Telegraphing the Story

It doesn’t happen often, readers, but on occasion I’ll speak with someone who – upon learning that I work with college-bound students – outlines to me the story of a college student they know (a son, daughter, cousin, friend, cousin’s-brother’s-girlfriend, etc.) who went through the college search process, chose a school, enrolled, and then got there and had a horrible experience because (and this is usually a direct quote): “It wasn’t what s/he expected.”

Obviously everyone’s own individual expectations for experiences, ranging from a college education to the exact temperature at which a latte should be served, are open to interpretation; that is to say, one person’s expectations are rarely identical to another’s. When it comes to the type of educational experience a student has at the college level, however, I often find that those whose expectations have not been met fall into one of two camps – those who really were let down by an educational institution for one reason or another (the minority) and those who were so attached to their expectations during the search process that they failed to see the truth about the educational experience/philosophy/strengths/weaknesses offered by a particular school (the majority) even though the school was openly sharing this information the whole time.

Schools tell you who they are, students – you just have to be willing to listen.

Allow me a brief tangent to illuminate my point:

Is a college telegraphing its real self to you the way good television writers plant clues as to what will happen next in the story?

I enjoy good television, mostly because I love to be told a story. (Undergraduate English major, remember?) The challenge I often find with TV series, however, is that I often pick up on a lot of storytelling mechanisms that foreshadow exactly what will happen at the end of an episode or over the course of a season. (Much of my family will not, in fact, watch television with me for this reason; my nickname is Spoiler Alert.) But in my own defense, the structure of the story and/or episode itself very often telegraphs what will come next. It’s right there if you pay attention (or if you studied literary structure for four years…)

Lately, I’m hooked on the series Black Sails, a sort of fictionalized origin story for the characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The creators of the show have taken noted fictional pirates Captain Flint, Long John Silver, and Billy Bones and placed them in their appropriate historic context alongside real pirates Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, and Charles Vane. But this isn’t a commercial for the series and you don’t have to have any interest in it to follow my tale. Just know that, during the lead up to the third season finale, the writers killed off a main character and Internet outrage was swift and in the vein of “I’ll never watch this show again.”

But here’s the thing, readers, while the timing of the character death was a surprise and its actual execution (forgive the pun) was startling, the writers had built to that moment all season and openly telegraphed their plans to viewers. We just had to know where to look.

Did I miss it on the first pass? Admittedly I did. But standing back and looking at all of the episodes as a whole, it made perfect sense that the character death was coming and that it was necessary to advance the story. It just wasn’t blatantly obvious at first, thus accounting for viewer shock and outrage. Now I’ll grant you, the creators of the series did something similar to us in the first two seasons as well – planted story seeds with such subtlety that they were easy to miss at first – so true fans probably shouldn’t have been shocked (myself included), but that’s the genius of good writing and my hat goes off to them.

And what does a television series killing a main character have to do with the college search?

Colleges, like talented television writers, will drop breadcrumbs for you from the moment you begin to research their offerings. And while there are a lot of college marketing buzzwords that get thrown around their web sites and by their tour guides when you visit campus (“personal attention,” “faculty office hours,” “career focused,” “global citizenship,” “big opportunities” – you get the idea), these aren’t the breadcrumbs to which I refer. Instead, I’m talking about things like how many students you see in a classroom as the tour passes by (and whether they’re actively taking notes or surfing the Internet on their laptops). I’m talking about the ease with which you’re able to schedule a campus visit – and personalize it, if that’s important to you. How easy is it to find the answers to your questions on their webpages or from a person on campus?

Best of all, unlike television writers, colleges aren’t actively attempting to mask these breadcrumbs in an attempt to surprise you later on. They’re right out in the open for everyone to see.

Indulge me in a final story, readers:

Last spring, a colleague struggled to help one of her students contact the financial aid office at the school she’d chosen to correct a substantial error in her aid package. The financial aid office swore the student had missed a deadline to file an important document and the student (and her counselor) couldn’t find said deadline outlined anywhere in the paperwork she’d received. As the drama continued, the student spent hours upon hours on hold with the financial aid office, couldn’t get any straight answers from the people she was eventually connected with, and was essentially treated badly throughout the ordeal.

Still, the young lady was intent on enrolling at this institution – her dream school – even after my colleague asked her: “If this is how they treat you when you say you want to attend, how do you think they’ll treat you once you’re enrolled?”

In other words, the school was clearly telegraphing its customer service abilities (or lack thereof) and the student was ignoring them at every turn. In Black Sails terms, she was being told that her favorite character didn’t have long to live and she was missing every sign.

How much do you want to bet that she’s one of the students I’ve heard about lately whose school “wasn’t what she expected?”

The signs are there, students. Schools are telling you in writing – and even more so in their actions – who they are, what they value, and how your experience will be if you enroll there. You just need to look for them – and heed their warnings if you don’t like what you see! And while it’s typically too late to save your favorite television character (whose fate the writers undoubtedly sealed long ago), it’s never too late to save your own educational future.

(Need help seeing the signs? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to guide your search.)



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