(Thanks for indulging the seasonally themed title.)
I’m a huge fan of The Lonely Planet– their travel books/guides, their website, their name. Love ’em. I followed their recommendations on travel in Europe, Africa, and even parts of the U.S. When we went to Hawaii a few years ago, LP advice not only helped us save money and see amazing spots, but it also provided a memorable and helpful line I’ve quoted often: “Where there’s a line, you should dine.”
This is basically true, right? When you walk into a restaurant and you’re the only customer, it’s a sign. Conversely, the joint where hungry folks are wrapped around the block is usually popular for a reason.
Unfortunately, too many students take the same approach when applying to or considering colleges. I’m going on record as saying, “Yes–I have a problem with that approach.” Believe me, I understand you see dominant messages and marketing materials in high school which point you to certain schools (it often comes in the form of sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and matriculation lists on your high school profile). The national media typically focus on the Ivy League or Ivy-esque schools, and your local news stations and billboards in your community feature your state’s flagship university or another major public in the region.
There’s nothing wrong with these places. But as their application numbers continue to go up and admit rates go down, and before you take another sip of the Kool-Aid, hit the pause button. Since when did “the same” become cool? Familiar is safe but it usually has a ceiling. Is staying with what’s familiar going to help you maximize your potential, or is it comfortable? Often those two things are in conflict with one another.
Honestly, there is no reason to stand outside in the cold waiting for the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign to flicker on if you have a gluten sensitivity, right? It’s an extended metaphor. Bear with me.
Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you move forward in your college search:
Why are you in line?
Is the place you’re visiting or applying to of interest because you put it on your list, or because someone else told you to look there? If it’s the latter, you should seriously consider their motivation. Maybe it’s a school counselor who has seen many kids like you go in the past and believes it will be a great fit. Perfect. Maybe it’s a parent or another relative who went there (or wishes they did) and has pressured you to apply, visit, or ultimately attend. While that isn’t inherently wrong or bad, it is worth raising an eyebrow. Is this about you or them? Is this about ego or reputation or appearances, or is it about you, as a student at that school, and in that campus community?
Every year I talk to students who visited or applied to Tech who don’t truly want to come. They typically admit it just out of earshot of their mom or dad who is an alum or who “works with a lot of Tech people and thought it would be a good place to visit.” My advice is tell them today. Rip off the Band-Aid. Don’t live the lie. Selecting a college is not like the sweater you got for your birthday last year. You know—the one you opened, forced a grin, and wore out the door the next day and then stuffed in your bag and tried to trade for some headphones. You can’t consign a college. You’re talking big money, lots of investment, emotions, and expectations. Be honest early. If you realize you’re in the wrong line, step out now and have the uncomfortable conversation. Whoever told you to get in line loves you. I know it may manifest itself in pressure or lots of questions or text message reminders, but it’s actually love. And they’ll still love you when you level with them. Don’t apply somewhere for someone else.
Have you done your homework?
I know, I know. You aren’t reading this to get hassled (but while we’re at it, you did clean your room, right?). Anyhoo, last week I attended a retreat with leaders from other Atlanta-based schools, including Morehouse, Spelman, and Agnes Scott. It’s possible if you live outside of the South you have not heard of all of these or don’t know much about any of them. But when you look at the opportunities they’re creating for students, the incredible professors, research, support, alumni networks and successes they’ve all had, it’s truly remarkable.
What are those colleges in your city, state, region? Check your mail. Quit lock-stepping and be willing to explore instead of following such a worn route. Have you heard of Colleges That Change Lives? Have you considered or visited an HBCU or a single-sex college option or a university outside the U.S.? Have you looked at the list of schools who don’t require test scores? Again, I’m not telling you to absolutely get out of line. But if your list is filled with predictable options of big name places “just because” then you’ve plagiarized. DO YOUR OWN WORK. Check out BigFuture. Download Admittedly. Do your homework!
Who else is in line?
Two of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta are Homegrown on Memorial Drive and EATs on Ponce De Leon. Coming to campus or Atlanta soon? Check them out. Live in the Atlanta area and never been? Stop reading now and get in the car. I like them both for the same reasons: great food, good prices, and an amazing cross-section of people. When you are waiting for a table at either place, you will see everything from policemen to hipsters to judges to construction crews. The diversity adds to the experience.
Who is line where you are applying? Are these your people? When you go to an open house or one of the college’s online communities, do you connect with the other students or families? Sitting in an information session on campus or going on the tour and listening to questions and conversations, do these feel like future friends? Ten schools can look identical on paper– same academic profile, same admit rate, same majors offered, but the ethos, the demeanor of the students can and does vary widely. A college search done well requires extreme honesty and a willingness to listen when that still small voice says, “Nope. I don’t see it.” When it happens, trust it. Nod your head, grab your bag, get out of line and move on. Trust me– it’s the first step down a more unique and fulfilling path anyway.
Who is not in line?
I visited my old high school (where about 55% of the students go on to four-year colleges) to talk to students about Georgia Tech. While I watched the buses line up after school, I couldn’t help but think about the kids I knew in my class who did not go to college. Looking back I realize I only took care of myself in my senior year. I watched my friends who had involved, proactive parents help them navigate the process and move on too. Knowing what I do now, I deeply regret not looking beyond myself. I could have made the effort to engage them in a conversation of “why are you not going to college?” or, knowing what I did about some of their families, I could have encouraged them about their academic potential.
I’m challenging you to consider the kid on your team who needs extra help or tutoring to pass; to think of your friend from work who is jeopardy of not graduating. Who do you see that is questioning if they should go college? Who is not in line? Let me be clear. Encouraging them is not going to help you get into college. It’s not going to be something you can put on a resume or even on an application. It’s the right thing to do. It’s an opportunity you have now to start a pattern for thinking beyond yourself. Do you go to a school where 100% of seniors go to college? No excuse. It means you definitely have the resources and privilege to be part of this effort. Yep, it will take effort. Dig deep, look around, and pull some folks who need to be into the line.
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