Girls Night!

Listen to the audio version here!

A couple of weeks ago I told you listening is “the one thing you can do” when it comes to college admission. The one thing you completely control. After that I got some really encouraging and humorous emails from fellow wallet-leavers (and those who love them) around the country. It is good to know I am not alone. I also got one note that said, “What they really need is just to know what admission people really want.” Challenge accepted!

You could call what I’m about to share the magic bullet; the linchpin, the Holy Grail. Or you could just call it “the one thing that admission people want.” It is what we hope you will do with your time outside the classroom. It is the type of person we want on our campuses. It is how we hope you’ll go about choosing your academic path through high school. And it’s also the best way to navigate the admission experience. For those of you who have been reading this blog since it started three years ago, I hope you were a freshman then, because your patience is finally paying off—just in time for this pivotal trade secret.

But since you have waited this long, you can wait a few paragraphs more, right?

Not everything that can be counted counts…

Unfortunately, too often the college admission experience begins with, and is plagued by, a mentality of “what do I have to do?” Here’s how this plays out:

Not everything that counts can be countedQ: In your presentation, you showed your middle 50% score ranges. (As they Google test-prep programs) So if I get 60 points higher, I will have a better chance, right?

Q: Your first-year profile shows that most students entering have taken around nine or 10 AP, IB or Dual Enrollment courses. Which other class should I add to my schedule?

Q: So I was reading about the value you place on extra-curricular involvement, contribution to community, and Progress and Service. Which is better: two years of ultimate Frisbee, or three years of Beta Club?

Year 1

The other night my wife and I watched the movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun with our kids. As it started, my wife said, “I haven’t seen this since our girls’ nights,” and then looked at me. Confused, so did both our kids. Let me explain.

When Amy and I first moved to Atlanta, she did not know anyone in the city. No friends, no job—just a new husband…me. She was planning on getting her master’s in physical therapy, but had a year to work on the pre-requisites, study for the GRE, establish residency, make some money to pay for the program, and adjust to a new town (and husband).

I know what you’re thinking: that must have been rough. And you’re right.  I already had a job and was originally from Atlanta. Several of my good friends from college lived here as well, so I was plugged in and fairly busy. In those first few months, Amy tried one job and hated it. Knowing everything was short-term with school starting the next fall, she took another job, and then another (to clarify, she did not work three jobs simultaneously).Girls just want to have fun

We would go to dinner or watch a game or just sit on our porch, and she’d talk about how difficult it was not having close friends or family in town, like she did in California and North Carolina. Finally, one night I decided I had to take a more radical approach to cheering her up. I had to do something unexpected—something just for her.

We started “girls’ nights” once a month. I had long argued that I was not physically built to power walk the way I knew she and some of her friends could. I remember seeing them go at an incredible clip for what seemed like hours, chatting and enjoying time together. So one night we power walked. Two hours, just walking and talking all through the neighborhood(s). Admittedly, I looked pretty awkward, and at times I struggled to keep up, but it was absolutely worth the effort for the joy it brought her. One night dinner was a just a giant salad and we spent the evening reading a book aloud to each other. And yes, one night we did facial masks and watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun (I’m telling you, it’s a must see!).

Not everything that counts can be counted…

So what’s the perfect class schedule, the right test score, the magic combination of sports, work, and school leadership? What is it that admission people really want? The answer is simple: we want Girls’ Nights!

  • Power Walks. We’d love for you to choose a rigorous curriculum solely for the love of learning and expanding your knowledge (more on love in the next point). That is why you so often hear the buzz phrase “intellectual curiosity.” What admission people really want to see is you power walking through your curriculum in high school. Yes—it means there will be times you are not totally comfortable. There will be some classes where you are not a complete natural and you have to work harder than some classmates to keep up or to excel. But if power walking is your mindset, you’ll know when the load is appropriately challenging versus absolutely overwhelming. You will be more appreciative of your teachers; more likely to seek help when you need it and give help when you are able; less focused on the grade and more on the content; and ultimately you’ll end up far more prepared when you arrive at college.
  • Love. We want you to volunteer at a hospital or master a language or earn your black belt not because it will look good or separate you from other applicants, but because it’s a genuine interest, an opportunity to grow, a passion, a love. If you hate tennis, quit. If you are miserable eating the bread in French Club, pack up your things and leave. Au revoir. “Which is better: two years of ultimate Frisbee, or three years of Beta Club?” Neither. Trust me—we are not making those kinds of delineations. Your sanity, enjoyment, and time are the priority. Love does not keep records or count accomplishments or track time. What do admission people want? We want to attract applicants and enroll students who are looking to build others up, rather than one up or edge others out. We are looking for future graduates who will invest deeply in people, communities, clubs, sports, and jobs—whether or not there is a picture in a yearbook or a line on an application.

The Perfect Night

There is no perfect or right girls’ night, just like there is no perfect or right college. Amy loved those evenings not because they were ideas from a Top 10 list or what someone else said would be best. She loved them because they were perfect and right for her. Some people are not big salad fans. I get it. If you don’t like humidity and roads that start with “Peach,” avoid Atlanta for college.

What do admission people want? We want you to explore all your options and to honestly consider and intentionally choose your best fit when you apply to college. We want you to be mindful that this is a deeply personal choice that is authentically yours, so you’ll be confident when you arrive at your university.

Utopian? Pollyanna? Perhaps, but I’m okay with that. Granted, you are talking to someone who has now read nearly every Nicholas Sparks novel aloud and unashamedly endorses early Sarah Jessica Parker. But this is about you, not me. I am just doing what was asked– telling you what admission people want: Girls Nights!

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The Power in the Process

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

One of the first places I visited after my move to Atlanta was the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It’s now become part of my standard rotation of weekend activities. The grounds are expansive and you instantly forget you’re in the middle of metro Atlanta. Some weekends I sit and reflect while I enjoy the calm, other times I enjoy two-hour “forgot to hit the gym this week” walks around the area. Variety is the spice of life, right?

The gardens recently debuted their exhibit for this year: Imaginary Worlds. A Pegasus, a phoenix, a peacock, and about a dozen more giant creatures made of plants are dotted around the park. And all of them are incredible. The sculptures are examples of the art of Mosaiculture (think half mosaic, half horticulture). I may be biased, but I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area before the exhibit ends in late October.

I visited the new exhibit as soon as it opened, and surprisingly one of the most impactful parts of my experience was a stop in an unassuming little hall in the middle of the gardens. The room was nearly bare, with the exception of four posters that storyboarded the logistical and creative processes behind the mosaiculture exhibit. I learned that many months of work go into the creation of these sculptures, starting in Montreal with the design, then the framework, then the plantings. Only then are the sculptures finally revealed for display to guests in the gardens.

This process—the length, the planning, and the final reveal—are strikingly similar to what college applicants go through year after year. In August we will open up our first-year application to a whole new class of students. However, the application is really one of the last steps in the process. By the time you start your application, most of the hard work is already behind you. Your long-term efforts ultimately make you successful. You’ve done the exploration, the preparation, and the polish-all that’s left is to showcase your work. Here are a few tips for how to make the most of each year of high school.

Draft your design

Sketches for the mosaiculture pieces started taking shape about six months before the installation of the exhibit. The design process is challenging, exciting, and lays the groundwork for everything to come. My favorite note from the posters was the mermaid sculpture was originally going to be sitting off to the side of a fountain, hanging out on a wall. That idea was scrapped, and the mermaid was redesigned for where she sits today–in the middle of the water, proudly atop the fountain. You can’t always get it right the first time, and that’s okay. Turns out, mermaids love being in the water!

Your freshman year: what do you want to create? Challenge yourself, explore your interests, and start over if you need to! Let yourself be vulnerable and sign up for a class or activity that falls outside that trusty comfort zone. You might discover something that reshapes your long-term pursuits. Maybe you try out for theatre after your English teacher comments that you have a flair for the dramatic. (No? Just me?) Take this time to be authentic and consider what you want to explore—then create a blueprint for your next few years. Don’t worry if you need to start over or change directions. Growth in design is a lifelong process, and there is value in the lessons along the way.

Build your foundation

Underneath the flowery façade of the sculptures is a carefully crafted foundation. Each structure is made of a variety of materials such as internal irrigation systems, steel, soil and mesh. All of these work together to eventually house the plantings.  I dare say this is the most substantial part of the process–after all, what good is a strong design without strong bones to support it?

Your sophomore and junior year: You’ve laid the groundwork, now it’s time to build. Lean into a passion you’ve identified. Explore a leadership role that allows you to have impact, take a deep dive, and contribute to your community. Like the sculptures, the strongest foundations are constructed with a variety of materials. Maybe you develop your skill set with independent projects, build teamwork and solid personal relationships in an organization of your peers, or structure your time with a job, internship, or research. Applying yourself in several settings will present plenty of opportunity to discover your own strengths.

Plant your flowers

The design is laid out, the structure is built, but it does not look like much until the plants are actually in place. The frames were shipped to Atlanta from Montréal in January, and at that point, more than 200,000 flowers were tucked into soil-filled mesh. In the days leading up to the exhibit the sculptures were transported to the gardens (often they’re transported in pieces, which is wise, as I can’t imagine a 21-foot dragon would do so well in Atlanta traffic) and prepared for display.

Senior Year: You’re nearing the finish line, but you have a serious task ahead of you: it’s time to let years of work take the shape of an application. Add color here, dimension there, and always include your personality. Does your application show off who you are and what you value? Maybe you’re the Pegasus, the peacock, or the giant Rip Van Winkle caught taking a snooze under the tree (I can relate). You have a voice with a story to tell, one of growth and exploration and personal investment. How will you paint that picture—better yet, how will you plant those flowers?

Bonus: Just add water

There is a caravan of three camel statues off to the side of the garden lawn, and as I walked by, a staff member was hosing them down. No, the irony wasn’t lost on me—Atlanta is hot in the summer and even camels need a little H2O. Staff will continue to monitor and tinker away throughout the summer to keep the topiary art in tip-top shape. The exhibit may have already started, but there’s plenty of work to be done to keep the camels and their creature friends looking good for months to come.

After you hit send: You’ve spent years crafting a high school experience that brought you personal growth, and that journey doesn’t end when you close the internet browser on your college applications. It doesn’t end when you get those college decisions back, either. There’s no senior slump, no post-application apathy, (that could make a great band name, dibs!) you’re just getting started! This story you’ve built isn’t just a tool to land that college acceptance–it’s a foundation to build on throughout your academic career, your personal life, and the great big beyond. So take care of your hard work, and keep building away.

Sammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for four years. A newly-minted southerner, she moved to Atlanta and joined Georgia Tech two years ago as a senior admission counselor on the first-year admission team. She now uses her millennial-ness and love of working with students, families, and counselors to interact with the GT Admission community through our social media channels. If you’ve gotten this far, send her questions about admission or Netflix recommendations on twitter or Instagram- @gtadmission.

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Would You Rather…?

Would You Rather…? Yep. This question was a big part of the Olympic viewing experience at our house.

  1.  Would you rather have no training and compete in the Skeleton OR Ski Jump? Personally, I’m going Skeleton all the way here. Sure, it would be moderately terrifying to go that fast, but worst case you roll off (careful for those blades on the dismount) and walk to the finish line. Meanwhile, with Ski Jump, I just see no way I’m walking away with less than two broken bones.
  2.  Would you rather be in Ice Dancing OR Curling? Our kids are split here. Our son is adamant that he’d never wear that costume and dance with a girl. (In this case, I am translating “never” as “check back when I am 16.”) Our daughter adamantly argues that Curling is the most boring thing she’s ever seen. “Is this still on?” “Sweeping is not for fun,” and my personal favorite, “He looks like our neighbor.” Hard to argue.

I didn’t pose this one but it did go through my head (because this is the kind of thing that does): Would you rather participate in a sport that has a score/time to win OR one that is judged? I can see both sides here. You’ve trained for four years (some would argue a lifetime). You’ve risen early, worked, sweated, and bled. You’ve sacrificed your time and sleep and diet and even personal relationships to get to this point.  It makes sense that you might want a very objective, neutral, quantifiable measure to differentiate you from the other competitors. And if you compete in one of those sports, that’s exactly what you get. Granted, it must have been heart-breaking for the US Luge Team not to medal when they finished .57 seconds from Gold and .103 from stepping onto the podium for a Bronze, but they signed up for it.  And clearly the German bobsledders who finished upside down were not concerned about impressing any judges on route to their Gold medal. They were the fastest. Period.

In Freestyle Skiing or Figure Skating it is all about the difficulty of your program, the execution of your routine, and your style (could argue personality) that you exhibit to the judges. Frankly, as a native southerner, I was just impressed when someone made it down the hill, landed a jump, or managed not to fall during a routine.  As I watched some of these events, the eventual medalists were not always the athletes I thought were the best from the outside looking in. Of course, I was not privy to all of the metrics or aspects they were looking for to make those determinations. Still, I could see how after all of those practice sessions and injuries that having a group of judges deduct or reward points based on the slightest angle of a skate or hand position on a snowboard would be maddening. And yet, it’s not like they were racing. They were not expecting their results or medal to come from time or speed. They knew that there would be a level of subjectivity leading to or from the medal stand.

So many lessons to be drawn from Olympians about perseverance, dedication, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. but I am going to stay in my lane and focus on how this applies to college admission.

Let’s start with this.  Most schools make decisions based on quantifiable metrics. Of the four thousand post-secondary options in our country (with over 2000 four-year colleges), the average admit rate is 65% (See page 3). In the vast majority of schools nationally, they have space available for talented students like you, and they are going to use your GPA and test scores to make those decisions.  These are publicly available formulas that are clearly outlined on their sites, in publications, and in presentations. In most cases, these schools have admit rates over 50% and they have determined that if you are performing a certain level in high school, you will be academically successful on their campus. At least one of these schools should be on your list. The good news is that you will absolutely find more than a few where: you will be admitted; you will find a lifelong friend; you will find a professor who will mentor you and set you up for success in graduate school or as you launch into a career; you could take advantage of phenomenal internships, study abroad opportunities; you can afford and may even provide you with scholarships as well.

Like an Olympic athlete competing in a sport that is evaluated by people, here are some things you should know if you are applying to a highly selective college that has very few spaces and yet a pool of incredibly accomplished students.

  • Numbers are not going to be the deciding factor. Yes, we ask for test scores. We look at them and consider them, but at Georgia Tech this year two of every three applicants had a 1400+ SAT/ 30+ ACT. The College Board and ACT research clearly demonstrates that using “cut scores” (i.e. drawing an arbitrary line between say a 1360 and a 1370 is a misuse or abuse of tests). Our own campus specific research verifies this as well. Testing is far less indicative of academic success on our campus than rigor of curriculum and performance in classes. This is why students appealing a denial at a highly selective institution because they have a 1500 SAT has no merit. This is not short track racing. We never said it was going to be about your testing- and our decision only demonstrates that we were transparent here.
  •  Strength of program matters. If you watched any of the Snowboarding or Aerial or Figure Skating, you heard the announcers talking at length about difficulty of program. An athlete who attempts and converts a quadruple salchow or double lutz or a Triple Lindy is rewarded for that accomplishment, skill, and ability at a higher level than a competitor who hedges their difficulty in order to avoid a fall or mistake. In admission committee and file review, we do the same thing. This is why colleges that have a difficult curriculum (not always directly correlative to admit rate or rankings) also value your course choice in high school. The bottom line is that a student from the same high school, i.e. has similar access to courses, who takes AB Calculus and Physics II and does well is a better fit for our Civil Engineering program than a student who has opts instead for Pre-Calculus and AP Psychology.  You don’t see the Olympic judges walking out of the arena questioning their decision to place value on this element, and we do not either. Rigor matters. Figure Skating

 

 

 

 

  • Paper vs. Practice. “How could you deny my son? He has all A’s.” I understand, sir. However, since his school adds extra points for rigorous courses, an A can range from 90 to well over 100. A 91 and a 103 are not the same… and we are going to differentiate. This year we have a school that sent us nearly 200 applications. Of those 160 had above a 90, i.e. an A average. Now we can go round and round all day about the chicken and the egg here on grade inflation just like we can try to grapple with how Russia’s Alexander Krushelnitsky failed a doping test for Curling, but that seems counterproductive. Highly selective schools, just like Olympic committees, are going to differentiate great from outstanding.
  •  Style matters. Yes, we look at the technical as well as the full program. Review includes essays, interviews, and opportunities for you to tell us what you do outside the classroom. Why? Because you will not just be a student on campus, you will be a contributing citizen. Ultimately, once you enroll and graduate, you will be an ambassador. Judges give style points. Admission committees do as well. We care where you are from. We are listening for your voice. We want to know how you have impacted and influenced your community. We are counting on your counselors and teachers in their recommendations to build context around a GPA or a test score or an IB diploma. And because all of this is plays out in a holistic admission decision, the student with the highest test score or most APs or who sits at the top of a spreadsheet on a sorted GPA column is not necessarily the gold medal winner. Nobody is holding a stopwatch in admissions committee.
  • It cuts both ways. The hard truth of selective college admission is that it is a very human process. The upside? You’re not being sorted out based on GPA or test score alone. We are looking in depth at school curriculum, grade trends, course choice, performance, as well as who you are, who you want to be, how you impact others, and how you will match with our culture and mission. The downside? We are human. Read: judgment calls, conversations in committee, subjective decisions based on institutional priorities. Not gold, silver or bronze… grey.

Ultimately, if you are choosing to apply to a highly-selective university, you have to submit your application with the mentality of an Olympian. The competition will be stiff and there is no guarantee that you “end up on the podium.” Trust your training. You have prepared well. You have worked hard. Watch the closing ceremonies this weekend. Whether an athlete has a medal around their neck or not, they will walk through that stadium with incredible pride in their accomplishments, as well as confidence and hope for the future. If you are a senior this spring, regardless of admission outcomes, this is how you should be walking the halls each day and ultimately across the stage at graduation. Confidence and hope, my friends. Your future is bright.

Challenge By Choice

This past August I went backpacking in Scotland with 10 first-year Tech students. Our trip was led by Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT). One of their core tenants is “challenge by choice,” which means most of the activities have modifications based on your comfort level. “Today we are mountain biking. You can do the 23 mile trail with boulders, jumps, rattle snakes, and a few places you could careen off the side of the mountain. OR you can do the eight mile loop around the lake.” The goal is to give the participants options, but also to push them outside their comfort zone and stretch them beyond what they think they can do.

On our trip, however, there were no options. We were going point to point, and the distance was what it was, with one exception: Ben Nevis. At 4,400 feet Nevis is the highest peak in Great Britain. While it may not be Pike’s Peak, I could not see the summit from the trail head and there were lots of switchbacks.Mountain

After the first hour of climbing, our group naturally broke in half. The lead pack had more experienced hikers and moved at a pretty aggressive clip. I was not in that group. I was in the back… actually, the way back. After 2.5 hours we stopped for lunch, estimating we were about halfway up. Folks were tired. We had blisters, we had headaches, and we also had real doubts.

As we resumed our hike, the plan was to go 20 more minutes and check in. We’d plod forward, step by step, trying to talk about random subjects to keep our minds off of the hike. For the next hour we went from one logical stopping point to another. “Everyone good?” A few “Yeps,” a few “I think so’s,” and a few closed eyed grunting nods. “Challenge by choice,” one of the ORGT leaders would say. “We can turn around if y’all want, but I think you can at least make it to the next point,” as she pointed toward a large cairn a few hundred feet up the trail.

Ben Nevis taught me five lessons that are applicable to both life and college admission:

We all have more in us.
Admission websites, publications, and presentations often talk about competitive GPAs and rigor of curriculum. But we fail you by not always describing why we care to see you stretch and challenge yourself academically. Very little of our conversation in committee is about your ability to actually do the work. Most applicants to selective colleges have that covered. The truth is that some of the greatest difficulty of the first year is re-establishing yourself and a community around you; or adjusting to living in a completely new part of the country; or figuring out if you should use the warm or cold cycle on the washer. So in the admission process at competitive schools it’s not about the number of difficult courses you take, it’s about a character trait. It’s not about seeing that you packed in more but that you put in more, so that when you arrive on campus you thrive in the classroom and have the capacity to engage, influence, and connect outside the classroom. When we review your application, and particularly your transcript, we are asking if you have chosen challenge, because we want evidence that when you are stretched you respond well. So what is the next level for you? Maybe that is something quantifiable like taking HL instead of SL Spanish, or perhaps it is less tangible and translates simply to working harder or learning more deeply in a particular course you are taking. Set your eyes on the next switch back, and pull your backpack straps a little tighter. This is not about getting in. It’s about preparing and also learning an incredibly valuable lesson that will set you up for success in college and beyond—there is more in you!

Celebrate your wins! It's not a race
One student, a hard-core swimmer who was recruited by Division I programs, was in the back with me as we neared the top of the mountain. In a pool, she can swim all day (literally).  But the term “fish out of water” has never been so fitting. We saw the crest and she was pumped. But as we drew closer, it became clear it was a false summit. We found a natural stone bench and sat down to have water and a Kind bar. She looked around at the incredible views and vistas, then looked back down the mountain at hikers who appeared like tiny specks at the bottom. “This is beautiful,” she said, then added astutely, “I know a lot of people will never see this.” The vantage point was incredible. And she could not have been more right about the latter piece too. Getting there had taken a ton of work and we’d seen several groups turn around along the way. About 83% of high school students graduate, and only 65% of those go on to college, which means approximately half the students who started the climb are not sitting where you are. So when you get accepted to college, whether it’s your first choice or your fifth, celebrate your win. Consider the work that it’s taken to get there and the people who have been encouraging and supporting you on your climb. Look back at your hard work and stop to appreciate the view. (We celebrated with Skittles. I’ll leave your reward to you. Just promise me you’ll slow down, enjoy, and celebrate.)

There’s more than one summit.
This is your climb and your trek. You know where you’ll flourish. You know where you’ll find a community to challenge and stretch and support and encourage you. And if you are doing this search and application process well, you’ll realize there are many places to find the view and experience you need to realize your dreams. So don’t let a family member or a friend tell you that there is only one school you “need” to go to or “deserve” to go to. If a place is too cold or too homogeneous or too pretentious or too urban for you, it’s false summit for you. You define your summits.

It’s not a race.
Holistic review by definition means schools look at way more than one number (GPA) or a set of numbers (count of AP/IB/Honors, etc.), and certainly more than test scores, which continue to decline in predictive value. The person to the top the fastest does not necessarily win, and admission decisions from highly selective colleges will not be quantifiable. The student hiking in the back of our group had never been on a trail. She was not as fast as some of her peers, but her desire and indefatigable spirit were unrivaled. As we sat at the false summit dividing out red Skittles, I asked, “You good?”  I’ll never forget her response, because when she looked up at me I thought she was going to cry. But instead she replied, “Rick, I didn’t come her for nothing.” Wow! We got up and trudged another 45 minutes to the top. Selective colleges want to admit students like her because they are grinders, workers, strivers. Sometimes these are students whose parents did not attend college, and yet they’ve achieved incredibly inside and outside of school. Sometimes this is the student who was diagnosed with a life-limiting condition in their sophomore year requiring eight surgeries, yet they’ve still managed to make B’s while juggling constant treatments and medical attention. Sometimes this is the student from a school which didn’t offer Differential Equations and courses beyond AP Computer Science, but who sought out online options or dual enrolled at a local community college for a challenge. On a scatterplot, they may come in below a college’s profile, but an X and Y axis can’t capture “I didn’t come here for nothing.”

Hike Well.
You can’t fake number four (see above). You may be the kid in the front group with plenty of exposure to hiking, a high dollar backpack, and Gortex boots. If that is your background, this becomes a matter of how you climb. I wrote last week about controlling what you can. You control how you hike. The admission process is not fair. You will see a student with “lower scores” get admitted to a school where you do not. You will see a recruited blue-chip athlete get into a university that does not admit your best friend who took “better classes.” It will happen—it happened last year, it happened a decade ago, and it will happen this year. Want to know what doing it right looks like? When we reached the top, the first group had been there an hour. It was chilly, it was blustery, and they still had a 2-3 hour climb back down. But they waited. When we rolled in, there were high fives, hugs, and applause. It was one of the most genuine, inspiring moments I’ve been a part of in a long time.

If you are defining your own summits, then seeing someone else get there too is not going to bother you, it’s going to encourage you. That, my friends, is character. And character, for all of us, is a challenge by choice that lasts a lifetime.

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Straight Talk

I don’t love the title either. What can I say?

I was talking to a Tech grad recently who managed a major hedge fund in New York and is now a multi-millionaire living on a golf course in one of Atlanta’s nicest neighborhoods. After we concluded our conversation, I eavesdropped on his next conversation (told you it was a life skill) with a graduating senior majoring in business. It started in a typical fashion about big firms and the importance of graduate school versus practical experience. But then it got really interesting:

Student: “I’m about to start with X firm (big, famous, super competitive) next week.  I’m excited about the salary and my apartment, but I’m worried I’m not going to have any work/life balance.”

Alum: “You’re not. Well, at least not if you want to keep getting promoted. The rest of the guys there are going to be all in. 70 hours is expected and that’s a slow week.”

It was blunt, but it was honest. And while the kid looked a little dazed at first, I think he also appreciated it–or at least he recognized it as true, and ultimately as a decision he’d have to make.Georgia

Last week I got back on the recruiting beat for Tech. On Monday, I hit Rome and on Wednesday, Athens (Georgia that is… we also have Cairo and Bethlehem for those scoring at home). Either during or after our presentations, an inevitable question is: “Should I take an AP class or a dual enrollment class at a college in my area?” Another version: “Is it better to take IB or AP?” Or perhaps: “Should I take the fourth year of Spanish or another science course?” The beauty of my job is I can simply respond, “it depends” and then walk away. But I don’t… or at least I haven’t yet.

It Depends…

It’s true though… it does depend. Are you applying to a school with a 50%+ admit rate (and be reminded that would be the vast majority of colleges in the country) where they publish an academic formula for how they make decisions? Well, if that’s the case, then no, it does not really matter. Do what you want to do. You will know before you apply if you’re going to get in or not, because they’ve published their standards online. If you are having problems doing the math of the formula they use to calculate whether you’ll be admitted, i.e. SAT + GPA = X, then I’d suggest you consider donating your application fee to a charity instead.

If you’re asking because you are legitimately concerned about which is the better foundation or preparation for college, then choose the one which most aligns with your intended major or future aspirations.

But if the question is about “getting in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 2000+), then the clear answer is take the tougher class and make an A in it. Which one is harder? You know better than I do. Be honest with yourself about it. Is the reason you want to go take English at the college down the road because your high school’s English teacher is known to be really tough? Well, then you’re ducking rigor–and that’s not going to fly in Yale’s admission process. Is the reason you want to take Spanish really because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester?  Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class.

The competition is real.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want kids to be kids too. I wish we could go back to the 70’s, and not only because of the sweet clothes. It would be great to re-visit a time when students could pay tuition by working a part-time job, and getting into your state’s flagship was merely a matter of graduating from high school. But that’s not where we are.  Application numbers at the most prestigious schools continue to go up. These places are not growing substantially in enrollment, so their admit rates continually decline. The competition is real. You will hear college reps on panels talk about holistic admission and looking at the entire person. We’ve all signed on to the Turning the Tide report. We are not lying. We do want kids on our campuses who will genuinely care about others, positively influence their local community, and play integral roles in their family. But at these places the baseline competitive applicant is so high both academics and outside passions and impact are possible.Which One

The Next Level

Think about something in your community: band, soccer, chess, debate. There are levels of those activities, right? The truly elite young soccer players are committing their time to academies and clubs. They’re playing year round and spending their weekends traveling, doing skills sessions, watching film. If you want to make the team next year, you keep on pushing; you keep on lifting weights or running on your own; you keep on going to camps in the summer. Yes, those are sacrifices. No, there is not a lot of balance. But that’s what being in the top 1-5% of soccer players around the country requires now.

The same is true of highly selective colleges and universities. The applicants getting accepted have chosen rigor. They have piled on academic courses, in addition to all of the other things they’re doing outside the classroom.

Don’t interpret this as my endorsement of overloading academics or any pleasure in exacerbating the situation.  I can poke holes all day in the methodology of the rankings or point fingers at people in certain communities who insist on their kids applying to a very specific subset of schools.  But that is not the question at hand.  Similarly, I don’t think my Tech alumnus friend was saying, “Forget your family and work all the time.” He was saying in that climate, and in that field, and in that city, you’re not going to have work/life balance if you want to be the most successful.

Let me bottom line this for you: the most elite schools are going to continue to admit the students who have pushed and stretched and challenged themselves the most in high school. “But Jerry Rice and Brett Favre came from lesser known schools and were NFL superstars.” “What about the kids in the small remote village who never hears the gospel?” “I read about a kid who got into Harvard who had some Cs and low test scores.” Okay, sure, But we are talking about YOU. If you are “that student” at the session asking an uber-selective college if you should take one course over another, save your query to ask about whether the vegetables are locally sourced.

Still don’t love the title, but it is accurate.

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