If you have not seen “It’s Not about the Nail,” check it out. I saw it recently in a presentation and was reminded of how ridiculous, poignant, hilarious and powerful it is… because under the light comedy are some deep truths:
1- The Immediate: We are distracted by, and overly focused on, the matters right in front of us.
2- Patterns: We fall into hard to break routines in life which fundamentally diminish our attention and capacity for new and valuable lessons, opportunities, and connections.
3- Short term vs. Long term: In our frenzied, achieving lives we focus on doing, fixing, and finishing, rather than considering, empathizing, and committing.
Note: Sincere apologies if I ruined a simple and funny clip. I promise I won’t touch your cat videos or Jimmy Fallon dance-offs.
Unfortunately the college admission process presents all three of these pitfalls. The perverse “gamification” of getting in and the industry that’s grown up around it; the omnipresent “where are you going to college?” conversation; the increased competition based on selectivity; the rising costs of tuition; the increasing student debt averages; and the misappropriated attention focused on uber-selective universities have all culminated into a gigantic Jedi mind trick leading you to focus on the wrong things.
The Immediate: It’s not about the bumper sticker
When you drive around your school’s parking lot, you see a lot of the same bumper stickers on the back of cars. You see the same hoodies and t-shirts at the grocery store, the park, or in the stadiums in your community. When your school publishes its spring newspaper or sends out a newsletter around graduation you’ll typically see the same schools again. There is nothing wrong with any of these places. But the trap you can fall into is automatically assuming they are the right places for you because it’s where your sister went, or where “kids like you” go, or because everyone from your AP Calculus class is applying there.
I urge you to not be so quick to discard the email or brochure or campus program invitation from a college you haven’t heard of before. Listen when your school counselor tells you about a great campus they visited and recommends you should consider. When you sit down with your offers of admission, don’t make your selection based on which was the most selective or will impress your friends or please your parents.
I understand you see the nail. I am not asking you to completely ignore it, but I do ask you to try to look beyond it; to explore; to truly consider yourself as an individual and not as part of a group. I ask you to do something at 17 or 18 that people twice your age still struggle with—to be willing to actually walk down the less trodden path, the less known path, the less famous path, if you know it to be the right one.
Patterns and Routine: It’s not about the Ivy League
Last week I went to a conference in Boston. One afternoon I met with a few friends to catch up and discuss some of the sessions we attended. Several had just come from a presentation by the Dean (and some other alums) of an Ivy League school. “How was it?” I asked. “Not that good. Nothing new. I left after 10 minutes,” replied one friend. Another chuckled and said, “Same, I ducked out the back door.” We started to discuss why there is such focus on the Ivy League. They are all old, private, in the same part of the country, and relatively small (enrolling 14,000 new students a year or less than 0.4% of college students nationally—less than the combined total of Texas A&M and Michigan State), yet they continue to carry great sway.
Part of the reason people pay attention is media coverage. For example, last week most major news outlets covered the “disappointing” 8.1% annual return on Harvard’s endowment. The reason it was news was not because they planned to use the differential to develop a new innovative program or to double in size, but because, well…they’re Harvard. So it’s natural when admission decisions are released each year there are stories featuring the three kids nationally who got into all Ivy League schools, as though it’s an incredible accomplishment that should be emulated and revered.
I’m not hating here, and I’m not questioning if these are “good schools.” I’m not equating the Ivy League to the Kardashians of higher education. While perhaps there was a time these schools represented all of higher education, in today’s economy and marketplace they’re outliers, not signposts, in the college landscape. Schools like Georgia State University and their incredible efforts to increase graduation rates and support students are far more reflective of the direction and priorities of higher education in the 21st century. I hope the next “getting in to all the Ivies” headline is: “Student pays nearly $1,000 in application fees, $10,000 on college visits, and $1,250 in apparel,” but has yet to take a course.
I question the parents, board members, and other adult influencers in school communities who incessantly raise questions like: “Did Sarah get into Brown? How many seniors were admitted to Ivy League schools? When was the last time we had someone go to Penn?” I hope in the future true measurements of school success will not be the matriculation list of the top of the class but rather an assessment of whether or not more students were admitted to their first choice, or how many received grants and scholarships to lessen debt, or if a higher percentage are going to college in this class than last.
Short term vs. Long term: It’s not about the application
I understand the application is what’s in front of you. I know you feel the weight of the deadlines and looming dates on a calendar. I realize you have the pressure of juggling school, work, clubs and sports, and on top of all of that writing college essays, highlighting your extra-curricular activities, and checking in with mom or dad to confirm their work address or what year they graduated from college.
The truth is the application is the “nail” of the college admission process. It can require and be seen only as a significant exertion of energy and a source of stress. But I urge you to flip the script—to look at the application as the first step toward a finish line not about getting in, but about getting ready. Don’t let the application become lines you complete or prompts you respond to (transactional), but instead make it a series of promises you make to yourself and the colleges about who you will be when you arrive on campus (transformational).
An application is singular. It is finite. It is submitted. It’s not about the application. It’s about the admission and college process, which are infinitely larger. It’s a picture you paint about your passions, interests, and the influence you will ultimately live out. Sound overly aspirational or grandiose for a 17-year old? In an increasingly divided culture with a myriad of fractious issues, it’s precisely where we should put our hope, attention, and challenge. We need you to arrive at college ready to live out the application you submitted—ready to be a unifier, an influencer, an encourager, and a contributor with a long-term mindset.
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