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.  

 

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. 

The Basics of College Admission: Part 3

It’s good to know your limits. It’s good to understand when the best thing to do is step aside and let someone else handle things. It’s also hard to miss those moments when family members communicate these things gently (but clearly) in statements such as:

  • “Just hand me the remote. I’ll show you how to find that.”
  • “I think we are good to go on virtual school today. It might be better if you go into the office.”
  • “That’s not an aerial. That’s not even a somersault. Watch this!”

This also happens to me at work. I’m fortunate to have an incredibly talented team of colleagues and friends around me. So, when it comes to communication strategy, data analysis, file review training, technology enhancements, and much more, I’ve learned to let the experts lead.

In that spirit, I’m cutting this intro short so you can hear directly from my insightful and experienced colleagues about key elements of your college admission and application experience.

Activities and Contribution to Community

Ellery Kirkconnell (Senior Admission Counselor) helps you understand what admission counselors are really looking for when they read and discuss your involvement, influence, and impact outside of the classroom.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Activities & Contribution to Community – Ellery Kirkconnell” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Focus on what you’ve contributed to your school, community, or family. This section is critical, so don’t short sell your involvement or rely on your strong academic background. “Tell us more” is the rule of thumb!

Listen For: Ellery’s crystal ball predictions on how this section will be reviewed in light of Covid-19.

Key Quote: “Impact does not necessarily mean you were a president of an organization… elected official… or the captain of a sports team.”

Further Reading Viewing: Ellery’s YouTube clip on C2C.

Letters of Recommendation

Kathleen Voss (East Coast Admission Director) provides key tips for students as they consider who to ask for letters of recommendation. She also provides helpful insight into what college admission readers are (and are not) looking for when they come to this section of applications.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Letters of Recommendation – Kathleen Voss” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Good recommendations showcase your character/compliment your story. Help your recommenders help you by giving them the time/direction/info they need to do their best job.  Only send the number of recs any particular college asks you to submit.

Listen For: The Starbucks Test (Honorable mention- Jerry McGuire hat tip).

Key Quote: “You are the book. And this is the person reviewing the book.”

Further Reading:   Big Future’s recs on recs. Insight from the Georgia Tech of Boston, aka MIT.

The Additional Information Section

Katie Mattli (Senior Assistant Director) explains what this section is (and what it’s not), as well as what readers are really looking for when they come to this section.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Understanding the Additional Information Section – Katie Mattli” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: It’s okay to leave this section blank. It’s not an additional essay or continuation of your resume and extra-curriculars. It’s an opportunity to include critical details of your story that you’ve not been able to include elsewhere. Google “the art of brevity.”

Listen For: Katie’s patented “two-part method” for approaching this section.

Key Quote: “I am a human being- and I’m trying to understand you as a human being.”

Further Reading: The Write Life.

That’s it for the real wisdom and helpful advice. In other news, here’s one more.

College Essays and Supplemental Writing

Rick Clark (Director of Undergraduate Admission) walks students through how to get started, possible topics to consider, and what “your voice” really means. He also touches on supplemental essays for colleges and walks you through very tangible tips for making your writing better.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Writing for Colleges – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Top Tips:  Voice record your essay and listen back for ways to improve. Your application is a story: how can your essay fill in gaps and round out the most complete picture of you? Have an adult who does not know you very well read your essays to simulate the experience and takeaways of an admission counselor.

Listen For: Personal secrets and confessions.

Key Quote: “Essays should be personal and detailed. The worst essays are vanilla. They’re broad and have a bunch of multi-syllabic words.”  

Further Reading:  Blogger, coach, author, and overall good person, Ethan Sawyer, aka The College Essay Guy. Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges.

Thanks for reading—and thanks for listening. We will be wrapping up our mini-series, “The Basics of College Admission,” in the next month with episodes including financial aid, interviews, transfer admission, and more.

At this point, we’ve reached about 18,000 listeners on The College Admission Brief podcast. Admittedly, my mom and kids have a few accounts I created which is inflating those stats, but in general we’re pleased and truly appreciative. The annual podcast fee just hit my credit card, so we’ll definitely continue to be around and want to make this as helpful as possible as you navigate your admission experience.

If there is topic you think we missed and want us to cover, please reach out to @clark2college or @gtadmission.

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Navigating the Path to Graduate School

This week we welcome Dr. Shannon Dobranski, Director of Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising at Georgia Tech, to the blog. Welcome, Shannon!

Listen to “Episode 20: Navigating the Path to Grad School – Dr. Shannon Dobranski” on Spreaker.

“I want to go to medical school. Have I taken all the steps I need to?”

“What should I be doing right now to get into a competitive graduate program?”

“Will I fall behind if I study abroad?”

The most common questions I hear from college students is some version of “Am I on track?” One of my tasks as a Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advisor is to reassure the students and alumni who seek my guidance that there really is no track.

Because the path to college is often forged collectively with friends and classmates pursuing similar outcomes at the same time, students assume the next step in their journey is also predictable. They might feel uneasy when they see a roommate or friend from home seemingly making faster progress or taking an unanticipated route to graduate or professional school.

But the truth is the journey to professions that require post-graduate education is not a march; it’s a voyage that requires time spent in exploration and self-discovery.

For some, that journey begins in high school and in the selection of an undergraduate university. High school seniors who anticipate graduate or professional school to pursue a career in healthcare, industry, or scholarship can ask questions of their professional mentors and, more importantly, of themselves to determine their possible way forward.

Health Professional School

BiologyYou may be attracted to a career in medicine or another health field for many reasons. Perhaps you had a good experience (or a bad one!) with a physician when you were young, or maybe you observed a loved one who struggled with illness or injury. Medicine may be a family calling or a way to give back to your community. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of becoming a physician for so long that you’ve forgotten exactly what attracted you to the field. Now is a good time to get in touch with that motive and to practice putting those impulses to words.

Start a journal in which you capture your health-related activities, such as shadowing, volunteerism, research, or other extra-curricular service or leadership. In addition to keeping a record of these engagements, you should periodically reflect on how they are shaping you into a prospective health professional. Think about the following questions:

  • Why do I want to be a healthcare professional?
  • What steps have I taken already to prepare myself for that purpose?
  • What challenges have I encountered?
  • How have my ideas about my career changed?

Of course, not everything you do will be related directly to health, but that doesn’t mean that the things you are currently doing won’t inform the sort of healthcare professional you will become. Writing down your observations about your current activities and capturing your changing perspectives will show that you have chosen your career intentionally.

You also owe it to yourself to explore the career you have in mind by consulting experts. Talking to current health professionals or to pre-health advisors is a great way to learn more about a field and to test whether it might be a good fit. If you have family members or family friends in health careers, you can start with them and ask if they would introduce you to their colleagues for other perspectives.

If you don’t have the advantage of personal acquaintances in the profession, there are websites that can tell you about the career and how to prepare for it, such as the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions and ExploreHealthCareers.org. Your college or university will likely have advising resources to help you as well, either in dedicated pre-health advisors or in more general career advising or academic advising offices. I also highly encourage you to ask about pre-health advising resources during your college information sessions and tours.

Graduate School

If you are considering a career in teaching or research, or if you want to Engineeringfast-track your career in some specific professions, you might discover that specialized post-graduate training is in your future. College professors, research scientists, and highly specialized personnel in government and industry all benefit from advanced coursework, usually culminating in a master’s degree or a PhD.

To determine if graduate school is right for you, I again recommend practicing reflection. Get started with these important questions:

  • What subjects am I genuinely curious about?
  • Do I have unanswered questions when I’ve completed a course?
  • Do I enjoy seeking new or additional information to solve problems?
  • Am I able to clearly explain my discoveries to other people?

While your reflection responses will reveal your own inclinations, you should also check with people in your anticipated career to see how much university training is expected for starting positions and advancement. For many fields, graduate school is not necessary, and you could advance more quickly by starting work rather than pursuing a master’s degree. Professors, current professionals, or pre-graduate or career advisors are good resources for this information.

As you consider your college options, ask what opportunities they have for faculty mentoring. A strong undergraduate research program will allow you to explore your commitment to research and provide experiences that will make you a strong applicant when you eventually apply to graduate school.

Next Steps

Whether you are considering a career in health or one that requires graduate school, you will benefit from a regular practice of self-reflection and from the habit of consulting a network of informed mentors or advisors. Here are some other actions you can take, now and as you enter college, to prepare for your career:

Participate in student organizations, research, or service projects. You may have an opportunity to do this in high school, but it is particularly important once you start college. These organizations and opportunities will advance you on your journey toward a specific career. Others won’t directly relate to your chosen field but will develop competencies or perspectives that will be valuable to you now and in the future. Be sure to reflect on these experiences in your journal!

Be curious. The most satisfying careers allow you to engage in a field that energizes you, so be open-minded early in your college career in case you discover that a different major or a minor would be rewarding. (Be sure to ask the colleges you are applying to about their major changing policies.) Be proactive during your college search and in your first year on campus and talk to an exploratory advisor to discover opportunities that fit your interests, and speak with career advisors about how your field of study might translate to a career.

Read actively. Explore your interests by staying current in your field. In some disciplines, the most recent developments will be captured in news publications and other popular discourse. In many fields, you will want to begin exploring scholarly journals and conference proceedings to discover the latest innovations. As a high school student, notice where some of these professionals attended college. This may help you broaden your list of schools to consider. And please don’t be discouraged if these materials are challenging at first; you will soon speak the language of your field.

Cultivate faculty relationships and maintain existing relationships. Professors may seem intimidating in the classroom, but they enjoy talking about their field of study and their research. Visit them during office hours, and try to set a goal for meeting other members of your campus support team. Check in with academic and career advisors each semester if possible.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. Taking the time to do so is a great indication that you are well on your way to an exciting college and professional future.

Dr. Shannon Dobranski has been an educator at Georgia Tech since 1996. She is currently the Director of Pre-Graduate and Pre-Professional Advising, overseeing a team committed to students and alumni seeking careers in education or health, or pursuing graduate admission or prestigious fellowships. She believes that advising is relationship and that effective advising is critical for student success in higher education. 

To Answer or Not To Answer the College Admission Covid-19 Question

Listen to “Episode 19: Answering the Covid Question – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My cousin comes to our house each Wednesday afternoon to tutor our kids. Not only is it always good to see her, because she’s family and has the biggest smile and most genuinely cheerful spirit of anyone I know, but it’s also a helpful reminder of the day.

“Kenzie’s here!!” Okay. Must be Wednesday.

When Covid really hit the U.S. in mid-March, life got wonky for us all. One of my friends has decided it’s actually still March—in this case March 182. You don’t have to look far on the internet, social media, or the national news to be reminded that the last five months have varied widely based on who you are, where you live, your family’s health/wealth, school response, and community impact. Personally, I have friends who have lost their business and were forced to sell their house as a result. I know people who have gotten sick and recovered, as well as several who have contracted the virus and died. However, I also have friends who have received promotions, new jobs, and are in businesses that are thriving as a direct result of the pandemic.

So not only is it logical, but it’s also critical that The Common Application has provided an opportunity for students to respond to a question directly related to Covid-19.

This optional question is accompanied by an FAQ to assist students if they choose to respond:

Community disruptions such as Covid-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Here are three basic tips on how to approach this question/section.

  1. Optional means optional.

You’ve likely heard this statement related to standardized testing this year, but it applies here too.

This is the question you need to ask yourself:

Do I have something additional I want them to know about my last six months in particular that I’ve not been able to express elsewhere?

If the answer is Yes, this section is available to you. If No, click the box and move on.

2. So What Did I Miss? So what did I miss?

We use the title “admission reader” intentionally. They read. Think of your application as a story.

Chapter 1- You complete the demographic information, including name, gender, high school, age, family information, etc.

Chapter 2- You provide a transcript and your counselor sends us a school report so we understand your academic background, choices, and performance.

Chapter 3- You tell us on your Activities section what you chose to invest your time in outside the classroom.

Chapter 4- You write an essay and answer short answer questions for colleges to help them hear you and see you— think of writing like coloring in an otherwise black and white outline.

Okay. Are you satisfied? Do you feel like your story has been told? If not, what did you miss (I had I bet with my daughter that I could work in at least three Hamilton references on this blog)?

If there is more to share, you need to determine whether to include that in the “Additional Information” section or in the Covid response piece. Again, that will be dictated based on timing. If what you want a reader to know is acute and was triggered by the pandemic, this question is for you. If the circumstance is more broad and protracted, likely it best fits in the Additional Information section.

3. This is a thing. But it’s not the thing. You're overthinking again

Please do not overthink this. We’ve already gotten way too many calls and emails about this question. I’m willing to put money on these two statements at any college around the country:

First, if you put something down that a reader does not think is relevant, they’re just going to move on. It’s not going to hurt you and it’s not going to “keep you from being admitted.”

Second, imagine the most dramatic, gut wrenching, tear jerking, and unbelievable scenario you can describe in 250 words. Even that… yes, even that, is not going to get anyone in. No reader is going to say, “Hey. This kid has been making C’s and D’s since 9th grade, has been expelled three times, and put down “Torments Cats” as their only activity. BUT…check out this Covid response! I really think we should admit them!”

Unfortunately, I was kicked out of the Cub Scouts, so I don’t know a special sign that means “Trust me.” Honestly, I wish someone would develop an emoji that equates to: “I’m not BS’ing you here,” because if I had that, I’d put about nine of them here at the close. In the absence of that, I’ll just trust you are a logical, smart, and reasonable person. I mean you are reading this blog after all, #amirite?

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