Finding the Balance

‘Tis the season!

It’s not just back-to-school and football. For high school seniors and their parents, it’s the kick-off to college application season.

And practice is in full swing. The spreadsheets with criteria and rankings have been created. Meetings with counselors and college application coaches have been arranged. Then there’s the most painful part of the process–the essay writing.

I’ve been through the experience as a student and a mentor, but not as a parent. And that comes with big advantages. I don’t carry the emotion. I can be objective. Perhaps that’s why friends and family commonly use me as a resource. And why I love being one.

My own college application story (many years ago) makes me empathetic. My volunteer experiences (college interviewer and mentor) keep me current. And my work as a success coach has me guiding mid-career professionals to define and articulate their personal “why.” And whether you are 47 or 17, that’s hard to do (“What If Adults Applied to College?“)

Three years ago, my niece Jamie (“The Little Black Dress“) was applying to college. I was her college essay writing coach. She’s now a junior at the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business.

Being her coach wasn’t always easy. But in the process, both she and I got to know her better.

Three years later, I wondered what Jamie would say about the process. What advice would she give high school seniors? I decided to ask.


Jodi: How did you approach your overall college application process? Looking back, would you do anything differently?

Jamie: I started the whole process with a completely blank slate. I never had a dream school. My parents didn’t have deep ties to their alma maters. After years as a gymnast, I wouldn’t continue the sport in college. I had strong grades and test scores, but not Ivy League level. I was interested in business, but wasn’t decided on a major. I didn’t even have a state affiliation. At the time I was applying for college, my dad had moved back to my childhood state of Arizona, and my mom and I were still living in Virginia. I couldn’t even succinctly answer the question “Where are you from?”

Looking back, I realize I was at this personal identity turning point. I’d walk college campuses hoping to find my new identity. Nothing seemed to fit. I think it’s why I was so stressed out in the process.

So I focused on the practical. I made a huge spreadsheet of my college choices. I listed pros and cons. Ultimately I narrowed my choices to six schools–five on the East Coast and one in Arizona. I ultimately chose the University of South Carolina Honors College.

In hindsight, I wish I would have considered more emotional components. For example, it’s hard being far from home! Most students at my school are more local and return home on long weekends. During my freshman year, my grandmother passed away, which reminded me how far away I was from my family in Arizona. On the other hand, even though I knew nothing about football, I fell in love with the school spirit at my football-obsessed university. Ironically, these “off-spreadsheet” items are the ones I’ve found most important.

Jodi: Applying to multiple schools meant you had multiple applications and essays. How did you handle that?

Jamie: Well, I learned that that Common App (common application accepted by about 800 schools) isn’t all that common–for me, at least! Ivy League and other elite private institutions tend to use it; public universities are less likely to. Of the six schools I applied to, only two accepted the Common App. But even those that do ask supplemental questions. I also applied to two intra-school honors colleges, and they require additional essays. In short, it’s a lot of essays.

Looking back, I wish I would have gotten started on essay writing earlier in the summer before jumping into my senior year–even if it was just looking through the essay prompts and thinking about my personal themes and stories. I could save each university’s “why us?” questions for later, after I’d narrowed my list, visited campus, and done more research.

Early in my essay writing thinking, you suggested I complete a Values Exercise (Reflections of Value). Now I can’t imagine having completed my college essays without it! I’ve also seen students use tools like StrengthFinders to identify their core strengths. Doing these self-discovery exercises–and then talking about the results with you and others–really helped me focus my themes and stories.

Jodi: Can you describe one of your essay topics?

Jamie: My top three personal values were Balance, Family, and Friends. You pushed me to define what Balance meant to me. It ended up being the whole basis of my personal statement and other essays.

I remember one of my first lines: “Balance perfectly encompasses my life, passions, and character.” I explained that math was my favorite subject in high school. I love math for its symmetry, and because I need to blend knowledge and creativity to balance two sides of an equation. As a gymnast, physical and mental balance is obviously important. I explored how this harmony applied to my efforts as an individual athlete, as well as a member of a team.

But the thing I was really struggling with was balance in my life! Between school, work, gymnastics, volunteering, friends and family–oh, and college applications!–I was really struggling. I wanted to be real about it. I didn’t have it all figured out, and I didn’t want to pretend I did. I know it’s a struggle that will be an ongoing part of adulthood, so I wanted to put it out there and share how I’d been dealing with it so far.

Jodi: What was NOT helpful advice in the college application process? In other words, what would you suggest people like me, parents, or college counselors to do differently in advising students?

Jamie: Stop with the judging! Seriously, I felt like everyone was judging me about my choices. You were pushing me to aim for stretch schools. My parents were pushing me to choose a school in Arizona so I’d be closer to home. The high school guidance counselors in Virginia pushed for the Virginia schools they knew well. My friends were pushing me to attend the schools they were attending. I remember one of the things I loved about the University of South Carolina was that I knew only two people in the entire school. It wasn’t scary–for me, it was exciting!

I know everyones’ intentions were good. I just needed to make the journey on my own. Again, it’s clear to me now that I was at this total identity crossroads–but at the time, all I felt was stress! Honestly, I hated the whole process. But I believe that everyone ends up where they need to end up. I know I did.

Jodi: I know the process was challenging. Looking back, were there things you took from it that you’ve been able to use in your broader life?  

Jamie: For me, the most valuable thing was my self-discovery work for my essay writing. I continue to write and talk about Balance (and by the way, I still haven’t mastered it). I’ve used the content from my essays in applying for scholarships and summer programs. I’ve used the themes in interviews for my business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, internships, and on-campus jobs. In fact, my whole focus on Balance was why I was hired last semester as an on-campus student peer consultant. Not surprisingly, the number one thing my fellow students struggle with is balance!

I now see the bright side of the whole college application process. Yes, it was a ton of work. It was stressful. But the effort didn’t just get me into a college. It really helped me think through my identity. It helped me think through what is most important to me, and how to communicate those priorities to others. And it’s guided me in decisions big and small ever since.


Jamie Morris graduated in 2020 with a major in Global Supply Chain and Operations Management and Finance through the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina Honors College.

Jodi Morris is a Success Coach who regularly ponders What If Adults Applied to College?


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Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!