College and Life: Is it about the finish line or the road you take to get there?

Mark Moody, Co-Director of College Counseling at Colorado Academy, is back with us today with an excellent discussion of "outcomes" -- a meme in the media and a subject on the minds of some students, parents, educators and other interested parties. Read on to see why becoming "dis-oriented" from outcomes may provide the happiest ending. 


I’ve noticed the term “outcomes-oriented” being used a lot lately. It’s apparently a desirable quality, describing my LinkedIn contacts on their profiles, applicants I encounter on hiring committees, professional services in marketing emails that land in my inbox. When you consider it, “outcomes-oriented” is an interesting pairing of words. It suggests a constant headlong bearing toward a projected future, radar locked on a defined finish line and a specific expectation of what should await there. It feels antsy and impatient. Let’s get to the outcome, people! Who cares how? Full speed ahead!

April in the college counseling office is a time of transitions for both the junior and senior students we’re advising right now. New directions are being considered as students’ gazes shift ahead to the school year to come. Seniors are taking the leap of deciding where they will go next year—not permanent, but probably the biggest decision they have made to date, and one they’ll live with for a while. Juniors (ideally) have taken some preliminary steps and their college search is underway. With some initial research under their belts, maybe a visit or two, and hopefully some conversations with counselors, parents, and other advisers, they are making decisions that give shape to their search and narrow the huge field of college options. It is at these moments in the journey to college that it’s pretty tempting to default to an “outcomes-oriented” mindset.

A focus on outcomes sounds appropriate, right? Isn’t this about the finish line— where a trophy awaits to reward your work in high school and your many outstanding personal qualities? Isn’t college a means to an end? Shouldn’t we have our eyes, from the outset, on the right college, major, and profession—which will lead inevitably to the house, car, spouse, two kids, mountain of money and golden retriever that cap our accomplishment and seal our happiness in our ideal projected life?

Here’s the catch: being oriented to outcomes, particularly in the college admission cosmos, can have a funny way of backfiring. To begin with an idealized end point, and then to direct all your energy to making it a reality, is often, paradoxically, a self-defeating recipe for frustration.

Counselors encounter a version of this scenario all too often that begins when a student identifies a specific target outcome very early in their college thinking. Let’s be honest; often this college is a “reach” (it’s high time to retire that word…), and often it’s identified as a goal for superficial reasons—how everyone will admire you when you wear the sweatshirt, a notion of guaranteed success in life. With this target in your sights, you begin making choices with the aim of becoming someone you think would be admitted there. Consequence? You miss the chance to discover and develop the authentic qualities and developed interests that will actually make admission readers take notice of you—and that will help you connect meaningfully to your search and learn about the college communities that could enrich you most in four years.

If you’re a junior beginning to hone in on a group of colleges, start from where you are and work forward, rather than trying to work backward from, or leaping to, a specific destination. Try to connect your experiences, interests, learning style and a realistic assessment of your profile as a college applicant to the colleges that will see you as a good candidate who will continue to grow, explore and be challenged in their settings (this is the core of “fit.”) It makes a lot more sense to direct your attention to the next steps available to you from the place you’re standing now. Embrace the process. It continues until—and after—you choose to attend one of the colleges that see you as a fit.

If you’re a senior making your final decision, it’s important to be sure that if there is something your experience leads you to pursue now, that the option is there in your college, but account for your own growth, too. I recently overheard a student deciding between two mid-sized universities. She had reduced the decision to the major and subsequent career she had decided she would choose at each college, the most popular program at each—essentially flipping a coin over two completely different life journeys totally mapped out in advance. The good news is that either college will present challenges and new ideas that will likely disrupt that plan. Still—isn’t it preferable to choose a college because it feels like the right combination of welcoming and challenging qualities to help you learn about yourself and the world and then find your plan?

The jargon of the business world infiltrates many corners of life these days, and often passes for practical wisdom. If we’re outcomes-oriented, eyes on the prize, we believe we’re being sensible. Our culture values “metrics,” “dashboards,” and constantly pushes our gaze to the finish line and the scoreboard. When we adopt that way of thinking, we can miss the journey itself, the process—which is really all that there is; no finish line is ever the end, or makes us a different person than we were the day before. Goals are important, but to pre-ordain the specifics of them too far in advance is to close ourselves to the possibility of growth and to distance ourselves from, well, reality.

My simple advice is to try to dis-orient yourself from very specific outcomes. Redirect your attention to where you are and what is directly in front of you. Live there. If you view high school as means to a college admission outcome, and college as a means to a prescribed life plan, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re going to be an uninteresting person to talk to at parties, and probably disappointed—even if it all goes according to plan. You’ll live your life by a script you wrote before you even learned of the many options that could exist for you. As for your more immediate future, I’ll observe that the students I’ve seen remain the most grounded, calm, and resilient in their college process are those who have not fixated on specific desired results before they arrived. They lived in the moment, and somehow they were happy with their outcomes anyway. They didn’t even have to try to be somebody else for the sake of achieving them.

How you get where you’re going is just as important, if not more, as where you arrive—and if you’re invested in and redirecting that process as new data comes in, it will positively shape your relationship to the destination. If you learn to see each step, twist, turn and decision point as part of the continuing journey of your developing self, I think you’ll find that you’ll be happier with your outcomes than if you spend your time oriented to them.


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