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But I’m not good at anything!

How to counsel a student who is unsure about the path he or she wants to take

But I’m not good at anything!

Independent college consultant Abby Siegel has plenty of students who think they’re not good enough to get into college. She and other college counselors have heard it all. “I haven’t done anything.” “My grades aren’t perfect.” “I slacked off for the first three years.” What can a college counselor do to help a student with lackluster grades and mediocre extracurricular activities?


Be nosy

Students may have only a blank stare for the Common App. Or they may have no idea what to write for the essay. That’s where you come in. “A lot of kids come to me and they do have a lot of experience. But they’ll say they haven’t done anything life-changing,” says Siegel. In order to help students figure out what to tell colleges, be nosy. 

Ask them what they do in their free time. “A lot of schools don’t offer a lot of extracurricular activities, so what they like to do and what they do in their free time is really important,” says Siegel. 

Many students get stuck because they don’t know what “counts” as an extracurricular activity. Let your students know that participating in church activities, working a part-time job and having hobbies all count as things that can go on their college applications. 


Create a curriculum vitae (CV)

Guide your students through the process of creating a CV. This exercise might seem overwhelming for students at first, but the outcome can be rewarding and helpful, according to Jennifer Bernstein, Founder and President of Get Yourself into College, Inc. Your student’s CV doesn’t have to be fancy. Throw everything on it — from academic courses and electives to a hobby that he had in ninth grade but then dropped. 

For students who are in their junior year and earlier, ask them what they would like to see on their CV. “I find that all the kids who are struggling, who haven’t taken action, they all have interests. They all have goals. But sometimes they are so insecure that they’ve never taken action on them,” says Bernstein. Your student might say that he would really like to teach English in another country before he graduates from high school. Once you know that, you can help him put together a plan to make that happen. Or perhaps you discover a student liked to play with Legos as a child. That childhood interest can turn into a passion for robotics, engineering, or architecture. 

“Keep probing, and you’ll find things,” says Bernstein. 


Focus on the journey

Part of the reason Bernstein advises the CV, rather than a resumé, is because it can tell a story. Rather than focusing on what a student has or hasn’t done, try to shift the student’s perspective. For a high school senior, you may have her reflect on her academic habits and extracurricular interests in ninth grade and compare them to the present day. This sort of reflection can be really helpful for a student who is stuck on the college essay.

When asked about the college essay, Bernstein said, “It’s not about what you’ve done or what awards you’ve won, it’s about your perspective on yourself.” 

Sometimes students will take the college essay questions very literally and won’t see the different angles and approaches they can take. Encourage your students to take advantage of the flexibility of the questions and show their growth over time. Ask them what they have learned from their experiences — or lack of experiences. And then, present the journey. Colleges may be impressed by students who show that they are trying to turn things around. 


Look beyond the elite

Andrew Lockwood, a college finance and admissions consultant, says “the main thing colleges want…is a kid who is interesting.” Being nosy is one way to figure out what makes a student interesting. But you may find that a student’s differences or personality aren’t a good fit for the elite colleges he or his parents are pushing for. “If guidance counselors…expand the university of schools beyond the rear window sticker colleges, then there really is a college for everyone,” says Lockwood. For a student with mediocre grades, consider looking beyond the elite schools to schools that are less competitive but still might be a good fit for your student. 

By being nosy, looking beyond elite schools, and focusing on the journey, you can help a C student complete his college essay and get into a college that’s a good fit for him. You can also take the opportunity to teach students to be reflective about the choices they make. College application season is a time when students can take responsibility for their actions — the good, bad and ugly. Push your students to think about the lessons they’ve learned along the way and how they can continue to grow once they are in college. 

Jasmine Evans is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area with experience as a college counselor and English teacher. She writes children’s fiction and education articles for parents, students and educators.


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