What Really Matters When Preparing for College

The way that students are prepared for college is fundamentally flawed. Here is one expert's advice on changing mindsets that will ultimately lead to better mental health and long-term happiness.

By Christian Hansen

September 7, 2022

As a former Associate Director of an MBA Program, Undergraduate Admissions Committee Member, and Financial Aid Counselor, I’ve helped hundreds of students get into their dream schools. I want to share a mindset change that has allowed my clients to unleash their potential and significantly improve their mental health as they prepare for college.

It all starts with the fact that I have a bone to pick with how we prepare students for college and beyond. That’s because most coaches, mentors (and parents!) completely miss the point.

You read that correctly... most people don’t understand what’s REALLY important when it comes to helping students prepare for their education.

Don’t believe me? Let me explain.

Most Students Are Encouraged to Focus on the Wrong Things

As a former admissions officer, I’ve guided, coached, and counseled thousands of students through the biggest decisions of their lives. Tragically, I’ve sat across the desk from too many students who only ever learned how to get into college.

For years they were nudged, prodded, and encouraged by mentors, coaches, and parents alike to stretch their resumes, join clubs, and pursue the extracurricular arms race in order to accumulate as many facts, figures, and achievements as possible. All this is done under the alleged guidance of “it will make you stand out to colleges.”

And so, we have nurtured a generation of students whose identity, self-worth, and personal value are pinned to checking as many boxes as possible. We’ve also taught them that the ultimate arbiters of how they’ve spent every waking moment are faceless, nameless, and highly critical admissions committees holed up somewhere in a dimly lit conference room.

High school then becomes a breathless game of “whoever has the most accomplishments wins.” That’s who gets the newspaper write-ups. That’s who gets the awards. That’s who gets the scholarships.

Facts, figures, and achievements. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The problem is that these students spend so much time learning how to get into college, that they never figure out why they are going to college in the first place. After years of frenetic accomplishment and accumulation, these students triumphantly arrive on campus only to discover that their entire skillset and identity of “getting in” has – on their first day of college – become totally and completely obsolete.

Success in College (and in Life!) is Very Different Than High School

Success in college, and adulthood, is graded on a very different scale than in high school. Happiness and well-being have very little to do with checked boxes, but everything to do with things that students are increasingly ill-equipped to think about and prioritize, like purpose, impact, and vision.

One Stanford researcher discovered that only one in five students have a sense of what their purpose in life is. College grads fare only slightly better. A different study showed that only 30% of full-time employees know what their purpose is. And yet, personal purpose and vision are at the core of what defines happiness and well-being as these students transition into adulthood.

Moreover, most students are so focused on simply getting into college that they assume they’ll “figure it out when they get there.”

The problem? Most people use college to figure out what they want in life… when college is really designed to build the life they want.

And so, these students spend their high school years pursuing a skillset and definition of success at ever-increasing speeds only to discover that the game has fundamentally and irrevocably changed once they reach college.

How This Impacts Performance and Mental Health

That’s a pretty hard wall to hit at 100 mph. And it shows.

Instead of relishing the beginning of the next chapter of their lives, many students instead discover they are facing a full-blown existential crisis that no amount of Netflix and TikTok can fix. Consequently, more students are struggling with mental health, anxiety, and depression than ever before. To say nothing of the lingering and disruptive effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their entire high school career.

While their confidence steadily sinks, they watch with increasing alarm as their student loans steadily rise. And pretty soon, students are attending counseling sessions instead of classes, and are placing university withdrawal notices in packing boxes... right over their acceptance letters.

And all the while parents, coaches, and mentors are telling the next year of students, and the year after them... facts, figures, and achievements.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

What to do? How can mentors, coaches, and parents help students prepare for what really matters as they transition into adulthood?

Well, the discussion needs to change. We need a new language. Which is what I focus on with the students and families I coach.

A Better and More Strategic Approach

We need to introduce a word into the college prep lexicon: “hire.” Instead of asking where you are going to school, the question should be, “Why are you hiring this school?”

Think about it.

Colleges can’t exist without you. They need your money and at the end of the day, you are buying a service from them. In every definition of the word, you are “hiring” a university for education in exchange for your money. The truth is, we have made colleges way too powerful than they really are. That’s because we have become fixated with where people go to college, more than why they go to college.

And as much bluster, smoke, and mirrors university marketing teams may present, you are really the one in charge of your destiny, not them. And, as someone who has interviewed and reviewed thousands of applicants across a career spanning undergrad admissions, graduate admissions, and corporate HR, I’m here to tell you: “why” you go to college will have a much more significant impact on your happiness and eventual success than “where”.

When you really think about it, colleges are little more than a tool that you are hiring to help live life in a more meaningful way. And just like the hammer wall at Home Depot, it really doesn’t matter which hammer you use. What really matters is why and what you’re going to do with it.

When students enter the admissions process by asking the question, “Why am I hiring this school?”, the change in their energy, self-worth, and positivity is astounding. For the first time, the student–and not some faceless admissions committee–has the power to direct their future.

How do you “hire” a school? What do you look for? How do you convey that in essays? That’s exactly what I help each of my students do.

Consider how a college will help you accomplish your goal. Do they have a specific major? How about a professor? Or maybe they have a research center or hiring opportunities that will connect you with your future goals.

Whatever the reasons, ask yourself, “How does this college get me from here to there?” If you do so, you will be well on your way.

Final Note

College is meant to serve YOUR interests and not the other way around. Once we reframe colleges as mere tools that we hire, we can help students reignite their confidence, and better prepare them for success in college and beyond.

And it just so happens that thinking at this higher level elevates your writing, makes you stand out, and increases your chances of admission.

Win-win!

If you would like to raise your game and create a proven, mental health-focused, and holistic game plan for college admission success, let's work together! Book a free intro call on my profile to get started.