Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors

Warning: This one is long. If you are apt to scroll before reading to determine length, save your thumbs.

We really think you are great and have been impressed with the track record you’ve established to this point.

We want you to apply because we believe you are exactly the type of person who would excel here!

Please write a 250-word statement about your background that will help us get to know you more.

If you are a high school senior, these lines probably sound very familiar. I’ve written emails, built applications, and edited brochure content with verbiage exactly like this. However, in this case, I was the recipient rather than the author. These were the messages I received over the last nine months encouraging me to apply to serve on the Board of Directors for NACAC, a professional admission/counseling organization I’ve been part of for about a decade.

I was flattered. I was excited. I was nervous.

As I wrote each statement, I contemplated the perfect way to say precisely how I felt or viewed particular issues. I tweaked, edited, and finally hit submit with nervousness about how my words would be received.

Ultimately, I went through a battery of interviews (actually, a barrage may be more appropriate), including several hours of speaking with delegates who would ultimately cast votes for the candidates they wanted to serve in this role.

After the many months of waiting, the moment of truth came.

Election Day

Last week I, along with six other candidates, was ushered into a small room behind the stage of a cavernous convention hall in Louisville, KY at our national conference. Our group of candidates sat, chatted, paced, checked phones, and made small talk as the votes were tallied. As I stood there looking around at my colleagues, I re-ran the numbers in my head. Seven candidates. Three spots. A 43% chance of winning, 57% chance of not being elected. I listened to the conversations. I considered my company.

Candidates for the Board and President of NACAC
Candidates for the Board and President of NACAC

In that room were professionals from all over the nation. During the nomination process I’d had the opportunity to get to know this group well. I read their campaign statements; sat at dinners and discussed issues; heard about their accomplishments and experience; and was impressed by their passion for serving students, bringing solutions to our education system, and continually growing as people and professionals.

A representative from the organization walked into the holding area and interrupted my considerations. She announced, “I’ll now read the results of the election.” Slowly, she called each of the three names.

Rick Clark… was not one of them.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. One by one, I hugged each of my fellow candidates, both those elected and those not chosen to serve the organization in this capacity.

It was not easy. It was not fun.

While the conference was not over, it was for me. I opted out of other sessions or lunch invitations and headed back to my hotel. I ditched the suit for jeans, put on a hat, grabbed my backpack and caught a Lyft to the airport. Honestly, I just wanted to be alone.

In the days since the election, I’ve been alone a lot. I’ve been on six flights, stayed in two hotels, and made one 10-hour road trip. TRANSLATION: I’ve had time to think.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from my experience that I hope you’ll consider and apply to your college admission experience.

When you apply, give it everything you have.

Trust me: I questioned if my speeches or written statements should have had different themes. I wondered if I was not elected because I’m from the south, or male, or from a public school, or the combination of all three. I pondered if I did not spend enough time with the voting delegates demonstrating my ability and background and how I could contribute.

Ultimately, as I assessed each, I was confident I’d done all I could. I wrote what I believed. I answered the questions honestly and authentically. I ran my race.

Maybe my geography or school type worked against me. Maybe one of my statements did not sit well. I’ll never know exactly why I was not elected.

Similarly, if you are applying to selective schools running holistic admission processes who have far more talented applicants than spaces available in their class, you are not going to be given a specific reason for why you are not admitted. Nobody is going to tell you, “If your ACT was a point higher it would have worked out.” Admission officers won’t say, “Too bad you’re not from Nebraska, because we are all full up on Pennsylvania this year.”

Instead, they will say, “We had a very competitive pool this year.” Their letters, email responses, or phone call explanations are going to highlight the strength of other candidates and the pure volume of applicants. In other words, and this may seem odd, but it’s both true and really important: they’re not going to talk about you in their rationale. They (we) are going to include phrases like, “While your credentials are impressive…” or “Although you are an incredibly talented student…” their ultimate decision not to admit you will point to the other applicants. I hate to say this, but get used to it. If it has not already, that’s what will happen throughout life. Jobs, elections, teams, dates… it’s not you, it’s… you get the point.

You need to point to you. You have to know that you gave it everything you had. Don’t wait until you get admission decisions back to ask these questions. Start now. Is your essay authentically yours? Have you prepared adequately for your interviews. Have you done your homework to know why you are applying where you are? Before you submit your application, ask yourself if you’ve truly given it everything you have!

While you are waiting, live your life.

After I was nominated, and during the months I was submitting statements and going through multiple rounds of interviews, I wondered how this would all turn out. I held dates on my calendar for possible future travel. I considered who I would have the opportunity to meet while serving in this capacity.  But far more importantly, I continued to live my life. My family took a great vacation to Colorado. I completed and published a book. I ran a few races.

As a senior in high school, this is perhaps my biggest hope for you this year. Keep things in perspective. You have one senior year, my friends. Enjoy it. Go to games, hang out with friends, take trips, and have fun! Nobody ever looks back during their sophomore year of college and says, “You know, I wish I stressed out more when I was a senior in high school.” Nobody! Look around you this week in school.  It’s natural to imagine yourself on certain college campuses or to be cautiously excited about opportunities next year, but remember this–  most of the folks you see every day now will not be around (in person) at this time next year. Give them a hug. Grab a meal together. Go see a concert. Just enjoy being together. Does that sound kind of cheesy? Good. Mission accomplished. Who said cheesy was bad anyway? I’d rather be kind of cheesy than cool and alone, or seemingly cool but fake. Embrace the cheese, people. Live your life.

When you receive admission decisions, visualize the other applicants.

If you are applying to a school that admits less than 50% of applicants, more students will be denied than admitted. I know, I know, you didn’t come here for the math. But the truth is you need to say this out loud: “My chances of not being admitted are greater than they are of being admitted.” Seriously, say that.

Thankfully, you are not going to stand in the same room with other applicants while admission decisions are read. That’s tough for a 30 or 40 year- old, but it would be cruel and unusual punishment for a 17 or 18 year- old.

While difficult, I also consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to physically see my fellow candidates’ faces. They are amazing. They are the type of people I want to know, work with, and emulate. They’re impressive, genuine, talented, passionate, and capable.

I wish you could see the other applicants who also hope to be admitted to the schools you’re considering. Not their GPAs. Not how may AP classes they’ve taken. Not if they’re 40 points higher or lower than you on the SAT. I wish you could see them, know them, and spend time with them.

When you are admitted, remember that many were not. Be cool. Visualize those who were not offered admission. Think about their efforts, their families, and their disappointment. Do you get credit for this? No. This is the development of empathy, and you’ll be a better human by developing it. The admission experience, if you’ll let it, can teach a lot of life lessons– this is one of them.

If you are not admitted, I’m not saying it won’t sting.  Don’t get me wrong, I ate more fries the day I found out about the election than I had in the last two months combined. I played some loud music on the plane home, went for an “angry run,” and may or may not have referred to the group I’d not been selected to join as “The Bored.” I never said I was perfect. But I do hope you will try to visualize the other applicants when you are not admitted. Be happy for them. Congratulate those you know. Wish them the best. Try to take the focus off yourself. I promise you it will help you start to move on.

MY HOPE FOR YOU

Rick ClarkAfter a 20-hour day, I arrived in Cocoa Beach, FL where my family was staying that week. Around 1 a.m., I crept in and slept on the couch. Six hours later I woke up to my kids staring at me from about 7 inches away. “Let’s go to the beach!” And that’s exactly what we did. On the walk there, they asked, “Did you win?” Nope, I replied. “Good. That means you won’t have to go on any more trips.” And then we jumped into the waves.

My hope is you will surround yourself with family and friends who are 100% in your corner and encourage you; people who know you and love you, regardless of the college hoodie you wear or the diploma you ultimately put on your wall. College is four or five years. They matter and this is a big deal, but family is forever. So, if you remember only two words from this ridiculously long blog, they are, “Family first!”

We often call all of this the “college admission process.” However, too often that process is something that happens to you or that you go through. I hope you will embrace the word process and see your senior year as a real opportunity to grow, learn, mature, and prepare not only for college but for years well beyond it. The odds are somewhere along the line in your admission experience you are going to be disappointed. You may not get into your first choice school. You may not receive a big enough financial aid package to afford the college you want to attend. You don’t get into the Honors Program, don’t get your first choice major/residence hall, and so on.

The truth is we learn more about ourselves when we don’t get something, or when something is taken away, than when everything is smooth, easy, and going our way. Growth comes after discomfort or pain. My hope is you won’t just get through the admission process, but rather embrace it as an opportunity to remember the decisions of others are not what define us. They may change our direction, but character, mentality, and motivation is ours to choose.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top of the page. We welcome comments and feedback at @gtadmission on Twitter.

Author: Rick Clark

@gtadmission