Advice for the “Average”

Hey Paul: I am average – in school, sports, size, and just about everything else. I won’t be going to Centre College as a pre-med major. I don’t take the advanced classes in school. I am not on a varsity team with the dream of a full-ride college scholarship. I am not a leader of any group. What advice can you give me?

In writing an “advice column” I wrestle with many factors – sounding authoritative but not a know-it-all, suggesting simple solutions but not over-simplifying complex issues, and suggesting paths to success with the realization that some paths are closed to many people.

The last few weeks I have focused on questions related to college with a focus on AP tests and other high-end academic pursuits. According to US News and World Report’s high school rankings, WJHS and EJHS have 46% and 28% of students who take at least one AP class. So you are in good company with a half to three-quarters of the students who are not taking an advanced class. By my estimation it is only the top 10% of students who are regularly taking AP classes at the local high schools.

US News goes on to assign a College Readiness Index based on AP participation to high schools. WJHS was a 35.5% and EJHS at 18.7%.  My suggestion in last week’s column on stringing together a half dozen AP exams probably appears unfathomable to the majority of students. So dialing back a bit – how about one (or two) AP classes as a goal?

Sports are big part of American culture with the victories of our local teams shared each week in this newspaper. As a former athlete, tortured fan of the Bengals and Reds, and semi-retired coach after dozens of rec league seasons, I have seen the upside and downsides of sports participation. Sports, somewhat like academics, favor the naturally gifted with fierce competition for playing time among the teammates (and occasionally their helicopter parent).

I do believe that some participation in sports is excellent at all ages and ability levels. By sports I mean exercise with an elevated heart rate. The addition of archery, bass fishing and bowling to the local high school teams don’t count. My personal bias is towards running – cross-country or track. The comradery of the local high school teams is terrific with the opportunity to measure your improvement and success against the clock.

A college admissions form once asked applicants to check a box if they considered themselves a “leader”. The story goes that a young man perhaps much like yourself couldn’t honestly identify any leadership skills so checked the no box. On his acceptance letter the admissions committee thanked him for his honesty and noted that he would be joining 5475 self-reported leaders at the University. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

Seriously I think the role and perceived importance of being a leader is over-rated. Yes, we need leaders in our homes, schools, and communities but a leader without contributors won’t accomplish much. I wouldn’t worry about not having a list of leadership roles to put on your resume’ – focus on adding value wherever needed.

A final note on being “average in everything”. I think you are selling yourself short. While college admissions or even society is fixated on a small number of metrics – test scores, points scored, or leadership – these are not all there is to value a person.

Someday you will likely be celebrated on Father’s or Mother’s Day as anything but average or ordinary. Let your family and close friends be the measure of your greatness.