Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors

Warning: This one is long. If you are apt to scroll before reading to determine length, save your thumbs.

We really think you are great and have been impressed with the track record you’ve established to this point.

We want you to apply because we believe you are exactly the type of person who would excel here!

Please write a 250-word statement about your background that will help us get to know you more.

If you are a high school senior, these lines probably sound very familiar. I’ve written emails, built applications, and edited brochure content with verbiage exactly like this. However, in this case, I was the recipient rather than the author. These were the messages I received over the last nine months encouraging me to apply to serve on the Board of Directors for NACAC, a professional admission/counseling organization I’ve been part of for about a decade.

I was flattered. I was excited. I was nervous.

As I wrote each statement, I contemplated the perfect way to say precisely how I felt or viewed particular issues. I tweaked, edited, and finally hit submit with nervousness about how my words would be received.

Ultimately, I went through a battery of interviews (actually, a barrage may be more appropriate), including several hours of speaking with delegates who would ultimately cast votes for the candidates they wanted to serve in this role.

After the many months of waiting, the moment of truth came.

Election Day

Last week I, along with six other candidates, was ushered into a small room behind the stage of a cavernous convention hall in Louisville, KY at our national conference. Our group of candidates sat, chatted, paced, checked phones, and made small talk as the votes were tallied. As I stood there looking around at my colleagues, I re-ran the numbers in my head. Seven candidates. Three spots. A 43% chance of winning, 57% chance of not being elected. I listened to the conversations. I considered my company.

Candidates for the Board and President of NACAC
Candidates for the Board and President of NACAC

In that room were professionals from all over the nation. During the nomination process I’d had the opportunity to get to know this group well. I read their campaign statements; sat at dinners and discussed issues; heard about their accomplishments and experience; and was impressed by their passion for serving students, bringing solutions to our education system, and continually growing as people and professionals.

A representative from the organization walked into the holding area and interrupted my considerations. She announced, “I’ll now read the results of the election.” Slowly, she called each of the three names.

Rick Clark… was not one of them.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. One by one, I hugged each of my fellow candidates, both those elected and those not chosen to serve the organization in this capacity.

It was not easy. It was not fun.

While the conference was not over, it was for me. I opted out of other sessions or lunch invitations and headed back to my hotel. I ditched the suit for jeans, put on a hat, grabbed my backpack and caught a Lyft to the airport. Honestly, I just wanted to be alone.

In the days since the election, I’ve been alone a lot. I’ve been on six flights, stayed in two hotels, and made one 10-hour road trip. TRANSLATION: I’ve had time to think.

Here are the three biggest takeaways from my experience that I hope you’ll consider and apply to your college admission experience.

When you apply, give it everything you have.

Trust me: I questioned if my speeches or written statements should have had different themes. I wondered if I was not elected because I’m from the south, or male, or from a public school, or the combination of all three. I pondered if I did not spend enough time with the voting delegates demonstrating my ability and background and how I could contribute.

Ultimately, as I assessed each, I was confident I’d done all I could. I wrote what I believed. I answered the questions honestly and authentically. I ran my race.

Maybe my geography or school type worked against me. Maybe one of my statements did not sit well. I’ll never know exactly why I was not elected.

Similarly, if you are applying to selective schools running holistic admission processes who have far more talented applicants than spaces available in their class, you are not going to be given a specific reason for why you are not admitted. Nobody is going to tell you, “If your ACT was a point higher it would have worked out.” Admission officers won’t say, “Too bad you’re not from Nebraska, because we are all full up on Pennsylvania this year.”

Instead, they will say, “We had a very competitive pool this year.” Their letters, email responses, or phone call explanations are going to highlight the strength of other candidates and the pure volume of applicants. In other words, and this may seem odd, but it’s both true and really important: they’re not going to talk about you in their rationale. They (we) are going to include phrases like, “While your credentials are impressive…” or “Although you are an incredibly talented student…” their ultimate decision not to admit you will point to the other applicants. I hate to say this, but get used to it. If it has not already, that’s what will happen throughout life. Jobs, elections, teams, dates… it’s not you, it’s… you get the point.

You need to point to you. You have to know that you gave it everything you had. Don’t wait until you get admission decisions back to ask these questions. Start now. Is your essay authentically yours? Have you prepared adequately for your interviews. Have you done your homework to know why you are applying where you are? Before you submit your application, ask yourself if you’ve truly given it everything you have!

While you are waiting, live your life.

After I was nominated, and during the months I was submitting statements and going through multiple rounds of interviews, I wondered how this would all turn out. I held dates on my calendar for possible future travel. I considered who I would have the opportunity to meet while serving in this capacity.  But far more importantly, I continued to live my life. My family took a great vacation to Colorado. I completed and published a book. I ran a few races.

As a senior in high school, this is perhaps my biggest hope for you this year. Keep things in perspective. You have one senior year, my friends. Enjoy it. Go to games, hang out with friends, take trips, and have fun! Nobody ever looks back during their sophomore year of college and says, “You know, I wish I stressed out more when I was a senior in high school.” Nobody! Look around you this week in school.  It’s natural to imagine yourself on certain college campuses or to be cautiously excited about opportunities next year, but remember this–  most of the folks you see every day now will not be around (in person) at this time next year. Give them a hug. Grab a meal together. Go see a concert. Just enjoy being together. Does that sound kind of cheesy? Good. Mission accomplished. Who said cheesy was bad anyway? I’d rather be kind of cheesy than cool and alone, or seemingly cool but fake. Embrace the cheese, people. Live your life.

When you receive admission decisions, visualize the other applicants.

If you are applying to a school that admits less than 50% of applicants, more students will be denied than admitted. I know, I know, you didn’t come here for the math. But the truth is you need to say this out loud: “My chances of not being admitted are greater than they are of being admitted.” Seriously, say that.

Thankfully, you are not going to stand in the same room with other applicants while admission decisions are read. That’s tough for a 30 or 40 year- old, but it would be cruel and unusual punishment for a 17 or 18 year- old.

While difficult, I also consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to physically see my fellow candidates’ faces. They are amazing. They are the type of people I want to know, work with, and emulate. They’re impressive, genuine, talented, passionate, and capable.

I wish you could see the other applicants who also hope to be admitted to the schools you’re considering. Not their GPAs. Not how may AP classes they’ve taken. Not if they’re 40 points higher or lower than you on the SAT. I wish you could see them, know them, and spend time with them.

When you are admitted, remember that many were not. Be cool. Visualize those who were not offered admission. Think about their efforts, their families, and their disappointment. Do you get credit for this? No. This is the development of empathy, and you’ll be a better human by developing it. The admission experience, if you’ll let it, can teach a lot of life lessons– this is one of them.

If you are not admitted, I’m not saying it won’t sting.  Don’t get me wrong, I ate more fries the day I found out about the election than I had in the last two months combined. I played some loud music on the plane home, went for an “angry run,” and may or may not have referred to the group I’d not been selected to join as “The Bored.” I never said I was perfect. But I do hope you will try to visualize the other applicants when you are not admitted. Be happy for them. Congratulate those you know. Wish them the best. Try to take the focus off yourself. I promise you it will help you start to move on.

MY HOPE FOR YOU

Rick ClarkAfter a 20-hour day, I arrived in Cocoa Beach, FL where my family was staying that week. Around 1 a.m., I crept in and slept on the couch. Six hours later I woke up to my kids staring at me from about 7 inches away. “Let’s go to the beach!” And that’s exactly what we did. On the walk there, they asked, “Did you win?” Nope, I replied. “Good. That means you won’t have to go on any more trips.” And then we jumped into the waves.

My hope is you will surround yourself with family and friends who are 100% in your corner and encourage you; people who know you and love you, regardless of the college hoodie you wear or the diploma you ultimately put on your wall. College is four or five years. They matter and this is a big deal, but family is forever. So, if you remember only two words from this ridiculously long blog, they are, “Family first!”

We often call all of this the “college admission process.” However, too often that process is something that happens to you or that you go through. I hope you will embrace the word process and see your senior year as a real opportunity to grow, learn, mature, and prepare not only for college but for years well beyond it. The odds are somewhere along the line in your admission experience you are going to be disappointed. You may not get into your first choice school. You may not receive a big enough financial aid package to afford the college you want to attend. You don’t get into the Honors Program, don’t get your first choice major/residence hall, and so on.

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.

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The Discipline of College Admission

Listen to the audio version here.

If you are not one for imposed holidays, you’re in the right place. Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote about how love and admission have a lot in common. This V-week we are going full contrarian and talking about school discipline.

Most applications ask students to report discipline/behavior history, including suspension, expulsion, and arrests. In acceptance letters colleges discuss both the need to keep your grades up, as well as your responsibility to inform them if you have some form of school or community discipline incident after you’ve been admitted.

I’ve had several questions about this topic on college panels recently, so this is my attempt to address those and provide broader insight. As always, I’m writing generally and do not claim to speak on behalf of all colleges. If, after reading this, you have specific questions, call or contact the particular school you are interested in (don’t worry–you won’t be the first to disguise your voice or indicate you are “asking for a friend”).

The short answer: schools use the same individualized, holistic process for reviewing a student’s discipline history that they do for reviewing academic or extra-curricular background.

Here’s the long answer.

Context. Typically, the first question admission counselors ask when they open an application is “where does this student live and go to school?” The goal is to understand who you are, where you are from, and what your family, academic, social, and community background looks like. Admission counselors are charged with gaining perspective on your high school setting and experience in order to understand both the options available to you and the choices you made, both inside and outside the classroom.

Context MattersMoved three times in high school? Had a two-hour commute each day? Saw mom and dad go through an ugly divorce? Suffered a concussion or another illness that caused a prolonged absence? In college application review, context matters. Context is critical. Therefore context is always considered.

The same is true of our review of your disciplinary background. I once read the application of a student who was arrested for being in a dumpster behind his school. Why? Because his mother was working a double shift and had not left him a key to their apartment, so he was looking for warmth and shelter. Another student was arrested for being in a dumpster after spray painting the school with graffiti and slurs (the dumpster was simply where the police found him and his friends hiding). As you can see, context matters—and context will always be considered.

Timing. In their academic review, many colleges separate a student’s 9th grade GPA from their 10th-12th grade academic performance. This does not mean grades in Geography or Geometry in freshman year don’t matter, but rather indicates we recognize they’re not as predictive of academic success in college as grades in higher level courses (this is also why committees look at grade trends in a holistic review process).

Timing is also one of the factors admission counselors consider when reviewing a student’s discipline record. No, we don’t love your sophomore year suspension, but if there are not additional infractions, we are likely to exercise grace, consider it an isolated incident, and trust you learned a valuable lesson. The bottom line: holistic review = human review. Admission deans, directors, counselors may look polished or established now, but we’ve all made plenty of mistakes (I likely up the overall average). It is important you know we bring our ability to make judgment calls into our review of transcripts, test scores, family background, non-academic impact, and yes, disciplinary infractions as well.

Process. The admission “process” is not just for students. Colleges also have an entire process, including one for review of all elements of an application. In most admission offices, there are initial guidelines for discipline/behavior/criminal review. Most of the questions relate to severity, timing, the school’s action, and the implications that incident had on other students. If the situation warrants additional review, staff members escalate it to an Associate Director, Dean, Director, or an official review committee. At this point, 99% of cases are cleared without further action. However, if the case requires another layer of review, schools will involve partners from around the university for insight and areas of expertise, e.g. Dean of Students, General Counsel, and perhaps Chief of Police or other security representatives.

Having participated in many of these layers, I am always encouraged by how thoroughly and thoughtfully questions are asked and facts are gathered. One of the most difficult things about living in this beautiful but broken world is coming to the realization that as much as we may desire it, there are few things that are 100% good or bad; 100% right or wrong; 100% black or white.

Ownership.  Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. It is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances.

“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined and bagged them at the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off? We’re listening.

Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation.

A Final Note to Seniors

Your final semester is supposed to be fun. You have lots to celebrate and enjoy: games, productions, awards ceremonies, spring break, prom– tradition upon tradition, and last upon last. I get it.

I ask you to please hit pause when you find yourself in certain situations or when a “great idea” gets proposed in these next few months. Each year we see incredibly smart and talented kids do

Class of 2019
FYI- Wow. What a diversity of Google images you get when you search for “seniors.”

indescribably dumb stuff that has lasting implications or consequences. So before you get behind the wheel; before you go to (or throw) that party; before someone brings out another bottle; when “everyone” is going to jump off that bridge naked in the dark into water at an untested depth; when cramming 12 people into a hearse to go blow up the principal’s mailbox gets suggested as a senior prank; before you post pictures or gossip or antagonizing content on social media, I hope you will thoughtfully consider your beliefs, character, and goals. (If all of that sounds too specific to be made up, well…).

I implore you not to rationalize with phrases like “everyone else is” or “she told me to” or “someone said it was okay.” Have the maturity and vision to say no or walk away or stand up or defuse the situation or speak calmly in frenetic moments.

I encourage you to read your offers of admission from colleges closely. They are promises of a future community. They are based on your academic potential but also upon their belief you have and will continue to enrich those around you.

I said there would be no cheesy Valentine’s sap here, and I’m sticking to my promise. True love is not capable of being boxed up and forced into one day. It can’t be captured in a card. Instead, it is both shown and proven over time. My hope is you will look around you this week (and every week between now and graduation). Be reminded of how much your friends, family, class and teammates love and respect you– not for what you do or don’t do (or will or won’t do) in a certain moment on a particular night– but for who you are consistently.

Above all else, my hope is you will have the composure and confidence to lead yourself and others with character in these final months of high school. Finish well.

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Own It!

My kids (ages nine and six) take FOREVER to get ready in the morning. I’ve tried setting an earlier alarm, flipping the lights on and off, writing step by step instructions on the chalk board, threats, setting timers at breakfast, and even more threats.

But inevitably when I send my daughter outside to put on her shoes, two minutes will go by with no return. Glancing out the window I’ll find her spinning a stick on the porch or throwing rocks into the yard. Even the way she kills time is unproductive—it’s not like she’s reading or practicing Taekwondo.

My son is worse. “Go brush your teeth.” Four minutes later I hear him upstairs playing with a robot or Legos.

Last week I walked in to wake up my daughter only to find her completely buried under two blankets, a few pillows, and a preposterous number of stuffed animals. “Did your alarm go on?” Yes. “Did you turn it off?” Yeah… That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?

Throwing my head back and contemplating leaping out of the second floor window I said (loudly) while leaving the room, “I know. But then you STAY UP!!”

It reached an all-time low a few days ago when my son actually said, while eating his cereal, “Raise your hand if you like staring blankly off into the air.” Dear Lord, please provide me patience.

FridayI see other families at school, church, and soccer where kids are early, combed, fully dressed, and basically singing family songs as they walk hand in hand. I hate those people.

The one day they like is Friday. Embarrassingly, this is largely because I wake them up by playing (and dancing to) Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and feeding them cinnamon rolls. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So if anyone knows Rebecca, see if she can make a Monday song, because The Bangles and Jimmy Buffett aren’t cutting it.

Please get to your point…

Fine. Our family started this week with a new strategy: the kids “own” breakfast. I’ll make lunches and ensure the bags have all homework/folders set, but they need to get their own food. Car leaves at 7:40 a.m. Hungry? Still eating? Bar in hand? Whatever. No excuses. No take-backs. YOU OWN breakfast.

Similarly, we want you to “own” your college application and admission process. I won’t preach about all the lessons to be learned from owning your application/admission process and how it will prepare you for the college experience. Nope. I’ll save those messages for basically every admission rep you hear talk at your high school or on their campus. I’m here to prove it matters.

Look at the Common Application’s essay prompts. Number two, and I’d assert numbers three and five, center on growth through learning (or loosely translated “owning” something); a mistake, a realization, a problem solved—whatever it is, you recognized it and stuck with it. The Coalition Application questions one, and arguably two and three, are all within the same theme.

Writing about owning something requires you first to recognize its significance; to genuinely care, and to give evidence of how you’ve tangibly progressed since the experience. You want to go to a “good school?” Well, good schools (who you’ll be writing essays for) are reading these essays with their institution in mind. That’s right. It’s your essay, but they have their institution in mind.

What We Mean by “Fit”

You often hear the word “fit” thrown around. What does fit actually mean? In the rubrics readers use, as well as the conversations they have about your application in committee, counselors ask questions like:

  • When you come to campus and the academics and professors push and stretch you, how will you respond?
  • When you have a decision to make about how you’ll treat others in the classroom or in your residence hall, what evidence do we have to show your choice will be made with integrity and maturity?
  • When you are given opportunities to represent the college or university as a student or an alum, will we be confident in you?

Responses to those essay prompts are a significant opportunity to demonstrate in a concrete (read: not theoretical or philosophical) way you are someone who has grown already; someone who has been challenged; or someone who has, through either major or sometimes mundane life experiences, recognized a need for change and progress and taken those steps.

Real Life Examples

Pretend for a moment you are an admission reader (cue dream sequence). You are reading the discipline section of an application. Which one shows more maturity and growth? Note: these scenarios are real, yet slightly altered for the protection of the…well, guilty. 

  • “Last year two of my friends and I spray painted the school building and were caught, suspended, and had to do community service. I did not want to participate but they were driving that night and I had no other way home. So, even though I did tell them we should not do it….”
  • “I have been charged with theft of jewelry from my friend’s parents. We were at a party and a few us went into their bedroom. We took bracelets, necklaces, and rings valued in the five-figure range.” (Needless to say, our staff made a phone call about this one. “So why did you do it?” “I wanted those girls to like me.”)

So which one shows more maturity and growth? The answer is neither. Yes, it was a trick question—I’m just keeping you on your toes. I’m not sure about you, but with the first one I’ve got two thoughts running through my head: 1) the student is lying, and 2) even if they’re not, it sounds super weak. Call Uber, walk, tell them to drop you off first. And bonus- actually tell them you’re not going to do it!Own it

I’d call the second example a laptop closing moment. One of those times when you so completely abandon your hope in humanity that it leads you to simply close your laptop, throw your head back, close your eyes and take an immensely deep breath. But I’d love to know what’s going on in your head here.  Hopefully, it isn’t, “Yeah. I get that…” Hopefully you still have your reader hat on. If so, you should be asking, “So what happens when you are on campus and some friends want to hack into a professor’s account?” To be honest, my head goes to some far more nefarious and harmful places beyond hacking, but I’m keeping things relatively clean. Either way, you see my point, right? Own it!

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the Additional Information section:

  • “In my sophomore year, I got mono (side note: we commonly see concussions listed here, as well as a variety of lesser known but highly Google-able ailments). I missed several weeks of school and spent most of the fall semester extremely tired. My AP World History teacher refused to make my assignments available online or provide extensions, which is why I received a C in that class.” (Only problem is you also made C in the spring semester. So what do we do now?)
  • “I had intended to take French 4 last year, however my dad insisted I take Environmental Science. I now regret that I listened to him, not just because I did not do as well as I’d hoped in ES, but also because I really do love French and hope to study International Affairs next year at Tech.”

On number two, I’m getting the distinct image of my daughter out on the back porch throwing rocks and staring at the birds on the neighbor’s roof. Double deduction if your dad writes or calls in to say he should not have put pressure on you. No, padre. Start the car and slowly roll out of the driveway at 7:40 a.m.

The problems here are two-fold. First, these both come off sounding like excuses. Actually, scratch that. They are excuses. Look back at those essay prompts. What are they essentially asking you to show? Growth, right? Maturity, evolution, a recognized misstep which will make you a better college student, peer, friend, roommate, influencer, or simply humble and confident person. The antithesis are statements like: “He made me do it” and claims of “would of/should of/could of.”

Secondly, you are not submitting your application in a bubble. Other students (some we may have read that very same day) are giving strong evidence showing they have progressed. That’s right–you are not the only one who drank and got caught or had to shake a medical situation, divorce, or family death during high school. I realize it may sound callous, but at any school receiving thousands of applications and reading 30-50 essays a day, this is the reality.

No Excuses—Own It!

Colleges want students who come to their campus prepared. Most of the time people are focused on the academic side of the equation (i.e. who is more qualified based on rigor of curriculum or test scores, etc.). But the truth is at selective schools, most applicants “look the same” from an academic standpoint. They are prepared and able to do the work. The bigger questions are: How will they do the work? And who will they be on campus? When they get here, how will they respond when they fail a test, have to balance social pressures, academics, internship, and the family drama happening 500 miles away?

This is why so many of the essay prompts focus on a demonstration of tenacity and perseverance. We are looking for ownership, not excuses. So own it.

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