I’ve been at this college planning gig for more than 10 years, and I continue to see the same themes over and over again. I find this reassuring because it means that sometimes, what feels uncomfortable and worrisome, and maybe even hopeless, is actually normal. I also have two sons of my own, one in college and one a senior in high school. I’m experiencing firsthand the “messy middle” of being a college-bound student and parent.

I’m learning to be grateful in the middle, both at home and with each and every amazing student I get to work with on the college planning process. Often the difference between gratitude and frustration isn’t a change in circumstances, but a change in perspective. Have you noticed that sometimes the circumstance doesn’t change, but you change and that changes everything? It’s kind of like that.

In my line of work, I have the privilege of getting to peer behind the curtain and get a glimpse into the rather messy, humbling and chaotic parts of a college-bound student’s life. And that is truly a gift. When I have the privilege of seeing the beginning and middle of the process, I can truly appreciate the glorious final outcome. The struggle bears gifts of its own, regardless of the result. It just takes time to recognize what those gifts were. As they say, hindsight’s 20/20.

My In-The-Middle Gratitude List as a College Planner

I’m grateful for Authenticity.

girl holding small pumpkinWhen students come to me, it’s because they don’t have it all figured out. Guess what. No one does! But not everyone will admit it to themselves. Even fewer will admit it to another person. It’s a blessed person who can openly say “I don’t get it.” I’m grateful that I get to be the guy who says, “No one does. It’s confusing. That’s why you’re confused.” Or “It’s hard. That’s why you’re struggling.” And then, “But I can help you. Together we can do this.”  And I get to watch the relief wash over their faces because now that we’ve been Authentic and we know what we don’t know, we can make some forward progress.

I’m grateful for first drafts.

We’ve helped students with hundreds of college essays, and here’s what I know. No one goes straight from concept to final, single-spaced, typed and polished final product without a few messy first drafts. The benefit of first drafts is that they reveal where work is needed. They’re about getting a sketchy view of your story, and then stepping back for a few minutes and pondering what the real story behind the story is. Usually, students discover something about themselves between first draft and final essay that they didn’t know before, or that wasn’t as clear as it is now. And it is a privilege and a joy to witness that discovery process. If all of us could learn to appreciate first drafts or first attempts for the messy, sketchy teachers they are, we’d probably all be a lot better off.

I’m grateful for getting off topic.

girl tossing leaves in autumnTypically our ACT Test Prep or College Search sessions with students are incredibly focused and productive. They’re jam-packed with tasks we’ve both agreed are priority number one. But some days we get off topic. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the experience where I can tell a student’s had a particularly rough day, or they’re feeling stuck, or they’re feeling inept. Or the whole big jumbled process of planning for college is weighing them down. And then we take a break, and we get off topic. I share some relatively inane story about when I was a high school student and felt the same way. Or we watch a funny YouTube video as a mental breather. Or I ask them about something they’re passionate about that has nothing to do with college. And in these moments, we meet each other, human-to-human, and we truly connect. Perhaps we didn’t clip through the agenda as quickly as we will the next meeting, but the off-topic moments build trust and build relationship. They’re just as critical to the process as checking things off the to do list. This is true for all of us in all of our relationships. When I can let go of my agenda and let the conversation go off topic, there’s no telling what I’ll learn in those unplanned, “unproductive” moments.

I’m grateful for failure.

colorful pumpkin with white pumpkinsSometimes students forget appointments. Sometimes they fall short of their goal ACT score. Sometimes they forget to do the assignment I gave them. Sometimes they give me some pitiful excuse for why they didn’t have time to study or write that essay or do that research. Sometimes students just come up short. Don’t we all? My usual approach in these instances is honesty combined with grace. I don’t let them off the hook, but I don’t beat them up about it either. Because I know from my own failures in life that failure is its own best teacher. The worse the failure, the less likely I am to let that happen again. So I try harder next time. In working with students, nothing gives me greater joy than watching kids learn from their own mistakes, on their own time. I work with kids in their formative years, when they’re making huge strides in maturity, responsibility, intelligence, independence. BIG STUFF. I’ve learned that if I can stand failure and not shrink away from it, I can learn from it. And my students are learning the same thing. It is a joy to get to witness this lesson in real life.

These are just a few of the things I’m grateful for about the messy middle.

sumac leaf in autumnI can’t believe I get to wake every morning and do what I do, and work with the amazing people I work with. And be part of one of the most important phases of a young adult’s life. How did I get to be so blessed? To those of you who’ve entrusted your college planning process to my help, thank you for making me one of the luckiest men alive. Can’t wait to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.

Blessings to you and yours this Thanksgiving. If your middle is particularly messy right now and kind of uncomfortable, and not altogether pleasant, may you take comfort in knowing you’re more normal than you think you are. One day, the gifts of the struggle you’re in will become clear. I truly believe that. I’ve seen it over and over again, in my work and in my life.
Happy Thanksgiving, all!