We had an office retreat last week. One session included a quiz on Gen Z vernacular. While our results were kept anonymous, I’m going to out myself and admit I did not score what most would define as high. “‘Ship them’, ‘Sips Tea,’ ‘Goat.'” As I watched one unfamiliar phrase after another pop up on the screen, I oscillated between trying to decipher their origins and thinking back on some of the popular phrases from my high school experience. One of the most common, especially playing soccer, was “My bad.”
I’ve come to realize “my bad” is essentially synonymous with “Bless her heart.” A little girl trips during a ballet recital and Aunt May leans over and whispers, “She isn’t the most coordinated, is she? Bless her heart.” There are some real parallels between that comment and making a lazy pass to a teammate that ends up setting him up to get completely cracked by a charging defender. “My bad.” “Yep. Darn right it’s your bad. Nearly got me killed.” And to be honest, much of the consternation surrounding the admission process is “Our bad.”
Colleges should do a better job differentiating ourselves in the materials we send, the presentations we give, and the websites we build. In an effort to be broad and aesthetically concise, we end up blurring all schools together.
We want you to think, “Wow. I can see myself there” or “I’ll have friends and professors who will care about me,” so we stage diverse groups of students under trees with professors in front of our prettiest building on a perfectly sunny day. Now, you can attribute some of this to an overuse of the same marketing firm(s) within higher education. “Check out the 2018 template. In this one we moved the football team winning a pivotal game to page two, and decided to get a drone shot of the steeple clock tower at sunset from the east. Don’t like that? Okay, how about the one with the study abroad picture on the cover and the ultimate Frisbee shot as a centerfold?” Maybe we need StitchFix to start creating college brochures. Give me a little more Atlanta and dial back the political activism–that’s really more us.
Our attempts to be inspirational or aspirational wind up being synthesized into three or four word taglines, such as “Change Your World,” “Dream Big-Live Bigger,” or “Create the Future.” (Rumor is “Drain the Swamp” started with a consulting firm working for a college, but currently that’s been dismissed as fake news.) These attempts are ultimately why, based solely on brochures or websites, you might struggle to see a consequential difference between a small, private college in the middle of Ohio and a flagship public university in the Pacific Northwest. Our bad!
Truth be told, we do the same on tours too. We find the most involved students and best ambassadors to talk about all of the amazing research they’ve done, trips they’ve taken, and jobs they have lined up. While telling their story, they work in equally impressive anecdotes about friends or roommates studying abroad or creating companies– all the while somehow impervious to the 90 degree heat.
I’ve taken several tours this summer on my travels (registering under either George P. Burdell or Navin R. Johnson), so I’m not speaking only for Tech, or conjecturing about what may be happening. This is real, people. These students are amazing- and they’re actual humans- not prototypes or conglomerates of a variety of top students. Not sure about you but I’ve walked away from some of those tours with an even mixture of being impressed and depressed.
So, unquestionably, it is our bad. We set you up. We skim over lots of details. We give you very generic information online and in brochures, and then expose you to our best- whether its buildings, students, professors, or alumni. It’s the equivalent of us lazily passing the ball toward you. What are you going to do with it? Well, like any receiver (regardless of the sport) knows, you can’t sit and wait for it, because it will either get intercepted or you’re going to get hit upon arrival.
Run Toward It
1- Read and Research: Pick up an alumni magazine while you are on campus (tip: they’re always available at the college’s alumni building and most are readily available online too). What are they touting? Where are alums living and working? Inevitably, there are stories of professors, researchers, students, and even messages from the president or other influencers you won’t find in admission publications. Grab a school newspaper, look online for social media that’s not generated by admission, i.e. the academic department or clubs you are interested in joining. These posts are always more organic and less polished, which is a good thing.
2- Walk and Talk: If you visit a college with a friend or parent, try to split up and take different tours. Even though, theoretically, it’s the same route and basic script, the voices and perspectives will always vary. It’s incredible how many times a tour guide’s personality, choice of footwear, the day’s weather, or some off-handed comment will influence your impression of the university. I challenge you to not let any one voice be too powerful in this process. You don’t read only one review on Yelp or Amazon, right? After the tour, go stand in the longest coffee line you can find on campus. Those are the conversations you need and want to hear. Sit down, compare notes, pretend to read, and enjoy the variety of discussions. Eavesdropping gets a bad rap. It’s a life skill.
In the near future, colleges will all have virtual or augmented reality tour options. You’ll be able to choose your tour guide avatar, customized tour route, and set your voice narration style. Imagine having Thomas Jefferson take you around UVA or Mark Zuckerberg take you around Harvard. Not “throwing shade” here—as I told you, eavesdropping was a life skill. It’s on you to limit your bias by soliciting as many opinions as possible.
3- Ask and Task: We’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating: It’s on you to ask good, probing questions. Don’t let the admission counselor pull the string in the back of their belt and start droning on about getting seven friends, a snitch and sponsor to start the Quidditch club. Dig deeper. They’re not being nefarious—but they are being lazy. Get beyond the first layer spiel. Stop the tour guide, pause the presenter. Ask them to delve into some detail about their student: faculty ratio or the availability of campus housing after sophomore year, or the percentage of undergrads actually doing research.
brb. Well, next week anyway.
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