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Admission Mystery: Follow the Clues

Admission Mystery: Follow the Clues

Listen to the audio version here.

My friend and colleague Brennan Barnard recently wrote an incredibly insightful, heartfelt, and encouraging letter to students in Forbes. I hope you will read it. His conclusion really stuck with me: “I hope you are ready because you are bound for an amazing college experience filled with opportunities to learn, connect, and grow. Where all of that will happen is a mystery—and like all good mysteries, it should be filled with twists, turns, discovery, new places, and interesting people. My hope is that you will find joy in uncovering the clues that lead you, and that ultimately you will arrive on a college campus confident and excited to embrace the opportunity. Enjoy the journey.”

A Game of Clue

Those words reminded me of last Saturday night after dinner at our house. My kids insisted we play the classic board game Clue. If you are not familiar with the game, the goal is to use the process of elimination to determine the character who did the deed, the weapon they used, and the room where the crime occurred. 

First, you choose a card from each category to put in an envelope in the middle of the board. Then, by looking at your cards, asking questions of the other players (as well as closely watching the interactions of other players), and moving around the board to different rooms, you attempt to solve the mystery. (Rules are here, if that brief description is not adequate. I recommend the movie too.)

By the time our kids took their baths, put on pajamas, and got everything set up, it was about 8 p.m. It didn’t take long to realize this was not going to end well. Within a 10 minute period, Elizabeth, our eight year old, fell off the bench, knocked over her milk, and started crying because she thought we had skipped her turn (and she had just gone).

Elizabeth (Ozzie in stripes) in an entirely different mood.

My wife (far more patient and generous than me) had just poured her another glass of milk when Elizabeth inadvertently dropped two of her cards face up on the table. This led our son to say, “Ahh… okay. So it’s not Mr. Green…” and then he feigned making a note. Game over. Tears, flailing on the ground, and of course, more spilled milk— this time on her teddy bear Ozzie, aka her teammate.

“That’s it!” I pronounced. “We’re done. We can finish this tomorrow.”

HOLY COW! You would have thought I said we were going to burn Ozzie and throw his remains in the sewer. It was like scene from the Book of Revelation. Writhing, gnashing of teeth, and an alternation between screams and whimpers that left me questioning our decision to have a second child.

Once she pulled herself together and blew her nose about seven times, she insisted on looking at the cards in the envelope to learn the answers.

“No, sweetheart,” I told her. “We will finish the game tomorrow.” I picked her up and carried her to bed. She was snoring within 46 seconds.

Second verse, same as the first

I was working at the dining room table the following morning and heard her come down the stairs. Not realizing I was watching, she went into the room where the board was set up in order to peek inside the envelope.

It felt like Groundhog Day as I walked in and reprimanded her. Bam! She hit the floor, casting Ozzie aside in her grief. As I watched her moan and roll around (essentially serving as a human Swiffer), I thought about… well, first about being on the beach alone. But then I considered just how natural her desire was to check the envelope and uncover the resolution.

A Desire for “The Answers”

We have all been there…

  • Is this date going to lead to anything significant?
  • How did I do on that test?
  • Is this job interview going to result in an offer?
  • Is my health exam going to come back positive or negative?

The desire to know how it’s all going to work out is true in the college admission experience as well.

If you are a junior

Emails flood your inbox. Every brochure presents you with another beautifully manicured quad, incredible brick or stone architecture, and a perfectly balanced array of students from different ethnicities, majors, and states. They seem to say (without overtly saying), “no matter who you are, there is a place for you here.” The big machine of college admission marketing is in full gear and your name is up.

  1. Look at those letters, emails, and brochures as clues. Ask yourself, like you would in the game, what am I holding in my hand— in other words, who am I? And who am I not? Take the time to consider, refine, and record distinctions between what you want (would be nice) and what you need (must have) in your college experience. Think about your school, community, and the teams, clubs, jobs, and other places you are involved and plugged in. What do you love about those opportunities or environments and want more of in college? What do you not see, have, or enjoy that you are hoping to gain, learn, or be exposed to after high school? These are fairly deep but incredibly important questions. They will take work and effort to answer. But like anything into which you invest time and effort, they will provide you with invaluable ownership and confidence.
  2. “Like all good mysteries, your college search should be filled with twists, turns, discovery, new places, and interesting people.” Get online and poke around on schools’ virtual tours. Snoop around on social media accounts of the student groups from campuses you are interested in. Go see the places that match your needs and wants and investigate for yourself. When you are there, interrogate everyone you meet as a potential suspect. Wait…no, don’t do that.
    When you are there, don’t just settle for the canned tour and spiel. Work a little harder. Eavesdrop in the dining hall or student center. Listen to the conversations students are having. Go find the buildings that house your major if you don’t get there on the tour. Observe the interactions of faculty and students. Are these your people? Like any good detective, pay close attention. Take notes. Ask the same questions to as many people as possible on each campus and continually compare those answers.

Yes, there were a lot of underlined verbs in those paragraphs. Again, a college search done right is supposed to require time and effort. At times it might seem easier to simply pull the envelope from the middle. Remember, that information will come last.

Just because everyone in your family has gone to a particular school or these are the five colleges with the highest ranking in the major you want to pursue does not mean they are the answers in your envelope. Don’t cheat yourself of the opportunity to discover more about who you are, how you are made, and the best environment to help you move toward your goals by taking short cuts.

If you are a senior (or the parent of a senior)…

You may have one or two admission decisions back and are potentially waiting for a few more. Maybe you have been admitted to your first choice school and just need to receive the financial package. Either way, you have some information but need more clues before you open the envelope and solve the mystery. Be comfortable in the waiting. In the weeks and months ahead, you have some great stuff to look forward to— prom, spring break, final games or meets or performances. Don’t be so concerned with what is in the envelope that you dilute the enjoyment of those unique, important, and fleeting experiences.

  1. Just like in the game of Clue you need to pay attention and look around at the other players— your friends, family, coaches, teachers, and other important people in your life. Where you will be next year may be a mystery but one thing is certain— you will not be where you are right now. Don’t waste this time of uncertainty stewing or shrinking inward. Proactively pursue the relationships around you. Go back to the teacher who inspired your love of Biology and tell her that. Let your coach know how much you appreciate their time and effort and how it impacted you. These folks invest countless hours every year. They may not be looking for acknowledgement, but I guarantee they’ll appreciate it. Don’t look at your younger brother’s incessant requests for a ride or pleas to borrow a sweatshirt as annoying, but rather as a chance to connect that you simply won’t have on a daily basis eight months from now. And, I have said it before but this won’t be the last time— hug your mama!
  2. Don’t pay too much attention to the other players. Huh?! Listen, if John or Madison or Ryan or Lauren or some other person you know whose name ends in “n” gets into a particular school, or gets a scholarship, don’t spend your time or energy thinking about it. Honestly, it means nothing for you. They had their questions and you have yours. That is their envelope and yours is coming. Keep focused on your cards and the board in front of you. “Find joy in uncovering the clues that lead you, and ultimately you will arrive on a college campus confident and excited to embrace the opportunity.” That is not a hope or a utopian thought— it’s a promise rooted in experience.

Eventually, even the best metaphors eventually break down, and we’ve reached that point here. College admission is not a game (cue Allen Iverson); and contrary to common vernacular it is not a process; instead, it is an experience. “Enjoy the journey!”

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