Breaking Out of the “Little Boxes” in College Admission

Before we had staff living all over the country, and before we employed part-time readers to assist in file review, we had a fun tradition during reading season. Several times a week, we’d gather in my office and someone would share a funny YouTube video. This is how I was first exposed to John Mulaney, Mike Birbiglia, and this gem. It was a great way to start a long day or night of reading in committee.  

Recently, I’ve incorporated this concept at home. Each night while we’re cleaning the kitchen after dinner someone gets to pick a clip to share. Some Good NewsTrey Kennedy, and Hamilton have all made some good runs, but lately we’ve been on a Walk Off The Earth kick.  

Last night’s clean-up was inordinately long and YouTube rolled us from Hey Ya to Little Boxes.  

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes all the same 

There’s a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same 

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same 

Written by Malvina Reynolds and popularized by Pete Seeger the campy rhythm, simple lyrics, and refrain of “all the same” really sticks with you. Brilliantly, maddeningly, intentionally—with ticky tacky– it sticks with you. It rattles around in your mind, until you almost want to shout, “A box-dominated life is no life at all!”  

2020!!

2020 has squeezed us. It has limited our radius from home and forced most of our interactions onto small screens. Whether it be school or work or time with friends and family, we’ve been boxed up and reduced to a pixel count on Zoom.        

This myopic, restricted, obscured life is not natural. Fundamentally, we long to be fully seen—to be deeply known. While we may appreciate not having to wear shoes or tuck in our shirts for calls that only show us from the torso up, this season has made us acutely aware that real life, true life, full life is meant to be multi-dimensional and 360 degrees.   

As you go through your college admission experience, I hope you won’t forget these pandemic lessons. I hope you will resist being placed in a limited, restricted, narrow, and myopic “little box.” 

Look Beyond What You See– Rafiki had this right in The Lion King when he instructed Simba to look within himself for truth, strength, vision, and authentic hopes and dreams. Regardless of where you live, you’re exposed to a limited number of colleges and universities. The same bumper stickers, same hoodies, and same schools getting TV coverage.  Look beyond what you see

Your family, siblings, neighbors may be loving and supportive people, but they’re usually not the best at helping you broaden your set of college considerations. Don’t get boxed in!

When that brochure or email from a college you have not heard comes, don’t immediately trash it. Hit pause and look closer into the ripples like Simba did. Be courageous enough to imagine life outside the camera angle that many around you might unintentionally (or very intentionally) impose.  

Process vs. Experience– Journalists and most admission folks will describe this all as the admission process. I want to push back on that word. Go to Google Images for process. You’ll find lots of cogs in the wheel, and mechanical, sterile, linear pictures. Like the Zoom life we’re experiencing, they can be isolating—you’ll notice almost none of them include other people. 

If you approach this as a process, then you begin to believe there is a specific and right way to go about it. Your mindset becomes binary. Process will tighten you up and restrict you to a narrow path Cogsyou must take in order to avoid peril…. And then test administrations get canceled, you make a B+ instead of an A, you don’t get to go on that mission trip or aren’t able to volunteer at the hospital as you’d planned…. You missed an ingredient, and the recipe is a bust. The process is ruined. The box is crushed.   

Experiences on the other hand are more open, more fluid, and more relational.  Google experience and you find people on high places looking out at their options. They have vision, perspective, and freedom. Experience images are boats in the water. Experience images incorporate other people, a variety of places, and wide lenses. Experiences facilitate relationships, inspire dreams, and account for a breadth of decisions, routes, and ultimate results or destinations. 

2020 has squeezed us down. Your job is to stand up, move around, breathe, break out, lift up, and push back. Assert agency, seek perspective, and flip your camera around.    

How > Where– The longer I do this work the more I think most people miss out on the real opportunity the admission experience provides for students and their families. As a high school student, and particularly as an applicant, my hope is you will be more concerned about how you end up on a college campus- prepared, confident, ready to engage- and less focused on precisely where, i.e. which gate or archway you walk through or statue you pose in front of.   Waterfall

Students often ask, “What do I need to do to get in?” They expect to hear a formula: take 7 AP classes, make a 1370 or higher, be sure to play on the tennis team, and lock down a position in the French Club. The truth is college admission deans and committees just want you to be a great high school student. If you work hard academically and invest in the people around you- the people in your house, your school, and your community– you’ll be a great candidate for most colleges. 

Take some time to write down your answer to this question: What does success look like a year from now? 

If you are a senior (or the parent of a senior), my sincere hope is your answer does not start with (or include) the name of a specific college. Instead, I hope your goal is to be academically prepared, socially engaged, comfortable with the financial investment, and closer with your family because of open, honest, proactive conversations that led to a unified college decision.   

Draw fewer lines. Spend more time listening to your family about hopes and dreams and goals, and less time strategizing or attempting to control a specific outcome. The college admission experience provides a unique and precious opportunity to deepen, broaden, and expand. Refuse the tunnel visioned, myopic, boxed- up mentality of where, and commit fully to how you and your family will start college. 

Thankfully, this pandemic won’t last forever. However, I’m hopeful some of the lessons we are learning now will sustain. I would never have wished your high school experience to have been impacted this way. But I also believe you have a significant opportunity right now to garner a healthy distaste for draconian lines, to develop a “box busting” mentality, and to refuse a narrow approach to life.  Instead, my hope is the rest of your high school career, your entire college admission (and actual college) experience, and your life well beyond will be open, broad, multi-dimensional, and characterized by deep, meaningful, and authentic relationships.    

Big shout out to my friend Jeff Kurtzman at the McCallie School in Chattanooga who plays “Little Boxes” each year for his junior class as way to get them thinking about why they want to go to college, the expectations their family has for them, and to begin a conversation about their unique hopes and dreams. 

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on the SACAC Governing Board, the ACT Council, and the College Board Search Advisory Board. He is a current member of a NACAC’s Committee on Leadership in College Admission, and Past Chair of both the national Government Relations Committee and Georgia Tech’s Staff Council. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college