College admissions has had a tough year of scandal and embarrassing headlines. Belinda H. Y. Chiu offers a solution: for college applicants to be more "mindful."
Drawing on her experience in the high school and college sectors, she outlines her vision in The Mindful College Applicant: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence for the Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield). She responded to questions about the book via email.
Q: This past year has seen a college admissions scandal and plenty of other reports of admissions favoring the wealthy. What makes you think higher education is going to change?
A: From ancient times in Greece and India to today, higher education -- what is taught, how it's taught and who is taught -- has been constantly changing. And factors like wealth, class, gender and race have always been at play. Many institutions of higher education are making concerted efforts to broaden outreach and access by making standardized tests optional or committing to admit more students [who are] first in their family to attend university, and to strengthen financial aid by eliminating loans or tuition for qualifying families. Of course, there’s still much more to do to address inequities. But if change is the one constant, that means change is always possible.
Meanwhile, students are still faced with the daunting task of navigating those changes during the admissions process, and that adds to the stress and anxiety. Sometimes, it seems like the purpose of learning is for a paycheck or corner office. The purpose of this book to support students with evidence-based tools to navigate the admissions process and beyond, as well as to identify their broader intentions as to what purpose education may serve. This is not a guide on how to get in; rather, it proposes a shift in the philosophy and approach that may have broader and hopefully, healthier implications for higher education and the students who it serves.
Q: Can you describe your experience in college admissions?
A: A couple of decades ago, I went into admissions because I believe in the transformative impact education can have on a life, a family, a community. I was fortunate to begin my admissions career at Dartmouth College with Deans Karl Furstenberg and Maria Laskaris, who approached students as whole people and stressed the need to treat them and the process with integrity and honesty. This ethos has been key to my admissions work as I’ve led initiatives to increase access to higher education, whether evaluating candidates for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation or partnering with the Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program.
I’ve been encouraged by the students, parents and counselors across the U.S. and the world, as well as colleagues from other universities, who so fervently believe in broadening opportunities for higher education to as many as possible. But listening to these different groups also made clear that more is needed to understand why we seek to learn, and how to address the stress that actually stymies the learning process. Based on my work with folks like Dan Goleman, Michele Nevarez and Kully Jaswal to build emotional intelligence and resilient leadership with corporate and adult clients, I saw that helping younger people to cultivate these skills before they end up on the proverbial treadmill was the natural next step.
Q: What would it mean if college applicants were "mindful"?
A: Mindfulness -- the practice of being present -- can be a valuable tool for students during and after the admissions process. Many college applicants believe they have to contort themselves to "look good" on an application. Becoming a more mindful applicant means strengthening the skills of emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-management, situational and relational awareness) to not only mitigate some of this stress, but also to flourish as a member of society. It's not a magic wand -- stress in the process will still exist -- but increasing mindfulness may strengthen students’ ability to block out the external noises telling them that they must be X or Y and, instead, listen to their own inner compasses.
Emerging research shows that emotional intelligence (EI) is associated with greater resilience, which is critical both to academic performance and to facing the ups and downs of high school. One Dutch study showed that the more teenagers demonstrated EI, the more they were likely to be elected to leadership positions by their peers. A recent meta-study covering 42,000 students in 27 countries found that students who can better manage their emotions also perform better on standardized tests and earn better grades.
But mindfulness is also a lifelong tool. Pursuing big, audacious and meaningful goals requires perseverance and resilience. How and why does a college applicant want to pursue higher education, and what will they do once they get there? Research suggests that strengthening EI may enable a college applicant -- or anyone, for that matter -- to be less vulnerable to the whims of their emotions, more deliberate in their focus and purpose, more compassionate and connected with others, and more cognizant of a world beyond themselves.
These traits translate to the professional world, too. It's hard nowadays to read the Harvard Business Review or look at a top 10 bestselling list without seeing something about EI and leadership. Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that adults with higher EI are more effective leaders and colleagues. EI may help them to be less afraid of failure and more open to the unknown, and to embrace their curiosity about themselves, others and the world.
By building EI skills earlier, young people needn’t be overwhelmed by the college admissions process, but perhaps be better equipped to become more effective, thoughtful and compassionate adults.
Q: How could admissions change?
A: There are encouraging trends in admissions offices that we can build on. Admissions offices must have their ears on the ground and engage with students and communities well before students are ready to apply. They are often among the first to recognize changing demographics, landscapes and needs. They also tend to be among the most vocal that talent and potential come in all shapes and sizes.
There are promising initiatives seeking to address the imperfect system of metrics and assessments. For example, Making Caring Common out of Harvard University has published two papers as a coalition of college admissions offices to reshape the process, promote the development of “ethical character” among students, and increase access. Some institutions have piloted ways to incorporate applicants’ "noncognitive" skills -- those that do not receive grades on report cards but that research shows are associated with performance and potential (e.g., resilience). Some also have sought ways to incorporate other values that typically do not receive grades but are important to a community (e.g., honesty).
We also need a broader conversation to create an ecosystem of greater mindfulness in the admissions process, including a reframing of what learning and success mean. Admissions offices must continue improving outreach and transparency, but they cannot do it alone. To really turn the tide, there must be a concerted, collaborative effort to shift what the pursuit of higher education means from multiple stakeholders that make up this ecosystem -- institutions from elementary to higher education, communities, parents, hiring managers, medical schools, etc. We need to reframe what "success" means, what "learning" is about and what purpose learning serves. Applying EI and mindfulness does not mean that one should not work hard to aim high and achieve one’s goals. But these tools may help to shift the approach: one can be compassionate and driven, kind and competitive, mindful and ambitious.
Q: In your vision for admissions, would students end up at different colleges?
A: Not necessarily. Students should always be questioning and analyzing what is right for them and leaning into that process of self-discovery. Spending too much time trying to fit into a top 25 list is a wasted opportunity. We are fortunate to live in a time when there are thousands of incredible institutions, and understanding one’s own motivations and purpose -- developing emotional intelligence -- will empower students to find the best fit for them.
The key is not the name of the college, but how intentional the student’s journey was to get there: whether they go to college, where they choose to apply and attend, and what they do with the opportunities available. It’s about having the emotional intelligence to navigate the process of acceptance and rejection. It’s about what happens once the student arrives on campus. It’s about harnessing curiosity for positivity, and the best approach is to remember that it’s just one step of a lifetime journey.