Kevin McMullin agrees with me, but that is not why I like his new college admission guide. Those of us fighting the U.S. obsession with brand-names schools are losing badly. We have to stick together.
McMullin, the founder and president of the Collegewise education consulting group, has a wonderful sense of context. In his book, “If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted,” he offers a perspective on the demands of high school that grabbed me.
I have turned his points into a list I call six non-college reasons to take high school seriously, each followed by my own thoughts.
1. When you work hard in your classes in high school, you become smarter and better educated. I realize these are not traits most U.S. teenagers want to advertise. The recent movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” makes the point well. But such qualities will, eventually, make you more attractive to employers, the opposite sex or whatever you’re looking for.
2. When you find and commit yourself to activities you enjoy, you discover your talents, learn to work with other people and enjoy life outside the classroom.The college hunt can ruin extracurricular activities. They become chores for parents, something you have to do to fill in those boxes on the application. But if you go into anything deep (anything legal, that is) — basket weaving, skateboarding, hymn writing — it is going to change your life, and more than likely look good to the college that is best for you.
3. When you learn to do things for yourself without relying on your parents, you become more independent and better prepared to live on your own. Taking responsibility will also rob your parents of the fear that you cannot be trusted to meet application deadlines. That will lead to less nagging. Well, okay, maybe not less nagging but friendlier forms of nagging.
4. When you find a subject that interests you and dive in to learn more, you see for yourself just how rewarding learning can be when you let your interests take you there. This is very difficult for young people to understand. You have interests now that will likely become worthy obsessions, but no one can predict what those will be. Some of your interests might be unpopular. Fresh ideas that eventually change the world often lead in the early years to family arguments. You might not understand why you are fascinated by home economics. Your lawyer mom might not want you to take that course. But stick with it.
5. When you struggle in a class and approach your teacher for help, you learn to advocate for yourself and to seek out assistance when you need it. This is not only a good way to learn but a splendid way to spread the message that you care about what your teacher says. Teachers don’t hear that very often. At grading time, it can’t hurt.
6. When you try your best and still come up short, you learn to handle failure or disappointment and then move on. I would go much further than McMullin does on this point. There really is no such thing as failure. Every experience adds value, as long as you are trying. If your English paper on Shakespearean references in the lyrics of Mike Love is a mess, that just means you have to fix it — a useful adventure in itself. The best cure for writer’s block is to expect your first draft will be lousy. At least you have written something. Now take out the bad parts, flesh out the promising parts and let each small failure lead you to success.