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College Admission: Think Helicopters, not Airplanes

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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