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Use Growth Mindset When Choosing a College

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By Mary Waters-Bilbo, Ed.D.

Can changing or adapting your mindset affect how you and your student approach the college selection process?

Carol Dweck, a psychology researcher at Stanford University, and her colleagues developed a motivational theory called “growth mindset,” which she contrasted with a “fixed mindset.” People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can grow and is not a fixed trait. They are more likely to seek out challenges and persevere toward a goal and are less likely to cheat. Those with a growth mindset believe effort and varied strategies are key to achieving goals.

People with a fixed mindset tend to view intelligence as an inheritable trait and that there isn't much one can do to change circumstances. Whether one has a growth or fixed mindset seems to operate on a continuum, meaning most people are someplace in between.

Although the growth/fixed mindset concept has been commonly applied to intelligence, in “Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfill Your Potential,” Dweck applied these concepts more broadly, including the way we think about relationships

Let’s explore how this concept might shed light on three critical aspects of the college-search process: academic preparation, college selection, and your student's social/emotional development.

Academic Skills

When supporting your student in a family college-going culture, stress the importance of effort over grades. Within reason, encourage your student to take challenging courses and emphasize the learning over the outcome.

For example, your student has enrolled in AP Statistics despite not being a stellar math student. Celebrate that they're taking on a challenge! Emphasize the skill set they're developing, including new critical thinking skills, learning new software, and the real-world application of statistics. Encourage them to form and join study groups with classmates and to seek extra help from the teacher to be successful. Encourage the learning and the effort you see your student expending.

Remind your student that, even if they’ve never had a C in their lives, colleges want to enroll students who challenge themselves. Though it’s important for them to remain in good academic standing, as a parent don’t criticize an “average” grade.

Instead, focus on the challenges and what they’re learning, and praise them for sticking with it. This experience will help your student thrive in college when selecting courses and choosing a major. They can reflect on overcoming obstacles in a difficult course and apply these strategies to the inevitable time that they confront academic challenges in college.

College Selection

Many students and their parents enter the college-selection process with fixed ideas. These fixed ideas can come from lack of knowledge, a sentimental attachment to a university, or simply a fixed idea that may need to be interrogated.

Take the “fixed” idea that private colleges are too expensive. What many families may not realize is that a private school may offer more generous grants and tuition discounts than the state university.

Families may embark upon the college search process with either the parents or the student fixated on that one “dream school.” This school may be the parents’ alma mater or the student’s perceived “perfect” school. In reality, there is no perfect school and exploring many options through a growth mindset will yield a more reasoned choice.

Finally, parents and students may have fixed ideas about the geographic region in which they will explore colleges. While this may help to define the college list, a fixation on a certain part of the country can be limiting. Although a student or parent may be drawn to the bucolic location of rural campus, an urban school may offer more exciting internships and summer jobs.

Consultation with the high school school counselor, research through websites like the College Scorecard, the College Board or Better Make Room, and talking with older friends about their college search process can help in developing that growth mindset to create the college list.

Social and Emotional Development

Your 18-year-old teen will become a 22-year-old young adult in the next four years. The college they select will help to accelerate that change both intellectually and emotionally.

The teen who has fears about leaving home may become a college student who embraces global education and spends a semester or year abroad learning a new language. The college-selection process begins to launch this development.

Your student may fall into moments of “fixed mindset” where they wrestle with moving away from familiar surroundings and relationships. Support your student by acknowledging how normal this ambivalence is, while pointing out times when they've handled successful transitions and the growth that ensued.

The best way to encourage a growth mindset is for you to embrace this perspective, too. Ask yourself how you handle challenge. Do you believe intelligence is a fixed trait or something that can be improved with effort? Try to model this growth mindset for your student and watch the transformation.

Dr. Mary Waters-Bilbo is an advisor with My College Planning Team, a school counselor, and a retired associate professor of psychology and counseling who works at all levels of school counseling: elementary, middle, and high school.
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