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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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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Magical Mystery Tour

“It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile”

The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Those famed lyrics would never have been penned had John Lennon and Paul McCartney not met in Liverpool, England 60 years ago last week on July 6. And from the moment they joined forces until now, The Beatles have never gone out of style.

If you caught any news last Thursday, you likely heard this story. 60 years! Yes, that is a long time, but it’s also a fairly random number. We don’t celebrate many things at 60. 25, 50, 100, sure. But only the things that really, really matter are celebrated at 60. And the fateful meeting of these two teenagers is something worth celebrating, because together they helped change the course of modern music.

In brief, the story is that John Lennon’s band, the Quarry Men, were playing a gig at a local church garden party (in other words small venue, small crowd, small reach). Paul McCartney accompanied a friend and was struck by John’s style and improvisation of the song ‘Come Go With Me.’

Paul hung around that day to listen. And later, when he had a chance to show off his chops on the guitar, he played several brand new rock n’ roll songs from the US, including Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty-Flight Rock.’ Unlike John, he not only knew all the lyrics, but also nailed all of the chords to this difficult tune. Later that night he also demonstrated great skill on the piano.

Here is where it gets interesting: John, who was the lead vocalist and leader of the group, initially debated whether or not to invite Paul to join the band, because McCartney was such a strong musician. But ultimately he took the risk of sharing the stage with someone so talented, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And your point?

Well, thanks for asking. It’s actually two-fold for seniors heading off to college this fall:

1. Like John, you need to open up. There is ALWAYS going to be someone better than you. Someone faster, smarter, more talented, better looking, more innovative or more capable. If you have not already experienced that, you are either an extremely big fish in a small pond, fatally flawed in your self-perception, or hanging around the wrong people.

When you get to college the number in that next-level category grows infinitely. I sincerely hope that instead of being unsettled or intimidated, you will proactively seek them out. Surround yourself with them, study with them, hang out with them, or invite them to grab a meal or go on a road trip. John Lennon had panache. He was talented and confident. He was a leader. But his Quarry Men band mates all played second fiddle (actually second guitar, but you get my point).

Had he stuck with that crew, he may never have left the Liverpool circuit. Ultimately, what made him great was putting an infinitely more gifted musician on stage with him so his gifts of improvisation, creativity, and flare could be fully realized.

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

The Beatles, ‘Nowhere Man’

2. Like Paul you need to show up. Without Paul’s curiosity, desire to hear great music, and proactive ask to be included, the meeting– and the Beatles—would have never happened. He stuck around. By all accounts, John was somewhat intimidating. And he was a year older than McCartney, which at 15 and 16 can be a big deal. But he believed in himself enough to try to work his way in.  He could have just listened and left, but he recognized an opportunity. So he picked a really tough, brand new song that had not been fully released in the UK and then demonstrated his skill on two totally different instruments. He essentially asked to be included then showed why he should be.

At its core, this is a paradoxical lesson in humility and greatness. In order to truly become great, in order to really become world-class, in order to truly become unique, both of them demonstrated humility, and that launched them toward greatness. (Yes, yes. I know what ultimately happened to The Beatles and this relationship, but for now let’s focus on the early years. Maybe a later blog about transfer on their break-up.)

Humility and Greatness

One of the biggest mistakes smart students make in their freshman year is not asking for help. Most come to Tech, and schools like us, having never needed to. They were the ones tutoring others in high school. They were the ones friends, neighbors, classmates came to for help. They were, if you will, the lead guitarist.

I am not a big fan of the college rankings, because I think too many people use them to initially create their college lists or lean too heavily on them when ultimately choosing a school. Many will insist there is a consequential difference between number 11 and number 19. Based on experience and rankings methodology, I would vehemently contest that opinion. However, one thing you can be assured is identical between them– they are going to challenge you academically. You will be stretched and pushed due to the rigor of the course load, your inherent desire to do well, and the quality of professors you meet.

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
 But now these days are gone and I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors

The Beatles, ‘Help

HELP!

Ask for it early. Ask for it often. Even if you see or visit the tutoring centers on your orientation tour this summer, go back in the first week and introduce yourself to the people who work there. Once you get your schedule, hold time each week to study and put the location down as their office. Bookmark their website, make their homepage your mouse pad. You get my point. No matter where you are going to school, there are going to be other students in your residence hall, classes, labs, sororities, clubs, and teams who can help your creativity and other talents come to life. They can help lift your proverbial voice. But like John, you need to open yourself up to those relationships. Like Paul, you need to show up and embrace their complementary talents, so they can sharpen you– and vice versa.

The real tragedy, whether it be in sports, academics, music, business, clubs, community or any other venture, is when you shut down or close off due to a lack the humility or willingness to risk not looking like THE absolute best, because the truth is that only assures you of never becoming YOUR absolute best.

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Don’t Procrastinate… Get Started!

“Man. It really smells like pee in here!” I said scrunching my nose, cocking my head downward and to the left, and painfully closing my eyes. My son, who at the time was five, looked up from playing with his Transformers with a look of absolute bemusement.

“AJ, any idea why?” He shrugged his shoulders and quickly went back to insuring that Megatron (not Calvin Johnson… he loves him!) and his cronies were defeated by the Autobots. I proceeded to look through every sheet, drawer, and cubby in his room. Nothing. No soiled item or area. No article of clothing stuffed into a pillow case or sheet crammed in a corner. So I did the only logical thing… I opened a window, hastily sprayed Febreze and left shaking my head.

Image result for TRANSFORMERS AND TOYS AND OPTIMUS PRIME

Three days later, while I was out of town, my wife had a similar experience. This time our son watched with the rapt interest one has while viewing an African watering hole at midnight. “Who else is coming? What might happen next?” After rifling thoroughly through his room and strewn belongings, she asked him lovingly but repeatedly why it smelled distinctly of urine.

After the third time, it apparently dawned on him. “Hmmm…wait. I know why, mommy. I think it’s because I have been peeing in my floor vent.” Silence. Stunned silence.

And then, and only because of her incredible patience and God-given restraint, she laughed and asked calmly, “You what?!”

Yep. Come to find out that for an unknown (but likely multi-week/month) period of time, my man had been using the floor vent as a urinal. I actually Googled it. It’s more common than you’d think.

Why? You might ask– and with good reason. Quite simply, “You know how when you’re playing, and you don’t want to stop, and the bathroom seems so far away…that’s when.”

Several hundred dollars and a new duct system later. Let’s put it this way– it’s a good thing she discovered it and I was out of town or we might also have had a broken window or door to put back on its hinges.

Get Started!

Why do I share this with you?  Well, if the increasing temperatures, slower schedule, and nightly baseball games were not a hint, it’s summer! A few weeks ago, we posted another blog on this: “Make it a Summer!”

In that blog, we talked about using your time to write college essays, visit schools, talk to graduated seniors or friends returning home from their first year of college, etc. But we looked at the analytics on that blog and realized that perhaps the clicks on the piece on writing  was not as high as we’d hoped.  And so I wanted to come singularly back to that part.

If you are a rising senior, I’m imploring you to use July to write your college essays and supplemental questions. You have an entire month.

Here’s how you can get started:

Week One (July 1-8): Read the prompts from Common Application and Coalition Application. Consider what you might write about. Think about them when you’re at the pool or the gym or driving (but mainly think about driving). Jot down some ideas. Who knows, you may be inspired by fireworks on July 4, so consider voice recording on your phone. That is how I start my drafts and get ideas out and recorded. Whatever works for you.

It does not have to be formal or sequential. During this week also write one supplemental essay for a school you know you are going to apply to. Georgia Tech’s are here.  Generally speaking these are shorter and most schools only require 1-3 additional short answer/supplemental writing samples. And many schools simply ask you to submit something you have already written, so consider your options if you find that to be the case for a school you’re interested in.

Week Two (July 9-16): Get your first draft done. Chip away. One paragraph at a time. One page at a time. A little bit of time each day. If you know you are applying to a school that does not accept the Common Application or Coalition Application, then you may need to write two essays this week. Not a problem. Allocate an hour a day for that entire week. You got this! Use this week to write another supplemental essay for the same college or a different one this week.

Week Three (July 17-23): Get this to an editor (not a co-author). Hint: You should ask them if they’re up for it during week two and tell them they’ll have it on July 16. Check in with them on July 20. “How’s it going?” Have you taken a look yet? Can I clear anything up for you?” Plan to meet with them or Skype/FaceTime with them by July 23. Write another supplemental essay this week.

Week Four (July 23-30): Second draft. Take the edits and make your improvements and enhancements. Consider how you can add description or make your essay more unique, personalized, authentic. Write your fourth supplemental essay this week.

July 31. Treat yourself. Ice cream, a new shirt, a movie or show. You do you, because at this point you have a long essay and four supplemental essays done. Your editor should be up for reading a few supplemental essays this week, especially if you brought them along for the double scoop or enticed them with an Amazon card.

Now use the same method in August for any additional supplementals or long essays. This way as your fall ramps up with sports, school activities, and normal homework and other papers, tests, etc., you’ll be good to go for making October or November EA/ED deadlines.

Why Do I Care?  

Last year, of our 31,500 applications, 1/3 were submitted on a deadline day or the two days prior. Now, I’m guessing that when these applications open on August 1, you are not stumped by some of the initial questions, ie. Name, Date of Birth, Address. (If you are, please call me, and we’ll discuss if college is right for you.)

So what takes so long to submit? Why is meeting an October 15 or November 1 deadline tough when you have 10-12 weeks post August 1? I’ll tell you why… “You know how when you’re playing, and you don’t want to stop, and the deadlines seem so far away…”

Trust me. Get started! You don’t want admission readers looking for Febreze after reading your essays.

We moved last year. I really like our new house. One of the features the real estate agent did not point out but I most appreciate is that the vents are in the ceiling.

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