The Top 1 Question to Ask in YOUR College Admission Experience

A few years ago, I wrote That One Thing. This blog opens with an embarrassing personal travel story (returning readers will note a pattern) and goes on to suggest that the most important thing you can do in the college admission experience is to listen– to counselors, parents, older students, teachers, and admission representatives.  

Well… it’s taken me three years, but I believe I’ve been able to finally isolate the one question you should be asking in your college admission experience… “Do I care?” Note: This is supposed to be an internal question, rather than one asked audibly, especially if it’s with your right hand on your hip, your left eye scrunched down, and your head tilted to either side. 

Do I care? 

Let’s give it a shot.  

Faculty: student ratio, list of alumni who are now in the pro sports, year of founding, number of benches (insert other object or animal here) on campus, style of architecture, or percentage of faculty with a terminal degree.  

Whether it be on campus or in virtual programs, you can expect admission folks and student tour guides are going to run through a litany of stats, dates in their institution’s history, and a variety of other bragging points. As you are listening or walking around, you’ll inevitably see other students or parents nodding their head or raising their eyebrows and pursing their lips as if to say, “Hmmm…impressive!”  

And hey, maybe those things do matter to you. Maybe you don’t want to attend a school that was founded in an even year or are dead set on no more than a 11:1 squirrel to student ratio. Maybe Georgian architecture is fine with you, as long as it was all sourced within a 100 mile radius.  

The bottom line is you’re already receiving ad nauseum emails with these kinds of data points in them—and that onslaught of information is about to multiply infinitely as the school year starts and the real push for applications ramps up. So, with every page you turn or building on campus you reach, you need to keep just one question in mind– Do I care? Is this information really substantive and relevant to my college search and selection process?  

Rankings  

Recently, on his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell has explored the advent, evolution, and implications of the US News college rankings.  This two part-series exposes their self-serving origin, highly subjective methodology, and the ability of colleges to manipulate their standing.  

As a student (or an invested adult) in the college admission experience, I highly encourage you to make time to listen to both The Lord of the Rankings and Project Dillard.    

Over the years, I’ve written extensively about the outsized place rankings can play in college search and selection. I won’t re-hash all of that, but if you are interested in digging in a bit more you can check out: The Rankings, Meh and Three Cheers for the Rankings.   

Ultimately, the choice to use commercial rankings (aka click bait, cash cow lifeline) is yours. But please, for the love of all things holy, take some time to understand the methodology on which these are based, and ask your one filter question—DO. I. CARE?  

  • If the President from one college looks favorably upon another…  
  • One school pays faculty on average $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) and therefore their ranking is inflated…  
  • One school is outside the Top 25 (50, 100) but has graduated lots of successful alumni in the field I’m interested in… 

As I’ve said, and will continue to reiterate, your college search and selection is just that–yours. Listen, I don’t hate the US News games makers per se. I just earnestly think you are smarter than they are. And I know with all confidence that you know you better than they ever could.  So is it crazy to suggest you should consider creating your own ranking system?

What do you value? What does really matter to you as you decide where to apply and attend?  (Yes. I’m really asking those questions to you.) If you were to create your own personal ranking system what are the first three to five factors you would use and how much weight would you put on them?  

I want to encourage you to take some time soon to actually write those down and consider using a Likert scale to rate the schools you are considering. I’m not going to prescribe this to you, so if you want to use 19 points or 100, go for it, but here would be an example on the 5-point scale.

5: Exactly what I am looking for

4: Pretty darn good

3: OK

2: Tolerable

1: This is a problem.  

Applying this to my family’s upcoming vacation this summer, here is that Likert scale applied: 

Factor:  

  • Distance from home (given cost, allotted time, arguing kids): 4 
  • Fun (mainly for kids but since I’m paying…): 4 
  • Hiking/Running nearby: 5 
  • Good food options: 2 (My opinion not theirs) 

What do you care about?  

Last week I had the opportunity to interview my friend Jeff Schiffman on The College Admission Brief podcast. He eloquently discussed how Covid was a rare pause that has allowed us to really stop and think about what we love, desire, and truly care about.  

I don’t know exactly how things are going to play out for you in the year ahead. I’m not going to try to “chance you” about where you are going to get in or try to predict if you’ll get a scholarship to your top choice. What I do know is that everyone is going to have an opinion about what you should pay attention to as you consider, apply to, and ultimately select a college. There will be incredible noise in your house, school, on social media, and in the darkest corners of the interwebs about how you should make your admission choices.  

So, yea, I still stand by my blog asserting the one thing you can do is listen. But that does not mean everything you hear has value or merit. The bottom line is that in the week, month, and continually through your college admission experience the one question you have to keep vigilantly asking and considering is… “Do I care?”  

Mission Matters

After releasing admission decisions, there is always an immediate volley back in the week or two following from disappointed, frustrated, sad, or angry people (typically parents to be honest) who were deferred/denied/waitlisted. (While admitted families sometimes call, it’s not usually looking for an explanation of the decision.) This is both understandable and reasonable. We train our staff to be ready for any range of emotions, perspectives, stories, questions, and bargains/threats/reasoning.  

What’s more sporadic and interesting is the small group of what I call “delayed inquiries.” These are the ones that don’t come in the subsequent days or week after a decision release, but rather pop up on a random Thursday five weeks after notification. While there are nuances to every case, a majority of these include a few common threads:  the student was admitted somewhere else (often with a scholarship or generous aid package), and they want reconsideration from us as a result; the student was offered admission to a college that the parent deems “better” or harder to get into, so naturally we made an error; or the student has such high grades and test scores that “there must have been a mistake.” That quote is inevitably preceded by, “I am not trying to question your process.” 

Why?  

Why does a student with a lower (insert your quantitative measure here) get in and another does not? 

Why does one school have 12 students admitted to Example College (Home of the Fighting Ex’s!) and another only has three? 

Why are the Dunkin Donuts signs changing to Dunkin instead? 

Why does a neighbor/teammate/friend/classmate receive a brochure or invitation to a campus program and you don’t? 

Why does one admitted student receive more financial aid, or a higher percentage of aid, than another? 

Why did Darius Rucker switch to country music(Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It) 

Why does the same student get into a higher ranked school and denied from one that is less selective, I.e. has a higher admit rate?  

If your answer to these questions was “MISSION,” then you either followed my logic or re-read the title after the seeming tangential Dunkin’ piece.

 MISSION DRIVES ADMISSION 

I’ve written about this before in Ad(mission) It’s Not Fair and a few other blogs, but it bears repeating: Mission is everything for deans and directors across the country. What makes these folks successful, and what they are judged by and charged with from presidents or boards, is not simply hitting enrollment targets and class goals, but also advancing the mission and vision of the university.  

Mission will influence which schools will come to your school or state this fall.   

Mission impacts the number of students in a first-year class or whether or not a school enrolls sizeable numbers of transfer students.  

Mission informs deadlines, essay topics, and the extent to which a school requests or values recommendations or interviews in their process. 

Mission has implications on the awarding of financial aid and scholarships. 

The way colleges recruit, invest time and resources, distribute admission decisions, and allot institutional dollars all comes back to Mission

  Your MISSION Should You Choose to Accept It (Yes, my sonand I are working our way through the Mission Impossible series this summer.)

 

Take a look at the Rose Hulman’s mission statement:  

“Our mission is to provide our students with the world’s best undergraduate science, engineering, and mathematics education in an environment of individual attention and support.”

 Now compare that with Berry College’s:  

“Berry emphasizes an educational program committed to high academic standards, values based on Christian principles, practical work experience and community service in a distinctive environment of natural beauty.” 

  1. What are the primary differences you notice between the mission statements of these two universities?
  2. Are there specific characteristics, traits, or priorities you can tell either may be looking for in students based on their missions?  
  3. How would understanding a school’s mission impact your essay or short answer responses? 

Mission Possible  

Take some time this summer to research the mission statements of a few of the colleges you are interested in applying to or visiting. You’ll find some are more clear, specific, and instructive than others, but the pages surrounding them will also include vision, values, and other content that will help you understand their priorities, distinctive qualities, and whether you resonate with their direction and culture.   

  1. What are some key words or phrases from their mission statement that stand out to you?
  2. Write down some of your previous experiences or future goals that align with their mission. 
  3. How does knowing their mission prepare you for a possible interview or essay/short-answer response?  
  4. What other questions does this review bring up about the schools you are considering? 

YOUR MISSION  

Universities spend an exorbitant amount of time and money rolling out mission statements, strategic plans, and value statements (Obviously, donut shops looking to be known more for beverages do too).  

As you enter into the admission experience, I want to challenge you to do the same thing. Take some time to consider what your mission in admission is before you ever submit an application.  

Step 1: Start by writing words, phrases, or a sentence in response to these questions.  

  1. Why do you want to go to college? 
  2. What are you looking for in a particular college? 
  3. How do finances factor into your search and selection process? 
  4. What is ultimate success for you when you are looking back on your search and selection journey? 
  5. How do relationships with your family factor into your search and decisions surrounding college?

Step 2. Review your answers and try to fill in the blanks here.  
 

My mission in the college search, application and selection journey is to ________________________________________________________. 

Along the way I am committed to _________________________________________________. 

Ultimately, I want to attend a college that ________________________________________________. 

As I finish high school and head to college, I hope my relationship with my family is characterized by ____________________________________________.  

Step 3. Ok. Now take 10-15 minutes. See if you can incorporate your answers from both steps into two or three sentences. 

Step 4. Sleep on it. Take a day or two and revisit your mission statement.  

What is missing? What edits, changes, deletions, or improvements can you make that encapsulate what you (not anyone else) are truly hoping for in this experience? 

YOUR MISSION…SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT

Did you skip past all of the work to this section? If so, go back and take time to do this. Understanding your big picture goal and having perspective on what truly defines personal success in your college admission experience will help you tremendously as you build a list, write essays, prepare for interviews, handle admission decisions, and make a final college choice.  

Note 1: portions of this blog were written by my friend and co-author Brennan Barnard for a forthcoming college admission workbook publishing this fall. 

Note 2: Yes, I know the Darius Rucker one is a stretch, but I was bet I couldn’t work that into a blog this summer. 

College Admission: It Depends

Traditionally, the work and world of college admission is cyclical. The early fall is about recruiting- hosting students on campus, traveling to high schools, college fairs, and communities to spread the word about your school. While Covid-19 may have disrupted how that was done, the concept held: fall= spread the word and plant seeds for the future. 

Late fall and winter, at least for schools that have a holistic admission process, is about reading applications and making admission decisions. In many ways it requires the opposite skills and focus from the prior cycle- very inward focused and lots of time spent with colleagues vs. constituents.   

In the spring, we turn our attention back to recruitment- convincing seniors to “choose us” from their other options via on campus programs or virtual or regionally hosted “yield” programs, as well as starting to talk with juniors or sophomores about future application.  

And then there is the summer. While students are still visiting campus for tours, and there are orientations and documents arriving to ensure the new class is ready to enroll, this is the primary season for reflection.  

What did we do well?  

What do we need to improve, ditch, change for the year ahead? 

Reviewing My Predictions 

Right on cue last week, Sammy Rose-Sinclair, the “woman behind the curtain” of @GTAdmission social media handles and the engine behind our podcast, The College Admission Brief, asked if I thought I had gotten more of my admission/enrollment predictions right or wrong in my October 2020 blog “The Future of College Admission?”   

A valid and timely question to consider. And, like so many answers in college admission, the truth is “it depends.”  

Is a 3.9 GPA good? Well… it depends. Is that on a 4.0, 5.0, or 13.0 scale (yes, those are all out there). 

Should I take AP English or dual enroll for English 101? Well… it depends on where you are dual enrolling, where you might ultimately apply to college, how those schools accept credit, which one you think you’ll actually learn more from, and so on.   

The truth is you can basically answer any question with those two words and then just walk off stage- or exit the Zoom room, as it were. But I’m not going to do you like that. So, let’s take a look.  

 1- Application volume.  

I wrote: “Most colleges will see fewer, or the same, rather than more applications this year….”  

Well… it depends. Obviously, you have Colgate, UGA, several UCs, along with some nationally known and highly covered universities (known for their plant-based athletic league) saw significant application increases. In fact, so much digital real estate went to covering that handful of schools that many believe it to be the real narrative.  

However, community colleges, regional publics, less selective private schools, as well as large swaths of colleges in geographic regions across our country lost students this year, and were either flat or down in 2021-2022 interest.  

What does that mean for you as a future college applicant? 

Well, only you can answer that question, but here’s another one to consider: Do you care?  

Application Totals Through March 1 

Institution Type  One-Year Change in Applications 
Private, large, less selective  2.23% 
Private, large, more selective  20.66% 
Private, small, less selective  0.41% 
Private, small, more selective  14.11% 
Public, large, less selective  12.97% 
Public, large, more selective  15.53% 
Public, small, less selective  -2.13% 
Public, small, more selective  -0.64% 

In 2020, Colgate’s first year class was approximately 800. UGAs non-resident number was not far from that. Recently, too many people have cited those two schools to be me as signposts of the “craziness of the year.” But if you are more interested in watching Hamilton than living in Hamilton, NY, or you don’t look good in red and can’t bark anyway, do these two places matter to you?  

Let’s be honest- it’s normally “adults” fueling the frenzy of consternation. If you have one of those in your life quoting limited statistics or regularly breathing heavily about college admission because of the headlines, you may have to be the adult by providing perspective and level-setting. Last I checked there were less than 65,000 total undergraduates in the Ivy League, whereas there are over 100,000 studying in Texas A&M system schools; there are 450+ schools still accepting applications right now; and many of the colleges receiving more applications this year also admitted more students due to concerns around yield.  

Mixed bag.  

GRADE: B-ish.  

2- Fewer Apps/ Student, aka A Narrower Net

I wrote: “As much as we’re all fatigued by this pandemic, it is not over. The financial impact on families, businesses, and communities is yet to be fully felt. As a result, I foresee 2021 seniors casting a narrower net when applying to college resulting in a lower application: student ratio.”   

According to Common Application data, unique applicants who submitted at least one application increased 2% from 2019-20 (sounds like more support of being more right than wrong in Prediction #1), BUT “they have submitted 11 percent more applications than last year — primarily to colleges in the Southwest (up 22.73 percent and in the South (up 15.47 percent). The mid-Atlantic and New England schools saw single digit increases.” Whoops. 

Sure, I could tell you that the Common App, while significant, only represents 900 of our nation’s 4000 colleges and universities. I could tell you that, like in #1, this varied across sector and region of the nation. I could cite my comment from the fall, “Let me be clear. There are going to be exceptions to this. Ivy League and Ivy-like schools with multibillion-dollar endowments will likely not be affected as much, so please don’t email me in six months saying I predicted Princeton’s admit rate was going to double. But here again we’re reminded those places are outliers and anomalies, not the signposts, in American Higher Education.” But those would be excuses and half-truths. Yea, it depends. But if we have to get binary, this one is leaning more toward wrong than right.   

What does that mean for you as a future applicant? 

In four simple words—BUILD A BALANCED LIST!  If you remember nothing else from this blog (and I’m hoping you’ll primarily forget where I was wrong), it is this. If you apply to a set of schools that vary in their selectivity, geographic setting, and school type, you are going to have great offers- both in admission and financial aid. Your job as an applicant is the same as it is as a student: research, listen, ask good questions, seek perspective and stay broad/open-minded.   

The truth is that many amazing colleges, due to losses during the pandemic, as well as concerns about future enrollment (see Demographic Cliff/ International fragility) are looking for students just like you. In fact, check your email or mailbox regularly in the next few weeks and you’ll notice this as truth.  

Here is a question- do you think there is another high school in this country where you could go to make friends, get involved, and learn things? How about within your city or state? Would it be crazy to even say there are 5, 7, 11 other high schools out there where you could also graduate prepared for life beyond high school and generally happy? (Hint: the correct answer is Yes.) 

Well… then take that same mentality and go find colleges with varying admit rates and academic profiles. To be very specific: a few below 50% admit rate and a few above.  

GRADE: C (but not a grade inflated C, fyi.) 

3- Bigger waitlists = longer cycle. 

I wrote: “Selective colleges are going to hedge their bets on yield rates. This means they will likely put even more students on waitlists and start pulling students earlier in the cycle (in other words, expect to see more mid-April admits as healthy colleges see deposits roll come in)…Higher education is an ecosystem. As schools continue build their classes through waitlist offers in May and June, they will be pulling those students away from other colleges. This activity and domino effect will extend deep into the summer, just as it did in 2020. We anticipated a more extended cycle as a result of NACAC’s CEPP adjustments and Covid has served to further elongate that timeline.” 

All of that seems to be true and has played out on some level. Honestly, the seemingly low degree to which schools went to their waitlists this year surprised me. That either means yield was higher than anticipated, or they put out more admits in order to adjust for flat-ish yield (my guess in most cases).  

However, the number of students receiving waitlist offers, again according to school counselors (plus a few Reddit threads) did in fact play out to be “obnoxious” as predicted. We’ll see when Common Data Sets are released in the fall, but reports of more than a few schools waitlisting well over 10,000 students are prevalent. AND, the elongated cycle is also proving to be true. 

What does that mean for you as a future applicant?  

Waitlists are used by the school to ensure they hit their class goal. As an example, Georgia Tech initially offered 6,600 students. 3900 accepted a spot, and we’ve offered admission to 240 from our waitlist to this point. While our class seems to be very close to target at this point, we have not released our waitlist. Why? Because we continue to see students melting due to waitlist offers from other colleges, request gap years/gap semesters, and we are watching the international landscape to determine likelihood of visa issuance, particularly in Brazil and India.   

Covid is forcing schools to re-build the predictive model they use to judge yield and melt. This is going to take several years. If you choose to apply to several schools with admit rates below 30%, you should expect to receive at least one waitlist offer. That may sound a little wet blanket, but again college and college admission are all about understanding history, analyzing statistics, and coming to logical conclusions based on information. Just saying. 

GRADE: B+/ A- 

FINAL GRADE 

It depends is the story of college admission this year.  

Were apps/admit rates/yield up or down this year? It depends. 

Were my predictions more wrong than right? It depends. 

Should you continue to read this blog given the consistently mixed results? Well… I did include multiple caveats and disclaimers in that predictions blog, so it’s not like I won’t tell you when I am on shaky ground.  

But here is one thing I do know to be true. If you have read this entire blog, you are a talented, smart, diligent, and committed student. So I’m 100% confident in this prediction: BUILD A BALANCED LIST and you will have great choices and options. BUILD A BALANCED LIST and you won’t need to dig into every line of a Common Data Set or maniacally follow sub threads next year. BUILDING A BALANCED LIST means that every school you apply to is your top choice, rather than reserving that moniker for one place. 

Prediction: YOUR FUTURE GRADE=  A+  

What Will Your Sentence Be?

Lewis Caralla is the head strength and conditioning coach for Georgia Tech Football. Many days, after practice, he records videos for his players that start with, “Hey, guys. Got a message.” While these are brief, they are always poignant, passionate, and indicative of his deep love for his players—reflective of his desire to see them challenged and constantly improving. 

Recently, he started one of these videos with, “I think, in the end, we are all going to be defined by one sentence.” Well…that got my attention.  He went on to ask how people in your life would describe you. What is the “first thing that comes to mind about you?”  

Over the last two weeks, I’ve taken some time to think about that concept and wrestle with how people around me would answer the question. What do my kids say to their friends about me? How do my parents, colleagues, or neighbors quickly describe and summarize who I am? What are the first words, common phrases, and connecting themes? 

At any stage of life, this is a convicting and important concept.  

What do you want that sentence to be?  

What is it right now?  

Where are the gaps between ideal and current?  

If you are feeling really bold, ask the people in your life that you love, respect, and trust to share their summary sentence with you.  

Got a Message. 

When most admission officers, high school counselors, or independent consultants talk about applying to college, they break down the application into various segments. We have done that on our blog and podcast as well. It works well for purposes of simplicity and digestibility, so you won’t have to search online long to find pieces like, “Five Excellent Essay Tips,” “Acing the Interview,” or “Excelling in Extra-curriculars!”   

And we know that most students approach their application this way too. “Ok. I’m going to go ahead and get my Activities section done this week, and then I’ll move on to the Supplementary Questions  next week.” Hey, good on you. I love the time management (just try to avoid “next week” ending with an 11:59 p.m. submission on deadline day).  

Don’t misunderstand me. It is important to step away from your work a few times before submitting in order to either have others give you feedback, or for you to gain perspective and catch things you might not see in your first round of working through the prompts or questions. However, continually talking about the application in this fragmented fashion is misleading, because at schools receiving far more applications from incredibly talented students than they have spots available, that is not how they’re ultimately discussed, nor is that how admission decisions are made.  

I understand movies about college admission will make it seem like these pensive and stoic deans are dressed up, wearing spectacles, and sitting around oaken (a word typically reserved only for admission review and Lord of the Rings) tables, debating for hours the merits of each student who has applied to their prestigious university that year. However, due to the speed with which they’re reading, the volume of applications they are reviewing, and the compressed timeline for making decisions, the notes, conversations, and exchanges of admission officers are more like a Coach Caralla video- informative, personal, passionate, and incredibly succinct.  

The question then is after one of these folks reviews your transcript, reads your responses to essays or short–answer questions, considers the context of your community, family and school, evaluates your activities, and looks over your recommendation letters, what will their sentence be in summarizing your application– and how it fits into the larger applicant pool?   

And, back to the original question, “What do you want your sentence to be?” 

What do you want your sentence to be?

If you are a rising senior, my sincere hope is you will make this a constant question in your college admission search and selection experience.   

What do you want your sentence to be will help guide and lead you as you research and ultimately apply to colleges. It will serve as a signpost for articulating your hopes and dreams and determining if that campus environment and community is a good match.  

What do you want your sentence to be will help you select an essay topic from the various prompts. Students are always asking “which one” is best or “which one” should I choose? Well, let’s flip that. Which one helps you communicate your sentence? 

What do you want your sentence to be will help you know when you are done. Too often students struggle to submit their application because they are either nervous, or legitimately think that one more round of proofing or editing must be done. At some point, that is an exercise in futility.  

Instead, read over your application like an admission counselor would- cover to cover. And then ask your touchstone question—what will their one sentence summary be 

Will they include that you pushed and challenged yourself in the courses that were available in your school? 

Will they include that you were involved, had an impact on those around you, and influenced people positively? Will they answer that you will be missed by your school or community or family when you graduate? 

Will they include that they have a better sense of who you are and what you value from your writing? Essentially, that is what admission folks mean when they say, “we just want to hear your voice” or  advise you to“be authentic.”  

What do you want your sentence to be will help you wait. Clearly, one of the hardest parts of the admission experience for students is waiting on a result. After all of the hard work, preparation, consideration, and consternation, you send your application into the black hole of the admission office. If you are confident that your sentence is truly yours, you will have solace in that silence. 

What do you want your sentence to be will help you handle those admission decisions. We’ve written extensively about this in the past, and while those thousands of words are still accurate and valuable, the bottom line is this—if you are confident that your application accurately and compellingly communicated your sentence, then you will be able to keep perspective regardless of the results.     

Coach Caralla’s video concluded with this, “If you want a defining sentence that matters to you one day, live the one you want.” Bam! 

As you work on your applications, wait for decisions, and ultimately make your final college choice, that’s the mentality I hope you will adopt. It will help you eliminate options, tune out unhelpful voices, focus on what truly matters to you, and maintain peace, perspective, and sanity in the year ahead.  

Live your sentence well, friends.  

 

College Admission: Give Your Full 75%!

In many ways it appears we are nearing the end of the pandemic. While the most uttered term in 2020 was “pivot,” in 2021 “return to normal” is making a strong campaign.

I am urging you not to do that! Do NOT return to normal. Normal is overrated. DO NOT rush back to what was, but instead be very intentional about what you add back to your daily life and commitment list.

If you have not already done so, take some time this week to write down, voice record, or make notes in a document the things that you:

  • Really missed
  • Did not miss at all
  • Can’t wait to get back to
  • Hope will never full return
  • Lessons learned
  • Covid Silver Linings

If you are a junior/sophomore, doing this will be incredibly helpful as you begin your college search. Your answers will point you to identify your needs versus your wants and will help you figure out- and ultimately ask- very specific and pointed questions to admission officers, current students, and faculty members at the colleges you consider.

Maybe what you really missed was the opportunity to discuss what you were reading in smaller settings and receive more personalized interaction with your teachers. Yes, that is important! Yes, that is something to pay attention to and something that actually separates these colleges that, if you simply look at the brochures and online ads seem to all run together with sunny days and kids in pastoral settings earnestly debating issues.

If you are a senior, you are not done. Did someone tell you that? The things you missed really matter as you prepare for your first year. This summer you need to give thought to what those things were and come up with a plan for how you can immediately incorporate them into your life on campus.

Too many students get out of balance in their first semester one way or the other—either they lean too much into academics or allocate too much time and energy into social/community. If you really missed playing soccer or practicing taekwondo when things were shut down, plan to plug into those outlets early and consistently in the fall. First-years often underestimate how important the patterns they set are for mental health, building community, and being successful on all levels in college. This may sound obvious but it’s important- you only get one chance to start right. Make a plan now!

Conversely, if there were certain people (types of people) or habits that you realized during the great pandemic pause that are not healthy and don’t bring you joy/energy, well… don’t go back to them in college. Period.

Control What You Can Control

One of my big lessons from 2020 was: “Control what you can control.” I have now written that on a chalkboard, used it as a screen saver, and am giving some serious thought to ordering a mousepad or trucker hat with that statement soon. (My colleague, Ashley Brookshire, also wrote a great blog on this subject in 2019).

Try This: Before you go to bed tonight use a sharpie to write “CWC” on your hand. This will serve as a reminder for tomorrow morning when you wake up. From the very beginning of your day until  you go to sleep, take mental note of what you do and do not control throughout the day.

  • How quickly the shower water gets (or stays) hot
  • What you eat for breakfast
  • The weather/traffic
  • The mood of others
  • The texts, emails, calls you receive

Take note of what pops up in your day that derails you from getting something done or forces you to put in more time than you originally expected at school, work, practice, and so on. Pay attention to the noises, smells, voices around you.

What do you and do you not really control in your day?

What percentage of your day’s experience did you control?

Do you think if you looked over the course of a month or a year your percentage would be higher or lower than today?  

Maybe your control barometer will end up way above mine, but most days (especially during the pandemic) I was not breaking 50%, and often it was way less than that.

Controlling YOUR College Admission Experience

Juniors/Sophomores: How much of your college admission experience do you think you will be able to control? And for seniors, as you look back, how much would you say you controlled?

Do you think that percentage would be higher or lower than your average day? If you trust most of what is written about admit rates, the cost of college, waitlists, and so on, your guess may be in the single digits. BUT after watching this cycle repeat itself for 20 years now, I am here with a very different message. At this point, I am convinced that you control 75%.

25% – Where you apply. There are nearly 4000 colleges and universities in the United States alone. Many of them are already sending you emails, letters, or big brothering their way into your screen and feed. They are courting you, soliciting you, marketing to you, but ultimately it is your choice to apply or not. In other words, you decide the five, seven, eleven (please don’t go much higher than that) colleges you are interested in attending. Where you apply is totally in your control. Think about it this way- YOU are eliminating 99% of possible colleges. Talk about highly selective!

25%- Who offers you admission. So… this would be the part that you DO NOT control. If you or your parents are trying to manipulate or game exactly where you are admitted or how much financial aid you receive, please go watch The College Admission Scandal on Netflix. And if some agent or consultant tells you they “know” how this is going to play out…again, Netflix. Who offers you admission is not up to you, but again that’s only a fourth of this equation.

25%- Which college you select to attend. If you do your research, apply to a balanced list of schools (academically, financially, and selectivity), and remain open to several “top choices,” you are going to have great options. The ball will be back in your court in the spring of your senior year, and you will get to choose from your options.

Unfortunately, most of the conversation, press coverage, and general angst surrounding the college admission experience centers around where students do or do not “get in.” They make it feel like a zero-sum game that ends with either an offer or denial of admission.

In contrast, the people who really know and do this work (admission professionals/ school counselors) are always pointing to options and speaking broadly rather than narrowly. They knowthat true success is putting yourself in a position to make your own decisions. Your goal is to have choice and options. Which college you attend is up to you.

25%- How you show up. Seniors, I am looking at you!

This is the Tom Brady, Steph Curry (insert your favorite athlete, actress, CEO here) portion of college admission. This is about showing up on Day 1 with a mentality of being all in. In my opinion, is the most important part of the pie.

Plenty of kids who “get into their dream school” end up miserable there. Conversely, I’ve spoken to dozens of students in my career who did not end up at their “first choice” (a term I’m campaigning to eradicate) and ended up Kool-Aid drinking tour guides and the college’s biggest cheerleaders (sometimes literally). These are stories and experiences dictated by a mentality, rather than any particular campus.

If you are a senior, this is where your focus needs to be. Regardless of whether the college to which you have committed was your number one in January or not, it needs to be now. Your job is to get your head right this summer. Check your posture and be ready to walk onto campus head up, arms out (this is figurative, my friends), and ready to embrace your new community, and to make the most of the opportunities it presents.

I have said before and will not quit reiterating that the college admission experience, if done correctly, can teach you a ton about your actual college experience and life well beyond. The truth is that being committed, making the best of every day, situation or relationship, and choosing joy, community, and engagement is going to serve you well as a friend, partner, employee, and family member throughout your life.

I always thought it was dumb when people would say, “Give 110%!” because that is not really a thing. But 75%! Now that’s a thing. That is a lot of control. That’s an entirely different story—and it is a good one. Have fun living it out!