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Aim High but stay grounded

Posted: 9th June 2022

It is perhaps unsurprising that the global pandemic has influenced the way students think about their future careers. In a survey carried out by Prospects, 27% of students had changed career plans in light of COVID-19, and 37% remain unsure about what they want to do. Which surely means that careers advice needs to shift, too. In a post-pandemic world, the impact of a comprehensive, stable, and high-quality career and 18+ options programme on the outcomes of students must be prioritised.

But what does excellent, impartial, yet supportive career counselling look like in an era where applications to some of the world’s most selective (or, rejective) universities have also skyrocketed? Below are five key qualities of outstanding practice that the CSFC community can work by to support students who aspire to the world’s most selective universities.


  1. Manage expectations

With some of the most selective universities in the G5 and Ivy League shelving meritocratic admissions in favour of a more ‘holistic’ approach, admissions statistics can be incredibly helpful in painting a realistic landscape where students will witness the honest level of competition for such institutes.

We must not forget that such hyper-selective American universities have non-US citizen acceptance rates as low as 2.5% for Harvard, or bluntly, one in 40 overseas applicants. And amongst this group of applicants will be the very best of the best, so selectivity can sometimes feel insurmountable. Whilst this may not act as a deterrent,  it will certainly at least lead to a conversation about back-up planning. Career counsellors, Heads of House, parents and guardians can all play an important role in having open, honest conversations with our learners.


  1. Broaden horizons

“A person can only grow as much as their horizons allow.” – John Powell. A focus on broadening students’ horizons can deepen perspectives beyond their immediate comfort zone (be it intellectual, personal, or social). This, in turn, may introduce better, more suitable options to them, but they may just not have heard about them yet.

Collectively, we all play a vital role in encouraging students to be in control of their own decision-making and to design a future that is based upon their P2: passion and purpose. Thanks to our social capital and connections, we can enlighten students about how the world is most certainly their oyster and is much bigger than they may currently think.


  1. Encourage a best fit

Applications to university should not be about moulding oneself to become what students consider universities look for, but about being encouraged to become the best versions of themselves. Too many students spend a significant number of their high-school years participating in clubs and organisations, because they think this is what they believe Oxbridge or the Ivies would expect from successful applicants.

In the pursuit of perfectionism and exceptionalism, students face enormous pressure to conform to what is often simplified as a self-aggrandising tick-box exercise. Living life to please others is not conducive to positive wellbeing or personal fulfilment; in fact, young people of today will likely move through 12 different jobs and four careers in their adult working life. High-quality career counselling, and conversations with parents and guardians, whilst students are still at school will only help to ensure that they are making the most informed decisions now to be future-ready.


  1. Advocate for informed risk taking

Students should be encouraged to make informed decisions that will help them work towards converting aspirations into realistic expectations, and consequently, reality. And yes, this may involve taking daring action.

Students are often concerned about saying something wrong; instead of attempting a question, they may avoid it altogether. The reality is that students are not flawless, and university admissions interviewers certainly do not expect them to be. To quote Thomas J. Watson, “The fastest way to succeed is to double your rate of failure.”

We need to instil a culture where students embrace making mistakes, and counsellors encourage students to “have a go”. If students are still committed to applying to selective universities, nigh-on perfect scores at IGCSE or A Level alone will not give them an edge. Rather than relish the comfort of their academic discipline, students will be better served and will stand out if they are encouraged by staff, parents, and guardians, to take the initiative to refine new skills and go against the grain. And, even if they do not know it now, they will be thankful for taking the risk.


  1. Develop resilience and a growth mindset

Given the oversubscription to hyper-selective universities, it is imperative to remind students that an unsuccessful application does not mean that they are unsuitable or not good enough. The harsh reality is that they have likely not done anything wrong, but inevitably miss out due to the competitiveness of other applicants. Nonetheless, the likely feelings of dejection and inadequacy that may result from such rejection further fuels the need for careers counsellors and families to foster self-esteem. By encouraging students to develop their Growth Mindset, and relinquish a fixed mindset, it can engender a proactive set of behaviours, bolstering a student’s decision-making readiness to achieve their goals.


Hayley Bendle, Director of Careers & Higher Education

Categories: Articles