Tell Yourself a Different (College Admission) Story

Last week I received an email entitled “Admission Fears.” The title struck me immediately, but what saddened me was it was sent from an 8th grader.  Her note was only three sentences and did include a very sweet P.S., but it left me asking a host of questions about how we got here as a society, my role in tweens sending “Admission Fears” emails, whether now might be a good time to open a bike shop/ bar on the beach, and many more. Ultimately, her question was, “I was wondering what you were looking for in a student, so that I may know what I have to offer to your prestigious school.”  If you’d rather not read my reply, here’s the original Twitter thread.

Dear Liza,  

Thanks so much for your email. I am sorry for not replying earlier and hope your year is going well. It sounds like you are a very diligent and focused student who is already thinking about college after high school. That’s awesome!   

I was thinking a lot about your email this weekend. Based on your title and question I’m assuming you have heard it is really hard to get into college, or that you are concerned you will not be/have what colleges “are looking for in a student.” Because this narrative and anxiety is so prevalent, we write a blog and produce a podcast about these topics at Georgia Tech.  I even wrote an entire book geared toward helping students and families keep perspective during the admission experience. But you don’t need to worry about any of that right now.

The truth is our country is in a negative loop when it comes to its view on and discussion around college and college admission. There is too much misinformation, disinformation, and limited information in this space, which often emanates from people with loud megaphones or big platforms who often make/charge lots of money to incite the type of fear you referenced in your note. 

So, as you move into and through high school, I want to encourage you to tell yourself a different story about college and college admission. This starts by replacing fear with hope. 

First, a confession. Your note struck me because my son is your age. So while I’m emailing you back, I’m also thinking about him, and other kids in high school (Oh… and I also turned this into a blog. Don’t worry- I changed your name). 

Admission Hopes 

My biggest hope is during most of high school you will not think about college too often. Instead, just focus on being a good high school student. Go to class. Learn how to take notes and study efficiently. Listen and ask good questions. Participate in your classroom discussions and do personal research on some of the topics you cover in school on your own, so you can dig deeper and get as big and broad of an understanding on issues and information as possible. Outside the classroom, get involved in the things you enjoy and find fun, interesting, or broadening. Invest in your school and local community and seek to positively impact the people around you.  

Ultimately, that is what colleges are looking for. We want to build a community of people who are interested in learning and challenging themselves academically, and who are committed to impacting and influencing people around them-both inside & outside the classroom.  

In other words, don’t worry about college admission committee rooms you will never enter. Instead, focus on the rooms and spaces you walk into every day. Your living room, classroom, place of worship, or job. Be a good classmate, friend, daughter, sibling. Ultimately, nobody can promise you that if you take certain classes, make particular grades, or participate in specific activities you will “get in” to a certain college. If anyone does try to tell you that—let them know they sit on a throne of lies-or just run. Here’s what I can promise you—if you will simply focus on being a good high school student, you are going to have lots of college choices and options when you are finishing high school, because the bottom line is that’s what colleges are looking for—good high school students.  

And that leads me to my next hope. Too many students and parents talk about and think about college and college admission from a scarcity standpoint. I’m not going to delve too much into an economics lesson at this point, but I hope you will look at this from an abundance perspective.  

Particularly, around this time of year, there are many articles published, news reports broadcast, or social media posts leading people to believe it’s impossible to get into college, and that the competition is increasing every year. This is fundamentally false– and increasingly so. The average admit rate for four-year universities in our country is 67%. In other words, most colleges admit most applicants. The pandemic has increased your options not reduced them. Colleges need students- now more than ever! As a result, good students (as we just discussed) who apply to a wide range of schools (listen to your counselor and keep an open mind) will not only have a variety of admission offers but will also find financially affordable options in the years ahead. So, I’m imploring you to not listen to anyone who uses words of scarcity and attempts to breed fear or desperation into your view of college or college admission.  Tell yourself the abundance story.

Third Hope- I understand you may be tired of hearing words like “pivot,” “resilient,” or “disrupted.” Over the last two years, it’s been hard to go a week without hearing each of these repeated multiple times. However, one blessing of the pandemic is it forced students to flex these muscles of adaptability, flexibility, and resilience in unprecedented (another Covid bingo word) ways. As a result, you have figured out at an early age how to learn in different environments, build or maintain relationships despite time/space obstacles, and adjust to constantly shifting information.  

What does that have to do with college and college admission? Absolutely everything. College people (yes, like me) often talk about finding a good college fit, as if students are square (pick your favorite shape) pegs (pick your favorite object), and your job is to carefully search and find a school where you seamlessly enter. Total BS.  

Don’t listen to anyone (even if they live in your house) who leads you to believe there is only one college, one type of college, one particular setting, or one major/academic area in which you can thrive. YOU are adaptable, dynamic, and capable of excelling in a wide variety of places. You are more like a Swiss Army Knife than a singular key. Tell yourself that story and you will breathe, enjoy, and see a very big path to college, rather than one that feels limited, confining, burdensome, or fear filled. 

You asked me what you have to offer a college. Here’s my answer…  

What do you have to offer?  

The truth is college admission should not be about what you can offer. I’m earnestly hopeful you won’t spend your high school years trying to figure that out. Don’t attempt to play some box-checking, soul-crushing game. Instead, when the time comes, the real question will be: what do they have to offer you? And the only way you are going to know that is if you invest time getting to know yourself honestly and authentically. My hope is your high school years will be about learning, growing, thinking, exploring, and most of all enjoying.  

Please write me back in a few years. I would love to hear from you.  

Sincerely, 

Rick  

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. 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 book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. 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