Sneaky Teachings from the Bench Lady

One of the first people I met when I came to Georgia Tech as an admission counselor was Robin Wilburn, or “Ms. Robin” as we all call her. Back then we did not read applications by geographic territory but rather by alphabet. So while I traveled to recruit students in various parts of Georgia and other states, Ms. Robin and I were responsible for ensuring all applicants with last names of A-C were complete, reviewed and ready for a decision. We agreed early on we would be the best team—the most efficient, the most accurate, and the most accessible to families and students with questions.  She took our pact seriously. Depending on the situation, Ms. Robin would call me “Mr. Clark” or “Boo” or just “you,” as in “You better get in here!”

I call Ms. Robin a “sneaky teacher,” because you have to really listen, watch, and wait on her wisdom. I sat down to chat with her this week and reflect as she just completed her 25th year at Tech. In our 30 minute conversation, I was again reminded of how much she has to teach. Outside of admission, many know Ms. Robin as “The Bench Lady.” Whether it be first thing in the morning, while taking a break around lunch, or waiting for her son, Andre, to pick her up in the evening, you can count on seeing her on one of the benches around our building.

So what are you doing while you’re sitting there?

“Mainly praying. Just getting my head together so I can be a blessing. I always say, ‘let your light so shine!’ And I just sit on the bench sometimes to say good morning or ask people about their day.”

I told you she’s special. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, and a few gems for you to learn from as well.

What brought you to Tech and why have you stayed here?

“I began as a Tech Temp. For seven months I basically just filled envelopes. Then I was sent to Tech Tower (the most quintessential building on campus).” (It’s important to note she still has a sense of awe and reverence when she reminisces about this. While Robin grew up less than three miles from Tech, she shared that people in her neighborhood did not feel they belonged. Tech was perceived as elitist, pretentious, and “not for us.” She said the 1996 Olympics changed that perception. Somehow by opening our campus and city to the world, we also opened it to our own city as well.)  “I worked calculating GPAs—200 a day. Most days we’d either skip lunch or work through it. The philosophy was ‘Get ‘er done,’ which you still hear me say today. But I’ve stayed because I love the vision. I love we are reaching more students and diversifying.  Every year we get better, and you know, we never stay still.”

How is the work different today than it was when you started? 

“We gather information faster and there is less human error. But there is less contact with students too because of the technology—and I miss that. I used to see a lot more walk-ins, take more calls from students, and speak with counselors on the phone more often. I love the freshmen. Love seeing them come in young and then grow and learn and get their degree. I just love watching them grow.” (Note: that was three “loves” in three sentences. She’s beaming at this point.) “You know I love the students who work for us. I get to become mama or auntie. Just the pride of seeing them grow up… and plus, they keep me young and lively.”

You’ve seen so many students come as first-years and then graduate. What advice would you give a student about to go to college?

“If you have the drive, you can do it! But you’re going to have to do the work. Our students are always shooting for that A.  But they need a lot of encouraging. They may act like they’ve got it all together but they can really hurt too. I’ve seen it happen. We work here because we love them. But they don’t always tell us how we can help. So we have to really get to know them, to stop and listen, so they trust us.”

What have you most enjoyed about the people you’ve worked with on campus?

“No matter who it’s been, “(and she rattles off about ten folks, including several former VPs and Directors) “they always pushed me to my potential. It’s never been about title here or what degree you have. They entrusted me with important work and exposed me to people around our division and around campus. Basically pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to feel like part of a team. That’s what I love—being part of a team. I love being around people who make me better. And that’s always been what I’ve found here. The top of the top. These people don’t play, Mr. Clark. You know that.”

So how can you take these thoughts and apply them to your journey as a student, and as a person?

“Let your light so shine.”

We lead busy lives. You take tough classes requiring you to study at night and on the weekends. You put significant time in with your team or club or job (or in some cases all three)—in addition to the basics like friends, family, eating, sleeping. You know…life. And I’m here to tell you: it never slows down. It won’t slow down in college or grad school or in your first job or once you have a family. You have to slow it down. It requires being intentional, and being mindful of what makes life full—not what fills your life. Slowing down is so much easier said than done (and for me, so much easier written than lived). Ms. Robin gets it. She sits. She prays. She “gets her head right.” And doing those things allows her to meet new people, to invite them to sit, share and be encouraged. She’s available—and her availability brings joy not only to her life but to the lives of those who know her. The holidays are here. Rather than spinning through them, I hope you’ll sit through them.

“Get er done.”

200 transcripts a day! If you’ve ever tried to locate grades on the variety of transcripts a school like Tech receives, you’ll know that is fast! And besides fast, Ms. Robin has always been incredibly accurate. She takes ineffable pride in her work being excellent, even if it means working through lunch, taking files home, or being the first in the office. It’s how she’s made, and it’s the very nature of who she is. Never, and I mean that literally, has Robin boasted about working harder than anyone else. Being a part of the team, buying into the vision, reaching more students—those goals are what drive her. Not recognition. In fact, it took me a few weeks to get her to agree to be interviewed! Only after her pastor encouraged her did she agree to collaborate on this project. She’s humble, consistent, faithful, and selfless. When you encounter someone who embodies that type of integrity, it’s inspiring and challenging.

I have no doubt you are bound for success. And with your success may come a platform and an amplified voice. When you achieve and excel; when you reach your goals in high school, college, or beyond, I hope you’ll remember our Bench Lady. Quiet confidence, relentless pursuit of excellence, and always the perspective that others helped you get there—you are a small part of something much bigger. I think fundamentally we all find fulfillment and immeasurable satisfaction when we realize these moments in life.

You belong here.

Ms. Robin has always been conscious of not having a college degree. She brought it up in our discussion, and many times through the years she’s expressed some regret and concern about this fact. She said she’s thankful that at Tech the focus has not been on title or pedigree, but consistently, “Can you do the work?” She commented our office has always modeled that title does not matter (which is why, even though I’m the Director now, she’ll still yell down the hallway, “Hey, you. Get in here!”). The imposter syndrome is a real thing on college campuses.

Ironically, the day after I interviewed Ms. Robin I flew to Houston to talk to Computer Science deans and professors from Top 10 programs about enrolling more under-represented students in CS PhD programs. These people not only hold doctorates, they create more doctorates. They are expanding the base human knowledge. Me? I went to public high school and college. I slept on the couch the night before. “Who am I to give them advice?” went through my head multiple times on the plane and even during the talk.

Every year our first-year students say they have a moment in class or in the middle of a conversation when they ask themselves, “Am I good enough, and smart enough to be here?” Our seniors constantly say, “I would not get in if I applied these days.” Inevitably, you’ll have some doubts. Maybe it will be because of where you are from, or what your parents do, or what you know you made on the SAT/ACT. But don’t let these thoughts keep you from applying to a certain college. Don’t let these thoughts diminish your confidence at a college visit, or during orientation, or in your first semester at college.

You were admitted. We did not make a mistake. Character, work ethic, how you treat others, and your determination—these are the traits that helped you stand out in an admission process, and will differentiate you in the future as well.

Ms. Robin got me through my talk. Before I walked in the room, I sat down, took a deep breath, pictured her on the bench and “got my head right.”

“Get ‘er done!”

“Let your light so shine!”

“You belong here.”

Told you she was a sneaky teacher.

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Position vs. Disposition

This week I concluded my term on Georgia Tech’s Staff Council- a group of 20 members elected to represent the nearly 7,000 staff on campus to our President and Executive Leadership Team. We serve as the staff’s official voice to the administration and attempt to advocate for ways to enhance the employee experience and elevate suggestions, insight, and opportunities for improvement.

During my term I served as Council Chair and Past-Chair, giving me the opportunity to go on all-night “ride alongs” with our police force; conduct 6 a.m. town hall meetings for our facilities staff; and attend countless staff meetings in buildings and departments I’d never heard of before. In these three years, I’ve had people stop me on campus or show up at my office door (and even one person flag me down at a local restaurant) to talk about parking rates, maternity leave policies, campus-wide recognition programs, gender neutral bathrooms, uniform improvements for our grounds crew, and even why we run the triple option offense (I’m not making these up, I’m literally going back through my notes).

Serving in this capacity has not always been easy. I’ve seen tears, heard raised voices and accusatory, threatening statements, and endured not only the drafting, but also the revision, and “re-revision” of by-laws. And for all of the effort—for the additional time away from my family–for the early mornings or later evenings–for the lightning rod moments–I did not receive any additional compensation (though I did get a plaque and a paperweight, both of which are  lovely).  As I exit, my title is still the same as when I began this journey three years ago.

Short term vs. Long term

Over the next two weeks a lot of competitive colleges are going to be putting their EA or ED decisions on the streets.  The odds are you, or someone you care deeply for, will be deferred or denied by at least one of these schools. And since Williams or Rice or Notre Dame are not going to call you to walk you through their rationale and how you can move forward, I wanted to give you some insight from this side of the desk.

If you are reading this, I’m guessing you are someone who can relate to pouring time and energy into something. You get the part about sacrificing sleep and relationships to pursue other ventures. You chose a rigorous curriculum and found yourself studying and eating coffee grounds deep into the night. You went to test prep classes or found online options to increase your standardized scores. You played on intense travel teams. You gave copious amounts of time to clubs or volunteer organizations or research projects.

If you are denied or deferred admission, it’s pretty reasonable to ask, “Where did all of that get me?” “Why did I do the full IB Diploma?” “Why did I take my summer to volunteer my time or intern? I could have gotten an actual paying job or just hung out by the pool.” And, to be honest, in the short-term, I get it. You are not crazy—and you’re definitely not alone. Being deferred or denied admission stings. Disappointed may not even be strong enough, it’s ok to be straight mad. I see why you would question how, and why, an admission committee did not value or recognize your hard work, extra effort, and lack of sleep characterizing your high school career.

Similarly, I suppose you could easily argue Staff Council did not “get me anywhere.” But after 14 years on campus, I can earnestly say my involvement with Staff Council has been among the most rewarding and meaningful experiences of my career. Bottom line: this position connected me to people I would never have met otherwise; exposed me to issues I did not know existed; and forced me to relay information in many directions about sensitive subjects in an empathetic, balanced manner. It changed me and shaped me as a person, and has also enhanced how I tell and view the Georgia Tech story.

So all I’m asking you to do is wait a few weeks. Finish this senior fall semester strong with exams or papers you have to write. Enjoy the holidays with your family and friends. Go see a movie, and read a book for fun (not because you have to). Sleep. If three weeks from now, or three months from now, when you’ve been admitted to several other schools (and likely have some scholarship money to a few of those), you still feel like you wasted your time playing on that team; or you’re regretting meeting the people you’d never have met otherwise at your internship or volunteer group; or you believe all the information and study skills you learned in those AP courses have absolutely no long-term benefits for a foundation in college; or you are convinced the trip to South America to expand your language and cross-cultural skills was a complete waste of time, then I’ll give you back your Georgia Tech Admission Blog subscription fee (what, you haven’t paid that yet?).

My Guarantee to You

In the long-term, I guarantee, yes, guarantee, you will be thankful for pushing and stretching yourself academically. I am imminently confident you will look back with fondness on the trips you took with your travel team. I know you will appreciate having stuck with both the orchestra and the band. There are many things in this life I’m unsure of, but I am confident of this—you will not look back as a sophomore in college, or as a 26-year-old graduate student, or as a 48-year-old parent, and bemoan the opportunities you took advantage of, the people you met, or the exposure you received while in high school. In fact, at least in my experience, it’s always the opposite.

So be disappointed. Be straight mad. In a way, there’s a beauty in those feelings. You can’t appreciate the sunshine without the rain. You’re breathing. You’re striving. You have goals and dreams. You put in work and you want to see a return. I would be more worried if you did not feel that way. It would mean you either don’t care or don’t have high expectations for yourself. But slow down and consider why you made the choices you did. I’m guessing it was not all about getting into Haverford or Tufts or Caltech. If it was, I can’t help you. But if you studied, played, worked, and challenged yourself because you enjoy learning, because you see value in the effort, because you take pride in the results, then while you may not have been given a position in said college, you have earned something no admission letter will ever give you—a disposition formed through growth, maturity, and commitment. In other words, all of the traits another university will recognize, and they’ll be phenomenally lucky to have on their campus when you show up in the fall.

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Do You Have That Itch?

My wife called last week to tell me some horrible news. No. She’s not leaving me. Actually, far worse.

“Our daughter has lice.”

“Oh crap.”

“No. Lice. She has to leave school.”

“Okay. Got it.”

Since my wife works at a hospital, she can’t leave at a moment’s notice, so I started packing my bag and canceling meetings. Five minutes later she called back.

“Our son also has it.”

“Oh CRAP!”

“No. Lice.”

“Yeah, I’m on it.”

I put down my phone and started scratching my head. Power of suggestion, I suppose.

45 minutes later I picked them up from school and we went immediately to “Elimilice.” For some reason lice places seems to pick cutesy or punny names like: The Lice Ladies or Lice Happens, as though this is a light or laughing matter! Simply walking in that place was enough to make me want to immediately shave my head and beard. As we waited in a private (read: quarantined) room, I was rubbing my eyebrows, prodding at my armpits, and intermittently scratching my ankles (you know how they love to congregate on the lower leg).

When our “technician” came in, she asked a few questions. “Do you have evidence of active lice? Have you had head to head contact with someone with lice in the last few days? Are there known cases of lice in your school?”

Um. Uh. Well, someone called me and now we’re here. Honestly, I felt like the clueless, stereotypical dad you see on a sitcom. And I was ready to shell out any amount of money because someone told me the kids had lice. I was also convinced I had lice… and they were currently burrowing into my ankles.

After Lice Lady looked at me like “same thing, different day,” she proceeded to do an initial examination. And after some combing and searching, she determined we did in fact all have it.

Three hours of steel brushes, hair scrubbing, and applications of copious products ensued, until we finally emerged minty fresh with detailed instructions on essentially bombing our house. Wash the sheets, pillow cases, and clothes, cover the couch, vacuum the seats in car, bag up all stuffed animals (all of them? Holy cow, that could take days!). See, contrary to popular belief, lice can’t jump or fly. It’s only through head to head contact they can spread. And if they don’t have human contact for more than 48 hours, they’ll die. Frankly, I was ready to burn everything and start over, but my wife talked me off the ledge.

Are You Itching?

One of the funniest things (and really there was only one) about the lice-capade was anyone I told immediately started itching. They’d move back a little and wince, or shift in their chair and alternate twitching their shoulder blades.

Paranoia, power of suggestion, and the possibility of a problem

The college admission process is eerily similar. We hear stories about smart kids not getting into certain schools, or read articles about the growing competitiveness of our state’s flagship, or see social media about the newest rankings or ROI statistics, and we start to itch.

To the perfectly sane, normal, loving, laid-back mother of a well-adjusted and thriving seventh grader who is thinking about pulling your kid out of public school because the family down the street did, I urge you to get your head checked. Look into the course offerings, extra-curricular opportunities, and culture of the schools you are considering. Before you convince yourself there is an “active problem,” commit to taking a close look at who your student is and where they’ll actually learn and thrive, rather than too quickly giving way to the power of suggestion.

To the student who gets denied from a school in December, it does not mean you double down by submitting 10 more applications to similar schools. Wash your clothes, check your pillow cases. As long as you have a solid, well-balanced, thoughtfully considered list including schools of varying academic profile and selectivity, you aren’t itching. It’s like the phantom cell phone vibration in your pocket.  You are good. Repeat: you are good! 

To the family about to shell out thousands of dollars to an independent consultant (who has no background in college admission other than a son who got into Vanderbilt two years ago), I am asking you to sit quietly in the waiting room for a few days. Does your student need that additional outside help? Perhaps. And there are some fabulous independent counselors who provide meaningful and helpful aid (like Ellimilice) But before you simply show up in an office, do your homework to know why you are there, and if they have the credentials and background your family needs. Lice don’t mount an assault from the ankles. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

To the deferred student who wants to “demonstrate interest” in order to increase your chances to be admitted in the spring, don’t write to, call up, pop in, tweet at, or send an owl or a gift to the admission counselor at the university. This is not a fire sale. You don’t have to bag up the animals. Fill out the form, send in your fall grades, and send a quick email to let them know you appreciate their time and continued consideration of your application.

To the junior who is unhappy with your initial test scores- I’m not telling you to avoid human contact for 48 hours, but start by checking out FairTest.org, and look into free sources like Khan Academy or ACT before you support test prep companies who are having company retreats in the islands and bidding on art at auctions to adorn their newly upgraded suites. Believe me, when we look at your application, we are not splitting hairs (couldn’t help myself) over 80 points on an SAT or 2 points on an ACT.

Just because someone else is acting crazy does not mean you have a problem. It’s the head to head contact we need to avoid. See crazy, say something! We have enough rankings hawking, test obsessing, anxiety inducing agents out there already. Don’t perpetuate the itching. The first step here is admitting you don’t have a problem. And let me tell you, it feels great. When we walked out of our “follow-up” appointment three days later, after being declared lice-free, we went all out on our celebration– ice cream. But we did ask them to hold the white sprinkles.

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Thanksgiving 3

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you are skimming this after waking up from a nap, or while boarding a plane after great times with family and friends, or as you are rousing from a food coma, or as a break from side-splitting laughs with family, or best of all that the Thanksgiving week is over completely because you chose to just read a novel– or absolutely nothing– over the break.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for 3 reasons.

ThankThanksgiving...and What I'm Thankful For!sgiving knows who it is. It’s not trying to be another holiday. It does not have to prove itself by encroaching on Halloween. It does not demand presents or fill the shelves with Hallmark cards or boast “the city’s largest fireworks finale.” Thanksgiving is comfortable in its own skin. And being totally confident in who you are is a bigger and more valuable gift than anything you could find on Amazon or pile onto Santa’s sleigh. Unfortunately, peace and self-assurance are two of the rarest qualities in our society right now. They are a challenge for anyone. They come from slowing down and considering how you are made, and for what purpose you are made. So while you are away from the frenzy of school, teams, work and routine, take some time to reflect this week on how who you are informs where you will learn, grow, connect, and thrive. If, after doing that, the list of schools does not change, kudos. Go back to sleep. But if perhaps your list has been overly influenced by rankings; if it has been too informed by pressure from someone else (even someone who deeply loves you); if it’s filled with big name schools just because they’ve marketed more heavily or dominate your community in terms of alumni, you can still close your eyes again… just consider as you drift off if those places are really you.

Thanksgiving keeps it simple.  “Just show up.” “Bring a side.” “It’s all good, I ordered a pre-smoked turkey this year.” The language around Thanksgiving is calm, easy, encouraging, and optimistic. There is an underlying confidence in simplicity, because even if there is some traffic on the way or Aunt Lauren overcooks the potatoes, folks are still going to show up, eat some food, watch a game, talk, relax, nap, rinse, and repeat. And guess what, seniors? A year from now it will be you coming home for break; it will be you lugging home three months of laundry; it will be you texting the week before to request a certain meal this week; it will be you breaking up with your high school boyfriend. (What? Too soon?) So keep a simple confidence when you get deferred from your ED school. Keep a simple confidence when you are waiting three months for an admission decision. Keep a simple confidence when you see classmates get admitted before you. Those things are just traffic, which you know as well as I do are quickly forgotten once you sit down at the table or lay down on the couch to watch a game.

"If you see a turtle on a fencepost...

Thanksgiving is about giving thanks. There is a saying (with numerous speculated origins) that is commonly referenced by politicians, “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you can be sure it did not get there by itself.” On some level, however, we all fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved, succeeded, or climbed on our own, because we know that it has taken a lot of work. But today, I’m asking you to reflect on who in your life has helped facilitate your success. Who gave you that job? Who selected you to be on the team or named you captain? Who took time after teaching and coaching and grading papers to also write a letter of recommendation for you?

And in this season in particular, let’s not forget the basics that many can’t count on—who puts food in the fridge, washes the laundry, and keeps the house warm and safe? If you’ve never considered those things, perhaps an extra hug and a more sincere thank you is in order this week.

Know yourself, keep it simple, and say thanks. Thanksgiving lessons that transcend the season.

Challenge By Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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