You Got In – Now it’s Time to Lean In

Last week I traveled to Scotland on a Tech Trek trip, backpacking with 10 of our incoming freshmen. Prior to the trip, these students only knew each other for a few days. The group was made up of engineers, business majors, designers, scientists, and programmers…. libertarians, democrats, republicans… passionate vegetarians and outspoken carnivores. In terms of gender, ethnicity, family background, worldview, career aspirations, and dancing styles, this group ran the gamut.

While they are all the same age and have chosen the same college, their differences were clear. They came from as far west as Seattle and as far east as Connecticut. They attended elite out-of-state private schools and rural Georgia public schools. Conversations reflected their disparate backgrounds, which made the trip both fascinating and encouraging, even when we inevitably had disagreements or controversy.

Breaking Down Barriers

It would have been easy to allow their differences to create barriers and exacerbate divisions. But over the course of our nine-day trip, through sharing tents, trading food, and splitting bottles of water, they only grew closer. When someone was struggling with a tough day, another student was quick to offer to carry a pack, offer an encouraging word, or attempt a song rendition as a distraction.  Over the course of our 52 mile hike, we gained 17,411 feet in elevation with well over 40 pounds on our backs. Scotland gave us its best and worst. We saw rainbows and sunsets and summits, but also endured furiously driving rain and heavy winds on high, exposed ridges.  Ultimately, the struggles and the victories unified everyone as they built trust, respect, friendship, understanding—and, ironically (despite exhaustion), patience.

By the time we rolled into the last town on our hike, these strangers from a week before were not only sharing toothpaste, but toothbrushes as well.  Sadly, it was there we learned about the tragedy in Charlottesville. A myriad of emotions swirled in my mind when I started reading more and listening to some of the early news reports: sadness, embarrassment, disgust, and a fleeting desire to pursue a longer travel visa. But the image I could not get out of my head were of the people behind shields and masks— combative and closed off.

What does this have to do with college admission and the college experience?

Everything. If you are about to start your freshman year in college, it’s likely you’ve spent the last year focused on “getting in.” I urge you to thoughtfully consider what it means to “lean into college.” Getting into college only puts you at the front gate. Sure, you are there–you have your schedule, your bags, and a room assignment. But being “in” is an inherently solo status. Leaning into college suggests risk and vulnerability. It will put you a bit off balance; it will put you squarely outside your comfort zone, but it’s a forward-facing posture. Leaning in helps you make new friends and connections; it helps you listen and consider a new, different, or opposing point of view; it helps you summit a mountain one step at a time.

Why are you going to college anyway? Have you actually reflected on this question? Have you written down goals for your freshman year or your college experience? If not, I hope you’ll take some time to do that. I’m talking about a pen and a piece paper you can actually pin up on a bed or board. You’ll be surprised to see getting a degree is only one item on a fairly long list. College done well is about expanding your network. It’s about developing critical thinking skills which transcend industries, job changes, cultures, and natural shifts in the market. It is about learning to more completely articulate your point of view by understanding those which are different. Leaning in puts you in classes and conversations at tables and forums where diverse thoughts and backgrounds have the opportunity to be heard and considered.  Leaning in broadens, stretches, advances, and enhances you as a person.

In contrast, a homogeneous network is a limited network and inherently diminishes your potential for opportunities and long-term success. Unfortunately students do this all the time–they join clubs or organizations or teams, even academic colleges or majors, and start putting up barriers, drawing lines, and minimizing their sphere. They begin to point to other groups on campus as “other.” But for every “other” you name and shut out, you simply rob yourself of an opportunity to grow, learn, be challenged, and expand your knowledge and network. Naming “others” puts you figuratively behind a shield and mask and will limit your relationships, decrease your perspective, and directly impact your future potential in the workplace or graduate school.

You have gotten in. Now it’s time to lean in. Share some toothpaste, or even a toothbrush. You’ll be glad you did.

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They’re off to great places!

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

My daughter started kindergarten this week, and it seems like only yesterday she was born. Such a cliche, but oh so true! In preparing for the start of school, I decided to write her a letter. When I finished, I realized the feelings of a parent sending their child to kindergarten are likely similar to those felt by parents sending their child to college. Sure, she’s still sleeping across the hall, but I suspect those other feelings are not so different.

But I worry that in the midst of applying to college, and the focus on getting in, getting out, success, and achievement, overshadow the natural feelings of a family getting ready for a big transition and the opportunities that come with it. If your house was like mine this summer, there were some extra tears and arguments – no doubt a sign of underlying nervousness on all our parts of what is to come (or maybe it’s life between a mother and daughter!). It’s yet another reminder that as parents we learn and grow right along with our kids!

You’re off to great places! You’re off and away!

Here are some of the thoughts I shared with her in my letter….

Monday you start Kindergarten, and I am so excited for you! The hair is cut, the first day dress chosen (thanks, Lulu), lunches planned and backpack broken in. Over the next several years, you will learn and grow in many ways, and I look forward to sharing the experience with you. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “[Monday] is your day! You’re off to great places! You’re off and away!”

I hope you will arrive at school every day with your ears and eyes open for learning. Your teacher will put her energy into helping you learn and grow, but it’s your responsibility to take advantage of all that she is offering you. You’ll also have to practice what you learn – after all, none of us learned to read or spell or excel at anything without practice! I hope you will continue to respect your teachers, and not be afraid to ask questions about matters that are confusing or contrast with what you think/believe. It’s okay to do that, so long as your mind and heart are open to understanding perspectives that might challenge your own.

Your friends will also push you to grow and learn. You’ll keep some of your old friends and make new ones. Frankly, you’ll probably learn more from them than in your classes (but don’t tell your teachers I said that!). They will make you happy and sad, excited and frustrated! That’s okay too…you’ll do the same to them. Remember there’s a heart inside everyone you meet that deserves to be respected, no matter how much they make you mad or how much you disagree with them. Sometimes your friends will be better at things than you are. Cheer them on and celebrate their successes with them, because at some point the tables will turn and you’ll be better at things than they are. Then you’ll have them to celebrate with you too!

Some other thoughts on my mind:

  • Don’t stop asking questions. Your dad and I will continue to be open and honest with you, even when we know you may not like the answer we’re giving you or it makes all of us uncomfortable!
  • Don’t be afraid to fail! We’ll be there to cheer you on when you succeed and when you fail – there’s as much to be learned from failure as being successful!
  • Don’t let fear stand in your way of trying something new. You’ll miss out on some amazing lessons in life if you do.

I’m proud of the person you are – the value you place on love and friendships and your fearlessness in expressing it. I’m proud of the excitement you show for things both small and large. I’m proud of the confidence you have to be your own person. Keep this up and you will succeed, “98 and ¾ percent guaranteed!”

Trust the Transition

Now that our family is a few days in to this new season of life, I have a few other thoughts on this transition:

Trust – We are trusting a school community with our children. That takes a lot of trust – even more so when you’re sending your child to college! It’s a great reminder of the responsibility we have as educators to embrace those in our charge and work to help them have a smooth transition. The communication from her teachers and school has helped me gain trust in them. Parents, take advantage of all the ways a college wants to communicate with you – parent newsletters, parent program offerings, and family weekend are just a couple of examples. I searched several university and military academy websites, and all have parent programs featured prominently in search results. Go find yours!

Logistics – I’m thinking about what my daughter is doing throughout the day. Did she find her way to her classroom? Could she open her lunch thermos? Was the spaghetti still hot? Did she make it to her after school bus? I’m sure these feelings are amplified when you don’t see your child every day. Before you drop off your child at college, set some parameters surrounding your expectations for communication. My parents suffered through a child who would go a week without checking in (sorry, mom… I get it now!). The only way to ensure all parties are satisfied, and not stifled, by communication is to keep talking about it.

Tears (or no tears!) – I had none, nor did my daughter. I’m excited for this next step for her and know we’ve done all we can to prepare her for it. Parents, you have too, so celebrate with your child! Because they’re “off to great places! [They’re] off and away!”

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College Admission: Think Helicopters, not Airplanes

At a conference in Newport, RI in July, I entered my name in a raffle to take a helicopter tour. On the day of the drawing, the organizer announced her 2-year old son selected three lucky winners. I almost stood up because I instantly knew I had one of the spots locked down. Can’t say what it is exactly, but me and 2-year olds… we get each other. And sure enough, my name was the first one called.

The ride was incredible. Partly because Newport is a truly beautiful area by land, sea, and from the air. Hundreds of sailboats, famous mansions along the cliffs, and great views of farms and wineries. But I think one of the coolest and most amazing parts of the ride was simply taking off.  I know it sounds obvious, but you rise up straight off the ground. There is no taxiing, accelerating, or partially up before all wheels are up. Just whoop– up! No effort. No build up. Blades spinning, seat belts buckled, doors closed, headphones on. You’re airborne.

With the Common Application, Coalition Application, and most institutional applications now open, I encourage you to view your senior year, and the admission process, as a helicopter tour rather than a plane ride.

Plane Rides vs. Helicopter Tours

When you board a plane, you are always focused on where you are going. Destination is king. I’ve been on some pretty important plane rides in my life — headed to weddings; attending funerals; going to graduations; traveling to make speeches and presentations. When you board a plane, you have a precise endpoint in mind. Delays are annoying… lack of coffee when they forget to refill the water prior to departure is irritating (thanks, Flight 2225)… turbulence is scary. What you remember if the flight is smooth is… well, nothing. What you remember if it’s not, is the inconvenience.

In contrast, a helicopter tour is going to end up at the exact spot you started. The person who dropped us off just sat in the lobby and waited while we flew around Newport. She knew we were coming right back. The point of the ride was not to get somewhere. The point of the ride was to see, learn, explore, appreciate, and gain perspective. I would assert the same is true of the college admission process and your senior year in general. The admission process is not about the destination. It’s not about one school or one city or one campus. If that’s your perspective, or if it starts to creep into your mind this year, I am earnestly imploring you to consider why you’re cheating yourself of growth.

If you see this experience as a helicopter ride, then it becomes about what you learn about yourself along the way. It’s about understanding when the brochures arrive in the mail (or when you visit a campus, or when an alum or neighbor tries to convince you to apply or choose a certain college) why a school is, or is not, a good fit for you.

How Did You Grow?

Let’s say you apply to Stanford (the country’s most selective institution) and you get in. If it’s a plane ride, all you did was get on board, buckle your seat belt, and arrive in Palo Alto. Congrats, it’s sunny. But how did you grow? What lessons have you actually learned over the last year to help you thrive and navigate in your new community? I’d say few. I’d also say you wasted your senior year. Sure, you made a few fives on some AP exams. You went to prom. Maybe you even won some games, garnered some awards, or made some money. But do you know yourself more deeply after the experience? Do you know why you are there, and not somewhere else? Did you truly choose this college over all others? Or did you simply arrive? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying  you shouldn’t have a solid list of schools, or even one as your first choice. But if “college” is all wrapped up in one place; if success is wrapped up in one place; I’d urge you to think about helicopters, not airplanes.

If this is a helicopter tour, you will see a ton in the year ahead. You will ask probing, personal questions into those headphones at 200 feet–your questions, not questions someone told you to ask. You will look down over the landscape, your choices, from a different perspective. I would assert if your senior year is a helicopter tour, nothing can teach you more about yourself than the college admission process.

Touring Through College Admission

Helicopter tours are meant to be enjoyed and appreciated. “Touring” through college admission, rather than “flying” through it, will teach you more valuable lessons than you’ll ever learn in an AP class or get from an online lecture. If it’s not about the destination, then getting deferred or waitlisted are not reasons to question your intelligence or potential. If it’s not about the destination, you won’t be as frustrated or bitter to see someone else land where you wanted to be, while you get diverted to another airport. Instead, the turbulence, the delays, the re-routes, are simply part of the ride. They don’t shake your confidence. Your blades are still spinning. Your headphones are still operational.

Helicopter tours may land in the same spot, but the passengers get off with an entirely new perspective. If you’re reading this and you’re starting your applications now, I have no doubt in a year from now you’ll be packing your bags for college. The question is your ride between now and then. So fly well.

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Our Bad. Your Problem.

We had an office retreat last week. One session included a quiz on Gen Z vernacular.  While our results were kept anonymous, I’m going to out myself and admit I did not score what most would define as high. “‘Ship them’, ‘Sips Tea,’ ‘Goat.'” As I watched one unfamiliar phrase after another pop up on the screen, I oscillated between trying to decipher their origins and thinking back on some of the popular phrases from my high school experience.  One of the most common, especially playing soccer, was “My bad.” 

I’ve come to realize “my bad” is essentially synonymous with “Bless her heart.”  A little girl trips during a ballet recital and Aunt May leans over and whispers, “She isn’t the most coordinated, is she? Bless her heart.” There are some real parallels between that comment and making a lazy pass to a teammate that ends up setting him up to get completely cracked by a charging defender. “My bad.” “Yep. Darn right it’s your bad. Nearly got me killed.” And to be honest, much of the consternation surrounding the admission process is “Our bad.”

Our bad!

Colleges should do a better job differentiating ourselves in the materials we send, the presentations we give, and the websites we build. In an effort to be broad and aesthetically concise, we end up blurring all schools together.

We want you to think, “Wow. I can see myself there” or “I’ll have friends and professors who will care about me,” so we stage diverse groups of students under trees with professors in front of our prettiest building on a perfectly sunny day. Now, you can attribute some of this to an overuse of the same marketing firm(s) within higher education.  “Check out the 2018 template. In this one we moved the football team winning a pivotal game to page two, and decided to get a drone shot of the steeple clock tower at sunset from the east. Don’t like that? Okay, how about the one with the study abroad picture on the cover and the ultimate Frisbee shot as a centerfold?” Maybe we need StitchFix to start creating college brochures. Give me a little more Atlanta and dial back the political activism–that’s really more us.

Our attempts to be inspirational or aspirational wind up being synthesized into three or four word taglines, such as “Change Your  World,” “Dream Big-Live Bigger,” or “Create the Future.” (Rumor is “Drain the Swamp” started with a consulting firm working for a college, but currently that’s been dismissed as fake news.) These attempts are ultimately why, based solely on brochures or websites, you might struggle to see a consequential difference between a small, private college in the middle of Ohio and a flagship public university in the Pacific Northwest. Our bad!

Truth be told, we do the same on tours too. We find the most involved students and best ambassadors to talk about all of the amazing research they’ve done, trips they’ve taken, and jobs they have lined up. While telling their story, they work in equally impressive anecdotes about friends or roommates studying abroad or creating companies– all the while somehow impervious to the 90 degree heat.

I’ve taken several tours this summer on my travels (registering under either George P. Burdell or Navin R. Johnson), so I’m not speaking only for Tech, or conjecturing about what may be happening. This is real, people.  These students are amazing- and they’re actual humans- not prototypes or conglomerates of a variety of top students. Not sure about you but I’ve walked away from some of those tours with an even mixture of being impressed and depressed.

Your Problem!

So, unquestionably, it is our bad. We set you up. We skim over lots of details. We give you very generic information online and in brochures, and then expose you to our best- whether its buildings, students, professors, or alumni. It’s the equivalent of us lazily passing the ball toward you. What are you going to do with it? Well, like any receiver (regardless of the sport) knows, you can’t sit and wait for it, because it will either get intercepted or you’re going to get hit upon arrival.

Run Toward It

1- Read and Research: Pick up an alumni magazine while you are on campus (tip: they’re always available at the college’s alumni building and most are readily available online too). What are they touting? Where are alums living and working? Inevitably, there are stories of professors, researchers, students, and even messages from the president or other influencers you won’t find in admission publications. Grab a school newspaper, look online for social media that’s not generated by admission, i.e. the academic department or clubs you are interested in joining. These posts are always more organic and less polished, which is a good thing.

2- Walk and Talk: If you visit a college with a friend or parent, try to split up and take different tours. Even though, theoretically, it’s the same route and basic script, the voices and perspectives will always vary.   It’s incredible how many times a tour guide’s personality, choice of footwear, the day’s weather, or some off-handed comment will influence your impression of the university. I challenge you to not let any one voice be too powerful in this process. You don’t read only one review on Yelp or Amazon, right? After the tour, go stand in the longest coffee line you can find on campus. Those are the conversations you need and want to hear. Sit down, compare notes, pretend to read, and enjoy the variety of discussions. Eavesdropping gets a bad rap. It’s a life skill.

In the near future, colleges will all have virtual or augmented reality tour options. You’ll be able to choose your tour guide avatar, customized tour route, and set your voice narration style. Imagine having Thomas Jefferson take you around UVA or Mark Zuckerberg take you around Harvard. Not “throwing shade” here—as I  told you, eavesdropping was a life skill.  It’s on you to limit your bias by soliciting as many opinions as possible.

3- Ask and Task: We’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating: It’s on you to ask good, probing questions. Don’t let the admission counselor pull the string in the back of their belt and start droning on about getting seven friends, a snitch and sponsor to start the Quidditch club.  Dig deeper. They’re not being nefarious—but they are  being lazy. Get beyond the first layer spiel. Stop the tour guide, pause the presenter. Ask them to delve into some detail about their student: faculty ratio or the availability of campus housing after sophomore year, or the percentage of undergrads actually doing research.

brb. Well, next week anyway.

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Waiting Well

Q: “Mommy, what eats a hyena?”

Me: “I don’t know, maybe a lion…?”

Q: “Well, let’s get your phone and I’ll look it up.”

As the mom of small children, I find myself constantly asking my girls one thing: wait. And please, be patient.

Turns out young kids have a hard time with waiting. And who can blame them? Our world is driven by “right now.” If my 6-year old has a question and I don’t know the answer, she simply picks up my phone and Googles it (see conversation above). No waiting, no looking it up in a book. If she wants to watch a TV show she has Netflix (and the Disney Jr. app)… when i was a kid you had one shot at watching cartoons: Saturday morning. If you missed your favorite show, too bad—you had to wait a week to see it.

The art of waiting (or lack thereof) even filters down to the books I read to my 1-year old. Each night we read Llama Llama Red Pajama–a story about a young llama whose mom tucks him into bed then goes downstairs. He then calls for her and, in the midst of waiting, spends the next few minutes growing increasingly worried (and ultimately panicked) wondering what’s taking her so long. Of course in the end she comes in and offers some good ol’ mom wisdom: “llama llama what a tizzy… sometimes mama’s very busy. Please stop all this llama drama, and be patient for your mama!” (And yes, this slight reprimand is followed with a hug, kiss, and reassurance that everything is okay.)

Still waiting (for the point….)

All of us, as young as 1, and as old as, well, 30-something, could do a bit better with waiting. There will always be something to wait for in life. When you’re in preschool, you wait for kindergarten. When you’re in middle school, you wait for high school. When you’re in high school, you wait for college. When you’re in college, you wait to graduate and get a job. When you get a job, you wait to find the right person to marry… house to purchase… you see where I’m going here. The list goes on and on. Regardless of what stage of life you find yourself in, you will always be waiting for… something.

If you’re a rising senior, you’re likely waiting for August 1 when many applications (including the Common App and Coalition App) open up. Once that happens, you’ll find yourself in motion as you work on your application and line up all of the documents you need and so on. Hopefully you’ll find yourself all done with your application long before the actual application deadline (hint, hint). At that point all you have to do is wait… and the question becomes: how do you wait? And moreover—how do you wait well?

Make a list, check it twice 

Once you hit that magical submit button, there’s still tasks to be completed. Your list of action items will likely vary from college to college. Follow up with your school counselor to be sure he or she knows what you need from them (transcripts to be sent, recommendation letters uploaded, etc.). Your job is to follow up and provide what is asked of you (so keep an eye on that applicant portal/checklist where you can monitor your status!). But here’s the key: don’t follow up every. Single. Day. Don’t camp out outside anyone’s office, don’t make phone calls every day, and don’t send emails multiple times a day pushing for a response. Make the request, give it a couple of weeks, and…. wait. If you’re getting close to a deadline and still haven’t gotten a response, of course be sure to check back in. If you’ve done your part and asked for the info, and the other person assures you they’re doing their part and working on it, then the next thing to do is…. Wait.

Stay in motion

This one may seem contradictory after what I just said. But just because you’ve submitted your application and requested all of your additional information doesn’t mean you get to just sit around. While you wait be sure to stay in motion. Sitting around and worrying isn’t going to benefit anyone, especially you! If your recommendation letters are finished, write a thank you note to each person. Lead a project at school, help out a friend, spend time with your family, and of course keep studying and working hard in class. Be active, and grow where you’re planted. Right now, in this moment, actually BE where you are instead of worrying about where you will be. Easier said than done, but trust me, practicing that now will help keep your blood pressure down in the future.

Find Reassurance

In the end, it’s okay to be a little bit like Little Llama. Sometimes it all becomes too much, and the only option left is to jump, pout, and shout. When that time comes, find your safe place and let it all out. That place could be with a parent, a friend, a teacher, or a coach. It may not be a person, but an activity that is your safe place (music, sports, horseback riding, hiking, etc.). Find a way to get all of the angst, anxiety, and worry out of your system, without judgement. Take a deep breath—actually, take a lot of them. It helps more than you might think. Remember that if you’ve followed the two steps above, then you’ve done all you can do. It’s out of your hands now… and that’s okay.

If you’re like most students, you’ve done your share of waiting this summer. As you head into your senior year you’ll move from waiting-mode into action-mode. But after all the hustle, and the busyness, of a new school year passes, you’ll find yourself back in waiting mode. And I encourage you: find your way to wait well.

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