Tell Yourself a Different (College Admission) Story

Last week I received an email entitled “Admission Fears.” The title struck me immediately, but what saddened me was it was sent from an 8th grader.  Her note was only three sentences and did include a very sweet P.S., but it left me asking a host of questions about how we got here as a society, my role in tweens sending “Admission Fears” emails, whether now might be a good time to open a bike shop/ bar on the beach, and many more. Ultimately, her question was, “I was wondering what you were looking for in a student, so that I may know what I have to offer to your prestigious school.”  If you’d rather not read my reply, here’s the original Twitter thread.

Dear Liza,  

Thanks so much for your email. I am sorry for not replying earlier and hope your year is going well. It sounds like you are a very diligent and focused student who is already thinking about college after high school. That’s awesome!   

I was thinking a lot about your email this weekend. Based on your title and question I’m assuming you have heard it is really hard to get into college, or that you are concerned you will not be/have what colleges “are looking for in a student.” Because this narrative and anxiety is so prevalent, we write a blog and produce a podcast about these topics at Georgia Tech.  I even wrote an entire book geared toward helping students and families keep perspective during the admission experience. But you don’t need to worry about any of that right now.

The truth is our country is in a negative loop when it comes to its view on and discussion around college and college admission. There is too much misinformation, disinformation, and limited information in this space, which often emanates from people with loud megaphones or big platforms who often make/charge lots of money to incite the type of fear you referenced in your note. 

So, as you move into and through high school, I want to encourage you to tell yourself a different story about college and college admission. This starts by replacing fear with hope. 

First, a confession. Your note struck me because my son is your age. So while I’m emailing you back, I’m also thinking about him, and other kids in high school (Oh… and I also turned this into a blog. Don’t worry- I changed your name). 

Admission Hopes 

My biggest hope is during most of high school you will not think about college too often. Instead, just focus on being a good high school student. Go to class. Learn how to take notes and study efficiently. Listen and ask good questions. Participate in your classroom discussions and do personal research on some of the topics you cover in school on your own, so you can dig deeper and get as big and broad of an understanding on issues and information as possible. Outside the classroom, get involved in the things you enjoy and find fun, interesting, or broadening. Invest in your school and local community and seek to positively impact the people around you.  

Ultimately, that is what colleges are looking for. We want to build a community of people who are interested in learning and challenging themselves academically, and who are committed to impacting and influencing people around them-both inside & outside the classroom.  

In other words, don’t worry about college admission committee rooms you will never enter. Instead, focus on the rooms and spaces you walk into every day. Your living room, classroom, place of worship, or job. Be a good classmate, friend, daughter, sibling. Ultimately, nobody can promise you that if you take certain classes, make particular grades, or participate in specific activities you will “get in” to a certain college. If anyone does try to tell you that—let them know they sit on a throne of lies-or just run. Here’s what I can promise you—if you will simply focus on being a good high school student, you are going to have lots of college choices and options when you are finishing high school, because the bottom line is that’s what colleges are looking for—good high school students.  

And that leads me to my next hope. Too many students and parents talk about and think about college and college admission from a scarcity standpoint. I’m not going to delve too much into an economics lesson at this point, but I hope you will look at this from an abundance perspective.  

Particularly, around this time of year, there are many articles published, news reports broadcast, or social media posts leading people to believe it’s impossible to get into college, and that the competition is increasing every year. This is fundamentally false– and increasingly so. The average admit rate for four-year universities in our country is 67%. In other words, most colleges admit most applicants. The pandemic has increased your options not reduced them. Colleges need students- now more than ever! As a result, good students (as we just discussed) who apply to a wide range of schools (listen to your counselor and keep an open mind) will not only have a variety of admission offers but will also find financially affordable options in the years ahead. So, I’m imploring you to not listen to anyone who uses words of scarcity and attempts to breed fear or desperation into your view of college or college admission.  Tell yourself the abundance story.

Third Hope- I understand you may be tired of hearing words like “pivot,” “resilient,” or “disrupted.” Over the last two years, it’s been hard to go a week without hearing each of these repeated multiple times. However, one blessing of the pandemic is it forced students to flex these muscles of adaptability, flexibility, and resilience in unprecedented (another Covid bingo word) ways. As a result, you have figured out at an early age how to learn in different environments, build or maintain relationships despite time/space obstacles, and adjust to constantly shifting information.  

What does that have to do with college and college admission? Absolutely everything. College people (yes, like me) often talk about finding a good college fit, as if students are square (pick your favorite shape) pegs (pick your favorite object), and your job is to carefully search and find a school where you seamlessly enter. Total BS.  

Don’t listen to anyone (even if they live in your house) who leads you to believe there is only one college, one type of college, one particular setting, or one major/academic area in which you can thrive. YOU are adaptable, dynamic, and capable of excelling in a wide variety of places. You are more like a Swiss Army Knife than a singular key. Tell yourself that story and you will breathe, enjoy, and see a very big path to college, rather than one that feels limited, confining, burdensome, or fear filled. 

You asked me what you have to offer a college. Here’s my answer…  

What do you have to offer?  

The truth is college admission should not be about what you can offer. I’m earnestly hopeful you won’t spend your high school years trying to figure that out. Don’t attempt to play some box-checking, soul-crushing game. Instead, when the time comes, the real question will be: what do they have to offer you? And the only way you are going to know that is if you invest time getting to know yourself honestly and authentically. My hope is your high school years will be about learning, growing, thinking, exploring, and most of all enjoying.  

Please write me back in a few years. I would love to hear from you.  

Sincerely, 

Rick  

How the Olympics Explain College Admission– Part 2

Listen to “How the Olympics Explain Admission – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

In Part 1, we looked at the two fundamental ways American colleges make admission decisions. Now that you know how colleges review applications, it’s time to look at three important ways you should approach your college admission experience like an Olympian.   

1) Train For Event – Not The Result. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the actual Olympic competitions: games, races, individual feats of strength, speed, and skill. But I am also a sucker for human-interest stories. It is incredible to see the athletes’ families, hometowns, the stringent training regimens, immense sacrifices, and longevity of focus which led to their Olympic moment. 

Whether it be in emails, phone calls, or during information sessions and presentations, students constantly ask “What do I need to do to get in?” Hey, it’s a valid question, and I understand where it comes from. Too often in our culture this is the mentality. What do I need to do to get: the grade? the date? the raise? the car? and so on. As Americans in particular, we are results oriented.  

However, I would assert Olympic athletes do not think this way. Sure. They want to win. They understand scores, times, or skills will come into play, but during the majority of training, their focus is on making the Olympic team and putting forth their best personal effort. In fact, sports psychologists constantly talk about envisioning actions, rather than obsessing about results. In other words, it’s not helpful to say, “picture yourself wearing a gold medal.” Instead, the message is, “Focus on executing. Imagine yourself running your best race or performing your best routine/dive/shot, etc. The results will take care of themselves.”  

And that is my hope for you. Your job is to “train” for being a successful college student. Don’t picture yourself being a student at a certain place, which you absolutely cannot control. Instead, “practice” what will make you great regardless of where you end up. Simply put- BE A GOOD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT. 

Work hard each day in the classroom.  

Push and challenge yourself academically.  

Learn to create a functional base of knowledge– and be curious about what you don’t know.  

Contribute to your school, family, and community.  

College admission reps will use a lot of words – A LOT – to say all of this, but essentially a good college applicant is a good high school student. Colleges are looking for students who will be desperately missed by the people they leave behind in their school, community, neighborhood.  

Applying an Olympic mentality means worrying less about the medal, the podium, the anthem, and instead committing to your day- to-day training. YOU GOT THIS!  

2) Respect The Competition. TV coverage only brought us a fraction of the action. This year there were 33  sports, 46 disciplines, and 339 total medal events with over 11,500 athletes competing. In the Paralympic Games, which just started this week, another 4,400 athletes will take part. However, unless you had some super- secret Gold Combo #4 cable package you only saw a tiny percentage of those athletes or competitions.  

As a high school student, this is one of the biggest challenges in the college admission experience- understanding the skills, strength, and potential of other applicants you never get to see or know. Colleges do a good job (often in a pretentious and boasting fashion) of describing how many applicants they received in the prior year, or their overall admit rate.  

However, since you are not in the room where files are received and reviewed, it’s impossible to appreciate the talent of this set of students. If you are applying to a college or university with “Olympic” level admit rates, no GPA or test average will adequately convey the depth of their applicant pool. Sure, they will have some percentage of Eddie the Eagle applicants who are not competitive or “in profile,” but those are the outliers.  

Talk to most college admission deans or counselors and they will marvel at the ability of students (hundreds or thousands) who do not end up “on their podium.” If you choose to apply to schools who are denying more students than they admit (sometimes by a wide margin), there is no guarantee. Yes, you have great grades, test scores, letters of rec, essays, and all the things. But so too do the other Olympians showing up at the Games. Again, this is why you need to build a college list with a range of selectivity.  

I expound on the value of seeing or visualizing other applicants in Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors, but if you are trying to decrease screen time or save your thumbs from scrolling, the take home message is basically covered in the conclusion of our last blog: “Before you ever submit an application to a college using holistic review, take the time to write down or say out loud that you are intentionally competing in gymnastics, rather than the high jump. You are choosing a nuanced, gray, and subjective competition and evaluation, and you are comfortable with the fact that numbers alone will not dictate your results. Promise yourself now that you will not waste time or energy (or precious weeks of your senior year) trying to predict the outcome. And, if you don’t end up on the “podium,” commit to handling your disappointment with class and grace.”     

3) Check Your Ego and Be Patient. Dang. Even writing this sounds like some sick combination of harsh and unrealistic. Welcome to the Olympics! Clearly, you cannot talk about the Tokyo Games without mentioning Simone Biles. The truth is an entire blog would not cover the lessons learned from the GOAT. But I think the 2021 Olympic experience of MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey are more relevant to you anyway. Jade came to Tokyo as an individual, rather than part of the four-person team. MyKayla was literally about to fly back to the US when she got the text to come back to compete. Both left Tokyo with medals and unpredictable opportunities.  

Olympians are used to the emotional roller coaster. If you listened to many of the interviews from Tokyo, you heard athletes from every sport and nation relay stories of “almost quitting” or “wanting to walk away,” because of the physical or mental toll of competing.  

Good news- your admission experience is not going to be so physically taxing (unless you’re trying to type your essay while on the Peloton). However, you can expect some ups and downs, possible setbacks, and a timeline you will not dictate. You may get deferred, denied, or waitlisted. You may be an alternate for a scholarship or just miss being named valedictorian, NHS, Top 10%, or some other distinction you have been working for and focused on achieving. When this happens (and it will happen), remember Jade and MyKayla- get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward. There will always be another opportunity, an open door, or an expected route to your goals.  

Whether you are a senior about to apply to college or an underclassman just starting to explore possible options, I hope you will learn these critical lessons from the Olympics: Train for the event- not the result; respect the competition; and check your ego and be patient.  

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!

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.

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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!