Soothing the Sting of College Admission Decisions

Listen to “Soothing the Sting of College Admission Decisions – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My son has terrible seasonal allergies. Since Atlanta is basically a city in the forest, spring is really rough as everything starts to bloom. This week his throat has been so sore that he’s barely eaten, he’s woken up most nights crying in discomfort, and has spent his days at school suffering under a mask. As a parent, I want so badly to take away his pain, but I’m left helplessly repeating, “It is going to be ok. You are going to feel better soon.”  

All true but he’s the one having to suffer through the pain and frustration (plus pop Claritin and suck on lozenges). I can support and encourage him, but ultimately it’s just going to take time to improve  

Over the last few weeks, and in the days ahead, many colleges are releasing admission decisions. Inevitably, some of you reading this will be (or have been) denied or waitlisted (or supporting those who do)

I can’t totally soothe that sting, but over the years, I’ve written extensively about my own personal “re-routes,” as well as the experiences of students, family, and friends 

Here are a few that may give you some perspective, solace, and hope.  

Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors. Happened last year – lost an election to the board of my national organization. 

“The truth is we learn more about ourselves when we don’t get something, or when something is taken away, than when everything is smooth, easy, and going our way. Growth comes after discomfort or pain. My hope is you won’t just get through the admission process, but rather embrace it as an opportunity to remember the decisions of others are not what define us. They may change our direction, but character, mentality, and motivation is ours to choose.”

I Have a Brother. Multiple instances of not making a team, being selected, getting a job, getting into his first-choice college, and more. 

“My hope is you will come to understand and appreciate that success is not a point-to-point trip. A life fully and well-lived is not a straight road. So when you feel like things are falling apart; when you look around and believe “everyone else is happy;” when you question what you did wrong or why something did not work out, my hope is you will remember you are not at a dead-end, or even a U-turn that is forcing you to double back. These are inevitable turns, re-routes, and natural bends in the road you should expect on any journey.” 

Handling That MomentJunior year in high school, dumped by my girlfriend.   

If you If you find yourself in that moment, I hope you will have the clarity to know—or the willingness to hear your friends or parents or coaches remind you—of the truth: nobody is perfect. No college is either. 

The Other Side. Stories of current college students who did not end up where they expected. 

“There are many times in life that we need to be reminded to slow down, remain calm, and dream of The Other Side.  I hope you’ll strive to recognize those moments not only in your own life but in those of your friends and family members too. Take the time to encourage them; to come around them; to describe with optimism and confidence the better days that lie ahead.” 

Earlier this week, Melissa Korn, who covers education for the Wall Street Journal, sent out this tweet encouraging followers to share their stories of denial and disappointment. If you are a senior currently awaiting or having just received a waitlist or deny decision, I encourage you to go check out that thread, as admission directors and others from around the country shared their own stories.

I’ve said before and will say again, college admission decisions are not character judgments or predictions of future potential. Getting in, or not getting in, to a particular school does not change who you are, the feasibility of your goals, or define you in a substantive way. 

Just like with my son I know I cannot fully take away your discomfort or pain or frustration with my wordsThat is going to take some timeBut hopefully through these stories and posts will help you begin to believe and see that you are not just going to be ok—you are going to be great. TRUST!    

College Admission Word Association

Listen to “College Word Association – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

“It’s 7:20! Why are you still asleep?!” I say flipping on the lights and opening the blinds.

“My alarm didn’t go off,” mumbled my daughter from under three sheets and four stuffed animals.

“What?! I can see your clock says, ‘snooze!’”

Stuffed Animals

“I didn’t do that…”

“Whatever! Now you aren’t just lying in bed. You’re just straight up lying. You’re sleeping outside tonight, and the sun can be your alarm. Get up!” (You know. The way you talk to a child.)

I’m not saying I am proud of the threat to sleep outside, but I thought the lying pun was pretty good.

Word Association 

You, on the other hand, are not 10. And unless you are a ridiculous multi-tasker, you are not asleep. You are a high school student thinking about college, so don’t hit snooze here. Instead, flip on the lights, open the blinds, and let’s play a quick word association game.

(Do not skip this or skim down the page.) Write down, voice record, or type out the first three to five words or phrases that come to mind when you read or hear the word “college.” 

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Now (again, no skimming, skipping, or snoozing), ask one or two people you know who are either in college or who have graduated from college to give you five words and write those down.

OK. I’m going to trust you to stop reading here and complete the assignment.  Come back when you have your answers and those from the folks you talked to.

—————————

And We are back…

What did you get?

Having asked this question around the country in various cities and school communities, particularly when parents are in the room, the responses are usually extremely hopeful, relational, open, and life-giving. I see a lot of smiles and hear answers centering around friends, fun, travel, sports, and learning. 

Ok. Now I want you to write down or think quickly about the first three to five words or phrases that come to mind when you read or hear the words “college admission.”

1-

2-

3-

4-

5-

How do your answers compare?

The students and families I’ve spoken with typically come up with words like tests, stress, tuition, pressure, and deadlines.

Boo!! Who popped the balloon?! What happened to the fun, friends, growth, learning, freedom, and opportunity of college itself? My challenge to you (especially if you are a junior or sophomore just really starting to think about college) is to keep your answers as closely connected as possible. Here is how.

Change One Word.   

Traditionally, when journalists and college reps talk about admission, they describe it as a process. I want to push back on that concept. Take a minute and search Google Images for the word “process.” (Yes. I seriously want you to take out your phone and do this.)

So, what did you find?

Probably a lot of flow charts, cogs grinding together, and mechanical, sterile, linear graphics. Notice that almost none of them include other people– unless there is some lonely dude in a lab coat closely examining some colored liquid in a test tube.

If you think of all of this as a process, you begin to believe there is a specific and right way to go about it. Your mindset becomes linear or binary or zero sum. Process tightens you up and restricts you to a narrow path that you feel like you must follow perfectly in order to avoid disaster.

Process dictates each piece must fit perfectly and flow precisely from one thing to the next. And then life happens. You make a B+ instead of an A in that history class sophomore year; you don’t get elected president of the French Club; you tear your ACL and can’t play soccer on the travel team; the research project gets canceled; or I don’t know, let’s pick something arbitrary… say a global pandemic.

If this is a process, then you absolutely should or should not “do this the way your older sister did.” Process is filled with don’ts. Process is a tightrope. Process means if you miss a certain ingredient the recipe is a bust. There is absolutely no room for risk, variance, or divergence.

Now take a minute to search Google Images for “experiences.”

The College Admission Experience

What do you find? And how does it compare to “process?”

These images are more open, fluid, and relational. In these pictures you find people looking out over high places considering their options. They have vision, variety, perspective, and freedom. The people in these pictures are not trying to control each and every moment. In fact, they seem to be excited about the unknown as opportunity to explore, learn, and discover. There is no forgone conclusion, precise end result, perfect formula, or exact combination.

Experiences images are filled with boats in the water or bikes on the trail. Experiences facilitate relationships, inspire dreams, and account for a breadth of decisions, routes, choices, results, and destinations. It sure sounds like we are back to where we started with the answers to association with college.

The truth is that done well the college experience and the college admission experience should be more similar than different. Whether you are a junior, sophomore, or a parent supporting a high school student considering college, my hope is that you take time regularly to pause and check in to see if your five words associated with college and college admission are aligned or divergent. If stress, tests, control, and pressure creep in too much, it is a good sign you need to recalibrate and regain perspective.

How to do that? Might I suggest sleeping outside!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Basics of College Admission: Part 4

The last several months have led to a lot of finger pointing. The left blaming the right, and the right giving it back to the left. School administrators have been accused of being irresponsible in how they opened, or did not open, their elementary, middle, and high schools, and college presidents have certainly been the targets of plenty of ire and consternation as well.

Photo credit: The Raleigh News & Observer (file photo)

As we head into Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I’m hopeful for a different kind of finger pointing. This is the stuff of the great Dean Smith coached UNC basketball teams—when someone helps you score, win, or succeed, and you acknowledge them by pointing to them in recognition.

The truth right now is we are all doing our absolute best in a time of great ambiguity. That’s draining and often lonely. My hope is you’ll look around you today and point your finger to (not at) someone who makes your life better—the people who help you learn, grow, and thrive. Finger points during Covid include texts, calls, distanced high fives, long-sleeved elbow bumps, and a variety of other mediums. Be creative and let the folks you love and appreciate know that today.

I’ll go first: This blog and podcast would never be possible without the incredible team I have the honor to work with at Georgia Tech. To Becky Tankersley, editor extraordinaire—THANK YOU! Your patience, attention to detail, and friendship are huge blessings in my life. To Samantha Rose- Sinclair, aka. SAMMY!! who edits our podcasts and cleans up all of my stumbles, mumbles, and bumbles—THANK YOU!

To each and everyone one of my colleagues featured below—Finger point, finger point, finger point! I appreciate y’all and consider it a true privilege to call you friends and colleagues.

Our mini-series “The Basics of College Admission” has been a great success. Thanks to those of you who have downloaded, subscribed, and listened over the last few weeks. If you are just tuning in or catching up, here is a quick look at some recent episodes on very timely topics.

Admission and Scholarship Interviews

Chelsea Scoffone (Associate Director, Special Scholarships) provides key tips and insight into how to prepare and practice for interviews, answer questions well, relax and actually enjoy the experience.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Interviews for Admission & Scholarship Programs – Chelsea Scoffone” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Take advantage of “optional interviews.” Use interviews to learn more about the school and communicate aspects about your background that may not come out as clearly in your application. The best interviews are really a conversation. Translation: Don’t memorize answers!

Listen For: Key questions to ask yourself in preparation. The three biggest misconceptions students have about interviews.

Key Quote: “Don’t restate your resume…we are trying to learn those things that cannot be captured on your application.”

Further Reading: Big Future and US News

Transfer Admission

Chad Bryant (Associate Director, Undergraduate Admission) helps students understand ways students can research, prepare, and successfully transfer between colleges. He provides great tips into how students should learn about course requirements, transfer credit, deadlines, and more.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Transfer Admission – Chad Bryant” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Take time to stop, reflect, and consider your goals for your college experience. Reach out to schools early to understand their specific process—they’re all different by design, which is both beautiful and maddening.

Listen For: An explanation of articulation and transfer programs or pathways.

Key Quote: “More than 1/3 of college students transfer colleges, and nearly half of those transfer more than once.”

Further Reading: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, American Association of Community Colleges, NACAC.

The Basics of Financial Aid

Larry Stokes (Customer Service Manager, Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid) explains the “alphabet soup” of Financial Aid. He walks students through FAFSA, CSS Profile, NPC (Net Price Calculator), COA (Cost of Attendance), and EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) and gives critical tips for students and families about deadlines, questions to ask, timeline of submitting documents, and other helpful tips and advice.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Financial Aid – Larry Stokes” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines! Each school is different. Research each college and their requirements.

Listen For: How to use Net Price Calculators and how to locate “outside scholarships.”

Key Quote: “Schools are not going to be chasing you down to throw money at you.”

Further Reading:  FastWeb, College Affordability and Transparency Center,  and Federal Student Aid

Who is Reading Your Application?

Katie Faussemagne (Senior Assistant Director) gives you a look into the admission committee room. Who are admission counselors? What are their backgrounds and interests? And exactly what are they looking for when they open your application or interview you for their college?

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Who’s Reading Your Application? – Katie Faussemagne” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Don’t try to figure out what an admission counselor “wants to hear” in an essay or an interview.

Listen For: “The hidden rubric.”

Key Quote: “The biggest misconception students have is we all wear navy blazers and have a deny stamp in our hand.”

Further Reading: Our five-part blog series on The Admission Team.

Have a great week! Remember, give your fingers a break from the keyboard. Lift them up, extend them out, and encourage someone around you now.

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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. 

Seniors, Talk to Your Parents!

Listen to “Episode 17: Seniors, Talk to Your Parents – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My son turned 12 in May. He’s a red-shirted sixth grader now, and I’m seeing all the signs of a middle school boy. His feet are growing at a preposterous rate, he’s sleeping later, and his body movements are shifting from little kid to some bizarre combination of convulsion and human worm.

I get it. I lived it. Still moderately disconcerting to witness, but I understand and recall (with cringe-worthy detail) those tween years.

My wife on the other hand…not so much.  As a physical therapist, she cognitively understands the shifting circadian rhythms and physiological alterations resulting from accelerated growth. It’s the communication piece that has her all twisted up.

Over the last year, our son’s spike in one-word answers has only been rivaled by his decline in sharing both inconsequential and critically important information. Every brute utterance or omitted perfunctory anecdote is my wife’s death by a thousand cuts. Admittedly, this dialogue vacuum is juxtaposed with our 9-year-old daughter who is an open book (actually, more like an open book series). One question and she’s rolling from topic to topic with inflection, head flips, and body language any thespian would laud.

Is this starting to feel painful, awkward, or extremely personal? Mission accomplished. Welcome to middle school. Welcome to my world. (If you need a primer/refresher before moving on, check out this Trey Kennedy clip.)

You, on the other hand, are no longer 12 (if you are 12 and reading this, go back to flipping cups or playing Fortnite because it is far too early to think about college). You are a rising senior now. You are thinking about when you’ll go to college. And if you are going to do that well, it’s critical that you talk to your parents openly, honestly, and consistently in the year ahead. Why? I have three reasons for you.

Hopes and Dreams. Hopes and Dreams

If you could wiretap a few admission counselors from different schools at the back-corner table of an establishment close to an annual conference (let’s hope these scenes return one day), you’d hear some priceless yarns about the handful of “self-sabotaged” applications that come through each year. Essay phrases like…

“I may look good on paper, but I’m really terrible in person. Please give my spot to someone else.”

In an essay titled, “The 12 reasons not to admit (applicant name here)” a fitting concluding line, “I hope I’ve proven that I’m unworthy of attending your institution. If not, please let me know who I need to insult to be denied.”

“Please don’t admit me. My mom went here and insisted I apply. No disrespect – it’s just not for me.”

The list goes on, and on, and on. Every year. Every college. Granted, these bring some humor and usually get printed/posted on the back of a door somewhere in the office (along with a myriad of other gems, including the occasional celebrity headshot from an unsolicited recommendation letter or a certificate of winning the 4th grade spelling bee), but the root issue is problematic.

Ultimately, when students intentionally flub an essay or interview, it is because there has been a breakdown in family dialogue. While this may seem like an extreme conclusion, the communication wedge is prevalent (and highly avoidable) in the admission experience.

At the end of the day, it is your job to honestly articulate where you want to go/apply and why. If you are being told you must/have to/need to apply somewhere you absolutely do not want to go (or conversely that you cannot apply somewhere you really do want to go), it is incumbent upon you to be confident in expressing how you feel now. Trust me here. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t take your ball and go home (seeing that a lot in middle school world). Hopes and dreams, goals and motivations are big things. They are lifelong things. They demand conversation and confidence. Talk to your parents.

Money Matters

Similar to the self-sabotage essays/interviews, the “Awkward April Aid Appointment (AAAA)” is an annual event. Here’s how it transpires:

Student applies. Student is admitted. Everyone celebrates.

Financial aid package arrives in mail. Family arrives in admission/financial aid office. Nobody is celebrating.

The conversation that should have happened privately and months (possibly years) before is playing out in front of an admission dean. While you are wearing the college hoodie and looking down at your Insta profile pic you just took posing in front of the most iconic building on campus, your parents are either burning through tissues, exchanging passive aggressive quips between each other, or launching purely aggressive ultimatums at the dean (we don’t call it the Awkward April Aid Appointment for nothing).

Before you ever submit an application this year, it is your job to make sure you are on the same page with your parents about what paying for college is going to look like. Ask them about their conditions, limitations, and expectations. “Opening the books” and discussing loan tolerance, willingness/ability to pay, and their expectations for your financial contribution will help shift conversation around money from tense and private to an open partnership and a collective investment (and it will keep you out of the AAAA).

Should broaching this topic be your responsibility? Maybe not. But if Coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that life’s not fair. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay 6 feet apart, and talk to your parents.  

40 > 4

Recently a parent contacted our office. Their student, who was scheduled to enroll this fall, had inadvertently closed their application and canceled their admission deposit. This year, with all of the stresses of Coronavirus and the unpredictable world around us, our general modus operandi has been grace and flexibility, so the initial inclination was to reinstate her. Mistakes happen, right?

However, upon further examination it became clear this student had also closed their application earlier this summer and we had reinstated them then. In other words, it was not a mistake. It was a breakdown in communication at home- a tug of war- that we were not going to get in the middle of… again (unless of course they read this blog).  Granted, this is another extreme example, but it’s also instructive to you, as a high school senior.

While most people don’t think about it this way, the college admission experience is just a precursor to college itself. The lessons you can learn this year have the ability to launch you into a successful college experience. This is true in terms of your academic foundation, but it’s also true relationally.

First day of school
editorial cartoon

I do not believe it’s an overreach to say the admission experience offers a unique opportunity to lay a firm foundation for the future of your relationship with your family. Do not miss this chance to be honest about your needs, wants, hopes and dreams. Do not miss this chance to really listen and try to understand your parent’s point of view. Be proactive and initiate conversations. Establish a pattern in your relationship now by being open and clear. The next four months and four years have bearing on the next forty. Talk to your parents.

Listen, I don’t have all the answers, but I know this: most of the crazy stuff parents do and say is really just love in disguise. Sure, it comes across a little wacky and can seem like they don’t get you. But believe me, they are trying. They may not be able to pick you up physically anymore, but they are doing their best to hold you up, and provide you as many opportunities as they can. Show them as much grace as you can this year. Be patient. Be kind. Be a senior. Talk to your parents.

And, as always, hug your mama.

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