You Can Only Go Wrong In Life If You Sell Yourself Short

Our youngest has always been a big-picture, future-focused thinker. As a child, he would draw scenes on pages of printer paper and then tape them to the wall to create an epic battle scene or an entire city. At seven he famously told us that he was ready to “get a wife, have some kids, and just get on with his life.” So it didn’t really surprise me much today when he mentioned during an admitted students day at Reed College that he first learned about Reed in 8th grade. I did not know this. I first learned about Reed College when our oldest was entering his junior year and I found it listed among schools in the book Colleges That Change Lives. It was that book that prompted me to suggest a trip to tour four colleges in the Pacific northwest in one trip. As we toured Reed, both Joe and I knew immediately it was not the place for him. We both agreed, however, that it might be a great fit for Luke. As he headed into senior year, Luke told us that Reed was his top choice school.

As I learned more about Reed, I got a little nervous. Reed has a reputation for being a highly rigorous college. One article I found online claimed that Reed is among the top ten most challenging colleges in the US, along with Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and MIT. Among the social sciences and humanities, Reed produces the second most PhD candidates in the country. They produce the third most PhD candidates in the sciences and math. It’s a tough school. I began to wonder if it was the right choice for Luke. While he is intellectually curious and hard working, he also has anxiety. My concern kicked in. I told Luke these things, and I think it stressed him out too. So he switched his top choices to a couple other schools, including Whitman College where his brother is a sophomore.

Still, we encouraged him to apply to Reed anyway. Of the colleges he applied to, it had one of the lowest acceptance rates, so we called it a “reach” school. He applied Early Action and received his acceptance email in late December while we were on vacation. When we returned home, his official acceptance letter was waiting for him along with their welcome gift, a book, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. For our dyslexic son who has worked so hard to become a prolific reader, it seemed like a sign. So we came to Portland for an official tour so he has all the necessary information when May 1st rolls around and he needs to sign on the dotted line for the college of his choice.

As we sat through the presentations today and walked around campus on the tour, I could see Luke’s interest and excitement. I have to admit that I started to get excited about Reed too. It’s a different type of liberal arts college. For starters, while students receive letter grades for their work, they are not shown those grades. Instead, professors give qualitative feedback on papers. In their required freshman course, Humanities 110, students meet with their professor for a paper conference where their work is discussed with them one-on-one. It’s through this type of feedback that Reed is able to encourage student growth. There is no “teaching to the test” at this institution. There are no collegiate athletics and no Greek system. Students are required to complete some physical education credits, but these can be obtained through classes like bowling or archery. It’s a school for students who like to sit around and discuss who had better ideas, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. They have a yearly conference that lasts for a week where students teach hands-on classes on any topic they choose. In short, it’s a school for eggheads who enjoy learning for the sake of learning. And it’s safe to say Luke is that egghead.

At one point today, I found myself thinking about what advice I wanted to give Luke about his tough choice ahead. How does he decide which school will be the right one? Does he go with a still challenging but safer bet or does he push his boundaries and see where his drive will take him (even if it brings him more stress in the short-term)? While thinking about it, I became teary eyed. When I was choosing a college for myself, I went with the safe bet. I chose the closest school with the best academics where I had a chance of being accepted. I sold myself short. I got bogged down by the cost of college and the introvert terror of being somewhere new and not knowing a single soul. I let fear make my choice, and I’ve spent the rest of my life wishing I’d been brave enough to take a chance on myself. So, I told Luke tonight over fries at Red Robin that he can’t go wrong with any of the schools he applied to. They are all wonderful institutions with many positives to offer. Then I told him to believe in himself and pick a place where his big-picture, future-focused mind will be challenged to reach the heights he dreams of. You can always choose an easier path if the harder one you start down becomes unbearable, but it’s difficult to convince yourself to reach for something bigger when you’ve already made yourself believe you aren’t capable of more. You can go with your gut or with your imagination. Your imagination will always take you further.

Books for the required Humanities 110 at Reed College


  1. Wow, look at that set of books for the 101 class. Makes me wonder if they use the Socratic method for their education. Good for you both, this trip and adventure. Our experience with the book, Colleges that Change Lives led our oldest to Beloit College which was a great fit and experience for him. Well done for both of you.

    1. Small class sizes with rabid questioning and debate is their method, so it’s about as liberal as liberal arts can get. I think it’s the best way to learn.

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