I recently read a post by a young blogger considering the pros and cons of attending a well-known university simply for the sake of the school’s prestigious name. Did the name of the university matter that much when it came to future employment? For the sake of discussion, let’s take the question a little bit wider. Do appearances on paper matter more than who you are as an individual? Should you do things in high school just for the sake of writing them down on your college applications? Is “looking good” really all that matters when it comes to universities and future employment?
Of course there’s prestige associated with certain schools. Attending an Ivy League sounds impressive at any time of life. However, as I commented in the young blogger’s post, I went to a tiny university no one’s ever heard of, and I don’t believe it’s had a negative impact on my career. Employers want to know I’m properly qualified, but they don’t really care about the name of my school. Instead, they want to form an idea of what will happen if they put me in their classrooms. They want to know if I’m good at what I do.
So where do these misconceptions begin? Why are students in our education system so fixated on school names, program titles, and awards? Where does the obsession with “looking good” come from?
It’s the natural result of the very structure of the education system itself. We’re driven by the papers and profiles that supposedly represent the person. But we all know that’s not always true. Students are often encouraged to improve their image on paper without actually trying to improve themselves! We see it (and even say it) all the time. You should participate in that activity – it’ll look good on your college application. You should take that internship – it’ll look good on your résumé. Take the honors and AP classes – they’ll look good. I’m guilty of saying things like that myself, though I stopped after I taught my first college admissions course.
It’s funny – it took teaching teens how to look good on college applications to make me stop encouraging them to do things just for the sake of “looking good.” Instead, I began encouraging students to be the kind of individuals the colleges and universities would want to have fill their halls and dorms. That meant valuing dedication to a particular interest more than showing off a long list of short-lived activities. That meant demonstrating progression and growth, not just random titles. That meant giving students the freedom to really follow their passions, rather than spreading themselves thin trying to do everything that people tell them they should do for the sake of “looking good.” I tried to teach my students that universities are more interested in filling their student bodies with impressive people than filling their file folders with stacked applications.
It makes sense that young people think this way, though. It also makes sense that they project the “looking good” mindset into life after academics. As much as we teachers may wish to think differently, from a student’s perspective school isn’t about learning skills or building a knowledge base. It’s about grades. How can I improve my GPA? What percentage of questions do I need to answer right on that test? How do I compare to others in my grade? It’s about AP and Honors programs, class rankings, and getting the A, not about developing into a better individual. I can see why they would think that universities and even the professional world would act according to appearances on paper, too.
I’m not saying the paper doesn’t matter, but as students build themselves into better individuals, the paper will reflect that. I’m also aware that there may be small pockets of the professional world that care about the school’s name on the diploma. I know that even as adults we all do things sometimes simply for the sake of building a résumé. However, my experience has been that those are small factors, not the over-riding focus of our careers.
Instead, my life experiences are valuable because of how they’ve helped me grow, learn, and improve, not because of how they make me look. I’m glad I did theater, not because of how it looked on my college application, but because I learned valuable lessons and skills that I actually use in my teaching career. I’m glad I studied hard and learned well in my college English classes, not so that I can tell people I earned 3.92 GPA, but so that I can confidently teach literature, writing, and grammar to some ingenious teens. I’ve won awards and joined honor societies, but the most impressive thing on my résumé is simply the fact that I built an English program where one hadn’t existed before. That wasn’t about looking good; that was about doing my job well.
So how can we break this “looking good” mindset in teenagers and help them focus on simply being good? How can we show them that school is about learning skills, flexing mental muscles, and collating information, instead of a collection of numbers and letters on a report card? That employers won’t care how impressive their résumé is if they can’t do the things bosses need them to do? How can we help them see that who they are as people is so much more important than how they look on a piece of paper?
*Note: This post was written in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge.