Mission Matters

Listen to “Mission Matters (How Mission Factors Into Admission Decisions, and Your College Search)” on Spreaker.

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

Listen to “College Admission: It Depends (Reviewing Admission Predictions From This Year) – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

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+  

College Admission: Give Your Full 75%!

Listen to “College Admission: Give Your Full 75%! – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

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!

Parents: LEAVE NO DOUBT!

Listen to “Parents: Leave No Doubt! (Supporting Students in the Admission Journey) – Katie Faussmagne, Kathleen Voss” on Spreaker.

Even though Denzel Washington is the undeniable star of Remember The Titans, the film’s title first comes up in a line that Will Patton (Coach Yoast) delivers in the middle of a big game, “You make sure they remember forever the night they played the Titans!”

If this is a movie you have seen multiple times, you may recall that little piece of trivia. But you likely missed two key things: 1- if you pause or slow mo at the 1:05:53 mark, you may recognize the profile of one of the reporters on the stairs (Yep. I made a solid $50 and got a sandwich out of it too, but meeting Denzel was the real perk.) 2- The emphatic statement Patton makes as he sends his team back onto the field immediately following his Titans line: “Leave no doubt!” It was an encouragement and an endorsement. In those three words, he was basically underscoring that he supported his squad completely and  believed in them wholeheartedly. Powerful, right?

 

If you are the parent of a sophomore or junior, now is the time to double down on that same posture. The truth is students, even amidst eye rolls or sarcasm, are equally attentive to your body language, non-verbal cues, and tone of voice. While they may be pulling away toward independence, they still need you, deeply value your opinion, and long for your approval. As you head into the summer before their senior year, now is the time to be 100% sure they know that your love, pride, and belief in them is based not on where they apply, get admitted, or ultimately go to college.

Maybe you think you have this covered. It is worth asking them that question verbatim or specifically telling them now that you support ALL of the colleges they want to research, visit, and apply to. OR… if you do have some conditions, limitations, or reservations on places you do or do not want them to look or potentially go, NOW is the time to be clear about those too. Leave. No. Doubt!

Free of charge I offer you the patent pending “Clark Doubt Checker.”

Have you bought a t-shirt for yourself recently from a particular college your student is considering – or you hope they will apply to?

Do you ask questions/ make time to visit/ or read the literature of only certain colleges your student is interested in?

Have you used the words “secretly hope” or “my first choice” when talking with friends about your student’s college search?  

These are not hypothetical or manufactured examples. First-year students tell us these stories every year, often with a clear tone of sadness or an expression of dejection. If any of these make you a bit uneasy, well…Will Patton would have some fiery words for you.

The good news is you have the ability right now to be sure this will not be your family’s story. Leaving no doubt does not mean completely resigning yourself to exactly where your student wants to apply or attend or what they want to major in during college. Instead, it means being honest about your hopes and dreams, listening—really listening—to their hopes and dreams, and most importantly reassuring them that you value the health and integrity of your relationship over any accomplishment, GPA, or offer of admission they may receive or not receive. Do not delay. I understand that it is “just May.” But May turns quickly into August, and seeds of doubt can easily germinate and grow with every passing month.

If you are the parent of a senior, basically all of that applies to you too, so go back and read closely if you skipped to this point. As your student careers toward graduation, you may have some triage work to do.

This week take the time to consider:

Does my student know with 100% certainty that I support the college they have deposited with?

If they are still debating between options, do they know that their happiness (not the name on a bumper sticker) is what I truly care about?  

Have I done/said/intimated/worn anything recently that may place a kernel of doubt in their mind?

Have I done/said/intimated/worn anything during this entire college admission experience that may place a kernel of doubt in their mind?

Have I said anything to my friends (or parents of their friends) that does not reflect my 100% support?

If they are on a waitlist, how am I balancing my feelings and comments about what might be versus what currently is?

Again, when you are honest, if you have reservations about any of this, make the time to address it with your student. You are the adult here, so you need to lead. Apologies, transparency, initiation, these are mature skills that, undoubtedly, you would like them to acquire. Now is your opportunity to model those.

Most students arrive on campus nervous about something. Perhaps they are uneasy about making new friends, unsure about leaving home, or questioning their ability to succeed, or possibly any number of other very legitimate and understandable anxieties. Don’t let their security in your love and support be among that group.

Assume nothing- LEAVE NO DOUBT!

NEEDED- New College Admissions Map

Listen to “JUNIORS: Create a New College Admissions Map – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

I have traveled extensively throughout the United States and overseas. At last count, 45 states, five continents, and 138 of Georgia’s 159 countiesBeyond that I have always loved looking at maps, studying American history, and can generally hold my own at Tuesday Night Trivia when geography questions come up.  

However, a few years ago I visited Minneapolis for the first time. I flew in late and woke up early to run through the city before the day got rolling. At the hotel’s front desk, I asked for a recommendation on a good route to get a sense of the area. “Oh. Of course. I’d recommend the ‘Bridge Run.’ It’s about six miles and crosses the river four times. I think you’ll love it.”  

I honestly pray the hotel did not have a camera on the front desk that morning to capture the next part of our exchange.  

“Oh, great. What river is it?”

Honestly, I thought she was going to rattle off some obscure name that I may have vaguely heard mentioned or seen once randomly on a map. 

She paused and I noticed her eyebrows raise slightly as she breathed in deeply.  And then, with a slight bit of pity in her voice, she said slowly… “The Mississippi.” 

Now I am pretty sure I held it together in the moment, but it was all I could do to bottle up the simultaneous combination of embarrassment and shock that ran through me.

“Perfect,” I stammered and headed quickly for the door.  

Arguably our nation’s most famous river, I’d crossed the Mississippi many times— even swam in it once–granted a few thousand miles south. How could I not realize this is the state where it starts?  

The run across the bridges at sunrise that day was breathtaking. By the third crossing I had transitioned from being flummoxed and embarrassed to laughing about it. I texted my wife (who lived there for five years) a picture from the middle of one of the bridges: “Mississippi River runs through Minneapolis…who knew?!” Five minutes later she replied, “Everyone but you, apparently.” Ouch. Insult to injury.  

I am guessing you can think of a similar situation or revelation–something you read, heard, or learned that changed your view, challenged your assumptions, or expanded your understanding of someone or something (If you can’t, start reading more and hanging around different people).  

In many ways, my experience in Minnesota is illustrative of the limited and misinformed perspective most people have on both college and college admission. They have some exposure but lack the full picture. They rely on personal experience and are so heavily influenced by social media or what they hear and observe in their small circle, that their view is understandably narrow–a condition, whether it be in politics, public health, or another issue in society, that inevitably leads to poor decision-making and unnecessary anxiety.  

Mind the Map

If you are a junior in high school, your job this spring is to work diligently to see a bigger, more accurate landscape of higher education, broaden your understanding of the amazing choices and options you have, and commit to navigating a unique path through your college admission experience 

Since traveling is limited right now in the pandemic, here are a few ways to get a sense of the landscape and ensure the “map” you are using is accurate: 

1- Determine Your Starting Point 

  • Write down the names of the first seven colleges or universities that pop into your head.  
  • Now circle the schools that are in your home state; the colleges that a parent, sibling, or other family member attended; the schools that are nationally known in your favorite sport; and any that rhyme with Stanvard. 

Are more than 50% circled?  If so, welcome to Minneapolis!  Hopefully, you see this as an opportunity to expand your horizons  

 2- Survey Your Surroundings– find out where some people you know (or know of) went to college. 

The CEO of your favorite national/international brand. 

Your principal/ school head. 

Your town/city’s mayor. 

Two or three of your neighbors or parents’ friends. 

Your favorite science or math teacher. 

Your favorite history, foreign language, or English teacher.  

Your favorite athletes. 

The owner of your favorite local business. 

Your favorite actor or musician.  

A state or federal legislator you respect.  

A famous person from your city or state. 

What did you learn? 

What surprised you? 

Is there a college or university on the list you had not heard of before? 

3- Drop a Pin

Patrick Winter, Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Services and Enrollment at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln has a theory that if you were to throw a dart at a map of the United States, or enter coordinates into Google Earth and drop a pin online somewhere in this country, you would find a college within 100 miles where you could get in, meet a friend for life, engage with a professor who would support and encourage you, pick a major you would enjoy, and plug into a campus community where you could build a network and thrive during your undergraduate years and beyond. 

  • Give it a shot! (Just promise to be careful if you choose to blindfold yourself and throw darts.)  
  • After a selecting a random location, drop a pin on your house’s location, and draw that same circle within 100 miles.  

What are your options?  

What if we expanded that to your entire state?  

Any state that borders your state?  

Go online and search for the alumni magazine and student newspapers from some of those colleges you have discovered, or check out their social media accounts. These are great resources as you are researching, preparing to visit (virtually or in person), and ultimately before making a final college choice. In these publications, you will read countless success stories, relationships that started on campus, and interesting, caring faculty and staff who make that school an absolutely incredible environment to learn, grow, and explore. They’ll prove in both statistics and stories of students and graduates that the path to success and happiness goes through hundreds of campuses, rather than the ten or twenty most media cover ad nauseum. 

4- Black Out 

Give a parent or younger sibling a Sharpie and tell them to rip the cover off brochures that come to your house in the next month. Then ask them to use a Sharpie to black out the name of the college everywhere it appears.  

How does not knowing the name of a college change your perspective or opinions? 

How do the questions you ask change when you review colleges this way?  

5- Stay Grounded and Take Flight 

Watch and listen closely to the seniors this spring. You are going to see them deliberate over decisions that involve finances, distance from home, opinions of others, and a variety of other factors. Those who applied to a variety of schools in terms of selectivity and cost are going to have options. Ask the seniors you are close to what advice they would have based on their experience. And  pay attention to what they are saying this fall as they head off to school – and as you are applying to schools too. Notice how stories and perspectives change. Their “dream school” or “top choice” from last fall or this spring is often not the same one they end up attending and loving.   

Like college itself, the college admission experience is all about learning, expanding, researching, and being open to new ideas and possibilities. That takes paying attention, reflection, intention, and sometimes tension. Focus this spring on acknowledging what you don’t know and commit to listening, learning, and exploring. Enjoy the journey