Change the Question, Turn the Table.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in October 2015.

“We thought we had all the answers/It was the questions we had wrong”
U2, 11 O’clock Tick Tock

My 4-year old daughter is very shy, but quite cute. I know I’m biased but honestly, she’s pretty darn cute. When we go out to eat or play on the playground, people always ask how she’s doing or say they like her dress. She hates it. She buries her face in my thigh and won’t turn around until they leave.

I keep telling her to simply answer quickly, and then ask the same question in return. If they ask how her day is going, just ask that right back. Turn the table. When she’s done that, it’s worked well—and frankly we’ve learned a lot and heard some interesting responses to “Where did you get that dress,” or “what did you have for breakfast?”

How does this relate to college admission? Because fundamentally we learn through curiosity and listening, thus my advice to you is to keep asking questions. Just be sure they’re the right ones.

Those Six Little Words….

If you are a junior or a senior in high school, the six words you likely dread hearing are: “Where are you going to college?” (I’m sure “I am breaking up with you” is unwelcome as well, but let’s stick with college advice for today.) The simple question of “where are you going” brings up anxiety and uncertainty around where to apply and what you really want to study. Not to mention the concern of not getting into a particular school. Fielding these questions from friends is tolerable, but when you’re asked the same question by extended family at every holiday dinner, it can become….well… annoying.What is your why?

So instead of creating a prerecorded response on your phone or faking a coughing fit to leave the room when asked “where,” I suggest you start by first asking yourself, “why am I going to college?” Unfortunately, too few students ask and answer this question. And if you go to a college preparatory school or are in a college prep curriculum, it’s rarely asked, because going to college is a foregone conclusion. But I believe answering “why” first is critical because it forces you to answer other questions: Why should I bother spending the time and money? What do I want the experience to look like? What do I hope to happen after I graduate?

Why Leads to Where

Why will then lead you to where. “I’m looking at this university because they offer this major, or because I can build a strong network there, or the setting makes it easy for me to do xyz while on campus.” Listen, I don’t mean to say that by answering “why” you won’t still be annoyed when crazy Uncle Tony asks “where” four times during Thanksgiving dinner, but answering with your “why” provides a way for you to change and improve the conversation.

So when he asks you “where,” give him your “why” and then lead into your thoughtful “wheres.” Then, as I tell my daughter, turn the table. Ask him where he went and why. And looking back if he’d make the same choice now knowing what he does at this point. Then you can go back to eating your dinner and just listen and learn.

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College Admission Essays: I’ve Heard that One Before…

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in October 2016.

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes, key messages, and mission statements. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic. Sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

Nothing New Under the Sun

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all!

My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Rick Clark

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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Breathing Room

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission (West Coast) Ashley Brookshire to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

Have you ever watched a presenter on a raised surface, or a singer on a stage? Think about the space they leave between themselves and the end of the stage. Now, imagine that person chooses to pace on the very edge of the stage, rather than a safe distance back. I don’t know about you, but I would be much more concerned about that person walking themselves right off the edge of the stage than focused on their presentation. Because the speaker has positioned themselves in a place without margin, stress has now entered the situation for both them and the audience.

Margin is an essential part of our lives. Without margin we run right up to the edge. Once on the edge, our focus turns to simply staying upright, rather than paying attention to the quality and intentionality with which we operate. Breathing room is absolutely necessary in the college admission process! But if you don’t plan for it, you likely won’t have any.

For those of you who are high school seniors, the college application process has already begun. Here are a couple of tips to help you  set limits and expectations for the ride ahead—tips that will allow you to preserve margin around your college search process and decision.

Dead Line

Did you know that the origin of the word deadline comes from the American Civil War? It referred to a line within prison walls beyond which inmates were shot. What a terrifying origin for a word that is now a part of our everyday language! As you can imagine, during the era when this term was making its debut prisoners probably left plenty of margin between themselves and the deadline.

Warning: Deadline are closer than they appearFast forward about 150 years… these days we’re not very good at leaving margin between ourselves and deadlines. As the west coast representative for an east coast school, I’m often asked if our application deadline refers to 11:59pm ET or PT. If the answer to that question makes a difference in your plan to complete your application, then you are cutting things too close!

Last year at Georgia Tech more than 60 percent of our early action first-year applications were received within three days of our application deadline (that’s over 11,000 applications!). As more applications come in, the number of phone calls, emails, and walk-in visitors who have important, time sensitive questions increases. Needless to say, despite additional staffing, our response time during these few days of the year is slower than nearly any other time in our office.

If you’re treating the deadline as THE DAY on which you plan to apply then you find yourself with a last-minute question, you’re welcoming unnecessary stress into your life as you anxiously await a response. The solution is simple: build in breathing room! When you see a deadline, give yourself a goal of applying one week in advance. Then if something unexpected happens, such as illness, inclement weather, or the internet breaks (true story—it’s happened in the past!), you still have margin between yourself and the actual deadline.

Quiet Hours

Back when my husband and I were engaged, we realized very early on we could not talk about wedding planning every waking moment. There was plenty to discuss, and each day we could spend hours talking about song lists, seating charts, and minute details. But the obsession of planning was exhausting. If we wanted to actually enjoy our engagement, and plan for a future far beyond our wedding day, we had to set limits on when we discussed wedding plans.Margin is your life

I strongly encourage you and your family to do the same for your college search process. If you set no limits to college talks, then you all will inevitably burn out. A time of discovery and maturity will be marred with talking about details that are subject to constant change. You’ll find yourselves rehashing the same conversation over and over and over again, but with different levels of emotion and stress.  There are important things for you and your family to discuss, and you certainly need to have dialogue around the college process. Just don’t make it part of every conversation you have during your senior year.

Find the best time for you all to sit down each week and talk (sound familiar? It should!). Maybe you agree not to talk about college on the weekends… or before school… or maybe you only talk about it on a designated day. Do whatever makes the most sense for you, but make sure you’re setting a framework around when these important, but exhausting, conversations take place. Leave margin in your day and your conversations so college talk doesn’t permeate all aspects of your life.

Just Breathe….

Breathing room is valuable in many aspects of life, but in the frenzy and significance of the college process, we often lose sight of it. Keeping margin in the picture can substantially reduce the amount of stress you carry during this season as you keep your head above the chaos. Take a deep breath, make a plan, and use this unique time to determine what things matter most to you.

Ashley Brookshire is an Atlanta native and Georgia Tech alumna who has worked in college admission for nearly a decade. Ashley serves as Georgia Tech’s Regional Director of Admission for the West Coast, making her home in Southern California. She’s been a California resident for more than 5 years and is a member of the Regional Admission Counselors of California.

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Hey Ya!

Prefer to listen? Check out the audio version of this post!

I’ve coached my son in soccer since he was 4. Between falls, springs, and a few Futsal winter sessions we’re sitting at 15 seasons total. He has gone from running aimlessly around the field with a uniform shirt touching his kneecaps to carrying a ball in his backpack at all times and watching professional YouTube highlights.

At the beginning of the spring season he told me he was interested in a more competitive league and wanted to try out for our local “academy” team. We talked about this in the past, and now with several of his friends from school and a few neighbors already on the club, I was not surprised. When the season ended, he had not wavered. We told him it would be competitive and there was no guarantee he would make it. But he remained interested and kept playing and practicing after school every day.

Season 2. I call this one "See no evil, hear no evil."
Season 2. I call this one “See no evil, hear no evil.”

So last week, despite the dismal forecast, we headed out to the fields for the first of a three night tryout. He was excited but anxious. “What kinds of drills do you think we will do? How many guys are trying out? Do you know any of the coaches?” Once we arrived they divided the players into various colored pennies and sent them to one of three fields with a few coaches to start their warm up and drills.

After 45 minutes, the club director gathered all of the parents for a quick meeting. “Thank you all for coming out tonight. We really appreciate your son showing interest in our club.” With rain coming down and whistles blowing on the fields all around us, it was tough to lean in and hear all of his words as he addressed about 40 parents huddled under tents along the sideline.

“We are about player development. There will be three teams: elite, premier, and united. If your son wants to play professional soccer, we will try to help him reach that goal. This is an academy–and we treat it like that–a school. We are here to teach the game and help your son get better. This is a community club and we are committed to having players from all backgrounds on our teams. Your fees will go to helping about 75 players a year who otherwise could not afford to play and travel, so thank you for your commitment.”

At this point, he paused and took a look over at the three fields filled with 9 and 10-year-old boys wearing blue pennies, getting absolutely soaked, and clearly enjoying every minute. “At this age, we are not too concerned with wins and losses.  Our commitment is to help each player improve and achieve his goals. Any questions?”

I’m just being honest.

DAD #1 from under a Price Waterhouse Coopers umbrella. Q: How many spots do you have on the elite team this year?

A: All returning players also have to try out again, so that number is yet to be determined.

MOM #1 standing just outside the tent with rain now tumbling off her loose-fitting jacket hood.  Q: “If my son has a bad tryout and gets placed on the lower level team, can he move up?”

A: Yes, we will move players. Sometimes during the season and sometimes they’ll need to try out at the end of the year in order to be assessed for a different squad.

I loitered around after the public meeting and heard: “You said that our fees subsidize players who cannot afford to play. Is there a preference for families that will pay a higher amount to subsidize additional players?”  I’m guessing the director was thinking was, “and this is why US Soccer won’t be competing in the World Cup this summer.” But instead he responded, “We always welcome donations but your son will be placed on the team that suits his ability, regardless of monetary contributions.” Well played, coach.

These questions sounded eerily familiar as parallels to college admission. The only one I did not hear was, “If I also played Academy growing up, does my son get any type of advantage?” Maybe that was emailed in later. But good to know that if the soccer talent in the area dries up, the league director has transferable skills.

I came home and gave my wife the report. “He did pretty well in the drills. Definitely did not get the ball a ton in the scrimmage but there are two more nights of tryouts, so we’ll see.”

Which team do you think he’ll make?

“Tough to say. There are a lot of really good players out there and even though the coach said there are no guaranteed spots for returning players, that may or may not be totally true.”

Even as I was talking I could see the same nervous, concerned look on her face our son had a few hours earlier.

I’m writing this post on night three of tryouts from an airplane that has been sitting on the tarmac in Washington D.C. for well over an hour due to terrible storms on the east coast. With no internet and lightning erupting around us, I inexplicably can only get one song on my Spotify playlist, “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. Hence the themes and subheadings.Outkast

Phone rings.

“Hey. How did it go?” I ask quietly so not to interrupt my neighbor who is already most of the way through her now lukewarm Panini and A Phantom Thread (not a recommendation).

He did ok. Not as well as last night, although he had a good shot on goal. He was upset coming home and said he’s worried he may get placed on the lowest level team. I tried to tell him even that quality would be higher than your team… I mean… you know what I’m saying, right?

I love this woman. Definitely keeps me humble. “Yeah, I hear you. Can I talk to him?”

Footsteps on stairs. Running water. Something crashes. Daughter complaining about brushing teeth in background.

Hey, dad.

“Hey, bud. How was your day?”

He launches into an assessment of the drills and his play overall.

“Gotcha. Well, I’m sorry I could not be there. Always love watching you play.”

No answer initially. And then…Yeah. We did play a pretty cool game I can show you when you get home.

I hung up and was about to put my headphones back on to see if I’d escaped the Hey Ya! loop when my neighbor asked, “Your son?” She was in her early 60’s, wearing glasses and a scarf. Her headphones were off now and she’d turned toward me.

A recent plane neighbor. What? You thought I was kidding?
A recent plane neighbor. What? You thought I was kidding?

Yeah, he had a soccer tryout tonight.

I’m sure he did great.

We’ll see.

Well, it sounds like you handled it pretty well. He knows you love him and that’s what is important.

To be honest I’ve recently had a string of airplane neighbors who immediately covered themselves with blankets when I said hello, so it took me a second to make the transition not only to an interaction, but someone with actual sage wisdom. (Side note: I wrote this part after we deboarded in case she was watching my screen like she was eavesdropping on my conversation.)

After she went on to explain she was not going to make a connecting flight to Des Moines for a speech her husband was supposed to make in the morning, I offered her some local hotel options in Atlanta, and she went back to her movie.

Me? I closed my eyes and hit play.

Alright, alright, alright, alright, alright.

I had a couple of thoughts.

1- He will probably make one of those teams (which, as we have established, are all better than what he has experienced before) and the coaches will help him continue to improve.

2- If he does not end up on a team with his friends, he will make new ones. He always does.

3- Not knowing is the hardest part. Once he is placed and starts playing, he’ll have a blast.

But what kept going through my head was Outkast. No, wait… it was, “He knows you love him, and that’s what is important.”

Thank God for mom and dad for sticking together.

If you are a parent of a junior or sophomore who is planning to apply to selective colleges, I’m imploring you to have these conversations with your son/daughter, your spouse/partner, and with yourself, BEFORE applications are submitted (aka tryouts) and definitely before admission decisions are released.

When a school has an admit rate of 20% or 12%, the talent, preparation and skills to contribute on that field are incredible. And the truth is those percentages don’t exactly translate to 1 of 5 or 12 of 100 because that year they may only be looking for a few “defenders”, i.e. students in a particular major or from your state, etc.   You will not be able to control who else or how many others are trying out. When you apply, there is no way to know if there are in fact some “reserved” spots (although I’d assume there are). What you do control is your mentality. You do control your perspective. You weren’t thinking this was all totally fair were you?

When you tour schools this summer, when those brochures arrive in the mail, when you talk to friends or colleagues about the variety of colleges they attended, when you look through the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs, I urge you to really read. REALLY listen. Notice what they have in common. No, I’m not talking about how you can grab three friends and a professor and start a juggling club. No, not the part about how apparently each place sends kids abroad to stand on high points and ruminate over life’s deeper meaning. I’m talking about the bigger connection and takeaway message—they are ALL about student development.

They ALL have faculty, programs, opportunities that say precisely what the coach said in the rain last week: if you come here, commit, work hard and plug-in we will help you reach your goals. (See Frank Bruni’s book for more on this.)

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make the Elite team. There is nothing wrong with visiting and applying to Ivy League or Ivy-like schools. But the big misconception, the big myth, and frankly the big misplaced mentality is that “getting in” to those places is a parent’s report card or that this perceived Elite, Premier, United structure of schools is somehow an indicator of a student’s future success and opportunities.

I want to challenge you to dig deeper into the methodology that dictates the tiers the US News Rankings prescribe. Question whether you really see a discernible difference in student quality or alumni outcomes at a school that is 15 percentage points higher/lower in selectivity. Read the statistics behind 100 points variation on an SAT before you mentally classify them into Elite vs. Premier. Look around you. Every day I meet people who went to schools that admit well over half of their applicants. What are they doing now? Running their own businesses, leading teams, and influencing their communities. Fundamentally, whether it is Northwestern or Northeastern, whether it is Washington State or Wash U, this is what colleges do for students who want to learn, grow, thrive, and work hard to achieve their goals. Get behind them!

What makes love the exception?

Get excited about every school your son or daughter puts on their list. Take the tour, buy the t-shirt, go to a game, and ultimately put that sticker on your car with pride. I get it can be tough when classmates or friends or neighbors end up on a different team. You stick with constant encouragement and they will embrace the opportunity— trust there are great new teammates to meet and coaches waiting to help them reach their goals. But, above all else, stick with the message of unconditional love. What makes love the exception? It’s not Andre3000, it’s the rule.

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Feel The Burn

Last week I visited Jekyll Island, Georgia as part of a leadership program. If you have never been to the Golden Isles of our state, I hope you will make an effort to visit sometime. Not far from Jekyll you also have some incredibly preserved treasures like Cumberland Island and Sapelo Island. The entire region provides a rare and amazing combination of beaches, wildlife, restaurants, and recreation. Truly something for everyone in this beautiful part of Georgia.Jekyll Island

One afternoon we went on tour with Joseph Colbert, Yank Moore and other members of the Jekyll Island Authority Conservation team—a group charged with everything from protecting nesting loggerhead turtles and dune systems to preserving the integrity of tidal marshes. They showed us how they tag and track alligators, rattlesnakes, armadillos, turtles, bobcats and more in order to understand patterns, threats, and ecosystems. The diversity of wildlife was fascinating, but I have to say the most intriguing part to me was the discussion around prescribed/controlled burning.

Feel the Burn

Fire and burning is part of the natural cycle and ecosystem. Our modern human tendency to suppress fire actually increases the presence of invasive, homogeneous plants and weeds, effectively killing native grasses and flowers, and in turn reducing plant and animal diversity. Prescribed burns not only limit the damage of future fires caused by lightning or other sources that could severely damage the habitat and animals, but they also eliminate intrusive and dominant plants and brush that actually hinder the emergence of the far more diverse, vibrant, beautiful growth underneath. Ironically, the dominant, invasive, homogeneous plants and brush that grow in fire-suppressed areas are more flammable, so when fires do occur the damage is far worse. (These are the Clark Notes. Apologies to all students of ecology, agriculture, or members of the fire service world who may be cringing at my very rough summary.)Fire and Pine Forests

Listening to Joseph describe the process and rationale of controlled burns was convicting. It made me realize we often allow the known and visible to limit our vibrant, full, beautiful life and the possibilities that exist deeper in all of us. Pain (burning/fire) is inevitable, but short-term discomfort or perceived danger is a necessary part of a rich, diverse, flourishing future. Too frequently we inaccurately associate homogeneity with safety.

If you are a graduating senior

You are almost done. Congratulations! Seriously, congratulations. You may have always expected to graduate high school and move on to college, but in reality tens of thousands of American students do not. You’ve worked hard and accomplished a great milestone in your life. Well done! But… (you knew that was coming, right?) now the hard work lies ahead. You can see it as hard, or see it as an opportunity.

Sure, it would be easy to go off to college and keep doing what you have done. On some level, you have a recipe for success. Good grades, achievement, leadership, contribution. All good things. But what lies beneath? What do you know is within you that is going to require some burning to bring forth? What scares you but excites you? What do you want to be, to accomplish, to achieve, to explore? College is an opportunity for finding those things.

I am not saying you have to completely reinvent yourself, but I implore you to spend time this summer, before you leave home, to reflect on why you are going to college and how you are going to intentionally grow, thrive and develop there. Be bold enough to burn. Be courageous enough to peel back the top layer (as impressive or pretty as it may appear on the outside) to expose those parts of you perhaps only you know or believe have been suppressed, so they can rise and flourish. The process is not easy or painless. But Joseph would tell you, and I’m telling you, most people twice or three times your age know suppressing the fire is far more damaging in the long run.

If you are a junior/sophomore

In terms of college, it is easy to only see the top layer. You know where mom and dad went to school. You’re surrounded by the big schools or popular schools in your state and region. You read the list of highly ranked schools that are commonly cited in articles. You’ve been told about the “acceptable” or “expected” schools for a student from your school, community, or neighborhood. Burn them down (the ideas—not the schools!). The landscape of higher education, like the biodiversity under the visible, dominant intrusive top-layer is rich, vibrant and beautiful. But it will take some work to lift it up and see it.

So when schools email you or send you invitations to visit; when you receive brochures in the mail or someone from a school you’ve never heard of calls you; when colleges visit your city or school next fall, I urge you to pause and consider. If you do not at least dig down, burn through, and explore the variety of options you have, you will continue to see your choices as limited and suppressed. And that is not what the admission process is supposed to be. Instead it should be dynamic and life-giving. In the end, you should only go to a highly visible school after you have recognized and considered all your options and then chose it.

Regardless of where you are in this process, I challenge you to not accept what is in front of you because it appears safe, comfortable, or acceptable. And that does not only apply to colleges, my friends—that applies to life in general.  Safe, comfortable, acceptable, homogenous… if too many of those adjectives are your rationale for anything, you have some burning to do. You will be glad you did.

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