True the grit

One of my nieces sent me the first link below, and then one of my WP friends reblogged the second.

These two pieces apply to everyone, but because the person who sent the first one is a female and we have a special connection through this topic, I am particularly emphasizing its applicability to girls and women. There are a lot of considerations when females seek to compete in a world that favors boys and men, above all in certain areas, such as the STEM (science-technology-engineering-math)

While boys are certainly suffering from a variety of unique issues in nowadays, girls have always had to deal with the automatic handicap they are born with. Women know what I mean, so I don’t need to elaborate on this.  For girls there has been a soft bigotry of low expectations, to quote this oft used phrase. This was especially true up until the suffrage and feminist movements of the last 150 years in the West, but is still true to some extent (otherwise, why would there have been opposition to recent legislation designed to compel employers to pay women equally for equal work) here and, of course, in many third, fourth, and fifth world countries, where women are little more than slaves.

The niece that sent me this article did so because she and I worked together to put her on a path to success.  Her parents, like so many today, thought it would be something that the school would do and that a child should shoulder completely on its own.


While I do believe people need to be self-motivated and actualized, I think children need encouragement and actual instruction on what that means.  There are always super achievers in any given group of people, including small children, whose drive and abilities overcome many inhibiting factors to enable them to succeed in a societally recognized or broadly agreed upon way.

But there are others who simply need someone guiding them, identifying and drawing the talents and behaviors out of them, literally educare, leading them out, on a more individualized or hands-on basis.

My niece was one of these.  She attended a private school that provided excellent tools and experiences aimed at college admission, over the full twelve years, but she was, by the start of tenth grade, not buckling down to the science of college admissions as it has been structured for the past thirty or more years.

We were sitting around talking about school and I idly inquired what she was doing about mapping out a strategy for getting into the college of her choice.  She and her parents looked at each other and then back at me and basically the understanding was, nothing.  They thought it was early.  I disagreed and gave them my opinion about what some kids were doing, in far more academically demanding (not better, just higher powered) schools, based on my experience in general with this topic.  I could see that she was surprised and now a bit worried.  So, I made her a proposition.  I told her that if she would work with me for tenth and eleventh grades (you may disagree, but twelfth grade is just about finishing the program without screwing up, unless of course, you just want to roll into whatever college slot is available, without financing and with little control over the process at that point), we would find the best school for her and she could make the choice: she would have options that kids don’t have if they don’t map out an effective strategy.

My point to her was, given her specific array of factors, including talents, interests, training, family dynamics, finances, dreams and aspirations, there would be excellent schools out there that she would not only be passionate about attending, but that would be a great fit, places where she would thrive, enjoy the experience overall, and finish by graduating with a good enough grade point average, that she would have further options, whether that was getting a particular kind of job in certain types of companies or going on to graduate school.

I made it clear that the choice was hers.  Coast and take what you can, when the time comes to apply sometime in 11th grade for early admissions (the best way to ensure you get the college of your choice, in my experience) or 12th grade as the vast majority of applicants do.  Or work with me on the plan, execute that plan effectively, and have choices among great schools.

Before she made the decision, as I sat there sizing her up, I told her what was in store.  She would have to put together a rounded, tight, powerful set of achievements that included: GPA, SAT scores (ACT was not in the picture), essay, evidence of leadership, sports, charity or community service and interview.  It meant, I explained to her (and her parents) buckling down immediately, putting together a detailed timetable working backward from the early admissions deadlines and breaking down each area into active steps that would be completed. We also analyzed her room and identified what it would take to reorganize it as a serious college admissions production center.  That meant clearing away all the junk on her desk, getting her bookcase and file drawers ready for the materials we would be collecting for the duration,  getting better lighting, and getting distractions out of sight (like her TV, which we put in the closet), etc.

I also told her that she was going to give up every single Saturday the summer between 10th and 11th grades writing her essay.  She was going to have to come up with a paying job, either one she did on her own or working somewhere academically-related (not flipping burgers at Vassar_Library_Study_AreaMcDonalds or serving coffee at Starbucks, even if those jobs teach some types of valuable skills).

Instead of taking AP classes, we sought and got permission to enroll her at a prestigious public university 30 minutes from her house. Over the two years, she took three college classes with undergrads at that school.  She got two Bs and an A as a 16 year old in classes with 19 and 20 year old college students.

She started out aspiring to be an attorney, and so we did a lot of research to find out what kinds of traits and talents attorneys are expected to demonstrate in order to get into Law School, after completing an undergraduate degree.  We explored virtually every single four year private and public university and college in the United States, and kept eliminating until we had her top 50. Eventually we narrowed that down to a dozen, and in the end she applied to three schools, so carefully chosen, the usual reach, par, and safety, that she got into all three.  All of them were in the top 10 of US colleges/universities.

I got her a private tutor for taking the SATs and she scored, to her amazement and mine, in the 700s in the first round.  Even though many kids are told to take it twice, she had taken so many practice versions under real-time conditions (you can get old SATs easily) that she sailed through the first real sessions of the Verbal and Math, and did exceptionally well on one of the subject areas, again in the 700s.  I told her to quit and use those scores.

She set up a website where all of her activities were showcased.  She tried out for the women’s volley ball team and was co-captain junior year and captain by senior year.  She was asked to give the commencement speech.  She started a little business teaching children in disadvantaged areas how to be entrepreneurs, with funding from a local community NFP.  She starred in the HS musical (luckily a good little actress and talented singer).  We subscribed to her favorite dozen colleges newspapers (her parents paid for this) for one year (it is amazing what you learn about a college by reading the student newspaper!).  When the time came, she attended interviews in her home state and then later, I took her on the college tour myself, going to her six favorite colleges, which helped us identify the final three.

Her website drew the attention of the Dean of Graduate Admissions at one school and he took us out to lunch.  Her off-campus interview impressed one of the administrators of another school.  When we got to that particular campus, the reach school and one of the hardest in the country to get into, the head of admissions walked out of the interview with her arm around my niece.  It was extraordinary.

One thing, as an aside, I insisted that she buy suits to wear to the interviews.  Believe me, it was obvious that these outfits helped her.  Every admissions interviewother kid, was dressed sloppily in jeans.  For three top schools.  What were their parents thinking? Naturally the kids didn’t want to dress up – but, they forget that other kids aren’t interviewing them, adults are!  You need to look the part of the next position you want, right?  Those suits were well worth the investment and she still wears them.

Toward the end of 11th grade, we hired a private college counselor to help us make sure we understood the best way to put together the final application.  When she read my niece’s essay, she told me privately that it was the best one she had seen in 15 years.  A whole summer of Saturdays paid off, even though there was considerable gnashing of teeth during that particular process, believe me.

We hand delivered three perfectly crafted, flawless applications during the interviews at the three colleges.

My niece could have applied to her favorite school for early decision (there was one she really fell in love with – her par school, not the reach) but I convinced her to apply to all three, early action instead.  She got into all three, accepted the par, and was invited to the honors program, immediately.

Today, she has finished graduate school, has a PhD in molecular and cell biology, and is working as a post doc in her field.  She got her doctorate at one of the top two schools in the world for her field, at age 26. Even though she started out aiming for law, she had a freshman class at college that convinced her that her life’s passion was biology.

But the point of why she sent me this article was this:  all along the way, everyone told her she couldn’t do it.  She herself had misgivings, occasionally wanted to throw in the towel, wanted to party more than she could on this ambitious schedule.  My niece wanted to go to a top school back East, but didn’t always want to put in the time for the relatively grueling sequence of steps that it took for her to achieve that, given where she started at the beginning of 10th grade.

She has told me many times that my biggest contribution to where she is today (and it is no cake walk being a female scientist, as she has found out, so we are still grappling with the issues that come with this high-demand field) is my telling her to persist.  I often said, when she fretted about the competition, someone else who was more likely to get the job or grant or honors that she was competing for in one arena or another over those years of long hours and lost sleep: keep going. Even if you don’t feel like it, do it anyway.  Don’t pay any attention to anyone else, keep your eye on your goal.  Slow and steady wins the race.  I told her to visualize being on a balance beam (she had taken gymnastics when she was young) and only that long path is illuminated.  All else is in the shadows, all the people who have tried to discourage you or knock you off that beam, are in the dark, below your feet.  Ignore them and with a steady head, and determination, keep on going.

I told her that if I had to, I would drag her over the finish line personally.  Many times, I had to remind her of the deal we made and that she signed on to do what I told her to do and never to give up or quit.  This particular niece is an emotional person — someone who at the least provocation could be led to tears.  I told her to suck it up and put that sensitivity in a closet and lock it, until we were done.

Now, granted, her own innate abilities, a wonderful sunny and outgoing personality, poise among adults, flexibility, good parents and a great Commencement_phdtwelve year educational program did not hurt.

But I do believe that someone believing in her and instilling an ethic of commitment and confidence, went a long way toward setting her feet on the path to success, as she defined it.

Grit is just as good a term for this complex of traits that should be taught to every child, so they can achieve their individual, highest potential, whatever that might be.  This is what parents and teachers need to understand.  The example here is meant to describe rather than prescribe (now one of my favorite concepts).  My niece did the work.  Clearly, she would not have been able to stay at school and complete her degrees if she didn’t have the abilities required to do so.  But she had two additional things going for her:  help identifying what she wanted, and the path to that goal, and the encouragement to stick it out no matter what. Every child’s goal and ability to achieve it will be different, but they need help figuring that out and staying on course.  That is something others can and should provide.



22 Comments on “True the grit”

  1. So true! It always amazes me to talk to ninth and tenth graders and they still don’t know what they want to do or where they want to attend college. I love to pull out their transcripts, show them that lovely 1.98 GPA they currently have when they tell me they want to be a doctor, then pull up a college’s website to view admissions requirements to show them what they need to be doing to get there (of course honestly if you’ve got a 1.98 GPA in 10th grade you’re going to have to get real creative to get into med school, but still). I can’t believe anyone would think waiting until 12th grade to start applying to colleges is acceptable, but so many people still do that.

    I need to take some of these ideas and share them with my tenth graders (ninth graders are too busy simply trying to grasp the concept of actually studying and doing all their homework). I particularly love the website idea and pulling together the whole “package” early. I have a lot of students who want to attend prestigious schools but who do not document the community service and leadership roles they’ve taken on and later, can’t even remember what they did!


    • You identified something I failed to include. I made her create a CV in 10th grade. We kept updating it and eventually dropped things from 8th to 11th grades. The experience though, of putting down what she did and framing it according to a set of skills and accomplishments gathered, helped her to brand herself properly (something I plan to talk about tomorrow). She had to sell herself based on concrete and specific traits and actions, not vague, generalities. She was lucky the way things turned out, because she had been coasting for years. It was her website that got the Dean of Graduate Admissions interested in her at her safety school, because she featured an early visit we took there while we were on the East Coast for something else, the summer of her sophomore year. Websites can be updated and so make a big impression, especially when we did it, in 1998!


      • Kids nowadays have Twitter, but they don’t have websites or blogs. And good Lord most of them need to delete those Twitters for sure.

        I’m not sure how far I could go with this at my school; we have a ‘college counselor’ here who might not like me stepping on his toes (they’re like that around here – we recently had a teacher tell a student NOT to get a math tutor because he didn’t want anyone teaching her but him! Wha?!). But I can always share this information confidentially.


        • A blog would be great and so easy, too. One with control so it doesn’t deteriorate into a kid community. Subtly aimed at college. That is what we did for my niece and believe me, that is why her HS passed over other people for the premiere commencement speech. Her HS buddies were a bit miffed but I told her, who cares? Ten years from now, they will be flipping burgers — why do you care what they think? Focus on yourself.

          As for the college counselors, her school had one too. Luckily, a lovely woman but not up to this task and certainly not when she had other kids to help as well. This was a very hands-on attention-intensive project given where we started. I knew we had the raw materials, but we had to shape it into a masterpiece, lol.

          When we were done, the school was stupefied. They had her come back a few years ago to give a talk to prospective parents (typical in a private school, right?) and fell all over themselves. She was featured on their website for ten years.

          We donated the books we bought and all the other materials, including the newspapers (hard copies) to the school’s guidance department. It was over 100 books – they had a starting collection of fewer than 30! No one thought it was possible.

          The bar was set low, how can kids achieve when that happens?


          • I think in high school. ‘college counseling’ amounts to being the person that does all the paper work and that’s about it. I am sure part of this is because they do not have the time for anything else. I know that is true in the public schools, not sure about here though. It’s all his job though, and I have nothing to do with any of it, and that seems to be the way they want it.


            • That makes total sense.

              If I were that college counselor, I would have a parent night with 10th graders and just give them an overview of what the path to college entry is.

              But, if parents don’t care about that, it is likely not to be well attended. At my niece’s school they wanted to show top college acceptances so they kind of woke up a bit and were more pro-active for the next few years.

              Hey, when I was in school (I went to a huge public high school and then two private colleges afterward, underg and grad) there was a ‘guidance counselor’ and all he did for me was express surprise at my SAT scores — he thought I was a girlie girl (boy was he wrong). But that was the dark ages.


  2. Bravo, Beth. I wish more people could be like you instead of instilling limiting beliefs in others.

    Your niece is lucky to have you as an aunt, just as your students are lucky to have you for their teacher. Your kind acts remind me of the Butterfly Effect – a cumulatively large effect that a small force may produce over a period of time. Who knows what global great you might produce with your honorable and noble influence 🙂


    • Kim, thank you. Those are very generous words. It was a challenge for me and that is likely one reason I took it on. The extended family had such low expectations of this particular child and naturally, never knew what I could do, so it was a round about way of proving them wrong on both counts, I will admit.

      Also, her parents always favored her younger sister, an uppity brat. This particular niece that I helped had all kinds of shining characteristics that were being overshadowed by her showy sibling. I wanted to right that wrong, as much as anything else.


  3. Beth,

    Great article – I’m going to show it to my youngest son. Good on you for guiding your niece at an appropriately early period.

    I am having difficulty reconciling the emphasis on girls early on in the post, however. Your advice would appear to be gender-neutral, and all the stats clearly indicate that it is the boys who are disadvantaged in the public education systems.


    • Well, I think I state right at the top that this could apply to anyone and that I particularly focus on shoring up a girl’s self esteem because no matter that girls are gaining ground in school, elsewhere they are still at a disadvantage. But more in particular, I mentioned that I thought of my niece since she is the one that sent the first link to me and she and I went through this process.

      Things may be quite different in Canada, but in most of the world, women are still second in line on many fronts.

      Thanks for the kind words.


      • Beth,

        Thank you. What I drew from the article is that there has been, perhaps, a gender asymmetry in the suffering caused by slavery in the US (and, by extension, slavery everywhere), and that the suffering of women due to US slavery has gone virtually and disproportionately unacknowledged by society.


        • That is just one very specific and vivid example. We have affirmative action because there has been a severe imbalance that had to be righted before those discriminated against could compete on a level playing field. The same is true for the imbalance between males and females in a number of arenas, not all, but key to the safety and emotional well being of many women, the world over. In the United States, for example, we have a great deal of domestic violence against women. Whether all the statistics are strictly accurate is immaterial. Any violence against anyone male, female, child, adult, or animal for that matter, is not to be tolerated in a civil society. That violence can be physical or emotional. It is simply unacceptable.


  4. Great job, Beth. I love the fact that you were able to bring out this girl’s gifts and encourage her. Did that many times as a teacher when even parents underestimated children’s abilities. Hopefully, they will pass the encouragement forward…


    • Thank you Susan. I know I helped her come into her own, so to speak. Parents these days take too much of a hands-off approach. It may make the kids more their friends that way, but kids don’t need their parents to be friends. Parents are supposed to be protectors and guides, and to launch a self sufficient adult out into the world. It won’t happen by being MIA. 🙂


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