It Works Out

Listen to “It Works Out: Episode 4- Andrew Cohen, Becky Tankersley, Chaffee Viets, Kathleen Voss, Evan Simmons, Sammy Rose-Sinclair” on Spreaker.

Each year, right before we release admission decisions, I speak with our tour guides. I love talking to this group because they are smart, excited, and always have really good snacks (shout out to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels). They amaze me because they voluntarily give up valuable hours each week to walk families across campus (often in the blazing sun or pouring rain or right after two exams and a bad break-up) and share all of the incredible opportunities available both inside and outside the classroom.

They love Tech. They believe in this place. They have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid.  At their Monday night meeting I asked them a few questions:

Q: Was Tech your first choice when you applied to colleges?

A: 62% responded NO.

Q: How many of you are happy here now and are thankful for the way it has worked out?

A: All but two responded YES, which I thought was pretty good. (Plus “here” and “it” were vague… they may have been thinking about that particular meeting and whether or not they got the right ratio of pretzel dogs: pretzel nuggets).

Q: How many of you think if you were at another college you would have no chance for success or happiness in the short or long-term?

A: Only one of the 71 said they would have no chance of happiness or success elsewhere. Now you could call this contrarian, but I call it “ALL IN!” Give that kid the TGOTY (Tour Guide of Year) Award.

If you are a senior…

Whether you are waiting on an admission decision or trying to choose from your college options in the weeks ahead, I hope you will find comfort and confidence in these responses. The take home message is #ItWorksOut. Since lot of selective colleges will put decisions out in the weeks ahead, I don’t want you to lose sight of this fact.

Over the years I’ve written extensively about my own personal “re-routes,” as well as the experiences of students, family, and friends in hopes of providing solace when something you hope for doesn’t go as planned. Some of these include:

Again, the resounding commonality in all of these stories: #ItWorksOut.

Further Evidence 

Tweet describing college rejection and decision making
Good Day Philly co-host, Alex Holley.

While perspective always comes with time, it is accelerated by hearing the stories of others. I recently started reading Paul Tough’s book, The Years That Matter Most. I highly recommend it (it’s unquestionably the second best book about college admission to come out within the past year).  In chapter one he tells the story of Shannen, a senior from New York City, who is denied admission to her top choice. She’s crushed. She’s inconsolable. A few days later she receives admission to two other great schools (with better climates) who both offer excellent financial packages. Ultimately, she has achieved the real goal of the college admission experience: not just a single offer from a particular college, but multiple offers from different schools. She has options.

These stories are all around you, but you have to be intentional about being still and quiet and really listening. When you do, you’ll hear about the job someone did not get, the house purchase that fell through, the relationship that did not work out, or the deal that didn’t happen.

A Few Noteworthy Examples

Beyonce. Before she figured out that one name/one person was adequate, she was in a group called Girl’s Tyme (there’s a reason you’ve never heard of it).

Harrison Ford, and Henry Ford (only related by their similarly circuitous paths to fame and success).

Stephon Curry. From not being recruited by major college basketball programs to becoming, well… Steph Curry.

Albert Einstein. Failed his Swiss entrance exam, barely graduated from college, sold insurance door to door. So many great Einstein quotes to choose from. Perhaps the most apropos in this situation is, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

When things don’t go the way we hope, our tendency is to withdraw from others or go into our shell or gravitate toward people who are equally upset and in the exact same situation (see ad nauseam Reddit threads). Ironically, it’s in these precise moments we need to do the opposite—open up, listen to really hear, and seek perspective from people two, five, or 25 years older.

Common Threads

  • You are not alone. EVERYONE. EVERY. ONE. has stories of re-routes and disappointments. If someone cannot share at least one anecdote like this, do not trust them because THEY. ARE. LYING. Need more evidence? Go look at the admit rate of some of the schools you’ve applied to. Now flip that percentage (deny rate) and multiply it with the total number of applications received. That is a big number. That number is a lot higher than one, right? I know, I know. You come here for the math.
  • Re-routes and the things we do not get teach valuable lessons. Whether you are denied admission or you get in but ultimately don’t receive the financial aid package necessary for you to attend your top choice college, you will grow. My hope is you’ll be able to see these situations as opportunities rather than as disappointments. Use them as motivation. Anyone who is truly content, successful, and happy will not describe their life and journey as a predictable point-to-point path. Instead they’ll discuss bumps, turns, and moments of uncertainty along the way.
  • The real decision belongs to you. The common thread between the answers of our tour guides and the famous people listed above is that ultimately, we all need to choose how we handle re-directions, decide where our identity comes from, and determine how we are going to move forward.

To Parents, Counselors, and Teachers

March and April are critical times to give examples of how people students know, respect, and trust have weathered disappointments and emerged thankful on the other side.

Tweet explaining that college decisions work out
No. I don’t know Mark personally. I just ran across this when making sure #itworksout was populated with relatively clean, relevant and appropriate content.

So I have three favors to ask:

  1. Make a concerted effort in the weeks ahead to share your personal stories with the students around you. Extra Credit: join the movement by sharing your experience on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook)  Need some guidelines? Tell us:
  • What happened and when?
  • How did things ultimately work out?
  • Link to the blog, @gtadmission and #ItWorksOut.
  1. Talk to the parents of college students or recent college graduates about how things worked out for their kids. You’ll hear them tell encouraging stories of how #ItWorksOut. Maybe not the way they thought or scripted, but inevitably their anecdotes will be filled with examples of what we all hope for our kids: friends, happiness, and opportunities.
  2. Keep lifting up the students around you. They will need an appropriate amount of time and space to express their frustration or sit in the disappointment. Totally natural, normal, and necessary. But if you sense they are bumping up against the “wallow” line, use it as an opportunity to help them hone and develop a critical life skill– the ability to look down on a situation from 30,000 feet. It’s only from that vantage point we are able to absorb and handle disappointment, but also make big life decisions.

I’m not saying any of this is easy. But I am saying with absolute confidence #ItWorksOut. I’m excited to hear the stories of how it has (and will) in your life!

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Run YOUR Race

I went for a run in the woods the other day. I do that a lot this time of year. Last weekend it was a 15-mile trail race in North Georgia. In early December, I’ll go 19 miles through the rolling pines near Warm Springs, GA, where FDR famously spent time.  Late fall and winter is a busy time in college admission, so multi-hour runs are a catharsis of sorts.

On a particularly long and isolated stretch of forest last week, I began thinking about a conversation I’d just had with a friend whose daughter is a high school senior. He called me because they were arguing about her applications- mainly where she should apply and if she’d applied to “enough” colleges. “So, what would you tell her?”

I said I would think about it. And so somewhere around mile eight, that’s exactly what I was doing. Ironically, the more I ran, the more I realized how much trail running and college admission have in common. I also realized there was not much to “tell” – but definitely a lot to hope for.

So, seniors, as you run YOUR race this year– as you work on applications, await and receive admission decisions, and head into your final holiday breaks before heading to college, here are my TOP 5 hopes for you:

1-      That you will not be overly influenced by the opinions or experiences of others. Remain true to yourself and your unique and deeply personal college admission experience. Listen. In races you see some runners go out quickly. They charge up the hill or around the corner. That is not wrong, but it may not be your style or best approach. Maybe you did not have an Early Decision school that you felt 100% sure about and now you are questioning if you did something wrong by not applying under that plan. Maybe a few friends have already been admitted to college and you are still waiting on decisions or working on essays for other applications. Maybe you look around and believe everyone else knows where they want to go and you are still unsure and open. My friend, that is absolutely fine. Perfectly normal. You are not alone. Ultimately, your goal is to find a college campus where you can thrive both academically and socially. Pace of getting there will naturally vary. Keep the end in mind.

Cheering someone onPeople will use the word “process” when they talk about college admission. This makes it seem like it’s a one-size-fits-all equation or formula, or that there is a specific way that leads to a predictable conclusion. That is a bunch of crap. Reject that. This is an experience. You have choices, options, and there will be inevitable turns and twists along the way. Run YOUR race. The beauty of trail running, in my opinion, is that you have to make decisions and keep your head up to look for blazes on the trees or signs in the woods. Unlike a road race where everything is cleanly marked, train running requires more thought and decision-making. The same is true for college admission. If you are doing this right, you won’t do it the same as your brother or best friend or the way you read it online in some guide. Keep your head clear and be confident. Run YOUR race.

2-      Enjoy your one and only senior year. Anytime you only have one of something it’s precious and should be treated and cared for as such. Enjoy your year. Don’t rush it or wish it away, because it will go fast enough on its own. Look around you in class or in the hallways or in the cafeteria next week. These people you have grown to know and love- and who also know and love you– will not be with you on a daily basis next year. Don’t take that for granted. Be proactive and give them a hug and tell them you appreciate them. Be specific about why they’re awesome. Make time for these people. You’ll never just have it.

3-      Be a light. Encourage people around you and help them. This is not going to help you get into college, but it is exactly the kind of person colleges are looking for. One thing I love about trail running is when someone misses a blaze and goes off track, other runners call to them. If a front runner sees a rock or a root or a branch, they call out or point to those obstacles and possible hazards. No matter what anyone tells you college admission it is not a zero-sum game. On almost every admissions panel I’m on someone in the audience will raise their hand and ask, “So if you have two applicants with the same GPA and same test scores, which one do you take?” In reality that’s not how it works.

I’ve often heard from high school teachers or counselors about students who won’t help others study for tests or share notes from class, because they’re afraid that will give their classmate a leg up. We’ve read essays about top students vying to be valedictorian who compete so ruthlessly academically they sacrifice their friendship. If thoughts like that are going through your head this year, I am imploring you to see the bigger picture. Helping others, sharing what you know, encouraging and facilitating the success of friends, classmates, teammates, colleagues is a life skill that will take you much further than the distinction of being valedictorian or getting into a specific school.

If you’ve been the subject of this type of behavior, I’ll simply quote the prophet Taylor Swift and say, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…” They may end up with a specific title or offer of acceptance, but long-term that type of behavior, character, and approach ends up empty and often alone.

Percentage of population 25 years and over who completed high school or college4-      Celebrate every offer of admission. I get that some of you go to “college preparatory” schools or take Dual Enrollment classes. I understand that you’ve taken more Advanced Placement classes than I have hairs left on my head. In your family or school or community, it may be a foregone conclusion that you’ll go to college, but that is not really what the world looks like. Did you know that less than 40% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, and worldwide that number is less than 10%? Keep this in mind when you receive an offer of admission. It is not “Just the University of X…” No. No!! It is “I was admitted to the University of X!”

This is an opportunity and a choice. This is what you wanted from the beginning- options, choices, and offers. Congratulations! Celebrate every win. Go to dinner, buy yourself something. You do you. But promise me you’ll celebrate—and also thank those around you who have made your achievements possible.

5-      Tell your parents/family/support network THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU! I am always amazed when I get to the end of a long trail race and see how many family members are there with signs, food, smiles, and hugs. People drive long distances and wait patiently for hours (often in crappy weather) for runners to arrive at the finish line.

That teacher who wrote your recs or helped you prep for exams; that coach or club sponsor or boss who gave you opportunities, challenged you, and encouraged your best— that’s who I’m talking about. Write them a note, give them a high five, send them a text. Be sure you let them know you appreciate them, their time, & their part in your success. They don’t expect thanks, but they deserve it. If you are a senior, this is your job.

And for your family- whatever instrument or sport you play well now used to be very painful to watch and listen to. Still, they kept driving you, encouraging you, paying for lessons or practice or competitions, etc.

Thank you

Not convinced? Go open up the cabinets in your kitchen. Pull out any bowl or plate. Then ask your mom, dad, or whomever has raised you how many times they washed that or filled it with food. Think about five years ago when you were twelve or thirteen. Seems like a long time ago, right? Well, for the first five years of your life (time you basically have no recollection of), they fed you, clothed you, rocked you, nursed you, sang to you, woke up in the middle of the night worrying about you. They may not be able to physically still hold you the way they did then, but they are still doing absolutely everything they can to lift you up and support you now. Does that love look kind of crazy at times? Absolutely. Love is weird like that. What can I say? Nothing. What can you say? “THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU!” Make an effort to say that weekly from now until you graduate.

Along the trail in a race, there are all kinds of variables: hills, rocks, roots, creeks, downed limbs, changing temperatures, rain, wind, snow, blazing heat, major elevation changes. You have to adapt and adjust. It’s unpredictable- and college admission is the same. So while I can’t promise or predict exactly where you’ll start in college next year, I can guarantee that if these hopes come true, you’ll finish this year well- and that is a race worth running.

The Power of “We”

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

My best friend loves soccer, so naturally we join the sea of Atlanta United fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium every time she comes to town. If you’re not familiar, allow me to introduce you: United is Atlanta’s Major League Soccer team. In their first few seasons they soared to the top of the league, broke almost every MLS attendance record on the books, and won the national championship. Today, they’re still one of the hottest tickets in town. The games are incredible, and the crowd of 70,000+ is electric. I’m proud of our team, and I feel like I’m a part of something when I’m chanting in the stadium. Sha-laaaaa-la-laaaaaaaaaaa!Atlanta United

We took to the field. It was game time. I went wild as Justin Meram made his first ever goal for Atlanta United. We let one slide in our goal shortly after that, but no big deal. Meram hit the back of the net AGAIN with just over seven minutes left. WE WON! Hugs with my best friend, high fives with strangers all around, Vamos A-T-L!

The next morning I dropped off my friend at the airport, refreshed the email on my phone and scanned new messages. Spam… 50% off takeout promo (save that) … Email from parent of prospective student. Click.

“I’m hoping to set up a meeting with you…. Georgia Tech is our first choice… we took the SAT in March…”

Woah. Ref shows a yellow.

I love when people refer to their sports teams as “we.” It comes from a feeling of belonging and years of dedication, commitment, and support. I understand that when parents use “we” with admission, it comes from the same well-intended sense of pride and love. There’s nothing more important than a strong network supporting students as they go through the admissions process, and parents, or those who act as parents, are the glue to that network. Parents are a critical piece of the support system. However, you’re supporting them through their journey, their game.

They’re the player, you’re the coach. As a team, you’ll have questions about applications, how to set up visits, and along the way you’ll want to learn about each college.

Now, forgive me if I side-step the sports metaphor for a little while (don’t you worry, we’ll come back to it), but what happens when your student doesn’t feel ready to ask those questions for themselves?

When They’re Anxious

Put me in, CoachI didn’t make my own dentist appointment until I was in college. And back when you had to actually, you know… call the restaurant and talk to someone to order pizza, I refused to do that too. I was terrified. The way I looked at it, there was one way those calls could go right, and a hundred ways they could go wrong. High stakes for pizza, I realize that now.

I completely understand when students feel that tension. In their eyes, admission staffers are the judge and jury, and a phone call might feel like part of the judgement (for the record, it’s not!). If your student is like me and feels nervous to dial or press ‘send,’ consider doing it with them instead of for them. Sit next to them as they send us an email. And do it sooner rather than later—you can’t sit next to them in the college library when they need to email their professor in a few years (at least you shouldn’t, though I do hear the occasional story…).

It’s also okay to prep for a phone call or conversation! To this day, I type out a script for my voicemail message in Word before recording it (I still never get it right on the first try, but I’d argue that anyone who does is superhuman). Same thing can apply for a live phone call, or an in person conversation. Calling an admission office may be a departure from a student’s comfort with text messaging. Communicating about themselves and their questions in the admission process may be an even bigger departure from anything they’ve ever done. So, when they’re about to call, or we’re about to meet at a college fair, it’s okay to write notes down. It’s okay to help them practice. Speak with them, not for them, and they’ll grow.

When They’re Unengaged

I distinctly remember wandering the gym floor during a college fair at my school and grabbing a few obligatory pamphlets in colors I liked, but not talking to a soul—an ironic twist of fate for someone who now stands on the other side of the table! I wasn’t nervous, and I wanted to go to college, I just had no idea what I was doing so I checked out.

If you’re speaking on behalf of your student because they seem unengaged, it might be worth a pause to find out why. It may not be because of lack of interest. Are they unnerved by the application or at the prospect of rejection? Maybe they’re overwhelmed or frustrated by it all.

Again, it might seem easier to take over, but the we’s enable a student to check out of the process. After all, we’ve got it handled, right? Sure, your email or phone message is intended for the college admission recipient, but the choice of pronoun also communicates a lot to your student.

Consider bringing them into the mix and encourage manageable conversations with current students and peers who may seem more approachable and can raise their confidence.  An appointment with their college counselor can demystify the process, or a quiet self-guided visit to a local college can help them see the big picture without becoming overwhelmed.

When They’re Busy

Students are busy. Period, end. Last year our supplemental essay asked students to share their typical day, and many leave home long before the sun rises and return long after the sun sets. In other words, their availability is the exact opposite of admission offices across the country. And understandably, sometimes an email or phone call just can’t wait until the next time you sit down together between 6am robotics and 7pm ravioli.

If this sounds familiar, consider CC’ing your student on the next email you send to a college. It’ll help keep them in the loop so they can jump back in when things slow down, and it enables me as an admission counselor to address both of you in my response.

When there’s a little more flexibility in their schedule, consider making a small reoccurring admission appointment on your weekly calendars. You can honor that appointment as distraction-free time to sit down, work on applications, answer questions, and communicate together. Scheduling a regular time to talk ensures the college “to-dos” won’t get lost or overpower the countless other “to-dos” going on that week.

We.

United has been privileged to have excellent coaches. They’re involved, and they’ve given their players the best shot at success without actually stepping out onto the field. As a parent, you’ll be involved too—the admission process is a family process, and there will be a lot of “’we’s.”  But plainly put, we can’t admit you, the parent.

To be clear: there is no problem with parents contacting admission offices. In fact, it’s very normal! My hope is simply that, overall, we all be mindful not to exclude a student from their journey and to engage them if they struggle to do so on their own. Recognize and celebrate your student’s achievements as such (she got X on the SAT vs we got X, he was admitted vs we were admitted… you get the point). Include them, trust them, and empower them as an adult with your language, and they’ll mature as an adult through their actions. And when you step back and let your child lead, you may be surprised to learn what they truly want, discover the complexities of who they’ve grown to be, and, fingers crossed, you just might grow a whole lot closer as a team. Admissions, United.

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

 

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The Long Game

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

I like quirky historical novelties and the Livermore Light Bulb, or known to its friends as the Centennial Bulb, is one of my favorites.  Never heard of it?  Let me explain.  Yes, there is indeed a light bulb in Livermore, California so famous it has a name and actual caretakers.  Why? Because the Livermore Light Bulb has been softly glowing in the Pleasanton Fire Department for 117 years! In fact, it just had a birthday in June. The Centennial Bulb has a website, a festival, a children’s book, and –this is my favorite part – its own Bulb Cam. You can literally watch a light bulb glow in real-time, which I find humorously whimsical.

What does a light bulb have to do with college admission?  A few things actually.Lightbulb

Don’t second guess your interests. 

I mean it.  Live them loud and proud.  I’m writing about a light bulb I like and you are still here, so that proves authenticity is interesting.  The applicants who get my attention in the admission process are those who, for lack of a better phrase, really like stuff.  All kinds of stuff.  They hear about a cause, read about a historical event, or learn about a theory and they dive in for the pure pleasure of learning more about it.  You can sense joy in their application—joy in sharing something that really engages them. Students always ask, “How can I make my application stand out?” Follow your true-North passions and your application will naturally have a strong voice in the crowd.

Care Instructions

The Centennial has been glowing for so long because no one remembered to turn it off – for a long time. It turns out that switching lights on and off all the time actually reduces their shelf life.  It makes me wonder how often we, students and adults alike, take stock of what is healthy for us. We don’t have care instructions attached to our lives, but if asked we could probably name the basics.  We are the opposite of lightbulbs.  We can, and should, turn off to recharge. You should sleep.  You should eat.  You should spend time with friends.  Do you live by your calendar? Then put your self-care appointments on the docket with reminders such as “lunch,” “snack,” “aspirational bedtime,” and “breathing room/free time.”  A healthy student will thrive in high school and in college. I haven’t made any clichéd references to lightbulbs and burn out here, but you get the picture. Don’t get so caught up in the everyday noise that you forget to be healthy.

Who is on your maintenance team?

The Centennial Lightbulb has three different organizations devoted to keeping that little four-watt light bulb softly glowing.  Before you start the college admission process, take stock of who is in your corner.  Who are the folks in your inner circle?  Choose carefully.  Do they see your value? Do they give you honest feedback?  Do they encourage you? Do they keep you anchored? The vast majority of students headed to college had help along the way.  Family members are not the only people who hopefully have your back. Don’t forget you can create a supportive network staring with a favorite teacher, a retired neighbor, a high school guidance counselor, your coach, a friend who graduated last year.  Reach out, ask for some time, make an appointment, start a conversation. It takes a village.

Keep your eye on the long game.

Physicists have studied the Centennial and have discovered its filament is thicker than today’s commercial lightbulbs.  It is made of sterner stuff. The college admission process can rattle high Keep Calm and Play the Long Gameschool students. I think students believe they are focusing on their future (hence the anxiety), but I think they have lost sight of the long game.  After years of watching students and their families navigate applying to college, here are my thoughts on the admission long game and students who are made of “sterner stuff”:

  • Finding a good fit is the ultimate goal.  Your best-fit school may not be your best friend’s best-fit school.  Get comfortable with that. Put institutions on your list where you will thrive. That is the long game.
  • Ignore the myth of “the one.” A college will not be the making of you but your decisions in college will. That is the long game.
  • Be happy for others.  Time will prove to you that what feels like competition now dissipates with age.  If your buddy gets that coveted acceptance or the Val or Sal spot, cheer for them. It shows character and you will be happier for it. That is the long game.
  • Enjoy senior year.  This is your last homecoming, last high school debate competition, last playoff, senior night… Enjoy them!  That is the long game.

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

 

 

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That ONE Thing!

You can also listen to the audio version of this blog here.

On Father’s Day we had my parents over for dinner. It was a beautiful early summer night. June in Atlanta can get pretty sticky, but there was a nice breeze. We sat outside and laughed, talked, listened to music, played a few spirited rounds of corn hole, and watched our kids put on some impromptu “shows.”

I had a conference set to start in Asheville, NC the next day at noon, so throughout the afternoon and evening I was progressively packing. You may have heard of progressive dinners– this is the lesser-known cousin. On the way to check the food on the grill, I put my phone charger and sunglasses in the truck. After setting out a few chairs in the yard, I put my bag and running shoes in the backseat. Some would call it multi-tasking, others would call it completely inefficient. It’s our differences that make the world interesting, people. Embrace diversity of approach and thought.

My parents left around 8 p.m. We cleaned up the yard and kitchen and got the kids ready for bed.  Hugs, prayers, put one idle corn hole bag back to the garage, and then I left around 9 p.m. for the 200-mile trip.

Heading for the hills…

Asheville, NC (Visit soon. There is something for everyone.)

With a full tank of gas, a couple great podcasts (highly recommend We Came to Win during the World Cup), and a few friends to call on the way, the drive passed quickly. I pulled into my friend’s house around 12:30 a.m., found the stashed key, and crashed on the downstairs bed.

We got up around 7 a.m. and went for a great run on a lake trail near his house. After a quick shower, we headed to downtown Asheville for breakfast. It was on the way I realized I did not have my wallet. The realization washed over me slowly as I checked carefully through my clothes, bag, and truck. No wallet. 200 miles away from home with no cash, no credit card, and even more disconcerting, no driver’s license.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I have arrived to work, drove to the store, and showed up at the gas station wallet-less. If it’s never happened to you, congratulations! But for me, it’s happened—let’s say once a year or so (maybe more frequently when we had newborns and I was lucky to remember to put on shoes). I’m sure the first six months of each kid’s life significantly inflated my LWLA (lifetime wallet-leaving average). So while I’m no wallet-leaving virgin, I had never left the state and driven hundreds of miles without it before. This was a first. This was a problem.

Here is what I did have:

  • 2 pairs of running shoes
  • 1 hammock
  • 2 phone chargers
  • 2 ear plugs
  • 7  (yes, seven!) bungee cords
  • 1 pocket knife
  • 1 inflatable pillow
  • 1 regular pillow
  • 2 toothbrushes (found one of my daughter’s in the console)
  • 1 jump rope
  • 1 umbrella
  • 0 wallet
  • 0 cash

I was only staying in North Carolina until Tuesday afternoon, so I certainly could have done with just one pair of shoes. No bungee cord would have been fine. But you know what I did need? A wallet. Yep. That I would definitely call essential. In fact, you could argue it was really the only critical item.  You can solve a lot of problems with a wallet. Forget a belt? Credit card. Pulled over in rural South Carolina? Driver’s license. Thirsty? Cash.

The Most Important Thing

I can’t tell you how many times after an admission presentation someone has come up and said, “Thanks. Really enjoyed that. So I heard you say grades and test scores and extracurricular impact and essays all matter,” and now leaning in closer as if to assure me the secret is safe, “But what’s the MOST important thing?” When a student is denied admission, we also receive countless calls and emails (apologies for a few currently unreturned) asking where they fell short. Was it my GPA or number of APs? Did I not have enough volunteer hours? Should I have done two years of cul-de-sac whiffle ball to enhance my sporty side?

The answer, of course, is never that simple. It’s never really just one thing in holistic admission review and decisions, because by definition they are broad and subjective. It’s not a formula ruined or solved by one factor.  Yes, nine AP courses does sound rigorous. But that one thing is not going to carry a decision. Your 1500 SAT is great. Still, it’s not the only thing. 28 ACT? Sure, lower than our average, but not going to keep you from being admitted. It’s awesome that both your parents are alumni, but again, not the only thing. No, the fact that you switched schools is not why you were denied. Yes, we did super score that to a 1500. Wait…ma’am didn’t you call two days ago with the same question?

Maybe as humans we just like simplicity and a clean answer. Give me the pill. Give me one reason. Yes, I’m hearing you describe all the problems my car has… bottom line, how much is it going to cost to fix it? You said it’s not me, it’s you. But exactly why?

I’m not going to lean in after a presentation and give that one thing. First, it would be creepy if we were both leaning in. Second… actually, there is not a second in this case. Since you’ve paid such a high price to subscribe to this blog, I’m going to give it to you for free today.

This is the one thing.

LISTEN. Yes, listen.

Listen to your counselors. They will say you can apply only to schools with admit rates below 20%. When you don’t really listen, that’s all you hear. April rolls around and you are on a bunch of waitlists or straight denied and there is finger pointing, gnashing of teeth, and a whole lot of second guessing. When you listen, you hear them add, “But it’s important that you also include a few foundation schools where your likelihood of being admitted is very high, you have an affordable option, and you might also be offered a spot in their honors program.”

Listen to your parents when they say it’s not a problem to apply to schools whose tuition is over $65,000 a year. When you don’t listen, you miss this part: “however unless they provide you a scholarship, a waiver, a significant discount, or an aid package that moves the actual cost closer to $32,000 a year, it won’t be a realistic option.” FYI. This listening thing extends beyond college admission. When you really listen to them, you’ll also pick up on a lot more “I love you’s” than you are currently hearing/feeling.

Listen to kids from your school or team or neighborhood who are in college when they come home over winter break and talk about how much they love their university. And recall (not technically a second thing because recalling is just remembering your prior listening) how only last year that was not their first choice school.

Listen to your teachers when they say they’ll be happy to write you a letter of recommendation. Inevitably, there is also the caveat of “but I’ll need you to tell me at least two weeks ahead of the deadline because I have lots of others to write and I’ll be taking my own kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween night.”

Listen to admission counselors when they come to your school this fall or you visit them on campus in the summer and they tell you what they’re looking for in applicants. When you don’t pay attention, you end up writing a terribly generic essay or deciding it’s not important to do the “optional” interview. When you listen, you pick up on all kinds of distinguishing characteristics and institutional priorities that can help you decide whether you really want to apply there, and if so, how to put your best foot forward in their process.

On the Road

I’m writing this post from Canada. For this trip we had checklists for packing. We distributed clothes and shoes and books and toys in our various bags to avoid weight limits and ensure the kids could help carry some of the load. But you know the very first thing I grabbed the morning we left? My wallet. It was the one thing I was not going to forget.

Like traveling there are elements of the admission process you cannot completely control or plan for. There may be some curveballs, frustrations, uncertainty and complications. But now you know the one thing you really need. The one thing you can do. The one thing you completely control. The one thing to keep with you through your entire admission experience. The one word to remember: listen.

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