Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome, Katie!

After reading Samantha’s blog on finding joy in your college search, I realized we were on to a theme. This particular post is not about making your college list, but the same case can be built to reframe how parents and students tackle college admission questions. Maybe it’s because it’s April–the time when countless admission professionals find themselves behind a table at a college fair, standing in the welcome center lobby, or on the phone answering, quite often, some version of the same questions.

Today we’re going to wrestle with this notorious inquiry: “I am (or, my child is) a junior/sophomore/seventh grader/eight years old (I’m not kidding), what extracurriculars should we be doing right now to be competitive?” I answer the same way every time. “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.” The vast majority of students and parents think I’ve dodged the question. I haven’t. I’ve given the same answer for well over a decade and I’m sticking to it.

Find What Makes You HappyFind what makes you happy and do it.

Maybe that answer is deceptively simple, which is why it’s often dismissed as hedging.  I’m not dodging the question—I’m giving you a framework. Perhaps a “re-framework” as you make big decisions, like should you try out for the travel team, spend the summer in an internship or mission trip, stay a third year in robotics or take that new advanced class offering. Instead, high school students everywhere (and their parents) should ask the same question: does this activity make me happy?

If you are about to dismiss this advice as soft, overly codifying, or unrealistic, wait!  I’m about to let you in on the secret of why admission officers think students who enjoy their activities are more successful in the college application process (and probably life in general).

1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive.

The byproducts of doing something you love (in high school or in your professional life) are surprisingly positive.  You don’t have to believe me because there is science to back that up.  Check out Shawn Achor’s research in his book, the Happiness Advantage (no time to read the book? Check out this quick Ted Talk). What he says about business success is also true in the college application process. Joyful participation in high school endeavors has a ripple effect, leading to things such as increasing a club’s membership, finding ways to lead or innovate on projects, resiliency from year to year, providing access to others—essentially all the attributes that stand out to an admission committee when they are reviewing applications. Look at your resume. What activities make you happy?  Do more of those things! Competitiveness will follow.

2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.

Nothing deflates a conversation more than a student trained to rattle off their 4-10 resume activities and then ask me if they are “good.”  Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ! I saw online that your college has WXY, do you think that’s a good fit?” This engagement translates to the application itself. Applications fall flat when you are checking off boxes, trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.  Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.  Telling your activities story is more authentic and believable. When seen through this framework, your activities list is no longer a bureaucratic hurdle to get to college, but a written conversation retelling the most meaningful parts of your high school career.

3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.

I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.  I don’t mean that everything you do in high school should be easy.  Easy and happy are not the same thing. Some of the hardest situations can result in a new-found strength, a renewed focus, a sense that what you are doing has great value because it came at great cost.  That’s when being happy graduates to the big leagues: joy. I am not advising you to quit all your extracurricular activities because binge watching Netflix makes you happy.  Critically look at how you spend your time and ask yourself some serious questions. I have some thoughts below.

As an ode to the KonMari method, this is a KatMattli approved checklist for whether you should or should not keep an activity:

  • Do you feel excited about going to the meeting/practice/session/class?
  • Do you have moments of inspiration about it (Eureka moments!) before you go to sleep at night?
  • Do you talk about what you could do in this club/team next year?
  • Do you try to get appointments with teachers/coaches/sponsors to talk more about it?
  • Are you plotting ways to lead this group next year?
  • Do you want to teach or coach other people who have had less training than you have?
  • Is this project really difficult/challenging, but you are excited to see the finished product?
  • Would you still want do this activity if you couldn’t list it on your college application?

On the flip side…

  • Do you forget about that meeting each week?
  • Do you feel icky walking down the hallway to this meeting/tournament/locker room/classroom?
  • Does it keep you up at night in a bad way?
  • Are you thinking of other activities while you are there?
  • If you didn’t have to fill out a college application, would this club ever see your face again?

I’m holding fast to my original answer: you want your extracurriculars to be competitive? You need to enjoy the activities on your resume.  Are you a freshman in high school and anxious about what clubs to join (which ones colleges will view as “good”)?  Forget about us.  Go enjoy your game/fan group/club/meeting. We will see you in a few years when you are thriving in something you love. Are you a junior in high school? Double down on the activities that bring you the most enjoyment. You will need that stress relief and balance as you hit tougher classes, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey.

And if you are eight years old?  (Where is that astonishment emoji with the big eyes?) I am not discounting you, as it takes maturity to talk to college representatives at your age. But my answer to you is still the same, maybe even more so: Go enjoy yourself.

Katie Mattli has worked in college admission for over 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2014 where she works with underrepresented minority recruitment focusing on female, first generation, African American and Hispanic recruitment efforts. Her previous years at a private liberal arts college for women fueled her love of student leadership and advocacy.

 

 

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The Power in the Process

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

One of the first places I visited after my move to Atlanta was the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It’s now become part of my standard rotation of weekend activities. The grounds are expansive and you instantly forget you’re in the middle of metro Atlanta. Some weekends I sit and reflect while I enjoy the calm, other times I enjoy two-hour “forgot to hit the gym this week” walks around the area. Variety is the spice of life, right?

The gardens recently debuted their exhibit for this year: Imaginary Worlds. A Pegasus, a phoenix, a peacock, and about a dozen more giant creatures made of plants are dotted around the park. And all of them are incredible. The sculptures are examples of the art of Mosaiculture (think half mosaic, half horticulture). I may be biased, but I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area before the exhibit ends in late October.

I visited the new exhibit as soon as it opened, and surprisingly one of the most impactful parts of my experience was a stop in an unassuming little hall in the middle of the gardens. The room was nearly bare, with the exception of four posters that storyboarded the logistical and creative processes behind the mosaiculture exhibit. I learned that many months of work go into the creation of these sculptures, starting in Montreal with the design, then the framework, then the plantings. Only then are the sculptures finally revealed for display to guests in the gardens.

This process—the length, the planning, and the final reveal—are strikingly similar to what college applicants go through year after year. In August we will open up our first-year application to a whole new class of students. However, the application is really one of the last steps in the process. By the time you start your application, most of the hard work is already behind you. Your long-term efforts ultimately make you successful. You’ve done the exploration, the preparation, and the polish-all that’s left is to showcase your work. Here are a few tips for how to make the most of each year of high school.

Draft your design

Sketches for the mosaiculture pieces started taking shape about six months before the installation of the exhibit. The design process is challenging, exciting, and lays the groundwork for everything to come. My favorite note from the posters was the mermaid sculpture was originally going to be sitting off to the side of a fountain, hanging out on a wall. That idea was scrapped, and the mermaid was redesigned for where she sits today–in the middle of the water, proudly atop the fountain. You can’t always get it right the first time, and that’s okay. Turns out, mermaids love being in the water!

Your freshman year: what do you want to create? Challenge yourself, explore your interests, and start over if you need to! Let yourself be vulnerable and sign up for a class or activity that falls outside that trusty comfort zone. You might discover something that reshapes your long-term pursuits. Maybe you try out for theatre after your English teacher comments that you have a flair for the dramatic. (No? Just me?) Take this time to be authentic and consider what you want to explore—then create a blueprint for your next few years. Don’t worry if you need to start over or change directions. Growth in design is a lifelong process, and there is value in the lessons along the way.

Build your foundation

Underneath the flowery façade of the sculptures is a carefully crafted foundation. Each structure is made of a variety of materials such as internal irrigation systems, steel, soil and mesh. All of these work together to eventually house the plantings.  I dare say this is the most substantial part of the process–after all, what good is a strong design without strong bones to support it?

Your sophomore and junior year: You’ve laid the groundwork, now it’s time to build. Lean into a passion you’ve identified. Explore a leadership role that allows you to have impact, take a deep dive, and contribute to your community. Like the sculptures, the strongest foundations are constructed with a variety of materials. Maybe you develop your skill set with independent projects, build teamwork and solid personal relationships in an organization of your peers, or structure your time with a job, internship, or research. Applying yourself in several settings will present plenty of opportunity to discover your own strengths.

Plant your flowers

The design is laid out, the structure is built, but it does not look like much until the plants are actually in place. The frames were shipped to Atlanta from Montréal in January, and at that point, more than 200,000 flowers were tucked into soil-filled mesh. In the days leading up to the exhibit the sculptures were transported to the gardens (often they’re transported in pieces, which is wise, as I can’t imagine a 21-foot dragon would do so well in Atlanta traffic) and prepared for display.

Senior Year: You’re nearing the finish line, but you have a serious task ahead of you: it’s time to let years of work take the shape of an application. Add color here, dimension there, and always include your personality. Does your application show off who you are and what you value? Maybe you’re the Pegasus, the peacock, or the giant Rip Van Winkle caught taking a snooze under the tree (I can relate). You have a voice with a story to tell, one of growth and exploration and personal investment. How will you paint that picture—better yet, how will you plant those flowers?

Bonus: Just add water

There is a caravan of three camel statues off to the side of the garden lawn, and as I walked by, a staff member was hosing them down. No, the irony wasn’t lost on me—Atlanta is hot in the summer and even camels need a little H2O. Staff will continue to monitor and tinker away throughout the summer to keep the topiary art in tip-top shape. The exhibit may have already started, but there’s plenty of work to be done to keep the camels and their creature friends looking good for months to come.

After you hit send: You’ve spent years crafting a high school experience that brought you personal growth, and that journey doesn’t end when you close the internet browser on your college applications. It doesn’t end when you get those college decisions back, either. There’s no senior slump, no post-application apathy, (that could make a great band name, dibs!) you’re just getting started! This story you’ve built isn’t just a tool to land that college acceptance–it’s a foundation to build on throughout your academic career, your personal life, and the great big beyond. So take care of your hard work, and keep building away.

Sammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for four years. A newly-minted southerner, she moved to Atlanta and joined Georgia Tech two years ago as a senior admission counselor on the first-year admission team. She now uses her millennial-ness and love of working with students, families, and counselors to interact with the GT Admission community through our social media channels. If you’ve gotten this far, send her questions about admission or Netflix recommendations on twitter or Instagram- @gtadmission.

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