College Admissions Decoded

Why College Late Bloomers Are Special

Episode Notes

Though many of us find a linear path from high school to college, that is not the case for a set of students whose life circumstance, economic realities, and ambitions lead them on slightly different paths to higher education. This episode is all about the late bloomers among us who come at college from a wide range of experiences and with their own unique advantages.

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Episode Transcription

Mary Stegmeir:  

Hello, and welcome to the College Admissions Decoded Podcast, an occasional series from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC. NACAC is an association of more than 15,000 professionals who support and advise students and families through the college admission process. I’m Mary Stegmeir, assistant director for editorial content and outreach in NACAC’s communications department, and I’m joined today by three long-time members of the association and experts in the field of college admission. 

They are Matt Ogawa, Director of Admissions and Recruitment at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. 

Matt Ogawa: Hi. Thank you for having me. 

Stegmeir: Jake Talmage, Director of College Counseling at St. Paul’s School for Boys in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Jake Talmage: Hi. Thanks for inviting me. 

Stegmeir: And Terry Knaus, Executive Director of the Higher Education Consultants Association.

Terry Knaus: It’s great to be here, Mary. 

Stegmeir: Now, many of us imagine the college experience as a straight line. Do well in high school, get accepted at a good college, graduate on time, and then start a career, all in the span of a few years. But what about the student who is not ready to take the next step or needs more time and preparation? Today’s discussion is all about late bloomers and how to help them develop their goals, ambitions, and talents on their way to and through college. Thank you all for joining me today. 

So, if we could start with you, Jake, can you help us kind of understand late bloomers? How would you describe late bloomers? 

Talmage: You know, I think it’s a broad group, and the comparison point is in today’s day and age, so many people think about the most selective colleges to get into and they identify that as the college process, and those students who are on that path are very often walking into high school almost already for college. They’re very accomplished. They continue that accomplishment. In some ways, they’re finished products, and students who develop later or mature later, which when you look at brain studies is normal. Most people aren’t going to reach their full intellectual capacity until they’re 25. But if they’re reaching that maturity, or where their interests are sometime later in high school, maybe sophomore year, junior year, they finally start clicking and pursuing those interests, those are those late bloomers. 

Knaus: In terms of students, things that may happen to them earlier on in life, sometimes socioeconomic status has an impact on that, sometimes if they’re moving 10 times, that’s certainly going to have an impact on that, so that maturation process, which is difficult for all certainly adolescents, that adds in another part of the equation. Another challenge for them to be able to go through that kind of natural process. Earlier times in life can often have an impact once they get into high school. 

Talmage: I think tied into that is most high schools are very traditional in how they approach education, and you don’t get to start seeing many electives until you get up to the junior, senior year. And sometimes students just aren’t exposed to things, because traditional study of English, traditional math, history, these things that you have to take, that as a society we’ve defined make towards an education, and then all of a sudden junior, senior year, you get to take that elective at your school that might be intro to engineering or creative writing. And it sparks that interest, and they finally realize that, “Wait, school could be great.” And they go from being this person struggling to find their path to, “Wow, there’s a purpose to all of this.” 

Knaus: I’ve found a number of late bloomers that I’ve worked with, I’ve worked both in college admissions and also as a college counselor, and they often have a very distinct passion in a particular area. The earlier curriculum, freshman, sophomore year, they really don’t have a chance to explore those opportunities. 

Talmage: I want to just add one other thought to that. We’re using high school as the lens of looking at it, but there are also certain things that are limited to students, based on their age, that are outside high school. For instance, if you want to volunteer in Baltimore, which is where I’m from, with animals in the SPCA or in the humane society, you have to be at least 17, or your parents have to be able to make it with you. And if both your parents are working and you don’t have that adult to go with you, you’re limited to not being able to explore that until a certain age, and that just limits your ability to find that passion until you’re a bit older. 

Stegmeir: For parents who may be out there listening that have a late bloomer, what advice would you have for them to find some of those pathways to success you talked about? 

Ogawa: I think I would say don’t overwater it or don’t force it. I mean, we all have that plant, right? That we have in our homes, that we’ve tried to grow quicker or force it to bloom or anything, so I would say that it’s important to kind of be there, let it grow naturally and everything, and when the time is right, it’ll grow, but don’t try to force it. 

Knaus: Yeah, and I think that’s a struggle oftentimes for parents, because they see the other parents, and then the student and their peers taking that correct path of taking all the right classes and getting ready for college and so on, so my recommendation would be to look at your student, keeping in mind that they’re an individual, and not to bow to that peer pressure, whether that be the student’s peers or the parent peers, because that’s a real difficult one when you’re seeing many of the other students taking that college track, and then your student, your son or daughter’s a little bit different. So, to make sure that they’re patient with them, and cultivating, and knowing that maybe college right after high school isn’t necessarily the best route for them at that time. 

Stegmeir: Yeah, are there offramps that are productive for late bloomers? Can you think of any students that you’ve worked with that have valued from taking a gap year, or from taking a different route? Maybe a two-year school to a four-year school, that that might look a little bit different than some of their peers? 

Talmage: Sure. I’ve had students do both routes. I’ve had students… and I should even say it’s more than both routes. It really becomes more individual than that. I’ve had students do gap years. I’ve had students take a year off to work, which is a little different, because when I think of gap year, I think of a program versus working and trying to be in the work world. Then, I’ve had students who have gone straight to two-year college before they’re looking at four-year college, and there are also some other programs out there that you can use to explore those possible interests. I think all of those are great options, and what you need to be trying to do with your son or daughter is listen, and talk to them, and try and hear what they have to say and not think of the societal norms of, “You have to go right to college, and it has to be a four-year college, and it has to be the most prestigious name.” Instead, try and figure out, “Well, what’s your end goal? What do you think you want your life to be like? What do you think you want to be doing?” And start having those general conversations and listen to what the child is saying, because they might have some great ideas and you can explore them a lot of different ways. 

Ogawa: And I also think don’t discount the career-technical programs that we have, that allow students to go straight into the trades after one year of going into a trades program and getting that certificate. Students can have careers that make great starting salaries, and they can do that in a year, so those are great programs to look into if students don’t want to connect to a full four-year program. 

Knaus: I always emphasize when I’m working with students, and I’ve seen many fall into this category, that if they choose not to go to college right afterwards, whatever they choose to do, they and their parents need to know that it doesn’t have to be the standard full semester, full year. It could be a couple months. They could do three different things over the course of a year to explore their passions and so on. So, oftentimes because people think of that standard route of the semester system or the year system and so on, that they fall into that, like, “Well, it’s gonna have to be a full year gap year, or a full year volunteer type of opportunity.” No. It could be a couple months, and then maybe working a part-time job a couple months. Maybe volunteering somewhere. A combination of different things. 

Stegmeir: I’m wondering, you touched on the importance of just being able to be very… have an individualized path for each student. I wanted to talk a little bit more about some of the reasons why students might fall into the late bloomer category. We talked a lot about academics, finding a passion, not really turned onto traditional school. What about just the idea that some students aren’t developmentally ready to leave home or start the rigors of a college career at age 18? 

Talmage: So, we’ve had, from my high school, some students who’ve actually looked at boarding schools and doing a postgraduate year, where they spend an additional year of high school after graduation before going to college, and to be honest, that can be an expensive proposition for some families. So, one of the options we’ve had is students who’ve stayed home, stayed living with their parents, gone to a local college, not necessarily a community college, but auditing courses, taking a few courses, and then applied as a transfer or as a freshman after that, and took that extra time to get the independence and the self-motivation and ownership that they needed to go into college, where you are much more independent and you need to be responsible. 

Stegmeir: Are there certain types of colleges that are particularly suitable for late bloomers? 

Ogawa: You know, I have to advocate and promote our community colleges, of course. You can do programs, like I mentioned, like in one term, in one year, in two years, and then go straight into the workforce, or you can transfer into a four-year college and university. I came from a large, Division 1, PAC-12, four-year public land grant research university located in a traditional college town, and mostly the population that I was working with was students who were in that traditional linear path of going from high school, or high school to community college and transferring to this four-year institution, but now that I work at a community college, we have a very diverse group of students who come from all walks of life. We’re 70,000 students in size. We’re the largest post-secondary institution in the state, and our students speak 48 different languages at home. 

So, we have a variety of different programs and options for students and everything, and so the services and academic opportunities that we have are very diverse and plentiful that we have for students. So, really look into your community colleges if you feel as though you’re a late bloomer and you’re not really sure what you want to do and stuff like that. 

Knaus: Another thing that I emphasize to students if they are a late bloomer, but they’re determined, they and their parents, that they want to go to college that first year after high school graduation is to maybe look for a school that they have a comfort level at already. And that could be they’ve been on the campus a lot for maybe sporting events, or for cultural events and so on, or their parents went there, or they have a sibling there, or friends and so on, so I think comfort level is one area, too, that we can certainly guide students through that are late bloomers if they, again, feel that that’s a good fit right after high school to help them in that transitional period. 

Talmage: Tied into both of those, I worked at a state university that was the flagship state university for the state it was in. They had a program when I worked there running through their continuing studies office that was really designed for late bloomers. It was the concept that you could come typically back to college and take 30 credit hours over a two-year period, which isn’t full-time studies, but is enough that you would be finishing your sophomore year over three years, and if you have a 3.0 in that program, you were guaranteed admission to the university. And so, I think looking sometimes at your local opportunities is a great way to get started, and maybe it’s part-time, maybe it’s full-time, and sometimes community college is the best option. Sometimes that school you’re familiar with. But also, don’t discount a school that you might not be familiar with but might be trying to serve its state that’s close to you and have some alternate programs. 

Stegmeir: We talked a lot so far about students who at least have maybe an inkling of where they see their path. What about for those students that you may see in your office, that just do not know at all what they want to do, and maybe aren’t necessarily the biggest fans of school? For those students, what are some steps that they can take to figure out where their future lies? 

Knaus: That’s a good question, and we talked a little bit earlier, I think first of all that they and their parents need to embrace that college is not the appropriate next step for them right after high school graduation. Then after that, working through their high school counselor, working through friends and family and so on, just looking at different opportunities that are out there, and there’s not going to be one distinct path for one student that there is to another. You know, I’ve worked with students that have… They’ve gone on mission trips for a full semester, and it really, my gosh, after four months, coming back they were like a different person. They were in a different part of the world, but they kind of found their passion. It kind of cleared their head in terms of what they might want to do in the future.

Many late bloomers that I’ve worked with, and I’m sure others have, too, it’s very common that they’re gonna have at least one if maybe not a couple real, strong passions in an area, and to cultivate that and look at opportunities beyond graduation for them, at least for that first year or two. 

Talmage: So, Mary, I want to break down your question a little bit, because there are almost two questions in there. The first one was the, “What about that student who’s undecided?” And I think it’s really important to realize that most college freshmen, the most popular major in the country is undecided, and most people are going to switch their major a couple times, so that’s-

Stegmeir: Right.

Talmage: Not being sure what you want to do is a little different than necessarily being a late bloomer. You did throw in that part of they aren’t sure school’s right for them. I think part of what a student needs to do is look at the type of school they’re in, because again, a lot of high schools are very traditional, and they study traditional things, and some of the opportunities in college, or in trade school, or in community college broaden the process so much. In today’s day and age, there’s so much more hands-on learning than there ever has been before, and that’s trickled down to the high schools. Some colleges do an awesome job of hands-on experience, where some are very traditional and more, for lack of a better word, lecture style or discussion style only. And I think that opportunity to look at those and say, “Wow, look at this opportunity. I can go do this thing hands on.” It can be a great opportunity for some students. 

For some students, it might not be college right away. It might be going to work. It might be going somewhere else and maybe they come back to it. Maybe they don’t. 

Knaus: And Jake, you mentioned the hands on. I’m sure you guys have seen it, too, how many times that a student says, “I really like taking apart car engines and so on.” And their parents, “You’re gonna be an engineer!” It’s like, “No, they’re not gonna be an engineer. They want to take apart cars and they want to put them together, and they maybe want to be a mechanic or something related to that.” But that traditional sense, the parents, and sometimes even the counselors who are like, “Oh, engineering is for you.” It’s like, “No, math is not my forte. I want to be doing more hands-on type of experiences.” 

Stegmeir: That brings up a good point. What are things that adults across the board, whether they’re in schools, whether they’re counselors working with families, or whether they’re parents, can do to better serve late bloomers? Because I’m imagining that these are students that are often misunderstood by those who are trying to help them. 

Ogawa: So, I always give the advice to students is you are where you are where you are. And the past is the past, and it’s about moving forward. And so, really assessing where a student is at, and having that open and honest conversation of where they are, and making a clear path forward, and making it clear steps of instruction of where they can go and how it is that they… what it is that they need to do to get there. So, what their end goal is, whether that’s going to a four-year school, or going straight into community college, leaving the past behind and moving forward. 

Stegmeir: And any tips for moms and dads about pushing, or not pushing, or-

Talmage: So, I think it’s important to remember where students are at at this sort of general age, and it’s hard for them to necessarily think of concrete ways that today affects five years from now. But as a parent, or as a counselor, that’s where we can help those students think about it, and you have that conversation of, “Well, where do you think you want to be? Or what do you maybe think you want to be doing?” Is it, for instance, working with computers and working with electronics? Which is different than designing the computers and electronics. And if you can sort of start figuring that out, then you can back the conversation back up, and again, start thinking small steps. Don’t expect it’s finished. The goal here is sort of the long-term happiness and engagement and success of the student, and there are lots of different ways to get there. They don’t have to necessarily be graduating college at age 21, 22, for that to be the only path. 

If the long-term path is you want a successful life that contributes to society, you can maybe be finishing college at age 30. But you could have been contributing to society along the way. 

Knaus: And I think certainly most importantly that I’m a parent, too, that we really need to encourage the parents and know that we’re on board with them in terms of some of the challenges that they’re facing, because this may be… They may have multiple children and this is the only one who’s not doing the traditional path and so on. 

Stegmeir: Right. 

Knaus: I recall a parent that I worked with, one of my favorite parents and student, and the son was a typical late bloomer. Just the nicest kid. But I remember the father saying to me, he said, “Terry, when I was in high school, I did extremely well academically, I was very popular, played athletics, I was a strong leader and so on. Right now, I’m a successful businessman and so on, but I peaked in high school.” He said, “I look at my son and he’s got his best year ahead of him after graduation, I firmly believe that.” So, this was a parent that had a full grasp on himself, and this son, and their relationship together, and what he foresaw for his soon, and those are the type of parents that you’re like, “Yeah, can you talk to some other parents about this and let them know that it’s okay?” 

Stegmeir: That’s a great story. I’m wondering if any of you others have stories of late bloomers that you’ve seen really come into their own at college or in the final years of high school, and really seen where their trajectory was, one where maybe you wouldn’t have imagined?

Ogawa: I have a story of a student who wasn’t a high school student. She was an adult. She was a mother who escaped a domestic abuse situation from Mexico. She had a two-year-old daughter in tow, and she relocated to Oregon in seek of a better life. She got involved with our English Speakers of Other Languages program. She earned her certificate. She then, after finishing that, enrolled in credit-seeking courses. She chipped away at an associate’s degree, and she also concurrently worked toward citizenship, and because of that, she had to move back to Mexico and got tied up in the immigration process with her daughter still in Oregon. But she eventually worked through that, came back to Oregon, finished her associate’s, finished her bachelor’s degree, enrolled in a master’s program. Her daughter saw her going through that whole process of getting an education as an adult, and working towards immigration status, as well. 

And then at the same time, her daughter then enrolled in the community college after finishing high school, as well. 

Stegmeir: That’s great. 

Ogawa: On the exact same day that the daughter finished her associate’s degree, the mother finished her master’s degree, as well. So, it was a big celebration for the whole family. 

Knaus: That’s a great story. 

Stegmeir: Yeah. 

Talmage: So, the story I have is still ongoing. The student has finished all the way through college yet. He was a student who struggled his freshman and sophomore year. Could motivate himself some, to do okay, but never really clicked on things. And part of that I think was he was pushed into certain extracurriculars by family expectations. I live in Baltimore. Lacrosse is a big deal in Baltimore. He played lacrosse. He pursued that path. That wasn’t the right path for him. 

As a junior, he found photography, and he got really into photography to the point that won competitions in the area, pursued it. Before that, he’d always been a kid who liked working with his hands, so his family had always thought, “Well, maybe an engineer.” But when photography came up, he started having these dual interests, and he didn’t quite have it figured out. He went through the college admissions process and we worked with him to help him present strong applications. He was admitted to several colleges. And then instead of going straight to college, he asked his college for permission to defer his admission for a year. He deferred and then went and worked for a television studio, and then went and interned at an engineering office to try and learn more, and then he also had an opportunity, the family was in a fortunate position that he could travel for a little bit. 

All of which was to try and also help him develop the social maturity to be able to handle freshman year of college, because even though he did much better academically junior and senior year, he was still finding himself, as far as making good decisions at all times. Or most of the time. So, he took that year off and then went to his college. I saw him a couple years ago and he was doing great in college, doing well. 

Knaus: And we’ve talked about certainly different examples that students can do instead of college after graduation. One that I don’t know, I don’t think we brought up yet is the military option. And it’s something for both young men and young women, but a young man that I worked with, for all intents and purposes he was just a goofy kid in high school, and really had some challenges there and was not ready for college. On some aspects, we would have discussions in our office, say, “I don’t think he’s ready for life.” It’s like… So, fortunately he saw a really good path for himself as far as going into the military, and he came back and visited probably when he was about 22, 23, something like that. It was like night and day in terms of what he was like, and he was ready for college. 

Stegmeir: Wow.

Knaus: He had a military type of scholarship opportunity for himself, and he had gotten married, and I think he had a young child, and so he was just a totally different person. It was really heartwarming to see him take this route and know that college wasn’t right for him at 18 years old, but it was at 22, after in his case a military experience. 

Stegmeir: Right. So, parents should take heart that some experience, some time, down the road can be a completely different story in four or five years, as well. 

Knaus: Yes. Definitely. 

Stegmeir: Kind of in that same vein, what are some positive traits that you’ve seen late bloomers bring to their college communities? 

Ogawa: I think a lot of grit, as well, what I would say. Working in admissions, it’s challenging, because you aren’t necessarily there and present on campus to see them thrive on the physical campus, itself. But when you are, and you see students in your campus environment, they have a lot of grit. 

Knaus: And you know, most if not all the late bloomers that I’ve worked with and had experience with, they’re good kids. They’re pretty laid back. And a lot of things kind of roll off their back. They’re not on that timeline and oftentimes they’re not afraid to fail, and so they see others, it’s like, “Oh, I got this bad grade.” And they’re just like, “I got a bad grade. Whatever.” They don’t have the same measurements in life as many of their peers do, so oftentimes when you say adding to their community, a lot of times they’re good kids, they’re good people, and they’re well liked by everyone. They just have some struggles in some areas in that period of their life. 

Talmage: I think of late bloomers as being willing to explore options. See creatively what is possible versus being trapped in a box. They tend to be healthy and open minded, and I think this all relates to what you both were saying. 

Ogawa: I want to say too that a late bloomer might also see failure as an option, or be open to failure, too. I also see high-achieving students, like failure is just not an option, right? But when you get into college, you have that openness to exploration a little bit, and so if you fail, you just adapt and move forward. And so, sometimes I think late bloomers have that openness to failure and adjust accordingly. 

Stegmeir: Well, I think that is our time for today, but thank you Matt, Jake, and Terry, for a great conversation, and thank all of you for listening. Please leave us a review and rate us on iTunes, as your feedback helps shape the show. Thank you. 

Ogawa: Thank you.

Knaus: Thank you. 

Jayne Caflin Fonash:

Thanks for joining us for this episode. I’m Jayne Caflin Fonash, president of NACAC. College Admissions Decoded is a podcast from NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co. Cedric Wilson is our mixer. Emma Forbes is the show’s assistant producer. If you would like to learn more about NACAC’s guests, our organization, and the college admission process, visit our website at


National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Why College Late Bloomers Are Special.” NACAC College Admissions Decoded, National Association for College Admissions Counseling, May 14, 2020.