I will admit I'm a fan of the Great British Baking Show – and have binge-watched this past year to catch up on all eight seasons. I'm forever impressed with the acumen, breadth of knowledge, creativity, and good-natured humor needed to advance through the competition, whether it's the Signature Challenge or the Show Stopper. Mastering each baking test reminded me of the steps high school students often take on their path to college. Building on strengths, honing foundational skills (core academic subjects), and developing outside interests allows students to combine them into their Show Stopper moment and is all part of turning what may appear to be distinct elements into...well, something extraordinary.
All of these ideas reverberated in my head as I watched each week's episode, until Chocolate Week. Who knew a familiar treat like brownies would undermine each baker's confidence, causing them to fall prey to baking something beyond what was in their repertoire and succumbing to the pressure of becoming something they thought the judges wanted them to be? Stepping up one’s game may appear necessary to be a master baker, but achieving baking success is more about embracing one’s individual strengths, tastes, and what one knows. The journey to college is no different. The Signature Challenge's trick is drawing from years of baking practice, paired with lightly sketched out, aspirational plans. You can bet that those recipes have seen flops and successes off-camera, and putting in the effort towards something the chef wants to accomplish takes time. Don't think for a second that success happens overnight.
For the seasoned and well-practiced baker, navigating the challenge is often highly successful. That familiarity around the kitchen and one’s recipes provide ample space with room to add a dash of cardamom, ginger, chili, hazelnut, or citrus to rev up the baked delight to an impressive level. One would have thought that brownies, which are simply butter, chocolate, sugar, flour, and eggs, would have proved easily manageable and delicious. It wasn't. Paul Hollywood, true to form, said, “Brownies are one of the most basic things to bake; if you can’t get that right well …” At the core of a student's college journey is keeping it simple and sticking to what makes you "you," which includes recognizing your strengths, values, and interests. It also means knowing which classes will add the right amount of intellectual challenge and rigor while not taking on more than you're prepared for. It does also mean you need to pay attention to when you're ready to expand your world beyond what you know or have been doing. Will you be able to join or start a club at your school? Is there time in your schedule to have a part-time job, or to learn something new? Do you have commitments to your family or your neighbors and need to stay focused on them? Will you take a cooking class and learn to master not only brownies, but ganache, mousse, and truffles? Continuing to grow and take advantage of opportunities in your way, beyond what is either easily offered through school or in your local community, is often the first step into discovering new paths and possibilities.
Mastering the Signature Challenge is just one part of the steps to lead to your Show Stopper. Conquering the Technical Challenge with its finite ingredients and achieving the required outcome is no different than high school students taking required courses and acquiring foundational knowledge. Familiarity, which translates to preparation, often leads to mastery. Students have an opportunity to add their flourish by exploring their interests beyond classroom assignments and walls. This happens when a student has the room to focus on what is more attractive to them versus whiplashing around to see what “the other guy” is doing. Whether you favor baking brownies, chocolate chip chunk cookies, or a creamy tiramisu, focusing on your tastes allows you to become the expert both in the kitchen and classroom. You're probably hungry by now and wondering what brownies have to do with being a high school student or applying to college. Here's the thing about brownies and college: everyone has their own preferences. There is no single, fail-proof path to college or perfect brownie recipe, although Mark Bittman's comes pretty close. Some folks like fudgy brownies, while others want chocolate chips buried in each bite or frosting slathered on top. Just like looking at colleges, there will be a wide variety of options to choose from, and even more than one kind that will satisfy. But at the core, whether you are looking for colleges that suit you or brownies that quell a late-night snack, ensuring that the essential ingredients are there will provide you with what you want.