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Sticker Charts and Artists’ Canvases

Sometimes I just feel like a grown up with a sticker chart.  If I make the kid’s lunch the night before, then I have time for a cup of coffee in the morning. If I put in overtime, then I get more clients.  If I work out at the gym 4 days a week, then my jeans should still fit. But nothing is guaranteed, and to be honest, sometimes my incentives sometimes just don’t inspire. Then I need to up the ante from stickers to chocolate. Yup. A grown-up sticker-chart life.

But imagine if our life was more like an artist with a blank canvas.  Each morning would be approached with curiosity, possibility, and inspiration.  Instead of checking off tasks in hopes of some reward, each day would itself be the reward—a creation of our own to look forward to and take credit for.

As a college planner, I believe that success is contingent to whether college is more like a kid-with-a-sticker-chart experience, or an artist-with-a-canvas experience.  “If I graduate, then I can get a job” may only take a student so far.  Just getting into college to meet society’s expectations may not continue to inspire.  An opportunity does not lead to completion.

But what if the student is immersed into a canvas that they can’t wait to get their hands on?  One that they can shape and layer and use to control their destinies.  One that asks them to be creative and recognizes all the possibilities. Does this sound a little Over the Rainbow?

Students who know what they need to be inspired and to be happy are more likely to find their experience in college like a blank canvas.  Unfortunately, self-reflection is not a strong point for most high school students.  When I ask a 15-year-old, “How do you like to spend your free time?” I do not hear anything that involves being aware of his own strengths, needs and feelings. When I begin the essay process with my juniors, more likely than not it is the first time they have written anything in the first person. Questions are baffling: Who are you?  What do you value?  What makes your heart beat a little faster?  What would you get up in the morning one hour earlier to do or to see?

The seasoned “Yoda” of college planning, *Steve Antonoff, was asked, “If you, as a student, had only one hour to develop the criteria for your college list, what is the highest impact way you would spend that hour?”  His answer?  Go up to the top of a mountain and think about who you are and what you need and want to thrive and to be inspired.  Not, “read the US News and World Report rankings”.  Not, “call the most experienced college counselor and set up a coffee date”.  But, get alone and get in touch with your own unique set of goals, strengths, and desires.

Once students begin to identify their values and visions, the process of finding colleges that inspire becomes its own reward and incentive.  One website mentions, “Reflecting helps you to develop your skills and review their effectiveness, rather than just carry on doing things as you have always done them. It is about questioning, in a positive way, what you do and why you do it and then deciding whether there is a better, or more efficient, way of doing it in the future.” This control that the student has over their future is often the difference between a 6-year slog to an undergrad degree, and a dynamic investment into independence and identity.  

Not all students will reflect with a capital “R”.  Some will dig in and get deep.  But with the right guidance, intuition, and interpretation, there is no substitute for some good, old-fashioned look in the mirror. Maybe it’s not so Over the Rainbow after all.  

*Steve Antonoff is author of the books“ College Match” and ‘The College Finder”, and has his amazing worksheets for self-reflection are downloadable for free on his website

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