My favorite family vacation, when our daughters were teenagers, was to Yellowstone National Park. While there, we signed up for a group hike, led by one of the park rangers. My husband has a hip replacement and none of us were terrifically fit at the time so we choose a beginner’s level excursion. Our daughters were game for going and while we would have to wake up early, the description of the hike indicated that we would be back at the lodge by noon; I figured we could get lunch then and relax for the rest of the day. The first red flag was raised when we arrived at the appointed hour to the meeting place. Though we arrived only about one minute past the start time, everyone else was bright eyed and bushy tailed, formed in a circle and scowling at us. There were no other children in the group and as the ranger led the group in introductions, it was clear that we were the least experienced members of this team.
It was a crisp morning but we felt comfortable, dressed in layers, setting off on the trail. The ranger would stop the group periodically to describe plants or to give us some historical insights. I started to notice that she was stopping a lot though. No matter, we listened with interest and were grateful that the pace was gentle. I wasn’t paying attention to the time until she announced that we would take a lunch break at the next stop. Lunch? Well, like every good mother I had packed some granola bars and we all had water bottles so that would suffice.
We ate our snacks quickly while others produced sandwiches out of their daypacks and chatted jovially. We used the extra time to take some pretty pictures of our daughters and shed some layers. The noon sun had heated us up and though we were low on water I wasn’t too concerned. After all, the return would go more quickly since we had already been educated on the flora and fauna on the way in. But wait; were we were going further down the trail in the opposite direction? I tried to hide my confusion and keep up with the group. By now, my daughters needed a rest stop (not for resting but for other bodily functions.) On the next educational interlude, I whisked them off the trail. Even though I had informed my husband I was doing this, I was dismayed that the rest of the group was nowhere to be found when we returned. We all jogged up the trail to catch up with them but by now my annoyance was growing. Little did I know that things were about to get worse. At the next stop, the ranger took an informal poll. Though it was well past noon by now, she proposed that we extend the hike so that we could see another scenic part of the trail. Everyone was very enthusiastic about this exciting prospect and it was decided in short order that this would the new plan (even though none of this was going according to plan as far as I was concerned.)
At this point, I could hear the swish-swish-swish of my husband’s sweaty sweatpants behind me. He was limping along. Though I had worn shorts, my t-shirt was soaked in sweat by now. We were all out of water. The trail was dusty and dry. Everyone was ahead of us and no one seemed to acknowledge our existence. I couldn’t believe this was happening and I was starting to become seriously concerned for our safety. I didn’t want to scare my kids who, miraculously, were not crying. One of my daughters circled back and came up alongside me as I muttered, “This is no beginner’s hike!” She glanced at me as she cruised ahead, undaunted, and muttered back to me, “Mom, you just can’t think about it.”
Recently, a growing understanding of the role that non-cognitive attributes, such as resilience, optimism, persistence, and perseverance, play in achieving long term success has been a topic of conversation thanks to a best-selling book by Angela Duckworth, called Grit. Her research and collaborative work with others has indicated that in a variety of settings- in business, the arts and even athletics- character attributes are indicative of future achievement, more than skills and abilities. So, how about in education? Early childhood educators are, similarly, exploring the concept of growth mindset as a tool in developing student success in the classroom. The value of character and individuals who possess the strength and the internal resolve to muddle through adversity is becoming increasingly recognized as having direct links to long term accomplishment and happiness. It led me to ponder my daughter’s words. It led me to volunteer my time with the Posse Foundation, a non-profit that has recognized the power of identifying high school students who, despite a lack of resources, have persisted and taken on leadership roles. Because they have what it takes character-wise, they have astounding success in becoming change-agents and leaders on college campuses across the country, helping to build unified campus communities and graduate at high rates. It led me to get involved with a group of leaders in the world of higher education who are dedicated to revolutionizing the college admissions process. The Institute for Character and Admission formed in 2016 and our mission is to advance the importance of students’ noncognitive characteristics in college admissions. Through these experiences, I am eager to share what appears to be a hopeful trend in college admissions. It seems that colleges and universities are starting to look for students beyond the numbers; students who possess previously undervalued, untapped potential to make a real difference in college, in our society, and in the world.
The pressure on adolescents to gain access to the “best” and most financially well-endowed American universities has increased over the years. Subsequently, we are seeing that there is a price to be paid for this college admissions competition. Once on campus, mental health issues, violence, low retention rates and failure to graduate (connected to debt) all point to problems in the system. And, how many students with true potential to succeed, and even solve some of these problems, get left behind? Admissions criteria that looks beyond the traditional SAT/ACT scores and grades when assessing applicants, and improving access for a more diverse group of students, has been the trend more recently. Today’s high school students attending an information session at a private university or liberal arts college have, most likely, heard the term, holistic review. Some larger public universities are also moving in this direction. Test Optional admission policies are offered at close to one thousand institutions of higher learning now. What does this mysterious term, holistic, mean? Encouragingly, it seems that while the most important criteria in college admissions still tends to be cumulative GPA and class rigor, personal rigor is being considered more than students and their families may realize. For some high school students who perceive their chances for attending and succeeding in college to be limited, due to low standardized test scores or less than remarkable grades, hopefully it sends the message that the old measures of success are shifting. It signifies that a student’s day to day behavior and how they conduct themselves (when they aren’t necessarily thinking about it) in the world means more than how they fared on a test given one day. It redefines the meaning of “the best and the brightest. “For students who may not see themselves as being in the running for selective college admissions or for affordable college experiences, it signals that they are valuable assets to the campus community. Students who are consistently demonstrating character traits outside of the classroom or in the classroom when they think no one is noticing, that indicate they possess determination, resilience, and creativity are sought after by colleges. The “best” schools know that these are attributes that need to be recognized, nurtured, and developed even further during the college experience.
So, are you a young person who forges ahead, on little sustenance, tired and with bugs buzzing around your head, in a situation you didn’t bargain for but adapting and making the most of it? If you can tune out the chatter, set goals and work within a system that is imperfect at times, you may be exactly what a college is looking for on their campus! You should think about it.