Asking Why

I’ve been working with several students on their applications and inevitably there is a ‘why’ question. Why do you want to study here? Why do you want to study this? Why do you think you’re a good fit? The format varies depending on the country and the course the student is applying to. But essentially the question boils down to the same thing: are you sure about this? Show me you know what you’re getting into!

Now as most of my work right now is last minute (October 15th come and gone, November 1st right around the corner), I was talking to one student and realised that it is the self-reflective piece that is critical.

A friend of a friend asked whether I could ‘take a look’ at the application essays as the student had no counsellor/consultant. It rapidly became clear that it was a rather mixed application. Talking further, I then bluntly asked: “how much of this essay is yours and how much is your parents?” I haven’t met the parents. From what I know they are deeply caring wanting to do the right thing, and the student (who loves his parents) was trying to satisfy them. On my feedback, the student then said “how do I tell my parents that it’s my application?”

Voila! Bingo! Asking why is the key to ensuring that it is the student in charge. Why do YOU feel you ought to head on this path?

I know we’re busy and this seems like an impossible ‘ask’ of counsellors at this time. But this week, I had a sharp reminder of why asking ‘why’ is so critically important. An ex-student of mine asked to meet. Said student on a medical leave of absence as it was apparent within weeks of getting on campus that this was the wrong course (and unlike the US, not easy to switch majors….) I realised that last year that in ‘managing’ applications, I had spent far too little time with the student questioning the ‘why’ the student was making the choices they were making. My work was on the ‘what’ – essays, recommendations, tests, but for those students applying, not enough time asking ‘why?’

With the ex-student I met, talking about ‘why’ things hadn’t worked out was cathartic. With the other student with friend sitting in there was a revelation: “I didn’t realise that you asked so many questions.” But in asking ‘why’, the student comes to a clearer self-understanding of ‘why’ they are doing this.

Final point. I had a student who was working diligently on an essay having done extensive reading and research but a couple of drafts in, I asked ‘why do you want to do this?’ It was as if the student had never been asked this question before. Methodically responding to my tasks, the self-reflection had disappeared and suddenly the essay was dull, not authentic.

“I feel I ought to” or “I don’t want to disappoint my parents” is about a choice that is no longer the students. Counsellors/consultants, if you can take a moment to ask ‘why’ are you on this path. Be persistent. And students: that ‘why’ makes for not just a better application but a better you – if you dare to be honest with yourselves.