Thu, December 7, 2023

Work the Line

Rick Hazelton Director,
The Center for Global Understanding and Independent Thinking, and Dean, Summer Programs, The Hotchkiss School

At the end of my 26 years in college advising, I found myself waist-high in the flats on First Encounter Beach hoping that a striped bass might be tempted by my fishing line. These June trips to the Cape have become a ritual—a way of unwinding and finding peace after another chaotic, anxiety-inducing college advising season at Hotchkiss School. The pandemic, and the dramatic increase in competitiveness at many colleges created by the adoption of test-optional policies have done nothing to quell the stress, but the sunset, breeze, and calm on First Encounter make it the ideal place to reflect and take stock.

As I trudged back to my car in my waders, I began to understand that my hunt for stripers was not far removed from the process that precipitated my need to decompress.

Fishing requires a ton of gear, various gadgets, and hundreds of rods and lures from which to choose. Anglers follow various fishing reports, the weather, and too many resources to count that offer advice on catching the dream fish, but in the end, it’s ultimately just you and the fish. Fishing comes down to whether the fish views the lure as real bait fish. That’s it. Expensive equipment, fancy lures, YouTube videos, and fishing reports do not catch fish. And that is what many students and parents lose sight of in the college admissions process. Ultimately, college decisions come down to whether an admissions office views the application as authentic. Does the essay have the voice of a 17- or 18-year-old? Do the recommendations, the essay, supplements, and the students’ interests paint a coherent and “real” picture of the applicant? Advice will come from all directions—you can pay for advice hoping to crack the formula, but in the end, the authenticity of the application is at the core. There is no elaborate formula—some people catch fish with worms dug up in their yard, and others get skunked despite investing thousands in equipment. It’s you and the fish; the application and the admissions reader.

So what “works”? How to achieve authenticity?

Every fisherman has a “go-to” lure. I love silver Kastmasters and some prefer hand-carved plugs. There is a magical intuition, a virtuous cycle of sorts at play—a fisherman has a good “feel” for a lure, engendering confidence, and that confidence allows the fisherman to persist and be patient. As a counselor, I shudder at book titles like “Winning Essays” or “Essays that Work.”  They are “winning” and “work” because they are the unique voice of that student, and the words align with other parts of that application. Comparison is the enemy of voice. Often, I can imitate my fishing partners—where they cast, how they work their lines, etc. and have different results. We all have a “feel” that is unique to us. A particular essay works because its author is a rural kid who works 25 hours a week at a department store in Indiana and recently came out to her religiously devout parents! The suburban Chicago kid who plays the cello and football has an equally interesting story, which will not be heard by imitating his peer from Indiana.

While comparison is dangerous, how do students achieve their own voices? Solitude. Surf fishing is not done shoulder-to-shoulder. We spread out to avoid crossing our lines and allowing space for the tide to push it in various directions. There are moments in the process when parents need to leave their children alone and allow them to compose their applications in their own words. Every year I read essays from 53-year-old lawyers, 49-year-old investment bankers, and 63-year-old retirees, and not optimistic and eager 17- and 18-year-olds who are still works in progress. As a parent of three college students, I know that it is challenging “to keep our hands off.” You are not encouraged to be disconnected from the process, but instead of commandeering it, ask them thought-provoking questions about their values and what they have learned from their experiences. Many of us have enjoyed the thrill of standing behind our young children and helping them steady their rods as they reel in their first fish. That works well for a five-year-old, but not an 18-year-old!

Parents often find it difficult to let go and take their hands off the rod but remember that sometimes the worst casts catch fish. Young anglers often reel in quickly after poor casts; experienced ones have learned to sit with a less desirable cast and work the line—they have learned patience and the lesson that something that seems imperfect can lead to an ideal result. I caught a striper that day at First Encounter Beach. My cast crossed over the flats into the mud and grassy embankment on the other side. Unlike a well-placed and graceful cast that I slowly reeled in, I had to forcefully yank my lure from the mud and grassy entanglement. Once I did, I allowed the lure to sit in the water as I collected myself. As I slowly brought my line in with a few twists and stops to emulate a struggling bait fish, a large striper hit my line and I landed it. Parents need to remember that the testing and transcript may have some blemishes, and as your child begins the process, you may be anxious about getting the results you seek. They will land in the right spot. Parents should dismiss the notion that they can control the process. Anglers encounter the unexpected often—changes in weather and wind patterns, new regulations, etc. Learning to let go a bit and allowing your child to work the line themselves in the face of the uncontrollable is an important life lesson.

A few minutes after I landed my first striper, I saw what I believed was a fish swimming along the opposite bank, periodically lifting its head up to feed on insects. I kept casting in its direction until “bam” I landed my second one! After taking out the hook and posing for a picture, my friend exclaimed, “Nice fish, great work.” I replied, “Yeah, I could see it raising its head occasionally,” as I pointed in the direction of my last cast. My far more experienced friend smiled, “Oh, that. Rick, that was a turtle swimming just beneath the surface.” We laughed and then I shrugged, “Well, it worked anyway. Thanks, turtle!”

Our children will find suitable schools where they will thrive if you allow them to embrace who they are with all their strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities. On many occasions, we find our place despite striving for what we think we want and need. Reeling in a poor cast too quickly is like the parent who says at the end of the child’s senior year, “Don’t worry, you can always transfer.” Be calm and patient; celebrate who your child is and support them regardless of whether their choice is what you wanted for them. Be open to the notion that pursuing our perceived goals may lead in new directions that we did not anticipate. The college process, like fishing, is not always linear, following a preordained path, but with support, encouragement, and unconditional love, kids will get to where they need to be.

Allow me to leave you with a final thought. As I look back on my many trips to the Cape over the last 26 years, I have a hard time remembering the fish that I caught or how I landed them. I remember the peace and tranquility of being with my thoughts and the joy of spending time with dear friends whether I caught anything or not. The college admissions process, like life, is much less about the prize received, and far more about the education and fulfillment offered by our experiences and relationships.

Rick Hazelton is Director of The Center for Global Understanding and Independent Thinking and Dean of Summer Programs at The Hotchkiss School, a boarding school for students in 9th through 12th grades in Lakeville, Connecticut. Learn more at and follow The Hotchkiss School on Twitter @HotchkissSchool.

This article first appeared in the 2023 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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