Is That a Good School?

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On Sunday after lunch, I was watching college football highlights, when the back-and-forth battle in Happy Valley between the University of Illinois and Penn State came on. At the time, my 10-year-old daughter was stretching on the living room floor next to me (something I often see but rarely participate in).  

With her head literally touching the ground next to her foot, she asked, “Penn State? Is that a good school?”  

Without hesitation- “Yes.”  

Now standing with foot pulled behind her and toward her shoulder, “How about the University of Ilinois?” 

“Absolutely.” 

Over the next 15 minutes, we saw about six games recapped. Private colleges, land-grant public schools, military academies, and teams covering every geographic region of the country.   Each time the announcer moved on to a new game’s highlights, Elizabeth, after a few questions about mascots or comments on helmets, would ask the same question, “Is that a good school?” And each time (including one where my wife scrunched her nose and tightly closed her left eye), I’d respond definitively, “Yes!”  Ole Miss? Brown? University of New Mexico? Gonzaga? 

Yes is both accurate and appropriate to tell a double-jointed, 10-year-old who is too busy touching the bottom of her foot to the back of her head (what?!) to listen much beyond that anyway… but it is not a satisfactory or complete answer for you 

Is that a good school?  

Whether you are a parent, counselor, high school student, or an adult supporting a student, this is likely a question you’ve either heard or asked recently.    

While the question is simple, it is no longer acceptable to settle for simple answers (or make telling facial expressions) like “No,” “Yes,” “It’s ok,” “It didn’t used to be,” or “it is ranked X (variable not Roman numeral 10),” because doing so absolutely ruins the opportunity to learn, research, grow, continue the conversation, and promote exploration.  

Instead, the answer to, “Is that a good school?” is not an answer at all, but instead an invitation to ask many questions in return.  

Adult Warning: Asking a high school student, particularly one who is hungry, to pause, reflect, and ask some deep and weighty questions may initially be met with grimaces, grunts, or departures from the room.   

Student Warning: Not accepting one-word summaries of colleges or reducing schools to numerical rankings or admit rates will lead to a deeper understanding of yourself. Small print: People bold and thoughtful enough to take this route have experienced clarification of their goals, an underscoring of their values, and an enhanced sense of control, excitement, and purpose. Do not take this path if you are more concerned with the opinions of others than your authentic self, are scared to diverge from the status quo.  

 Is it good school… for you? 

Adding these two words changes everything. First, it invites the ever-important question, “Why do you want to go to college?” Too few students take the time to actually consider and write down at least a two-sentence answer to this question, but it is imperative to do so. Don’t skip this step. Crawl before you walk. Here are a few prompts to get you started.  

  • Who do I hope to meet, connect with, and learn from in college? 
  • What opportunities do I want this experience to provide in the future? 
  • What type of people and learning environments bring out my best? 
  • What do you want the time and space to do, discuss, explore? 

Defining why, and making decisions to surround it will quickly lead to other big questions, but let’s take it slowly. 

Once you have your why written, revised, and clear, take some time to list the aspects of a college that are necessities, desires, and bonuses, or as you can see in the grid below, your: needs, wants, and would- be- nices.  

NEEDS WANTS WOULD BE NICE

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is that a good school… for ME?  

Do you want to be able to get home quickly to celebrate holidays and birthdays, or access health care and other services?  

Do you know you would flourish by going to college with a few people you know from home? And conversely, when you are honest, do you know the best thing to do is break away from certain people or the image/reputation you have had in high school? 

Are you going to have to take loans beyond what you and your family are comfortable with? 

Asking the question this way, and checking it through your filters of WHY, as well as your Needs, Wants, Would-Be-Nices grid provides a valuable litmus test. And this is not just valuable for considering where you might visit or apply, but it will be essential to re-visit once you have been admitted and are weighing your options as a senior in the spring.  

Well, I see you listed “cold weather” and “mountains” in your want column. That place is known for heat and humidity, and most folks would not define 806 feet above sea level as a “mountain.” So, are those aspects really wants or are they needs? 

Is that a good school for me? You listed small, discussion-based classes as important. Let’s research if that is the norm there, specifically in the majors you are considering.  

Adding two additional words helps get past rankings. If you are someone who struggles with Seasonal Affect Disorder and would not be emotionally or mentally healthy when it gets dark around 4 p.m. for several months, then regardless of the world-class faculty, impressive list of alumni, and the fact that you look good in their colors, the clear answer is NO- that school is not good for you.  

Is that a GOOD school? 

I find it surprising and disconcerting that on average people talk about restaurants with more nuance than they do colleges.   

“Is that a good restaurant?” is almost never met with a simple Yes/No. Instead, people are far more apt to make statements like, “Well, their pizza is great, but I am not a big fan of their burgers.” OR “If you are in a hurry and don’t want to spend much, it’s a good spot. But don’t expect a five-course experience.” OR “It didn’t used to be, but they’re under new management now and things have changed.” I’m sure you can add a few others to this list. “Good” for certain things. “Good” at a certain price. “Good” depending on what you are looking for.  

As an aspiring college student, you should start acting like one when you seek to answer this question.   

Research: Check out the programs certain colleges are known for, rather than simply their overall ranking or historical stereotype.  

Explore: Look into the faculty who are teaching in the majors you are interested in studying. What are they curious about and researching currently? What have they published, and which companies/board/organizations do they consult with or advise? 

Run the Numbers: Plug in your family’s financial data to an online calculator to understand likely costs and gauge affordability. What is the likelihood you would need to take loans to attend a particular college? Check out their financial aid site to understand how students off-set costs, juggle jobs and school, and so on. 

Network: Who has graduated from that institution and what are they doing now? Don’t just Google famous alumni, but also read their online alumni magazine and look at profiles and the opportunities graduates are receiving.  

Value Your Values: Read their mission and vision statement or even their strategic plan (executive summary is fine). Does it resonate? Does what you fine align with who you are and what you want to be a part of? Ultimately, Do YOU CARE?  

Culture Check: Read the online student newspaper to understand what current students are excited about, mad about, pushing to change, or snarky about in general. Check out the social media accounts of clubs, academic majors, and others on campus. While it’s fine to look at the admission or main handle for the university, your goal is to get the unvarnished look at what’s really happening at each place you consider.  

Is that a good school? Is that a good school for you? Is that a GOOD school? 

My sincere hope is going forward you wont allow yourself or anyone around you to answer this question with one number, one word, or one facial expression. Are we good? GOOD! 

The Top 1 Question to Ask in YOUR College Admission Experience

Listen to “The Top 1 Question to Ask In YOUR College Admission Experience – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

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

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

Do I care? 

Let’s give it a shot.  

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

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

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

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

Rankings  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5: Exactly what I am looking for

4: Pretty darn good

3: OK

2: Tolerable

1: This is a problem.  

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

Factor:  

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

What do you care about?  

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

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

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

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!

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(A College) Search of Greatness

A few weeks ago I watched In Search of Greatness, a documentary featuring some of history’s best known and most accomplished athletes, including Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Pele. It covers their backgrounds, motivations, challenges, unconventional styles, and inimitable spirit.

I’ve engaged in some vehement debates with friends about who was the “greatest of the greats,” but we all agreed on one thing: seeing true greatness in action is a rare privilege. Over the course of the last decade, that’s exactly the position I have been in serving under our now outgoing president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson.In Search of Greatness

Anyone who saw MJ at the height of his game or watched Pele play loves to tell stories about “that day” or “that game” because indelible moments leave lasting impressions. As Peterson prepares to retire from Georgia Tech, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned from his leadership.

Engage Fully

Move-in day in August is one of my favorites of the year. It’s gratifying (and frankly relieving) to see students arrive on campus. When numbers on spreadsheets and essays on applications manifest themselves in actual people with cars filled with boxes of shoes, bedding, and neatly packed toiletries, I may say, “Welcome to campus!” but I’m really thinking, “Phew. Thank God. I get to do this for at least one more year.”

The incoming class in 2009 was the first I brought in as director and happened to be Peterson’s first fall on campus as well. I was invited to join a group of administrators who were helping students unload cars at the residence halls.

Along with student volunteers, we greeted cars as they pulled up on the street outside residence halls and helped them unload from the curb. Doors would open, trunks would lift, and a swarm of movers would descend upon the wide-eyed family’s vehicle. It was hot and there was a steady stream of cars.

Many leaders would see move-in day merely as a photo opp. Grab a shoe box or some hanging clothes, shake a few hands, and wait for the article to be written up. But invariably, President Peterson would grab the mini fridge in the back of the car or the largest and heaviest box he could find and bound through the doors of the dorm and up two flights of stairs before the student’s younger brother even got out of the car.  Peterson has never been about appearance. He approached that minor activity the same way he consistently operates—fully engaged and invested.

Your Takeaway

The admission process will Jedi-mind trick you with dates, deadlines, applications, decisions, seemingly dry or mechanical components, and an endless deluge of emails and brochures in your mailbox. It’s easy and understandable to look at the 16th  college tour of the summer or another supplemental essay you have to write merely as a task to be done or an inconvenience in the midst of your busy life.

Bud Peterson
Peterson’s was formally recognized last week in the form of a $17 million endowment in his honor to help students with financial need.

My hope is you will follow Peterson’s lead and fully engage. Approach this not as a process, but rather as an experience—an opportunity to grow and learn. Instead of simply listing and describing what you’ve done on the extra-curricular section of applications, give real thought as to why you participated and what you learned. What did you get out of being on the swim team? Why did you join the Spanish club? How did it shape and change you? And do you want to broaden, deepen, or discontinue that involvement in college?

Don’t just ask teachers for recommendations. Take the opportunity to thank them for their time and effort. Share what you learned in the course and how it’s helped or impacted you. College applications should not be treated only as a vehicle for delivering information to schools. If you fully engage, they actually have the potential to be an exercise in reflecting on your high school career and assessing how your experience directs you in the future, regardless of where you end up going to college.  Engage Fully!

Ask Simple Questions

While there are many anecdotes I could recount, one of the most poignant occurred when President Peterson learned I was considering a position at another university. The title was higher, the portfolio was bigger, and the salary was larger.

He invited me to sit down and discuss the opportunity. After he shared a similar story from his career he said, “Really, there is just one thing to consider.” I waited expectantly, convinced this would be my answer, and he had the pearl of wisdom I needed to make a decision. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I want that job?’” He did not try to convince me one way or another. He did not encourage me to build a big spreadsheet of pros and cons or attempt to strategically analyze how this may impact my long-term career. Instead, he asked me to consider the perfect question—one that triggered a series of others I needed to reflect upon: Is this a fit? Where will I thrive? His question helped me tune out external pressures, opinions, and perceived factors and to be honest about what I really wanted…and why.

Your take-away

Too many students follow the crowd in the admission process. They apply to the same schools their siblings or friends applied to. They only consider local options or the most popular colleges in their region. They want to please their parents or feel like they must go to the most selective or highly ranked school to which they are admitted.

In the past we’ve written about asking better questions and even asking the same questions again and again. I stand by that advice, but to take a page out of Peterson’s book, my hope is throughout your admission experience you will continually ask the most important question: “Is this for me?”

When you are on a college campus listening to an admission officer or tour guide or academic advisor, ask, “Is this for me?” When you put together the list of colleges to apply to, ask, “Am I applying here for someone else or is this for me?”  When you are selecting a major or deciding what topic to choose for your essay or making a final college choice, ask, “What are the outside pressures I am feeling? Is this being pushed on me, or is this really for me?”

Around November of the first year (sometimes earlier) many students begin to question their college choice. They spend consecutive nights endlessly scrolling Instagram or visiting friends at other schools and returning to a dark dorm room believing they made a mistake. Sometimes this happens because they limited their admission experience to a process and simply went through the motions. They “ended up” somewhere rather than choosing it. Outside factors and pressures corrupted an honest, intentional, introspective experience. I hope you’ll have both the courage and confidence to ask, “Is this for me?”  Ask Simple Questions!

Family First

President Peterson has four (now adult) children of his own. He and his wife, Val, have fostered nine others. If you are around him long enough, you’ll hear him recount stories about conversations with President Obama, Fortune 100 CEO’s, and some of our nation’s highest-ranking military officials. He will passionately discuss thermodynamics or complex engineering concepts. But I’ve seen his greatest joy come as he’s shared simple stories about his kids and their families.

One day, early in Peterson’s tenure at Tech, we were informed of an admitted student who died in an automobile accident while driving his sister to school. We learned these were the only two children in this particular family. He invited me to his office to learn more and discuss the situation, as this was an admitted, not an enrolled or current, student.

I explained that traditionally I took care of writing to families during the admitted stage. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, then slightly shook his head and said, “You know, Rick. I’ve had a lot of titles in my life: professor, dean, provost, Chancellor, but by far the one I cherish the most is ‘father.’ I simply cannot imagine how these parents are feeling tonight.”

He wrote the letter that day. I went home, hugged my wife, and slept on the floor next to our son’s crib.

Your take-away

After sitting at the intersection between high school and college for the last 20 years, I’m convinced that at its core the admission experience is fundamentally about family. Admission officers rattle off factors and stats and dates that appear quantifiable.  Students and parents focus on elements like grades and test scores and decisions and money and other elements that appear to be sterile. The truth is the admission experience is not defined numbers but is instead deeply relational. It is rooted in both individual and collective hopes and dreams.

Visiting and applying to colleges, handling decisions, weighing options, and ultimately arriving on a campus provides an opportunity to connect rather than divide; to trust each other rather than be paranoid and skeptical about how decisions will turn out; to control what you can control—how you treat and love one another. Family First!

In Search of Greatness

Georgia Tech’s motto is “Progress and Service.” I like to modify it when talking to students and our team to “Progress (not perfection) and Service.” If you watch the documentary, you’ll notice each of the stars talks at length about losses, setbacks, challenges and difficult moments. Clearly, the refusal to accept the status quo and the desire to continually refine and improve is a commonality among the greats.

I hope you’ll take a similar approach to your next year of high school and keep that mentality as you enter college. Nobody expects perfection from you, even though at times it may feel that way. They simply see your greatness and want you to strive for it. Similarly, I cannot offer you a perfect way to go through your college experience, because it’s your experience. I can only encourage you to Engage Fully, Ask Simple Questions, and keep Family First.

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