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A New Mantra in College Counseling: “Yes, and!”

By Eric Monheim, Director of College Counseling

A New Mantra in College Counseling: “Yes, and!”

I typically think of “Yes, and!” as a guideline for ordering food as in “Yes, I’ll have the steak and lobster.” Better yet, “Yes, I’ll have the brownie and the ice cream.”

The reality is that the idea of “Yes, and!” has long served as a foundational principle of improvisational comedy allowing an actor to accept what his or her partner has said or done and expand upon it.  Proponents of Design Thinking have more recently adopted the philosophy.  They argue that “Yes, and” allows for more out-of-the-box or beyond-the-status-quo thinking.

I would like to suggest that adopting the “Yes, and” mantra in the college counseling realm would do us all—students, counselors, and schools—a whale of good.  To get us to the point of putting the mantra into practice, however, we have to reflect a bit about the traditional notion of how we evaluate success in the college process.

For too many students, sadly, the measurement of success rests on the decisions of one or two admission offices.  Recently, for far too many students, this gauge of success or happiness has been reduced even further to the wrong-headed notion that the best school on one’s list, the one that counts the most, is the most selective one.  Using this paradigm, in an admissions world that gets, if we are to believe the media, more and more competitive every year, it is easy to understand the disenchantment and disillusionment felt by many students.  It is also easy to understand the increase in stress and anxiety students feel when trying to land their plane on a runway that seems to be constantly narrowing.

For schools, when we allow ourselves to get too married to metrics, trying to quantify that which is really qualitative, we cloud more than we clarify.  When we focus too heavily on the success of a given class in gaining admission to a particular group of schools, we ignore important nuance and reduce the wonderful stories of our graduates to overly simplistic numbers.

Don’t get me wrong—I recognize that students experiencing success in the college admission process is important.  The numbers are important; they tell part of the story, especially at places like St. Mark’s.  Success is vital and the numbers help us define it.  I understand.  I just think we can enhance our definition of success a bit.

If we are willing—like a veteran of Second City or a convert to the “Yes, and!” school way of thinking—to go beyond this narrow definition of success to “and…!,” we might find a healthier and more holistic way to think and feel.

The “and” of which I write requires work, including honest reflection on the part of students. It also requires that we counselors re-think our notion of fit and success as more of a developmental arc.

Think about the decision about where to go to college as the “Yes.”  What’s the “and”?  The way one gets there, and what one will be equipped to do upon arrival.  It’s part of an educational process that includes a specific destination and reflection on how one arrived as well as what habits of mind will lead to more progress.  If the student reflects on their application process and recognizes growth or progress on skill areas or attributes that led to college success, they have the “and.”  They would have the ability not just to say they were admitted to the “right” college; they would also have the confidence to know they were prepared to thrive there.  The high point in college should be the diploma, not the acceptance letter.  After all, it is the diploma we see framed and hanging on office walls and not the acceptance letter.

So what skills or attributes predict success in the college process?  What skills or attributes must one develop to be ready for a successful transition to, and through, college?  What skills or attributes give us the best chance at the “and”?

Here are five ideas that help define the way we think about college counseling at St. Mark’s and, more broadly, align well with our mission.

  1. Self-awareness and confidence necessary to articulate a clear sense of personal identity
  2. Capacity to listen and respond to criticism, coaching, and setbacks with appropriate goals, action steps, and follow through
  3. Ability to ask questions, access appropriate resources (including people such as parents, counselors, peers, advisors, and coaches), and synthesize information (including data) to make the most informed decisions possible
  4. Capacity to reflect upon and articulate a clear sense of your intellectual interests as well as a flexible plan for an academic and career focus and a sense of how you might impact the community you hope to join
  5. Openness and eagerness to explore ideas and a desire to be surrounded by new and different people

If a student were to complete a survey drawn from the points above at the start of his or her process and then again at the end, they would have a valuable gauge of their readiness for the transition to college and beyond.  We would have a much more complete picture of an individual class’ level of preparation as well as our role in helping them get there.

Imagine the following:

Yes, I am proud of the fact that I am going to College X, and I am convinced I am ready to thrive there.”

Yes, we are proud of the fact that all of our graduates will attend colleges that are appropriate to their abilities and aspirations, that thirty percent of them will attend colleges and universities in the “highly selective” category, and we are convinced that all of them are prepared to thrive.”

Properly understood, the college search is usually the first significant decision-making process in a young adult’s life.  It will not be the last.  “Yes, and” will help—and lead to some pretty good improvisational comedy, too.

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Eric Monheim is the Director of College Counseling. He holds a BA from Gettysburg College and an MAT from Teachers College at Columbia University. 2016 marks his 20th year in college counseling. He has also served as a history teacher at a variety of public and private schools as well as an admission officer at Kenyon College.


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