Challenge By Choice

This past August I went backpacking in Scotland with 10 first-year Tech students. Our trip was led by Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT). One of their core tenants is “challenge by choice,” which means most of the activities have modifications based on your comfort level. “Today we are mountain biking. You can do the 23 mile trail with boulders, jumps, rattle snakes, and a few places you could careen off the side of the mountain. OR you can do the eight mile loop around the lake.” The goal is to give the participants options, but also to push them outside their comfort zone and stretch them beyond what they think they can do.

On our trip, however, there were no options. We were going point to point, and the distance was what it was, with one exception: Ben Nevis. At 4,400 feet Nevis is the highest peak in Great Britain. While it may not be Pike’s Peak, I could not see the summit from the trail head and there were lots of switchbacks.Mountain

After the first hour of climbing, our group naturally broke in half. The lead pack had more experienced hikers and moved at a pretty aggressive clip. I was not in that group. I was in the back… actually, the way back. After 2.5 hours we stopped for lunch, estimating we were about halfway up. Folks were tired. We had blisters, we had headaches, and we also had real doubts.

As we resumed our hike, the plan was to go 20 more minutes and check in. We’d plod forward, step by step, trying to talk about random subjects to keep our minds off of the hike. For the next hour we went from one logical stopping point to another. “Everyone good?” A few “Yeps,” a few “I think so’s,” and a few closed eyed grunting nods. “Challenge by choice,” one of the ORGT leaders would say. “We can turn around if y’all want, but I think you can at least make it to the next point,” as she pointed toward a large cairn a few hundred feet up the trail.

Ben Nevis taught me five lessons that are applicable to both life and college admission:

We all have more in us.
Admission websites, publications, and presentations often talk about competitive GPAs and rigor of curriculum. But we fail you by not always describing why we care to see you stretch and challenge yourself academically. Very little of our conversation in committee is about your ability to actually do the work. Most applicants to selective colleges have that covered. The truth is that some of the greatest difficulty of the first year is re-establishing yourself and a community around you; or adjusting to living in a completely new part of the country; or figuring out if you should use the warm or cold cycle on the washer. So in the admission process at competitive schools it’s not about the number of difficult courses you take, it’s about a character trait. It’s not about seeing that you packed in more but that you put in more, so that when you arrive on campus you thrive in the classroom and have the capacity to engage, influence, and connect outside the classroom. When we review your application, and particularly your transcript, we are asking if you have chosen challenge, because we want evidence that when you are stretched you respond well. So what is the next level for you? Maybe that is something quantifiable like taking HL instead of SL Spanish, or perhaps it is less tangible and translates simply to working harder or learning more deeply in a particular course you are taking. Set your eyes on the next switch back, and pull your backpack straps a little tighter. This is not about getting in. It’s about preparing and also learning an incredibly valuable lesson that will set you up for success in college and beyond—there is more in you!

Celebrate your wins! It's not a race
One student, a hard-core swimmer who was recruited by Division I programs, was in the back with me as we neared the top of the mountain. In a pool, she can swim all day (literally).  But the term “fish out of water” has never been so fitting. We saw the crest and she was pumped. But as we drew closer, it became clear it was a false summit. We found a natural stone bench and sat down to have water and a Kind bar. She looked around at the incredible views and vistas, then looked back down the mountain at hikers who appeared like tiny specks at the bottom. “This is beautiful,” she said, then added astutely, “I know a lot of people will never see this.” The vantage point was incredible. And she could not have been more right about the latter piece too. Getting there had taken a ton of work and we’d seen several groups turn around along the way. About 83% of high school students graduate, and only 65% of those go on to college, which means approximately half the students who started the climb are not sitting where you are. So when you get accepted to college, whether it’s your first choice or your fifth, celebrate your win. Consider the work that it’s taken to get there and the people who have been encouraging and supporting you on your climb. Look back at your hard work and stop to appreciate the view. (We celebrated with Skittles. I’ll leave your reward to you. Just promise me you’ll slow down, enjoy, and celebrate.)

There’s more than one summit.
This is your climb and your trek. You know where you’ll flourish. You know where you’ll find a community to challenge and stretch and support and encourage you. And if you are doing this search and application process well, you’ll realize there are many places to find the view and experience you need to realize your dreams. So don’t let a family member or a friend tell you that there is only one school you “need” to go to or “deserve” to go to. If a place is too cold or too homogeneous or too pretentious or too urban for you, it’s false summit for you. You define your summits.

It’s not a race.
Holistic review by definition means schools look at way more than one number (GPA) or a set of numbers (count of AP/IB/Honors, etc.), and certainly more than test scores, which continue to decline in predictive value. The person to the top the fastest does not necessarily win, and admission decisions from highly selective colleges will not be quantifiable. The student hiking in the back of our group had never been on a trail. She was not as fast as some of her peers, but her desire and indefatigable spirit were unrivaled. As we sat at the false summit dividing out red Skittles, I asked, “You good?”  I’ll never forget her response, because when she looked up at me I thought she was going to cry. But instead she replied, “Rick, I didn’t come her for nothing.” Wow! We got up and trudged another 45 minutes to the top. Selective colleges want to admit students like her because they are grinders, workers, strivers. Sometimes these are students whose parents did not attend college, and yet they’ve achieved incredibly inside and outside of school. Sometimes this is the student who was diagnosed with a life-limiting condition in their sophomore year requiring eight surgeries, yet they’ve still managed to make B’s while juggling constant treatments and medical attention. Sometimes this is the student from a school which didn’t offer Differential Equations and courses beyond AP Computer Science, but who sought out online options or dual enrolled at a local community college for a challenge. On a scatterplot, they may come in below a college’s profile, but an X and Y axis can’t capture “I didn’t come here for nothing.”

Hike Well.
You can’t fake number four (see above). You may be the kid in the front group with plenty of exposure to hiking, a high dollar backpack, and Gortex boots. If that is your background, this becomes a matter of how you climb. I wrote last week about controlling what you can. You control how you hike. The admission process is not fair. You will see a student with “lower scores” get admitted to a school where you do not. You will see a recruited blue-chip athlete get into a university that does not admit your best friend who took “better classes.” It will happen—it happened last year, it happened a decade ago, and it will happen this year. Want to know what doing it right looks like? When we reached the top, the first group had been there an hour. It was chilly, it was blustery, and they still had a 2-3 hour climb back down. But they waited. When we rolled in, there were high fives, hugs, and applause. It was one of the most genuine, inspiring moments I’ve been a part of in a long time.

If you are defining your own summits, then seeing someone else get there too is not going to bother you, it’s going to encourage you. That, my friends, is character. And character, for all of us, is a challenge by choice that lasts a lifetime.

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Four Letter Words & College Admission

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth,” I said to my six-year-old. “Only four letter words, remember?” Let me back up.

I’ve been on vacation in Vermont the last week. It’s been amazing. Cool weather, sunny skies, incredible views of the lakes and mountains.

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that when you go on vacation and are eating out after a long day of travel,  you better be prepared while  waiting on food. A pack of cards, crayons, books, and worst case, games on the phone. I’d rather exceed the day’s allotment of screen time than verbally lambaste my kid in public. Life (and college admission) are all about decisions, right?

So we are playing hangman as we wait for our pizza and we’d agreed to use four letter words. The only issue is that a kindergartener can’t exactly spell them all correctly, and after a day of travel and a lack of food, I forgot to put on my phonics hat, which is how we arrived at: L-E-R-N.

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth. Only four letter words, remember?” which I followed with, “That doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.”

My wife’s calm but firm response, “It makes sense to her.” And a simultaneous eyebrow raise and upward chin flick, which can mean only one thing… yep, the waitress was standing right there. I can’t be sure but I’m fairly confident she spit in my next drink order. And, you know what, deservedly so.

“It makes sense to her.”Image result for lern

I thought about that later in the evening, as I listened to the other three sleep contentedly in our hotel room. Don’t worry. I’m not going to preach on how everyone shouldn’t get a trophy or why “A’s” aren’t that important.

Instead, I’m just going to remind you of something very elementary but somehow easily forgotten about your college search process… it’s YOURS. YOU get to fill in the blanks. Ultimately, it’s YOUR word. YOUR solution. Sure, read the guide books; consider where older peers or club members or teammates have gone; go visit that obscure school your crazy uncle advice keeps mentioning. Listen to the advice and opinions and excitement and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, etc. Remember– the landscape if vast.

But more than anything, as you visit schools this summer and fall, as you apply to schools, and ultimately when you decide where to attend, the most important thing is: What makes sense to YOU?

Spoiler alert: The categories below are very basic. Probably the things you have already heard or read or are already considering. I’m just hoping that you’ll think differently about the same buckets by constantly reminding yourself that they are YOUR blanks to fill in.

LOCATION- Over the last week, I had the chance to visit both University of Vermont and Middlebury College. Separated by only 35 miles, they’re worlds apart in ethos and environment. Burlington is the largest city in Vermont at about 43,000. Middlebury is a quaint town of 8400. I know people who proudly graduated from each and would not trade their experience for anything or anywhere else.

What is important to you? Do you want access to more restaurants and an airport? Do you want to share the town with tourists and business people and conventions and the other things that bigger cities typically bring? Or do you like the idea of a college town where the students are the lifeblood and the faculty live right in the community? Distinct experiences, distinct dynamics, distinct student bodies. What makes sense to YOU?

WEATHER/CLIMATE-  I showed my id to a cashier in a store in Stowe, VT this week. “Georgia, huh?”

Image result for middlebury college
Middlebury College

“Yep. Have you ever been there?”

“Sure. I’m from Tennessee.”

“Ok. Cool.” “What brought you up to Vermont?”

“Well, I’m a junior at Tufts in Boston and just spending the summer here.”

“Interesting. So what would you say to someone from the South who is looking to go to school in the Northeast (I know. I know. I can’t turn it off)?”

“Visit in January…and buy a good coat. It takes a year to adjust but I’m glad I’ve come to experience a different part of the country. It’s made me appreciate the South and I also love New England.” She’s thinking of pharmacy school when she graduates.

Are you ready for a complete change of scenery (and wardrobe)? Florida feels great in February, but you will not see much of a change of season. Cool (no pun intended)? One of the best things about our country is its diversity in higher education options. You are seeing that with all of the brochures that keep showing up in your mailbox (and writing from Vermont I am contractually bound to remind you to recycle). Consider places you’ve never heard of: check out their Instagram feed; take the exit off the highway on your road trip; Google famous alumni. You have to rule places in and out. That’s part of the process. But be open and be honest with yourself. Lots of voices and opinions will continue to swirl and sometimes amplify, but don’t stop listening to your voice, your gut, your dreams and hopes and goals. What makes sense to YOU?

Image result for university of vermont and burlington, vt
University of Vermont at top of hill in Burlington

SIZE OF SCHOOL- Do you want to know most of your classmates by the time you graduate? Or are you someone who relishes some anonymity? Do you appreciate close-knit culture and the loyalty and bonds it brings? Or are you excited by a big alumni base? Do you envision graduating on a lawn or in a stadium? Big schools will talk about how they can feel small. Sometimes small schools talk about how they can provide a big school network and experience. But at the end of the day: What makes sense to YOU?

Final Tip- use your network. This summer talk to seniors who are about to go off to college. Where did they start out looking? Which schools were at the top of their list last year? Where do they wish they’d visited? And why are they excited about where are they ultimately going. No one person’s opinion is gospel truth, which is why you need to ask and seek opinions from as many people and sources as  you can. Use. Your. Network (it’s a life lesson).

YOUR college EXPERIENCE. YOUR college CHOICE. YOUR college VISIT. Now– go “L-E-R-N” what makes sense to YOU!

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