’ own lives. 

Ari Worthman is Lakeside's director of college counseling. Reach him at collegecounseling@lakesideschool.org.