More and Less, Part 1

“You’re going to be out 14 nights in November?!”

Now. What I should have said was… nothing. But what I actually said was, “Yes. But I’ll definitely be home for Thanksgiving.”

Let me back up. My wife and I have a planning and calendar meeting each month. This exchange (well, that and her getting up and leaving the room) was how our October meeting ended. 

I knew I’d bitten off more than I could (or should) chew. In addition to Georgia Tech programs, I was also chairing the search for a new pastor at our church, and had committed to a few speaking engagements connected to the book I recently published.  

Being a keen observer of non-verbal cues, I made sure our November planning meeting went differently. First, it started with flowers and a deep apology. Second, I’m proud to say I made sure I did not board a plane or sleep in a hotel in December.  

The final week of the year was by far the best.  Georgia Tech was closed, and for the first time in my 16-year tenure, I did not try to “catch up” or “keep up” during that time. In fact, I took email off my phone and left my laptop at work. I encouraged my team to do the same. “It will all be here when we get back. Enjoy your break and your family!” 

After truly unplugging, here were my two biggest takeaways: 

  1. Balance within any single day is a myth. We will drive ourselves nuts attempting to squeeze everything we value into a 24- hour period. Whether you are in high school, college, or 20 years past both, we need to continually ask, “What do I value and why?” And just as importantly “Am I making appropriate time for these things? And what frequency is realistic?” 

Happy New YearOtherwise, we end up unnecessarily spinning our wheels, or feeling like a failure when something gets dropped. I’m hopeful in 2020 we’ll all give ourselves more grace and look at balance less in the context of a day, and more in the context of week or month. If you value spending time with friends, reading, or traveling and those things are not happening in a broad period of time, then you are out of balance. 

The beginning of the year is the time to reflect on this. Make time to actually write down what brings you joy and energy. What (or who) challenges you, helps you grow, and adds value to your life? How can you make time for these things and people? And what regularity is healthy and realistic? 

2. Priorities also adhere to Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion (For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”).  If I am going to make room (or more room) for one thing, something else needs to be reduced or eliminated. While our culture incessantly tells us to keep adding things to our plate, that is fundamentally impossible.

We frequently hear the term “More or Less,” but the truth is we need to think about “More and Less.” As we head into 2020, here is my list:   

Top 3 Mores:

  1. More dates/trips with my wife.
  2. More nights/weekends totally unplugged.
  3. More reading physical (not Kindle) books.

Top 3 Less’: 

  1. Less checking email/social media on my phone (especially while walking).
  2. Less saying “Yes” without considering the implications/trade-offs.
  3. Less tabs open at the same time.

As I thought about the year ahead, I came up with the mores and lesses I hope to see in my college admission colleagues. Parts 2 and 3 of this series will include thoughts for school counselors, parents, and students, but this week I’m writing for those doing admission work in colleges around the country. 

To my admission colleagues…

Whether you are in year two or 20, I want to say a big thank you for the great and important work you do! If you (and your team) did not take the time to look back at 2019 and marvel at your accomplishments, make that a priority. Celebrate your wins! It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle and move from one goal to the next. Particularly in the cyclical world of college admission, we need to be intentional about pausing, reflecting, and appreciating how we’ve grown and what we achieved, rather than dwelling on all that could have gone better or the particular metrics we missed. The truth is even when we hit enrollment targets or meet net tuition revenue or increase or decrease what was asked of us, someone will have an issue with how it was done or some nuance buried within the macro. We must learn to focus on and be encouraged by our progress and opportunity, rather than bogged down and burned out chasing perfection.   

More Transparency

Let’s be honest. 2019 was a pretty low point in the world of college admission. Operation Varsity Blues brought our work into the spotlight and called the integrity of the process into question. Far from Hollywood the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice cited our field’s largest professional organization, NACAC, for violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act due to the Association’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. Combined with escalating tuition, a growing narrative around the value of college, as well as more closures of colleges around the nation, public trust naturally eroded. 

As a result, there has never been a more critical time for admission representatives to be honest and open about how admission decisions are made, what we are looking for in students, and how our distinct institutional missions impact our timeline, process, and class goals. I hope admission and enrollment reps from schools with a broad reach and platform will commit to telling a bigger story about the landscape of higher education. It is incumbent upon the enrollment leaders at these colleges to model this approach and empower their teams to adopt a more inclusive mentality and philosophy. Image of fresh perspective

Specifically, I hope 2020 brings more variety and diversity in consortium travel, rather than traditionally narrow groupings. If you work at a school that only collaborates with others similar to you in size, selectivity, or athletic conference, I hope you will question if including a more diverse set of schools could help tell a more robust narrative about the options students have in our higher education ecosystem.  The Colleges That Change Lives Tour and the RACC events in California are great examples, as they convey a variety of campus cultures, missions, curricular focus, and selectivity. (Send more examples via Twitter to @clark2college and I’ll retweet and add those to the list.)

In addition to publishing a macro admit rate, I hope colleges will make more of an effort to display in presentations how these vary based on decision plan, e.g. ED, EA, Regular Decision, by residency (if public), or other influencing categories when possible. Currently, families have to dig too deep into the dark corners of our institutional research sites to procure this. Again, we build trust and raise transparency when we are willing to be forthcoming with data. Going forward highly selective schools should be banned from saying, “We are looking for reasons to admit applicants.” It sounds good on a panel, but if your admit rate is >25% this is semantics at best and patently false at worst. Be willing to articulate how supply and demand and institutional priorities, rather than fairness or purely quantifiable metrics dictate admission decisions.

I hope schools will be more specific about their college’s real costs and net price, and work to simplify and clarify financial aid letters. Too many families are unnecessarily confused and cannot make the best comparisons and financial choices because of the conflation of loans, scholarships, grants, and institutional aid. When astute professional accountants receiving these packages are bemused, something is broken. Additionally, I hope admission offices will collaborate either internally or externally to create videos, provide webinars, or host programs to help families in your community better understand scholarships, financial aid, debt repayment, and other terms.

Yes, this is more. A lot more. But if we truly want to enter 2020 and the new decade committed to being better- more equitable, more positioned as educators, more in line with fulfilling the mission of higher education as a public good, then this is not only necessary, but our fundamental responsibility. 

Less Isolation

College admission is tough work. Between weeks or months of recruitment travel, hundreds or thousands of applications to read, dozens of speeches and information sessions to give, and countless emails and phone calls to return—not to mention occasionally squeezing in some laundry and dishes, there is no wonder our profession sees high turnover, particularly around the three to five year mark. 

As you enter 2020, my hope is you will be committed to building a broad and diverse network and support system. It is easy, especially in the winter, to become myopic and mired in the cycle turning from review to yield, or immediately back to recruitment of the next class. Make an effort this month to find someone outside of your office to connect with. Perhaps that is a colleague on campus, an admission officer from another college in your town or city, or someone you met during your travels who you can commit to keeping in touch with professionally in the year ahead. 

I hope you will be proactive to initiate a monthly coffee or lunch, or a regular call to check in, catch up, and share celebrations or frustrations. What I’m describing is completely free. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by the perspective and opinions of people in your own office or institution. Do not wait around for someone to tap you or fund you to go to a conference or join a professional organization. We all need sounding boards, encouragement, and colleagues who understand our challenges.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

What are your mores and lesses for 2020? Again, if you have not already done so, I highly encourage you to take some time this week to write them down and revisit them periodically in the year ahead.

Next week, Part 2: More and Less for school counselors. 

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You Wanna Bet?

Warning 1- This blog acknowledges (neither endorsing nor condemning) the existence of gambling/wagering money- often the loss of it.

Warning 2- This blog uses analogies that are imperfect.

Warning 3- Our editor is on vacation, which means decreased quality of format and increased use of ellipses and parenthetical statements.

Warning 4- Actually, that’s it. Here we go.

I’m not a big fan of large, indoor spaces, especially those without windows. This has never been formally diagnosed and in Google searches I can’t seem to find an exact match of symptoms or causation, so I refer to it as “Clagora”– an odd combination of Claustrophobia and Agoraphobia. In general this aversion has served me well, as it severely limits my time in malls, conference halls, and casinos.

But a few weeks before my wedding, I was in New Orleans with some good friends. I told them I wanted to do one thing- place $50 on black in roulette. No food or drinks. No sitting down. This was a get in and get out mission. One spin of the wheel. So we headed to Harrah’s Casino in the French Quarter.

As we approached the table, one of my friends (none of whom were married at the time themselves) grabbed my shoulder. “We were talking and have an option for you. We can all get you some crappy, forgettable wedding gift like a toaster or some candlesticks…or we can each give you $50 right now. One bet. All in.”

I paused and considered for… about three seconds (OK. Two.)… “Give me the money.”

“$400 cash on the table,” I heard the dealer say calmly. He deftly put the shiny, silver ball onto the roulette wheel and sent it spinning.

RouletteStudents- Know Your Odds

The odds of hitting black on a single roll in roulette are 47.4%. Now, this may blow your mind but that means the odds of not hitting black are 52.6%. Put differently that’s less than ½ or more likely you’ll lose than win. Need more examples? Sometimes flipping statistics and changing your perspective in general can be helpful. Walk a route you normally drive. Take a helicopter tour of your town. Consider that while you “only have to put down 20%,” you still owe 80%.

Listen, I’m not saying that admission is roulette (see Warning 2). Applying to college is not a game. Admission decisions are not arbitrary. But it is helpful to “consider your odds” as you are building a list of schools to apply to.

A number of years ago, I suggested the Common App insert an acknowledgement button on the application of any university with an admit rate below 25%: “I understand this is not a fair process. Being of sound mind I agree not to assign self-worth to admission decisions. Further, I agree to apply to at least two additional schools with admit rates above 50%.” I never got a reply.

Well, I’m working on another petition now to US News and World Report and several other publications who commonly list schools by admit rates (typically starting with lowest as an implied metric of quality/value).  The ask—publish deny rates instead.

How would it change the make-up of your list of colleges if you thought about your odds or percentage chances in reverse? How would it alter the way you feel when you receive an admission decision, if you had looked at your odds differently from the start?

Applying to Stanford and Harvard is essentially like putting a chip between the 0/00 on the roulette table (95%~ chance of not hitting). I could see placing one bet like that, if you are a truly outstanding student. But more than that? High school counselors are always advising students to create a “balanced list” of colleges to consider. This is why.

So the next time you are listening to a college admission presentation or looking at admit rate information online, reverse their numbers. As an example, Georgia Tech’s deny rate for international students last year was nearly 90%, 82% for US non-residents, and 55% for Georgia applicants. Do the math and know your odds. It may help you spread your chips/apps in a more strategic and logical manner.

Parents- Consider All The Angles

$50 on black. In and out. Nobody gets hurt. That was the plan.

AnglesBut the game changed. The stakes went up. The emotions of the moment were palpable and it was not “just me” involved anymore. All of a sudden the dollars multiplied eight fold. The “offer” of cash for wedding gifts now involved my wife and our future (Again, see Warning 2).

It is still July. Before your son or daughter starts filling in their name and asking you about employment history or your driver’s license number, you need to talk money. I wrote more extensively about this in March, but my strong recommendation is you establish and discuss three key elements of paying for college and finances: limitations, conditions, and expectations.

Limitations

How much are you willing to invest in your son or daughter’s college education? Particularly in states with strong public university systems, we often hear parents say, “I am willing to pay for any of our state schools or the equivalent price, if my daughter chooses to go to an out-of-state public or private school.”  Consider and honestly discuss what limitations you want to establish. These should not necessarily keep your student from applying to a particular school that looks like it will cost more than your determined threshold, but setting clear limitations early changes the dynamics, frames the emotions, and helps prevent feeling “gut punched” in the spring when financial aid packages arrive.

Conditions 

“We will not pay for a school south of Virginia,” or “No child of mine is looking at schools west of Colorado,” or “We will pay for $40,000 a year for College X, but we are simply not paying that for Y University.”

What are your financial conditions- and why? College is an investment. Your family’s goal is to be confident in the dollars you spend. If you talk about why you are putting conditions in place, they will not come across as irrational or arbitrary, but rather instructive and rooted in love.

Expectations

What role will/should your student have in paying for their own college education? Is there a flat amount or percentage you expect them to contribute? Setting clear expectations before applying to college allows them to consider if they need to work and save money during and high school, consider a gap year, or what questions they ask colleges about opportunities for on-campus jobs, the prospects for (and salaries associated with) internships or co-ops, etc. Instead of being divisive, setting expectations can unify your family because “the problem” of paying for college becomes a joint effort—one to solve together.

If there is one common thread that connects all parents in the college admission experience, it’s this—you love your kids. You want the best for them. You want them to be happy. You want to provide for them and say yes. As a parent of two, I totally get that.

However, here’s what I can tell you about the seductive roulette wheel of admission (for issues with that wording see Warnings 1-3)—it gets emotional. The offers start coming in, the dollar figures start going up, and it’s not just you at the table. You love your kids. Consider all the angles now because when that ball lands there will be some cheers, some disappointments, and often a crazy mix of both.

Back at the casino

The ball spun, slowed, and started bouncing. Red, black, red, black. Finally, it landed. Red 28.

Slowly, I let my head fall backward. I felt my friend’s hand on my shoulder again. “Well, at least we won’t be giving you some crappy hand towels or doilies from Target.”

Know your odds and consider all the angles. I’m betting that takes you a long way in your college admission experience.

Formal end of blog

——————————–

Feeling lucky?

A few years ago, there was a school in our state who had a relatively new head football coach, a lot of swagger, and fans that probably love roulette for the colors alone. Mid-season I told a friend that if they made the national championship, I’d donate $100 to his university’s need-based scholarship fund.

Well…I’m $100 dollars lighter now but at least I know my money went to helping some kid offset costs. When I unsubscribed from the Foundation solicitations, I chose “Other” as the reason and inserted this: “I LOST A BET. I’m the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. Congratulations on coming within inches of winning the national championship. Now, please, never email me again!” I actually got a response saying it was the “best opt-out they’ve ever received.”

So before you bet a friend $20 or $50 or dinner on a game this fall, consider instead wagering a donation to the need based financial aid fund of the winner’s alma mater.  Can’t fathom “ever contributing one dime to that school?” No problem. Donate to the NACAC Imagine Fund and help high school counselors who send kids to many different amazing colleges.

 

Money Talks

Listen to the audio version here.

(No…It’s not about that.)

I spent some time with a good friend in Charlotte, NC last week. The first thing he said when we sat down was, “Been adulting hard lately, brother.” He went on to tell me about dealing with some incredibly tough and delicate HR issues at work. This week he’s staring down the barrel of another round of necessarily honest and inevitably uncomfortable meetings with a few employees.

After I left his house, I was thinking about a conversation I have coming up. I’m calling it The Three P’s: puberty, pornography, and pregnancy. Before my son turns 11 in May, I’m going to take him for a hike and then a meal at Waffle House and cover these topics.

I’m still debating and continually second guessing myself on the order, analogies, anecdotes, and appropriate amount of detail. Regardless, it’s going to be a rip-the-Band-Aid-off experience. I’ve heard a million ways to broach all of these topics. I’ve read articles and books on “raising boys” or transitioning to adolescence. I’m not sure if my plan is the right or best way to do this, but I am sure it has to be done.Now is the right time

Undoubtedly, some of you are wincing as you read this. Others (those who enjoy watching people trip on the sidewalk or take punishing hits in sports) would probably enjoy a Go Pro view on that day to witness in real-time the train wreck of awkwardness and bemusement. Others (not putting any wagers on percentages) are likely nodding in support or considering what you did/ should have done/ wish you’d said differently/earlier/ more directly.

Whether at work, at home, or in our community, life inevitably presents us with these critical but cringe-worthy moments and conversations. While incredibly tough, it is so much better to have them than to put them off or completely avoid them. When it comes to the college search and selection experience, the topic most families unfortunately do not discuss early or thoroughly is finances.

The Timing of the Talk

Any admission or financial aid director can share countless painful stories about families in April of the senior year who come to their office in tears. Having received a financial package, the reality of paying for college is upon them, and they have not had earnest conversations along the way.

Now, after the student has been offered admission, bought the college hoodie, and changed all online profile pictures to indicate they’re enrolling, financial lines are being drawn and emotions are running high.

If you are the parent of a junior, now is the time to start having these discussions. While you do not need to itemize all of your expenditures or accounts, you will be so much better off if you are willing to honestly and openly discuss your overall financial situation and how it relates to paying for college.

The truth is most students have no idea how much you pay in taxes, or what percentage of monthly or annual income goes to your mortgage. Understandably, they have not given any real thought to how adding college tuition may impact your family’s life and other financial obligations or goals.

“Opening the books” shifts the financing college conversation to a partnership and a collective investment. As a student’s first significant adult decision, they should be privy to the expense and implications of their college choice. These talks will help you have better discussions about opportunities to offset costs through jobs, co-ops, or internships. They will inform the questions you ask  about return on investment, careers, salaries, and how the school helps students pursue employment opportunities during and after college.

Yes, I understand this feels uncomfortable. Again, you are talking to someone who is about to discuss the darkest recesses of the interwebs with a 10-year-old. So let’s do this together!

Set Limitations

How much are you willing to invest in your son or daughter’s college education? Particularly in states with strong public university systems, we often hear parents say, “I am willing to pay for any of our state schools or the equivalent price, if my daughter chooses to go to an out-of-state public or private school.”  Consider and honestly discuss what limitations you want to establish. I’m not saying these should keep you from visiting or applying to a school that looks like it will cost more than your determined threshold, but setting limitations early will prevent feeling “gut punched” in April of the senior year when financial aid packages show up.

Set Conditions

“My parents will not pay for a school south of Virginia,” or “They have already told me I’m on my own if I look at schools west of Colorado,” or “We will pay for $40,000 a year for College X, but we are simply not paying that for Y University,” or (though short-sighted and not recommended) “we will only pay for a college that is ranked in the top 50.”

What are your family’s conditions, and why? College is an investment. Your family’s goal is to be confident in the dollars you spend. If you talk about why you are putting conditions in place, they will not come across as irrational or arbitrary, but rather instructive and rooted in love.

Talk about money
Photo credit: CNW Group/Credit Counselling Canada

Set Expectations

What role will/should your student have in paying for their own college education? Is there a flat amount or percentage you expect them to contribute? Setting clear expectations before applying to college allows them to consider how they can work and save money during high school, as well as ask colleges about opportunities for on-campus jobs, or the prospects for (and salaries associated with) internships or co-ops while in college. Instead of being divisive, setting expectations can unify your family because “the problem” of paying for college becomes a joint effort—one to solve together.

Discuss Loans

Last year, the average loan amount for students graduating from four-year colleges was approximately $30,000. Their average starting salary was approximately $50,000. Take some time to discuss the concept of loan tolerance and repayment. Check out our mock budget from The Money Blog and put some real numbers on paper.

I get you would rather be talking about The Voice or debating which Marvel movie should come out next, but having these honest, open,  and important discussions early is essential. Again, critical but cringe-worthy.

If you want to trade topics, let me know. I’ll come to your house and talk finances. You can go hiking with my son and walk him through what’s about to happen to his body. Just promise me you won’t be that family in April of the senior year in some college dean’s office passing the tissues, pointing fingers, and yelling things like, “I wish you’d told me!”

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Success Isn’t Guaranteed—Try Anyway

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Chaffee!

Let’s start by admitting that not everyone’s experience growing up in the United States is the same. Rural, urban, and suburban life looks different, and there are certainly other differences when considering family background and other factors. Having acknowledged that, I think it’s fair to say the people of Generation X (to which I belong) grew up with a great deal more freedom to explore the world around them as children than today’s kids and youth. By late elementary school I could explore the neighborhoods around me a mile in any direction.

Talk to my Baby Boomer parents and they’ll tell you that not only were they given even more freedom, but also asked to work harder at an earlier stage of life. My father mowed lawns, drove a tractor, roofed houses, and used hatchets as early as fourth grade. Compare these experiences with today, where I know thriving middle schoolers who aren’t allowed to walk 500 yards to the nearest corner with a traffic light because of concerns about safety.

I don’t share these views to judge parents or children today. After all, today’s world is bigger, especially online. Taking more safety precautions is necessary. Yet coinciding with these observations is a feeling that several colleagues and I share—a feeling supported by frequent recurring experiences. High school and college students today do not experience failure because 1) they’ve been shielded from them when they occur or 2) are steered away from undertaking opportunities that might result in anything but clear success.

Take the Opportunity to Fail

Although versions of this topic have been trending the past few years (and even before that in some circles), I want to provide insight which I hope is new. I want to talk about why students should put themselves in circumstances where success is not guaranteed. When you look at it as an opportunity for success as well as failure, the intention and aim become different. Simply looking for opportunities to fail can be a hollow exercise, but earnestly pursuing a goal that may or may not be reached is an opportunity for a win-win experience, regardless of the final outcome.

FailureI had a student ask me to write a recommendation for them for the Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive and prestigious scholarship for public service leadership. Some regard it as having the most rigorous application of any of the major national and international graduate scholarships. As you can imagine, the percentage of people awarded from among applicants is quite small. Despite the odds not being in anyone’s favor, the student elected to try. By clarifying purpose, thinking about future goals, losing sleep, and sacrificing comfort all in hopes of a slim chance to leverage the scholarship toward making the world a better place, this student gained tremendous personal insight. This kind of personal insight only comes through testing oneself, working hard, and reaching for something most likely out of reach. Did it yield a scholarship? No.

Undaunted, the student went on to apply for the Marshall and Mitchell scholarships as well. Again, hard work and sacrifice led to self-awareness, goals clarification, personal insight … but no scholarship. Yet on the horizon was the famous Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in another country, which my student ended up receiving.

Seems like three losses and a win, right? I count it as four wins. Each attempt helped my student to grow. Each attempt taught lessons in perseverance, grit, and humility. Even if my student had not won the Fulbright, it wouldn’t change my mind. Four wins, zero losses. I believe that if you asked my student, the response would be the same. The win was in trying to reach for the stars and the growth that resulted.

Pursue Possibility
Adventure

I’ve been fortunate over the past seven years to travel with my students on outdoor leadership expeditions in some beautiful – and physically challenging – environments around the country and the world. These trips are led by experts in Georgia Tech’s outdoor recreation department. Scholarship programs around the nation often encourage or require their scholars to participate in these types of adventures with similar organizations. There is no defined “win,” only an expectation that you’ll make it from the start to the end, persevering through trying circumstances. Blisters, aching muscles, exhaustion, cold or heat, insects, cuts and scrapes. They are all there. Getting through means relying on your own inner strength and your team.

For a very few, these trips are easy (at least at first). For most others, they will mess up the cooking, go slower than the team, or otherwise “not be great.” Yet when they talk about these trips days, months, and even years later, many speak of how the difficult circumstances on the hike resulted in the ability to handle the rigors of college life better than they would have done otherwise.

One of my favorite illustrations of the points I’ve been making comes from the movie, Meet the Fockers. In it, Jack Byrnes, played by Robert De Niro, notices his son-in-law, Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, has a 9th place ribbon displayed at his parent’s house. Not second or third … but ninth. I love that Focker’s parents encouraged him to participate in something that he clearly did not win (and they probably knew he wasn’t going to, either). No matter what the outcome, Greg had to come to terms with the fact that he did not experience success, at least not by traditional measures. Did he learn something from competing, from trying, from watching eight others do better than he did? The movie doesn’t go into this, but I suspect he did.

If you’ve seen the rest of the movie, you know that Greg messes up a good bit, but in the end, how he handles these failures and keeps picking himself up amplifies his fiancé’s love for him and earns him the respect of his future in-laws. All that said, in real life I wish his “award” for competing wasn’t a ribbon but a pat on the back from his parents. Because part of the lesson in trying is not everyone gets a trophy nor deserves one.

If I were to outline a lesson from all this, it would be to challenge everyone to pursue possibilities where the chances for a win are moderate to slim. The challenge must be measured though. The more talented or well-trained an individual, the more they should pursue even more difficult experiences. Whether one is in high school, college, or well beyond, remember that we grow by reaching skywards, not by standing still.

Chaffee Viets has worked in higher education for more than 20 years. He joined Georgia Tech in 2011 where he oversees a team that selects the Institute’s top merit scholars and then develops them along the lines of scholarship, leadership, progress, and service. His experience with various prestigious scholarship programs at four universities drives his passion for selecting and mentoring student scholars.

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The Coach’s Guide to College Admission

Listen to the audio version here!

A few months ago I wrote about no longer coaching my son’s soccer team. This fall I have moved on from that 9 year-old boys’ team to my daughter’s 7 year-old squad. Let’s just say it’s been… a transition. The 9 year-olds, especially in those last few seasons, had really developed their skills and understanding of the game. We had progressed to using phrases like “check,” “square,” and “drop.” When they came to practice, they would (generally) listen, execute the drills, and understand what I was instructing them to do.

The explorersIt did not take me long to remember what it’s like coaching 7 year-olds. In the first practice, one girl literally fell to the ground when I said, “drop” (I’m not sure what she would have “checked”  had I used that term). When I asked them to stand five yards apart and work on two-touch passing, I got a few blank stares combined with distances that left me wondering if it was their understanding of  “five” or “yards” we  needed to work on.

And then we had our first game. It felt like trying to verbally control Foosball players. I found myself calling out from the sideline, “Now you kick it to her, then you kick it to her, and…” Yeah. It didn’t work. On the ride home I realized I needed to re-think my approach and expectations. I decided on three simple priorities for the season: stay “jump rope” distance apart; dribble—don’t kick; and encourage each other.

If you are a parent (or “coach”) in the college admission “season,” I think these goals (pun intended) apply to you as well.

Jump Rope Distance

Clearly, the kids needed to see what five yards looks like, so I brought a jump rope to our next practice and had them take turns stretching it out and holding it. We talked about that being an appropriate separation to keep while you are on the field. At that distance, you can pass to each other and help each other defend. Maintaining that length keeps you from bumping into each other or knocking each other over while trying to get the ball.

As a parent in this process, you are a coach—not a player. You are a parent—not an applicant. Sometimes you may need to go for a walk or drive to re-examine your game plan and check-in: have you recently said something like, “We are taking the SAT next weekend,” or “Our first choice is Purdue”? We have all winced while watching through the slits in our fingers as a coach forgets their role and runs out onto the field, attempting to play for the team. Don’t be that coach! This means asking questions about college essays and making helpful edits or suggestions—not re-writing them with words like “lugubrious” or “obsequious.” This means backing away when you are at a college visit and letting your son or daughter ask their questions of a tour guide or an admission counselor. In a short year or two, they will be on a college campus. They will need to be able to advocate and navigate for themselves. Are you coaching them to be ready for that?

In a recent Washington Post article, Scott Lutostanski discusses executive function skills, which include organization, time management, and planning. He asserts parents need to be disciplined and cognizant of taking opportunities to empower their kids to grow and develop in these areas. Searching for, applying to, getting in, getting disappointed, and ultimately deciding upon a college are all opportunities to help your student enhance these invaluable skills. Don’t steal the ball. Remember: Jump rope distance.

Dribble—don’t kick.  

In practice, I let them simply kick and run after the ball. When they did that, the ball often went out-of-bounds or a defensive player quickly took it away. They realized they were out of control and ineffective. Since then we’ve been focused on dribbling—keeping the ball close so they can cut or change direction when necessary. As a parent/coach, that’s your job too. The college admission process is not Foosball where you simply turn the rod and control the players or the game. You cannot control admission decisions. You cannot control merit scholarships or financial aid packages. You cannot control the competition in any given applicant pool. Slow the game down. Keep perspective. One play at a time. One game at a time. Dribbling allows your team to keep things close and make choices, adjustments, and intentional decisions when the unexpected or uncontrollable happens. Dribble—don’t kick.

Encourage Each Other!

Most of the girls on our team have yet to score a goal. We have made it clear that success is not about scoring. Winning looks different for each one of our players. For some it is making a good pass, while for others it is performing a new dribbling move, or using their non-dominant foot to trap the ball. One of the most gratifying parts of the season has been listening to the players on the bench cheering for their teammates. Some of the loudest celebrations have come after a teammate makes a “jump rope” pass. The entire bench starts chanting “jump rope, jump rope!”Encourage Each Other

What is winning for your daughter or son in their college experience? Not where, coach (and not what you want!). What do they want to study? What kind of faculty and students do they want to be around? What part of your state, region, or country are they excited about spending their colleges years in? Keep asking them these questions.

I hope you will not make winning about getting in to a particular college. Coach so your son or daughter doesn’t feel like your expectation, love, and approval is tied up in getting in (read: scoring), but rather that your joy is in seeing them find multiple colleges that match their goals. Winning is finding affordable financial options everyone is excited about. Winning is staying connected and supporting your son or daughter—holding them up and celebrating them, rather than achieving a particular outcome.

Game Plan

In documentaries or press conferences, players do not talk about how the coach got them to something (titles, awards, etc.) but how they got them as a person—they built trust, believed in them, and encouraged them relentlessly. Similarly, in retirement speeches, coaches rarely mention championships or trophies, but rather define success by their bond with players.  It’s going to be a great season. Go get ‘em, coach!

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