In this post, UWCSEA East Campus University Advisor Robbie Jefferiss likens approaching your university application process to planning a campaign for election to political office. All in the name of ensuring a successful term in office.
The long flight back to the U.S. this summer was well worth the journey. It was great to reconnect with friends and family in my native Pennsylvania, but even better to watch the ‘entertaining’ election season that was dominating the airwaves. This made me consider my days from the not so distant past, when I lived in Washington D.C., a city packed with lawyers, politicians, lobbyists, ambassadors, and journalists. The buzz in “The District” was palpable and you couldn’t help but follow what was happening in Congress, at the White House, or the World Bank. I was glued to CNN during the Obama election and watched from the Washington Monument when he was inaugurated. How quickly I became infatuated with politics and the real guts it took to run for office. It’s not easy, and you really have to put yourself out on a limb and “stick your neck out”.
It was during this time that I met a very wise College Counselor from the St. George’s School in Rhode Island, who told me his theory. He said for a student applying to college is like running for a political office. Oh yeah, I thought, well I love politics… so this ought to be good!
He kindly broke it down for me piece by piece.
The student is the candidate who needs to go out into the world and impress the voters. Each candidate should have their platform in which they are running on. The platform may focus on a specific talent, an overall contribution you will make for the voters, or perhaps your academic prowess. Your platform may also include your unique background and skills.
The voters are the universities, and as we know, the voters often have different priorities and opinions. Do the voters value your commitment to service? Do they value very high academic scores? Do the voters really care about the arts or sports, or outdoor education pursuits? Do they care what type of roommate you will be?
Will the voters see your candidacy as authentic? Can they see your real desire to get their vote, or is your candidacy a last minute decision made on 31 December (the application deadline). Will the voters see a fit between your values and theirs?
Ugh.. but these voters can really be very fickle changing their mind from year to year! One year they want trombone playing scientists, the next year they want a mathematician who can tap dance.
That’s why encourage all of our families to go out and visit universities even starting in grade 9 or 10. This way the candidates can go see what the voters want or care about. We encourage our students to go and visit campuses of all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t have to be a marathon trip around the world, but stop by a campus during your holiday, or go visit a local Singaporean university on a summer afternoon or during a holiday. I often say to students, you wouldn’t buy a house without seeing what a house looks like!
Now of course, every candidate needs donors. You guessed it Mom and Dad, you are the donors! The donors are a necessary part of every campaign whether you like it or not. The donors will often have influence towards which votes the candidate should go out and get, and how far and wide the net is cast. The major risk is that the donors have too much influence on the candidate, and the voters can see it! i.e. don’t let your Mom write your college essay! The voters want independent candidates who can speak for themselves and express ideas freely, unhampered by their donors.
Now that you’ve reached your final few years of high school, whether that is the start of the IB programme or the start of A levels, the candidate needs some guidelines, and the middle of 11th grade is a good time to do this. A student should start by talking to the donors (Mom and Dad) as these are key questions that will shape the rest of the campaign: How much can we spend? Which countries are feasible, and which ones are off limits? With these guidelines in place the candidate should jump into the research phase of exploring options and digging into websites. Maybe even planning some on site research by visiting a short list campuses in the summer break.
Of course, every candidate needs a good campaign manager and that’s your University Advisor or School Guidance Counselor. The campaign manager is your biggest supporter, your biggest cheerleader, and your biggest advocate. They’ll spend the late nights helping you craft your platform and finding the voters that will love to hear your message! The campaign manager will also have to be brutally honest with you sometimes. They’ll tell you when your platform is weak. They’ll tell you when you’re aiming towards the wrong voters and they’ll tell you when your messaging has gone astray. You may be tempted to fire your campaign manager after an early defeat in the primary elections; but stick with them and trust their judgement, they’re in it for the love, not the money.
At the start of your final year of high school, it is time to start sending applications, and indeed applying to university, like running for office, asks you to bare your soul, and place yourself in a position of risk and vulnerability. Building your ‘platform’ is not easy because it takes a lot of self-reflection; something which doesn’t come easily for some teenagers. For example, asking questions like ‘What do you value? ‘What are the things I truly enjoy doing?’ Or ‘Where do you see yourself fitting in?’ The answers to these questions may form the basis for their university search, rather than the simplistic view of 'Where can I get in?' We have found that students who do a good job of self-reflection in the early stages of their campaign planning and continue to do this throughout their journey, often land at the universities that are the best fit for them culturally, financially, and academically, and where they end up excelling.
It’s not always easy, but If you do this right, and you take time to think about your platform, and really research the voters who share your values and interests. If you do this and you take the time to craft your message and listen to your campaign manager, your election will be flawless and you will have the most amazing three (or four) years in office!