What Counts?

By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling

What counts?

I’ve been thinking about this question for some time now. Come to think of it, I’ve been pondering it my entire career. The concept first arises when a student is gearing up for high school. Suddenly “It counts.” What does that mean? Did everything that preceded this moment somehow not count? In many ways, “What counts?” has become the essential question of college admissions—and the one I am probably asked most often. I think most of us in college counseling and admissions have a sort of sixth sense about it. We’ve used our inner compasses for years, and usually the answers are pretty clear. And yet, too often, “What counts?” is overly influenced by “What will get me in?” 

But maybe now something has changed.

I’m not one who loves to get overly philosophical, but the arrival of COVID-19 has had me not only fielding this question in new and unsettling ways, but also asking it myself more than ever before. 

Is it the fragility of life? Is it the importance of being in the here and now? Is it not waiting to put off until tomorrow what you can do today? 

To be completely honest, whereas I am sensitive to why it’s so often asked, I have always disliked “What counts?” I want students, people, humanity to do what they do because it matters—to them, to those about whom they care—not because it counts according to someone else or an admissions metric. What matters is what counts. Might this be the time to recalibrate our priorities, how and why we make the choices we make—with regards to college and beyond?

Back to reality for a minute. I acknowledge that sometimes “What counts?” can be an effective tool. To a smart but seemingly unmotivated eighth grader, learning that things will soon “count” might turn out to be a useful motivator for high school. For others, however, it can add unnecessary stress, or shift emphasis to a kind of strategizing that is anathema to learning and to following one’s own path. Balance is always needed. 

But now, the standard rulebook has been thrown out the window. For juniors, the peak of their high school careers, the homestretch of that most significant year, has been suddenly, rudely interrupted. Do their grades count? What about all the hard work they put into the third quarter, which may have suddenly become pass/fail? And all those junior-year milestones—SATs, ACTs, Subject Tests, APs… What now? We don’t even know if future SATs and ACTs will be available for our juniors. Subject Tests, a key way for many high achievers to show their mastery of material, have become such a low priority that their very existence is up for discussion. And AP exams are now 45-minute take home tests to be completed in one’s bedroom or living room amid all the other chaos swirling around the home and the world at large. 

What really counts? Lacrosse season is cancelled. Softball season never happened. The culminating spring orchestra concert is dead. Year-end One Acts, all the hard work the students put into directing for the first time, kaput. Ever try directing a play on Zoom? Science competitions, engineering competitions, all cancelled. Incomplete art projects collecting dust in vacant schools.

Seniors have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into high school. In general, high school these days is brutal. The competition, the intensity, the stress. But, in normal times, students earn their prizes: prom, senior prank, graduation, admitted-student events on college campuses, along with the relief of just being second semester seniors! The pressure finally is off and you can just be. Today’s seniors have been robbed of their rightful rituals and rewards, but they’re resilient and will surely get through this. Indeed, they will thrive in ways we cannot imagine right now. But the question of “What counts?” is certainly playing in their minds, too. Was it all worth it?

So, what now? “What Counts?” has never been more complicated and uncertain. Could this pandemic be our reset moment? Our pivot to reconsidering what really does count, what should matter?

I, for one, have never seen more ingenuity. My own children have to teach themselves more than ever before. Lessons are asynchronous, rather than interactive. Students everywhere are rising to the occasion, helped along by our wonderful teachers who, also finding themselves in uncharted territory, are redoubling their already herculean efforts. My son’s math teacher hosted a GoogleHangout just so they could all be together. My daughter’s PE teacher held a grade-wide line dancing lesson from his front porch, and every student was present in their brady-bunch-style boxes, smiling, laughing, and moving together from the safety of their homes. My kids have experienced some of the greatest communal experiences of their lives, even as they are forced to stay physically separated from their actual communities. 

And how about the good ‘ole fashioned family time that we all keep enjoying? My daughter holds a daily story-time with her three-year-old cousin in Italy. They have never been closer. A child’s innocence is so reassuring in these scary, uncertain times. Homework is now done well before dinner, so we actually have time to just be together. We play cards, watch Seinfeld and Tiger King. We have long, easygoing dinners and real conversation—about the world, about the effects of the virus, about politics and economics and the hardships of those on the “front lines” or who are less fortunate than ourselves. We all pitch in, planning, cooking, cleaning. Screen-time is even seeming to grow a bit stale, as our teens crave person-to-person interaction—even with their parents! Is this really 2020?

And fresh air and exercise! I’ve never appreciated my suburban neighborhood more. Bike rides, shooting hoops in the driveway, long walks with our dog, Percy. Oh yes, dogs everywhere are in heaven, their families home and loving on them and getting so much love in return. Such love, like that of a pre-schooler, reassures us that everything is going to be okay. 

There are other benefits. We bake gorgeous, delicious loaves of bread. Back to basics. And we improvise, making food with whichever ingredients we have on hand. What about conservation? Being careful about what we eat and when we eat it. Building meals around what is perishable so as not to waste a morsel. My family knows I hate waste. (Yes, I’m the mom that will eat the leftover brown lettuce because throwing food out kills me.)

Sacrifice. This word has also circled around in my mind this week. The sacrifice of so many. The healthcare workers, the grocers, the delivery people, the people who pick up our trash. We appreciate their sacrifice and courage. 

And on a much more personal level, I am so thankful for my family and their sacrifice. We were early social-distancers. I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I take medications that suppress my immune system. I suddenly found myself in the dreaded “high risk” category for coronavirus. This sucks. We had to ask our kids not to see their friends. This seemed cruel, especially to teenagers. As our son told me, you have it easier: you have Dad, your best friend, right here with you. He couldn’t have been more right. He made me understand that the sacrifice we were asking them to make was much bigger than the sacrifice we were making. We have always prioritized our children’s social-emotional well being. We are always happy to take them to see their friends, no matter the hour. And now to tell them, “No, you can’t go, period,” even before others in our community were saying so. It broke our hearts. They were asked to sacrifice for me. As a mother, this felt backwards. I sacrifice for them, not vice versa. But they understood, and they did it, and they continue to do it, nearly four weeks later.

With regards to the college process, things will get sorted out, and we will soon be able to navigate our way through a different admissions landscape with different standards of what counts. And that will be important. I continue to believe that the right college can have a profound effect on a young person’s life, and the process of getting there can be one of deep self-reflection and maturation. For the time being, my best advice would be to focus on the things you can do, like attending virtual college admissions tours or events, watching out for news about standardized testing and which schools will go test-optional this year, and exploring possibilities for remote involvement in your extracurricular activities. And of course continue to do as well as possible in your new school format. 

Other than that, please relieve yourself of any immediate college-oriented pressure. If you have a moment of reflection, think about how this experience might change your perspective on your future interests and aspirations. But really, right now, it’s the other stuff that counts. Family counts. Zoom meet-ups with friends count. The way we all have in our own ways stepped up for ourselves and for the common good. I have never been more proud to hear my kids say at dinner the other night that “it’s selfish not to social distance.” That shifted my viewpoint, from sacrificing for us, for our little family of four, to sacrificing for humanity. It is tough—and certainly for some more than others—but it is also right, and it feels good. We’re all doing our small part, together.

What counts? This counts.