In the United States, around 3 million students graduate from high school each year. About 67% of them, or around 2 million students, enroll in college the following fall. Whether a student is one in over 2 million applying to colleges or one in over a million applying for jobs, life beyond high school is incredibly competitive. Throughout the application process students often feel an immense amount of pressure and stress. Here are several ways you can help students explore their interests and stand out from the crowd throughout high school and thus reduce their overall anxiety when considering their future college or career.
PURPOSE & PASSIONS
More than anything else, help students explore their passions, interests, and experiences they find purposeful. Instill the idea that students should try to dismiss the questions of, “Will this look good to colleges? Will this look good on a resume? Will this set me apart from other applicants?” Instead tell students, “The best way to stand out from the crowd is to be yourself. What are you passionate about? What type of person (or who) do you want to be? Explore those areas and then you will naturally stand out because of the energy you will exude around doing what you love and being who you want to be.”
MAKE SUMMERS MEANINGFUL
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my summer job at Papa John’s; however, looking back I wish someone would’ve said, “Meghan, you’re interested in medicine? See if the local doctor’s office is hiring office assistants. See if you can shadow a physician once a week.” Or “Take an EMT class this summer and volunteer with the local rescue squad.” This would’ve saved me many classes and hours once in college. Encourage students to seek summer employment opportunities in areas they may be interested in pursuing in the future (i.e., “You want to be a teacher? Apply to be a summer camp counselor or apply to work at the YMCA. This will give you great exposure to this field.”)
There are also summer camps for almost every interest or activity, many of which offer full-scholarships. Some summer camps house students on college campuses (i.e., Rice University STEM summer enrichment programs), giving students the chance to explore a passion and the feeling of living in a college dorm.
Encourage students to travel, either locally or internationally! Many students will learn more from a travel experience than they will sitting in any classroom. National Geographic offers student expeditions for students in middle and high school. Several other organizations offer summer volunteer programs.
SEEK ADVICE AND FEEDBACK
Tell students about the tasks they should anticipate completing in the college and career application process and then tell them that should always get a second opinion or feedback prior to submitting the items. Some tasks include: resume, cover letter, interviews, preparing for and taking the ACT/SAT, personal statements and essay responses. Direct students to speak with employers you know and trust (or ask a colleague for recommendations) and see if they will provide professional advice and feedback for the students. Remind students to speak to the guidance counselor for college and career advice. This is also helpful in getting students connected to other community members and possible mentors for the future.
COMFORT ZONE BREAK OUT
The college and career application process is almost guaranteed to push students outside of their comfort zones. What is one of the best ways they can prepare for this? By pushing themselves to break out of their comfort zone so much that they get used to the feeling. Tell students to try school clubs and organizations that they did not initially consider. Encourage them to try various musical instruments, even if they struggle to be successful. Projects Abroad specializes in volunteer trips aimed at helping students step out of their comfort zones. With each of these examples, not only will students become more at ease with breaking out of their comfort zone, they may also stumble upon a unique passion or talent.
READ, BABY, READ
Last, but certainly not least, help students explore their interests and stand out from the crowd by encouraging them to read. Read all sorts of genres and types of texts. Read content that interests them and content that bores them. Knowledge is power and when students are strong readers, then they can access knowledge for themselves. The more students read, the more they are exposed to different styles of writing, and the stronger their own writing becomes. In addition, on those college entrance exams, and in any college or career, students will have to read text that bores them, so practicing this will be a lifelong skill they can take down whatever path they choose.
Meghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.