The Harbour School

Search Trigger

The Judicious Why

  • High School
Brennan Dignan, THS High School College Counsellor

I invite you to take a journey with me. Open up your favorite web browser, then go to your favorite search engine and search the following phrase: college application tips. I encourage you to go as deeply as you can stomach, into the depths of the abyss...5 pages...10 pages….20 pages.  What you’ll find is that the proverb, opinions are like...well, you get the drift,  everyone has one.  What you’ll also find is that there is a billion dollar industry that has risen up around this question, each with its own unique spin on a fairly homogeneous approach that is bland and procedurally focused.  Fear sells so you’ll get a healthy dose of things like “THE ONE THING THAT WILL DOOM YOUR CHANCES, CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT WHAT IT IS.” Or the more benign, but equally obnoxious, credentialled sales pitch, “IVY LEAGUE ONLY CONSULTING SERVICES WITH A 70% ACCEPTANCE RATE STAFFED BY IVY LEAGUE GRADUATES!”, the presupposition being that all Ivy League schools are good for all students at all times.  

So, in a post-knowledge era, I am opting out of adding to the insanity of what’s widely available to anyone with a device, a connection, and a shovel.  In its place, I am opting to drill down to the bedrock, to the very foundation of what those eventual procedural structures should be anchored to, and something you as a parent can apply in your support of your child: The Judicious Why. 

WHY 1.0. - Why even go to college?  
Yes, parents, you know why, I know why, but does your child?  And please keep in mind the efficacy of dispassionate and pragmatic arguments like, “you’ll need a degree to get a good job.”  When did the argument, “math comes in handy in the real world” ever motivate your child to take ownership and excel at math? We all need an emotional connection to overcome the inevitable obstacles and self-sabotage that is the human experience.  This should be the beginning, or ideally the continuation, of instilling positive habits of mind, and dispositional beingness, that will serve a lifetime on the road to individual human flourishing.  Unearth the thing that seems to generate the most energy around it and work to reinforce it to the best of your ability. 

WHY 2.0 - Why that college?  
I attended the Southeast Asia regional institute for college counselors last year and the keynote speaker posed this question to us, “why do people think there are only 20 colleges in the world?”  This was, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but is still an accurate reflection of our day-in-day-out experiences working with parents and students in an international school setting.  So, ask the question: why that college?  And if the answer is something along the lines of, “it’s Harvard,” mic drop - an opportunity has presented itself to apply some why judiciously.  Try a line of inquiry like, “oh, Harvard made your list?  What is the most interesting course you’ve come across that’s on offer?  Is there a particular faculty member whose published work you admire?  What is it about Boston that you think you’ll enjoy the most, the obscenely long winters or abnormally high rates of seasonal affective disorder?”  I jest, but only in part.  They are going to have to answer this question when they submit an application.  The earlier the research begins, the more convincing the why argument, or in the best case scenario, through their research they discover and/or clarify what their driving values are in the process, which in turn, works to inform the remainder of their list. 

WHY 3.0 - Why that major/course of study?  
Most students feel pressured to pick something pragmatic, and the signaling from the cultural-surround reinforces this, but I warn you, it’s a brave new world where nothing is practical anymore.  In fact, university is where pragmatism goes to die, and in the best case scenario, that takes the shape of a change in study.  In the worst case scenario, that takes shape in dropping out, leaving the residual failure clinging to an individual like tar to gravel. If we want to imbue these youngsters with tools to flourish, the worst we can do is encourage them to pursue something that they are not deeply excited about.  We should be asking ourselves this: are we encouraging those in our care to consider spending 40+ hours a week embroiled in tasks that will ultimately crush their soul?  No amount of material accumulation or prestige is going to fill the cavernous void carved out by the current of meaninglessness (research overwhelmingly backs this up).  Whatever it is they are excited about should be used as fuel to power their post-graduation vehicle. Being employed in the 21st century is nothing like the end of the 20th.  Employers expect their employees to be deeply engaged, find purpose in what they do, act autonomously, be collaborative in spirit, excited to reskill/upskill, and creative in their problem solving.  If someone is uninterested in their chosen profession, none of the aforementioned happens.  

To properly motivate yourself, I encourage you to consider this a revenge proposition.  This is your opportunity, as a parent, to pay back generously to your child, the torture they put you through when they were anywhere between ages three and six, where every question they asked, and you answered, was followed by another “why” question (the Hydra Effect) until you had to finally lock yourself in the bathroom as a means of self-preservation. For them, this is their opportunity to have some excitement and agency around the future, and your Judicious Why practice will fan the flames of this spark.  Let’s collectively use our resources to get them excited about what lies beyond the high school finish line, and then and only then, give them the top 10 tips for putting forward the best application according to their unique, individual expression. 

[Looking for more resources to help you make that all-important decision? Check out Mr Dignan’s podcasts where he sits down with heads of admissions of popular colleges and universities to chat about the qualities and qualifications they are looking for and hear from THS alumna (class of 2020) Natalie Chan about her college experience at THS High School College and Career Counselling Program.] 

Explore More

Begin your journey