A post by Mimi Doe
Susan Cain wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently that I encourage both parents of teenagers and students to read titled Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers. The piece shines a light on a topic I find deeply important as we help our students navigate the complicated arena of both college admissions and the narrative around success in our culture.
For over 15 years I have helped students and their parents deconstruct admissions at top tier colleges and craft an authentic action plan for their journeys toward college choices. It is never one size fits all and yet the messaging around success is loud and clear: Type A, alpha dogs win the prizes.
To some extent, quantifiable achievements such as a high GPA, standardized test scores and class rank are locked in. Top schools have well documented cut-offs in each area and typically won’t spend time with an application if these aren’t met. There is no need, however, to be an alpha dog to achieve these markers. A quiet, smart, hardworking, motivated, introvert can do just fine in this department, thank you very much.
MORE THAN JUST A LAUNDRY LIST OF ‘LEADERSHIP’ POSITIONS PLEASE
Admissions is about 80% academics, meaning top grades, ranking and scores are the foundation, but academic inquisitiveness and love of learning are part of this equation. Colleges want kids who love to learn and go above and beyond simply because they can’t NOT explore their love of quantum physics or 18th century female artists or deep philosophical questions.
Admissions officers are looking for more than a laundry list of high school “leadership” positions. Every high school in every city in every state in countries all over the world has a junior class vice-president, for instance, but how many applications will present a young ornithologist author of a field guide on dragonflies who is a field attendant at a national park, identifies wildlife at a local preserve for catalogs that will inform thousands of visitors, and presented his idea for an eagle cam in a bald eagle’s nest to a local college professor who then joined his project and co-published new research on eagle nesting habits. That’s leadership.
We work with students to help them find their authentic interests and then “take it up a notch.” But, to be clear, taking it up doesn’t mean getting louder or more aggressive but rather creatively pursuing and sharing in a fashion consistent with their personalities. A shy, self-conscious high school sophomore may not feel comfortable launching a poetry slam at her high school for fear of social rejection or, worse yet, standing in front of an assembly to announce the event. She might, however, partner with a friend who is part of the Speech and Debate Club and is happy to take on the “front” duties. It doesn’t take stage presence to submit her poems to the many avenues that publish, or study poetry in online college courses. She could attend monthly poetry slams at a local coffee shop and gain the courage to present. The peer intensity will be much less in this forum. She might start a blog devoted to her particular genre of poetry, review new collections of poetry, and even lead a workshop at the local library for young children to get their poetry on. Is being “extroverted” required for this?
Susan Cain is the author of the 2012 non-fiction book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, so I understand she’s particularly sensitive to the experience of those who don’t fit the common notion of “leader.” She writes, “Our elite schools overemphasize leadership partly because they’re preparing students for the corporate world, and they assume that this is what businesses need.”
I’m not so sure this is true as admissions officers at top schools can figure out those who authentically love to learn and share and expand their academic/scholarly interests. In my experience they do not so narrowly define “leadership.” They have 30 or more majors at their school and need kids like our young ornithologist, not just another class president.
Of course I believe it’s exciting to see students push past their perceived limitations such as the quiet young woman who took a Carnegie speech class at night so that she might better present her sustainability research at a conference this summer, but it’s equally important for us as parents to understand our child’s learning style, temperament and their goals vs some outdated model of a leader. And it’s critical that teenagers have some self awareness to understand how they learn, their best way of communicating and what they might expand and adapt, even if it might be uncomfortable, so they can lead in their own way.
We urge our students to look beyond the example Cain offers in her article of a student’s painful pursuit to land the role of “freshman mentor.” Rethink leadership. It’s not just the generic positions available at one’s high school that demand an extroverted, popular persona but rather the world is their oyster with opportunities to stand out in areas of their choosing.