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Straight Talk

Straight Talk

I don’t love the title either. What can I say?

I was talking to a Tech grad recently who managed a major hedge fund in New York and is now a multi-millionaire living on a golf course in one of Atlanta’s nicest neighborhoods. After we concluded our conversation, I eavesdropped on his next conversation (told you it was a life skill) with a graduating senior majoring in business. It started in a typical fashion about big firms and the importance of graduate school versus practical experience. But then it got really interesting:

Student: “I’m about to start with X firm (big, famous, super competitive) next week.  I’m excited about the salary and my apartment, but I’m worried I’m not going to have any work/life balance.”

Alum: “You’re not. Well, at least not if you want to keep getting promoted. The rest of the guys there are going to be all in. 70 hours is expected and that’s a slow week.”

It was blunt, but it was honest. And while the kid looked a little dazed at first, I think he also appreciated it–or at least he recognized it as true, and ultimately as a decision he’d have to make.

Last week I got back on the recruiting beat for Tech. On Monday, I hit Rome and on Wednesday, Athens (Georgia that is… we also have Cairo and Bethlehem for those scoring at home). Either during or after our presentations, an inevitable question is: “Should I take an AP class or a dual enrollment class at a college in my area?” Another version: “Is it better to take IB or AP?” Or perhaps: “Should I take the fourth year of Spanish or another science course?” The beauty of my job is I can simply respond, “it depends” and then walk away. But I don’t… or at least I haven’t yet.

It Depends…

It’s true though… it does depend. Are you applying to a school with a 50%+ admit rate (and be reminded that would be the vast majority of colleges in the country) where they publish an academic formula for how they make decisions? Well, if that’s the case, then no, it does not really matter. Do what you want to do. You will know before you apply if you’re going to get in or not, because they’ve published their standards online. If you are having problems doing the math of the formula they use to calculate whether you’ll be admitted, i.e. SAT + GPA = X, then I’d suggest you consider donating your application fee to a charity instead.

If you’re asking because you are legitimately concerned about which is the better foundation or preparation for college, then choose the one which most aligns with your intended major or future aspirations.

But if the question is about “getting in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 2000+), then the clear answer is take the tougher class and make an A in it. Which one is harder? You know better than I do. Be honest with yourself about it. Is the reason you want to go take English at the college down the road because your high school’s English teacher is known to be really tough? Well, then you’re ducking rigor–and that’s not going to fly in Yale’s admission process. Is the reason you want to take Spanish really because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester?  Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class.

The competition is real.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want kids to be kids too. I wish we could go back to the 70’s, and not only because of the sweet clothes. It would be great to re-visit a time when students could pay tuition by working a part-time job, and getting into your state’s flagship was merely a matter of graduating from high school. But that’s not where we are.  Application numbers at the most prestigious schools continue to go up. These places are not growing substantially in enrollment, so their admit rates continually decline. The competition is real. You will hear college reps on panels talk about holistic admission and looking at the entire person. We’ve all signed on to the Turning the Tide report. We are not lying. We do want kids on our campuses who will genuinely care about others, positively influence their local community, and play integral roles in their family. But at these places the baseline competitive applicant is so high both academics and outside passions and impact are possible.

The Next Level

Think about something in your community: band, soccer, chess, debate. There are levels of those activities, right? The truly elite young soccer players are committing their time to academies and clubs. They’re playing year round and spending their weekends traveling, doing skills sessions, watching film. If you want to make the team next year, you keep on pushing; you keep on lifting weights or running on your own; you keep on going to camps in the summer. Yes, those are sacrifices. No, there is not a lot of balance. But that’s what being in the top 1-5% of soccer players around the country requires now.

The same is true of highly selective colleges and universities. The applicants getting accepted have chosen rigor. They have piled on academic courses, in addition to all of the other things they’re doing outside the classroom.

Don’t interpret this as my endorsement of overloading academics or any pleasure in exacerbating the situation.  I can poke holes all day in the methodology of the rankings or point fingers at people in certain communities who insist on their kids applying to a very specific subset of schools.  But that is not the question at hand.  Similarly, I don’t think my Tech alumnus friend was saying, “Forget your family and work all the time.” He was saying in that climate, and in that field, and in that city, you’re not going to have work/life balance if you want to be the most successful.

Let me bottom line this for you: the most elite schools are going to continue to admit the students who have pushed and stretched and challenged themselves the most in high school. “But Jerry Rice and Brett Favre came from lesser known schools and were NFL superstars.” “What about the kids in the small remote village who never hears the gospel?” “I read about a kid who got into Harvard who had some Cs and low test scores.” Okay, sure, But we are talking about YOU. If you are “that student” at the session asking an uber-selective college if you should take one course over another, save your query to ask about whether the vegetables are locally sourced.

Still don’t love the title, but it is accurate.

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