what matters to you is what matters

Some of you saw my facebook post last week about College Corps and asked about it.

College Corps is a mentor program within the Bellevue School District (WA): volunteers work with high school seniors to fill out college applications and prepare essays/personal statements .  Currently, it’s active at two high schools in our district.

The diversity in Bellevue is mind-boggling: the reference area includes the mansions of Medina (where a lot of Microsoft money is, including Bill Gates’ house), 60s-era suburban developments of single family homes, and high-density housing east of I-405, home to every ethnicity you can imagine.

A significant number of students are in free and reduced-lunch programs, another group doesn’t speak English at home; some have parents with two or three jobs who aren’t there to help them, still others have too much tension in their family relationships to accept help on college essays, regardless of socio-economic status.

Whatever the reason, students come to College Corps looking for help.

College applications are long and convoluted, but the forms are manageable with varying amounts of assistance.  The essays and personal statements are the tough part.

How do you present yourself so that you stand out without (arrogantly) tooting your own horn?  How do you speak of experiences that changed you with the right balance of intimate and relevant?  How do you show a college that you are a good fit for them, if you are not certain of this yourself?

Colleges want to know that an applicant is friendly and likeable, so that s/he will adapt well and contribute to campus and dorm life.  They want to see that the student is intelligent and focused, qualities that indicate they will do well in their studies, and that s/he is ambitious enough to graduate and go on to great things – making the college look good in the process.

That is a heavy load for a 500-word essay.

For the students who come in with a resume of activities they have been building for years, it is not difficult to find something for them to write about – but they may need help to focus their essays on developing one concept.

The bigger challenge is the student who doesn’t see themselves as something special, who may be the first in their family to go to college, who didn’t even think they would apply until their counsellor started them thinking about it.

How do you help that student see their gift, the validity of their experiences, what makes them SPECIAL?

That is my job.

And as I look at it, I have some ideas about why it is so hard for them.  For any of us.

In the years leading up to high school graduation, the focus is all on WHAT YOU KNOW.  Regular in-school assessments, PSAT/NMSQT, AP exams, SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests… there is an alphabet soup of testing that adds stress and pressure to a teenager’s life.

In the years leading up to university graduation, the focus in on WHO YOU KNOW.  The relationships you develop with peers, professors, and internship supervisors will likely carry on into your working or graduate-school life and influence your career success.  So, choose your school and friends well.  No pressure.

Rather than what or who you know, it may be more relevant to question and answer, to explore and re-evaluate – at all stages of life – WHO YOU ARE.

For those students who are stumped about their essays, I intend to ask them some of these questions:  What is important to you?  What are you passionate about?  What makes you angry?  What would you change about the world?  Who needs protection?  What is being wasted?  What is your favourite book?  WHY?  What do you and your friends talk about at lunch?  What is the next big idea?  What teacher made a difference for you?

And I am really, really excited for the conversations we will have.


listening to: Sarah McLachlan, World on Fire


  • This sounds like a great program, and what a great matchfor your skills! Your mentees will be lucky folks.

    About WHO YOU KNOW… I think that in Canada, which school you went to and who your friends were in University are far less importnant than in the United states. Most of our schools don’t have a prominent greek system and secret (golden) handshakes are not the main (or only) way to career success. Thank Goodness!

  • OMG you are such a rebel…Asking teenagers to think about (gasp) what really matters?? Keep up the good work my friend. Perhaps with some underground support, we can help change the sense that to be learned is to know a list of stuff. Rather lets lend value to the idea that the fact that you are living and breathing makes you special and someone to be celebrated.

  • You two are so awesome: I love it when I get comments on my blog. Thank you.

    Catherine: While there are a lot of schools with Greek life here, many (most?) those do not involve the majority of students. And many schools (including most of the schools Kristina is looking at) do not have Greek life at all.

    I was referring to jobs that come out of knowing people – through supervisors or colleagues at internships, through student peers (and their networks) who move out into the working world, through professor recommendations, etc. I would wager, especially now, that those kinds of connections are important in Canada too.

    At least, important in getting the job – I hope career success depends on PERFORMANCE. (I believe in meritocracy.)

    Kim: that’s me, bucking the system! I know that you know that working with teenagers is an act of faith. It’s not obvious right away (or ever, sometimes) what effect you’ve had, but you still keep at it. Thank you for the vote of confidence.

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