The Teen Years: Searching for the 30-Foot Wave

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By Liz Stucke, owner of LS Admissions Prep


Teens at an elite prep school in Connecticut got more than they bargained for when they set off for a 3-week educational cruise to Antarctica.  The excursion delivered on its promise to see nature close up.  In addition to seeing elephant seals, king penguins, albatross and whales, they also witnessed the immense power of the sea.  According to the New York Times, while the cruise ship was heading south towards Antarctica they ran into a storm, which produced a 30-foot wave crashing down on the ship and smashing the bridge’s windows injuring the captain and a few crew.  While the students were uninjured, it was undoubtedly a very frightening experience, even more so for parents back home.  One mother expressing her relief that her son was fine looked on the bright side.  “She told him when he left to be on the lookout for a college essay idea.  Now, she said, he has one.”

Teens across the world can identify with that last statement.  The Common Application, used by many colleges, asks students to “evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.”  I work with many students that struggle with the word significant.  Significant in their and in many parents’ minds looks like a 30-foot wave.  It reminds me of an episode of Modern Family.  When the oldest daughter, Haley, struggles to come up with a significant experience for her college essay, she complains that she has led a sheltered life, without meaningful or significant experiences.  Her mom decides to help by driving Haley into the middle of the woods and leaving her there to get home on her own without a cell phone.  Now she has something to write about.

What constitutes a significant experience, not only for college essays, but also for raising productive and happy teens?  Interestingly enough the word significant when “googled” means, “Sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy.”  In a world of social media, that might be translated as, worthy of thousands of “Likes” on Facebook.  I prefer the definition from the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,  “having meaning” and further down it lists the statistical definition, “probably caused by something other than mere chance.”  Significant in this last definition suggests purpose or carving one’s own path.


“The teenage years should be about exploration and searching for interests, trying out skills and gaining a greater self-awareness.”


Introspection is at the heart of choosing one’s path.  Chris Argyris, at Harvard Business School, writes about what he calls double-loop learning, a method that highly successful people use when faced with obstacles.  Double-loop learning involves introspection, questioning the direction of one’s path and deeply held assumptions.  Then using this introspection to improve and perhaps carve out a new direction.  For teenagers this means asking themselves some basic questions:  Am I choosing activities and classes that I find interesting, challenging and fulfilling?  Or am I simply going with the flow?  What are my interests, fears and goals, and what is getting in my way of achieving those goals?  The goal is not for a teen to know exactly what he wants to do in the future, but to have the ability to periodically assess his own path.  The teenage years should be about exploration and searching for interests, trying out skills and gaining a greater self-awareness.

The question about a significant event on the Common Application, therefore, is a very helpful way to stop and take stock.  It is an opportunity to question where a student has been, evaluate the stumbles along the way, and perhaps pose new questions to address in college.  As for the teenagers faced with the wave on their journey to Antarctica, I might encourage them to think about why we tend to notice the wave and overlook the currents beneath.  Now that would be significant.


Liz Stucke is president of LS Admissions Prep ( where she counsels high school students and their parents through the College Selection and Application process.  Email questions or to set up a free consultation or call/text 865-951-0639.

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