This summer I am moderating two conference panels for enrollment/admission leaders to share their career advice and insight. We are all concerned, no matter what our profession, with succession planning, i.d. identifying the “next generation” of talent. Maybe it’s just because its graduation season and I’ve been reading or listening to a lot of speakers lately, or maybe it’s because I’m just a little cheesy, but as I’ve been preparing my questions I realized that my tips for the profession sound pretty similar to generally being a good friend.
Warning: If you are looking for ways to boost your SAT score or craft a perfect essay, you won’t get it in this blog entry.
Go To Them
A former Tech football coach told me he thinks admission and coaching are very similar. “Everyone thinks they can do it better, and they are more than happy to tell you exactly how. You’ve got to get comfortable with plenty of second guessing and ‘Monday morning quarterbacking.’” It’s true. Each year hundreds, if not thousands of talented students are “left out” and thus upset about being denied admission. Internally, a campus department feels like admission did not bring them enough students, and another believes they have too many. Unlike Goldilocks you never seem to hear from anyone saying it’s “just right.” Those I think are phrased, “we don’t like the ones we have.” At the end of the day, sometimes it seems you not only can’t please anyone, but in fact you have pissed off everyone. I see our coach’s point… bowl game, 10 win season, but where is the national championship? What I have come to realize, and what I tell younger professionals, is that in those moments you cannot stay in your office and solve problems or mend relationships. Get up. Get out. Go to the people who are upset. Numerous times I’ve walked into a professor’s office when his son or daughter has been denied admission knowing it will be uncomfortable. But being in their office, looking at their pictures, and taking my time to show up is an indication that I value the relationship. It’s not always possible, but for some tough conversations with alumni or students in the metro Atlanta area, I have gone to the high school or met at a Starbucks in their community.
I think we’ve all found ourselves in a spot of feeling like we’ve pleased nobody and disappointed or pissed off lots of close friends or family members. Somehow this experience seems almost inevitable in high school– and I’d love to tell you it’s a one and done deal—but that is rarely the case. Whether this is a “mass make-up” or simply repairing the relationship with one person, I want to urge you to “go to them.” We have way too many mediums for communication: text, social media, stuff a note in their bag, send a message through a friend. It’s hard to say you’re sorry looking directly at someone. It’s uncomfortable to admit you were wrong when you see your damage in their eyes—and sometimes even worse to tell someone else that they were wrong and you are hurt. But true relationships, and ultimately lasting friendships, are mended and preserved through humility and a willingness to proactively heal the fissures.
Build a Strong Core Team
If you, your team, and your university are going to have the highest level of success, you have to be ok with being surrounded by people who are better at some things than you are. There is no way you can know everything, do everything, or accomplish everything that’s being asked on your own. I learned this the hard way. In April of 2008 I became Interim Director at Georgia Tech. At the time, I was serving as Associate Director. In this role I managed our recruitment efforts, communication efforts, and our athletic and alumni liaison work. Stepping into the Interim position and maintaining those duties was daunting and exhausting. A month later, my wife and I had our first baby. That summer I dropped 10 pounds and slept about the same amount of hours in total. It was brutal. There were days I forgot to wear socks and days I drank eight Cokes. I was putting everything I had into work and home, but I was ultimately marginal in all roles. It showed me in a painfully poignant way how critical it is to build a strong team, particularly the other leaders on staff. There are still some moments when I question if I should be doing some of the work I’ve delegated, or am almost embarrassed by how much more informed on a topic or issue a team member is than I, but it does not take long to remember the summer of 2008—and I’m instantly thankful for being surrounded by people who make me better and our team more successful due to their complementary talent and knowledge.
Last night I was sitting at the pool watching my kids play. A group of high school girls were talking next to me. I pulled my hat lower and put my sunglasses back on (I know tip 1 was “go to them” but poolside is not the time for being recognized as an admission director). Ultimately, one of them left, and the three others started criticizing her as she walked away. You could easily just chalk this up to being petty and immature, but ultimately it’s a sign of insecurity. I did not hear all of their comments (splash contest to judge), but clearly something about this girl was threatening to them. Maybe she was smarter, maybe a better athlete, or funnier or smarter or who knows. Check out this video from Tech’s “Wreckless,” a group committed to encouraging fellow students. Now contrast that to Donald Trump’s comments earlier this spring. We challenge students on this all of the time. “If you don’t like being around people who are smarter than you, or who speak more languages, or who have traveled places you could not identify on a map, don’t come here.” Improving as a learner, living a more full, rich, and worthwhile life, comes from being around people who stretch and challenge you– and yes, even humble you. (This is not political commentary. I just patently disagree with The Donald on this point.)
Our profession demands an ability to say “No” with grace and respect, but also with firmness. We constantly are asked, “What’s one more?” This kid has perfect SATs… this kid would really contribute to our club robotics team… he’s a state champion chess player… or she’s a nationally ranked equestrian. The recommendations of one more email, phone call, letter, walk- in visitor could easily become 200 more students in a class, if you don’t learn to say “No” with grace and respect, but also with firmness. I’ve found that while it can be uncomfortable and tense at the outset, it is possible to salvage relationships through honesty, empathy, but clear and direct communication.
And so too with friendship. I’ll never forget being on an airplane with a friend on the way to Boston. I could tell he was not happy with me, and so I asked him what was bothering him. “You are ALWAYS late. You were late today meeting me. You were late for dinner the other night. It’s disrespectful. Do you think your time is more valuable than mine?!” He was right. And even though it was painful to hear, I deeply value that conversation because it was honest but emanated from a place of love. He wanted to preserve and improve our friendship. Sure, it would have been easier to not say anything or simply “throw shade” (really wrote this entire blog just to use that newly acquired term), but that would not have deepened our friendship, which he did by being direct and real.
As promised there have been no tangible tips here to help you in AP US History. But as you go through the admission process, or enter college, or continue on in life no matter what your age, I’d assert that being proactive in relationships, surrounding yourself with talented and caring people, and dealing with friends and family directly and honestly, will mean a whole lot more.