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Learning life skills through the university admissions process

I’m a firm believer that the admissions process itself lends to a beautiful opportunity for the student to learn about herself, build confidence and learn how to put her best foot forward…in her applications and beyond. And, that the admissions process, when done correctly, will help students develop skills they will use throughout life.

On Friday I met with my students to go over their latest research on the universities they are considering applying to this fall. I expect them to do a very thorough process of investigation—providing them with a full research guide, giving them a list of acceptable sources I expect them to use while researching each university (as with any good research, one source is not enough—in fact I expect three at a minimum), sending them a “Research Page” for each university with pointed questions in order for them to record their feedback and send it back to me. Once I review their initial Research Pages on my own we then meet and discuss their findings, their feedback and we discuss this together. This gets the conversation going and open-ended questions begin to be asked in earnest on the part of the student. These are not conclusive conversations. At all. They will go on for months.

I believe that this type of directed-but-free-style type of research allows for students to start to learn what their own freedom of expression of likes, wants, dislikes and questions will look like.

And, this starts the whole “ah-ha!” series of moments. My student begins to learn more about herself and in turn learns to have confidence in expressing what she wants, doesn’t want and perhaps doesn’t know but needs to find out.

Here’s how it looked with Samantha on Friday:

Sam: I can just see myself studying in Australia.

Me: OK. But, I’m unclear on what that really means.

When I push back on this, the qualifiers—while seemingly terrifying for adults to hear but typical for any of my students to express—come to the forefront:

Sam: I love the weather. I’ve never seen such healthy-looking guys. The beaches are beautiful.

How can I judge that feedback? It’s not my role to judge my students. However, in context if this type of qualifying feedback continues Samantha will use the wrong insight to make decisions for this next stage in her life…and probably end up choosing where to apply and where to attend for many wrong reasons. And, of course Samantha knows, too, that these are not legitimate factors in determining where to attend uni but at the same time she expresses, “If I haven’t been through this process before, how in the heck do I figure it out?”

Because at this stage it really still is hypothetical for my students.

So, we went through some of the initial research together on Friday.

Me: Take two unis from your Long List and let’s choose different countries.

So, Samantha chose one in the UK and one in the US. Here’s some of what came from that discussion:

UK uni X and Sam's "pondering":

  • Large. But she's not sure what that means in practice. “Does ‘large university’ mean that it’s like a city in itself? I’ve never been in a big classroom.”

  • Near a “cool” city. “Does that mean I’ll go into the city often? Or rarely? I think it would be nice to have that option.”

  • Seems diverse but needs to dig deeper into what “diverse” means. How does the university define “diversity” ? “I need to research this more.”

  • Offers a potentially interesting “liberal arts” programme that would allow her to study a variety of subjects. “I don’t know what I want to study, really.”

  • Programmes are 3-4 years and she really likes the “study abroad” idea for some programmes. “So, I would have to apply for this at the time of the application?”

  • Course structure. What she would take year 1, year 2, year 3, … This is always an “ah-ha!” moment for my students. “Wait, so are these courses I have to take or ones I get to choose from?” “Are these all, like, lecture halls or are they small classes?”

  • Student life. Unsure of what it’s like at this university. “I think I need to find out more here. Do they have different clubs or is that something the student does off-campus?”

You see where I am going with this. To me all of these questions and discoveries by Samantha are “insights” and, really, “ah-ha!” moments. She’s starting to absorb information and assess whether she likes it or not, what questions she has and what more she needs to further discover. And, she’s starting to build confidence in expressing what she might like or want or not like at all.

(She’s also realizing there’s a lot of work to be done on her end in terms of research.)

And, as you can imagine, our review of a US university on her Long List brought about further eye-opening questions. (I try to have my students evaluate universities from a variety of countries so that they can see just how different the systems are, the pedagogy will be and the type of life they might have would be.)

US uni Y and Sam's "pondering":

  • Small university. And, then I usually get this, “But, I don’t want it too small because I don’t want it to be like my high school.” (And, then we discuss how university will never be like secondary school and why.)

  • Liberal Arts College. “But, I want to be able to specialize and if I go in and don’t declare my major until after a year or so, how can I specialize?” Great question. (Imagine if this question were never asked/answered and she made her decisions based on this misconception!)

  • “There’s so much on student life. I have to really spend some time looking at this.”

  • “Seems like the school focuses on sustainability. Are all universities like this in the US?”

  • Course structure: “Wait, I can take any of these courses? I can design my own major? But how do I do that on my own?” Why would we assume our students know the role of an academic advisor at university and the different roles they have in different countries and institutions?

My conversations on Friday with my students made me think of how important individual guidance is, in particular when a student is going through a process that is as subjective as university admissions. And, that we can never assume that what Samantha will point out as interesting—or what I think is interesting—is going to be “interesting” or “right” for my next student. But, the more we can help our students come to their own conclusions of what they like and prefer and what they don’t, the more confidence we give them to take decisions for themselves based on what they want to do and what they feel is right for them. As individuals. And, that to me is a life skill that they are learning.

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