A couple of people that are hugging each other

Parent Guide: Thinking Graduation

June is graduation season. Whether your son or daughter is graduating from preschool, high school, or somewhere in between, it’s a natural time to reflect on the friendships and memories they’ve made, their challenges and accomplishments, and the road ahead.

A few years ago, as an 11th-grade English and AP US History teacher, I had a front row seat to my students’ graduation, and I remember how meaningful it was to watch students I had taught walk across the stage and collect their diplomas. What stands out at such moments are, first of all, the glimpses into each student’s personality, the way they turn and pause for a picture (awkward or serene, giddy or grandiloquent) as a slightly more scholarly, adult version of themselves. As families and faculty applaud, it’s clear that what we are celebrating here isn’t just individual students, but also the community that shaped them and encouraged their learning and curiosity.

The graduation ceremony focuses our attention on these core elements of education–the students, families, and faculty–all of whom play an integral role in student learning. But just as student learning isn’t confined to the classroom (and in fact takes place through extracurricular activities, volunteer work, online courses, standardized test prep, and college applications), so too education today extends beyond the school and its faculty to include tutors, educational consultants, coaches, and a whole range of experts who help students reach their full potential.

In fact, tutoring programs today readily illustrate how student learning has expanded beyond the traditional classroom. As of this past year (2022-2023), 83% of public schools nationwide provide some form of tutoring to their students: 37% offer high-dosage tutoring (HDT), 59% offer standard tutoring (SDT), and 22% offer self-paced tutoring (SPT). The percent of public school students using these resources is slightly lower, estimated at 10% of students receiving high-dosage tutoring (HDT), 14% receiving standard tutoring (SDT), and 19% receiving self-paced tutoring (SPT). Considering that high-dosage tutoring is defined as 30 minutes or more of individual or small-group instruction by a qualified tutor or teacher at least 3 days per week, that in itself represents a considerable outlay of personnel and resources beyond the traditional school day.

As an SAT/ACT tutor and college essay coach, I can personally attest to how much students learn and grow through both standard tutoring and “high-dosage tutoring” whether studying for the SAT and ACT or writing the college essay. I meet with many of my students at least once per week, often for six months or more, and in that time I witness incredible progress, both academically and personally. It is encouraging to watch students who are initially intimidated by standardized tests gain confidence in their analytical reading and writing. It can quite literally change a student’s self-image, as he or she goes from saying, “I’m not a good test taker” to saying, “I raised my score by this many points.” Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instruction Partners, describes the “magic of tutoring” as “this individualized ability [of the tutor] to both diagnose, and hover, in ways that lead to real progress.” Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to “hover” over Zoom, but I certainly agree that tutors can be an encouraging presence and reassuring guide to students as they strive to make progress on a standardized test or college essay draft.

In addition, as an English teacher by previous trade, I am always proud when students find a new, authentic way to tell their stories in the college essay. Here again, I think the role of the tutor, or essay coach, is to help students to understand their own unique strengths, diagnose what their college essay is communicating, and be a sounding board for students’ ideas and concerns.

For some students, their personal story can be incredibly moving. I still remember a student from a few years ago who asked if he could write about the fact that he was gay, and how his father, who didn’t approve, confronted him with an ultimatum: to renounce his sexual identity or lose the tuition money for the private high school he was attending. He made the difficult choice to reject the money, leave his beloved high school, and start over elsewhere. In a slightly different context, another student was unsure whether to write about a skin condition she had struggled with for many years, thinking about using it as a metaphor for vulnerability and self-acceptance.

In both cases, because the story was so personal, so raw, the students worried that it revealed too much. I advised the first student that it was an excellent story for his college essay ”if he felt comfortable telling it” because it showed how he understood his identity and acted on his values. For the same reason, I also advised the second student to use her story in the college essay (again, if she felt comfortable doing so) because she had obviously thought deeply about the ways her appearance revealed (and hid) her true character. To be fair, both students had excellent grades and test scores, and would have been admitted to almost any top-tier university they applied to: with or without a deeply personal essay. But I think it’s to their credit that they both chose to write the more revealing essay–and went on to get accepted and graduate from the schools of their choice.

For other students, writing the college essay might not mean taking ownership of a deeply personal story. Instead, it might be more a process of finding the story that connects different interests and/or experiences–and that’s perfectly ok. Not everyone has a searing experience of personal truth that they feel comfortable sharing with college admissions boards. Whichever type of story best expresses their identity, students learn and grow from the experience of writing it.

For parents, high school graduation is a celebration of the person your child has become, or is becoming. It’s a symbolic moment where the students, as young adults, receive recognition for their character, their perseverance, and their successes. But as you sit through the ceremony, I’d challenge you to imagine how these students built their character and earned their successes–almost certainly in a very different educational environment than the one you and I experienced in high school. And, if your son or daughter is graduating next year, or a few years from now, what learning opportunities could your son or daughter find outside the classroom to help them become the person they could be, smiling onstage in the near future, making you proud?