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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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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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Two Truths and a Lie

We’re officially in reading season. Recently I read an essay all about the balance beam written by a high school gymnast. She wrote about conquering her nerves and summoning reliance in her training, and then discussed the skill of tuning out the other routines simultaneously being performed and cheered in the competition. While the essay was for college admission it was not about college admission. However, the parallels (not bars– just similarities) are unquestionable.

Conquer your nerves and rely on your training.

Many of you recently submitted Early Action or Early Decision applications. Initially there is some relief in “being done,” but it’s understandable to experience an underlying feeling of nervousness and anxiety as you realize you no longer have control. There is no essay to read over and edit again; you can’t get one more person to take a look to be sure you haven’t missed something.

Good news: admission dean/director totally understands your pain. Think about it: every spring we admit thousands of students. Not only thousands, but thousands more than we have room for on campus. Last year at Georgia Tech we admitted about 7,500 students for a class goal of 2,850. Crazy, right? We admit more students than we can accommodate because of yield (not everyone says yes to our offer). When we initially finish and release decisions it’s a huge relief. We go home, sleep, eat some good food, sleep, remind our families who we are, and sleep. But inevitably in April a faculty member or alumnus will read an article about our admitted class then call or write me and ask, “Did you mean to admit that many? I thought our first year class was closer to 3,000?”

The “what ifs” start to flood in. What if we did take too many students? What if our predictive models are wrong? What if the housing department rounds up a posse and tries to haul me off in the night? The what ifs will kill you. Breathe, my friends. Breathe. You know what you’re doing (and I know what I’m doing).

Truth #1: You cannot control all outcomes. We believe if we pack the night before, leave two hours early and use Waze we’ll be able to tailgate before the game and be in our seats at kickoff.  But then you get stuck in horrific traffic, the ice in the cooler melts, you barely sit down before halftime, and the team you were favored to beat by 13 stages a fourth quarter comeback to win. We don’t know what’s going to happen, right?! And that’s kind of the beauty of it! Isn’t that why we live this life anyway?

The most likely scenario is you will not get into every school you applied to. You may get in and not be able to afford to go. You may get into your dream school, then your girlfriend breaks up with you and decides to go there, and you end up choosing another college 500 miles in the other direction. Listen, we’ve had years when we did overshoot our goal due to yield. One year we had a class of 3,200. Life!

But what does your training tell you? You’ve worked hard. You’ve applied to a variety of schools based on selectivity where you’d be happy to go. Finish the routine. Enjoy your senior year. If you wobble, correct it. If you fall off, jump back up.  You cannot sneak behind the judges table and alter scores or manipulate outcomes. But you can have a great, memorable senior year you’re proud of. Smile while you’re up on the beam and stick the landing.

Tune out the distractions around you. During your junior and senior year in particular, you are going to see and hear some crazy and loud voices.

  • You might read or hear you need to pay $800 for a test prep class in order to raise your ACT score by two points. Don’t look down. Tune out the distractions and remember the number of free, online options is growing and their results are equal to and outperforming many high-priced (highly marketed) companies in this space. If you or your parents believe you need to pay for something for it to be valuable, also look at local options. Many community colleges and area high schools offer great test prep for a fraction of the costs you’ll see when you simply Google for “SAT/ACT test prep.” (I’d also encourage you to go for a hike to disprove the theory of pay = value, but that’s a blog for another day.)
  • You might hear mom or dad tell Aunt Carol, “We are really trying to get that Calculus grade up,” or “Our first choice is Vanderbilt.” Keep your balance. Eyes straight ahead.
  • You might see a classmate get into your dream school who you think is not as academically talented or generally qualified as you, while you get deferred. Someone clapping and high-fiving them as they come off the floor exercise has no bearing on your beam performance. Take a deep breath. Finish strong.

Truth #2: You can control yourself. This is your routine. You own thisContrary to what some may say or write or tweet, your job is not to get in–your job is to get ready for college. You have a choice on how you get ready as you search for colleges, tour colleges, apply to colleges and ultimately select a college. Want to know if you’re doing it right? When your classmate gets in, you are the first one putting your hand up for a high-five. I came across a Hemingway quote in an essay last week: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Grow, encourage, explore, and improve. That’s a college admission process done well.

One Lie: (Yeah, this is not like the game. I’m just straight telling you the lie. You call it not as fun–I call it transparency–it’s all semantics.) The college admission process is not a balance beam. You are not on your tip toes, placing one foot in front of the other while performing flips, turns and twists. You can, and will, make missteps. You can score a point below your goal on the ACT, make a B+ in a class, score a 3 on an AP exam, or forget to underline a book title in your essay, and still get into your first choice college. You can do all of those things and not end up at your first choice college, and still be phenomenally happy.

How do I know? Because we have plenty of students on campus who will tell you Georgia Tech was not their first choice. They either didn’t get into their first choice school, or they did get in and couldn’t afford it. Similarly, there are students we denied who are now thrilled about being on another college’s campus and would not change it for the world.

The bottom line is there is not only one place for you. There is not one college that will help you get where you think you want to ultimately go in life. The truth is college admission– and college itself for that matter– is not a four-inch wide beam. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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The More The Scarier

(Thanks for indulging the seasonally themed title.) 

I’m a huge fan of The Lonely Planet– their travel books/guides, their website, their name. Love ’em. I followed their recommendations on travel in Europe, Africa, and even parts of the U.S. When we went to Hawaii a few years ago, LP advice not only helped us save money and see amazing spots, but it also provided a memorable and helpful line I’ve quoted often: “Where there’s a line, you should dine.”

This is basically true, right? When you walk into a restaurant and you’re the only customer, it’s a sign. Conversely, the joint where hungry folks are wrapped around the block is usually popular for a reason.

Unfortunately, too many students take the same approach when applying to or considering colleges. I’m going on record as saying, “Yes–I have a problem with that approach.” Believe me, I understand you see dominant messages and marketing materials in high school which point you to certain schools (it often comes in the form of sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and matriculation lists on your high school profile). The national media typically focus on the Ivy League or Ivy-esque schools, and your local news stations and billboards in your community feature your state’s flagship university or another major public in the region.

There’s nothing wrong with these places. But as their application numbers continue to go up and admit rates go down, and before you take another sip of the Kool-Aid, hit the pause button. Since when did “the same” become cool? Familiar is safe but it usually has a ceiling. Is staying with what’s familiar going to help you maximize your potential, or is it comfortable? Often those two things are in conflict with one another.

Honestly, there is no reason to stand outside in the cold waiting for the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign to flicker on if you have a gluten sensitivity, right? It’s an extended metaphor. Bear with me.

Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you move forward in your college search:

Why are you in line?

Is the place you’re visiting or applying to of interest because you put it on your list, or because someone else told you to look there? If it’s the latter, you should seriously consider their motivation. Maybe it’s a school counselor who has seen many kids like you go in the past and believes it will be a great fit. Perfect. Maybe it’s a parent or another relative who went there (or wishes they did) and has pressured you to apply, visit, or ultimately attend. While that isn’t inherently wrong or bad, it is worth raising an eyebrow. Is this about you or them? Is this about ego or reputation or appearances, or is it about you, as a student at that school, and in that campus community?

Every year I talk to students who visited or applied to Tech who don’t truly want to come. They typically admit it just out of earshot of their mom or dad who is an alum or who “works with a lot of Tech people and thought it would be a good place to visit.” My advice is tell them today. Rip off the Band-Aid. Don’t live the lie. Selecting a college is not like the sweater you got for your birthday last year. You know—the one you opened, forced a grin, and wore out the door the next day and then stuffed in your bag and tried to trade for some headphones. You can’t consign a college. You’re talking big money, lots of investment, emotions, and expectations. Be honest early. If you realize you’re in the wrong line, step out now and have the uncomfortable conversation. Whoever told you to get in line loves you. I know it may manifest itself in pressure or lots of questions or text message reminders, but it’s actually love. And they’ll still love you when you level with them. Don’t apply somewhere for someone else.

Have you done your homework?

I know, I know. You aren’t reading this to get hassled (but while we’re at it, you did clean your room, right?). Anyhoo, last week I attended a retreat with leaders from other Atlanta-based schools, including MorehouseSpelman, and Agnes Scott. It’s possible if you live outside of the South you have not heard of all of these or don’t know much about any of them. But when you look at the opportunities they’re creating for students, the incredible professors, research, support, alumni networks and successes they’ve all had, it’s truly remarkable.

What are those colleges in your city, state, region? Check your mail. Quit lock-stepping and be willing to explore instead of following such a worn route. Have you heard of Colleges That Change Lives? Have you considered or visited an HBCU or a single-sex college option or a university outside the U.S.? Have you looked at the list of schools who don’t require test scores? Again, I’m not telling you to absolutely get out of line. But if your list is filled with predictable options of big name places “just because” then you’ve plagiarized. DO YOUR OWN WORK.  Check out BigFuture. Download Admittedly. Do your homework!

Who else is in line?

Two of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta are Homegrown on Memorial Drive and EATs on Ponce De Leon. Coming to campus or Atlanta soon? Check them out. Live in the Atlanta area and never been? Stop reading now and get in the car. I like them both for the same reasons: great food, good prices, and an amazing cross-section of people. When you are waiting for a table at either place, you will see everything from policemen to hipsters to judges to construction crews. The diversity adds to the experience.

Who is line where you are applying? Are these your people? When you go to an open house or one of the college’s online communities, do you connect with the other students or families? Sitting in an information session on campus or going on the tour and listening to questions and conversations, do these feel like future friends? Ten schools can look identical on paper– same academic profile, same admit rate, same majors offered, but the ethos, the demeanor of the students can and does vary widely. A college search done well requires extreme honesty and a willingness to listen when that still small voice says, “Nope. I don’t see it.” When it happens, trust it. Nod your head, grab your bag, get out of line and move on. Trust me– it’s the first step down a more unique and fulfilling path anyway.

Who is not in line? 

I visited my old high school (where about 55% of the students go on to four-year colleges) to talk to students about Georgia Tech. While I watched the buses line up after school, I couldn’t help but think about the kids I knew in my class who did not go to college. Looking back I realize I only took care of myself in my senior year. I watched my friends who had involved, proactive parents help them navigate the process and move on too. Knowing what I do now, I deeply regret not looking beyond myself. I could have made the effort to engage them in a conversation of “why are you not going to college?” or, knowing what I did about some of their families, I could have encouraged them about their academic potential.

I’m challenging you to consider the kid on your team who needs extra help or tutoring to pass; to think of your friend from work who is jeopardy of not graduating. Who do you see that is questioning if they should go college? Who is not in line? Let me be clear. Encouraging them is not going to help you get into college. It’s not going to be something you can put on a resume or even on an application. It’s the right thing to do. It’s an opportunity you have now to start a pattern for thinking beyond yourself. Do you go to a school where 100% of seniors go to college? No excuse. It means you definitely have the resources and privilege to be part of this effort. Yep, it will take effort. Dig deep, look around, and pull some folks who need to be into the line.

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It’s Not About The Application…

If you have not seen “It’s Not about the Nail,” check it out. I saw it recently in a presentation and was reminded of how ridiculous, poignant, hilarious and powerful it is… because under the light comedy are some deep truths:

1- The Immediate: We are distracted by, and overly focused on, the matters right in front of us.

2- Patterns: We fall into hard to break routines in life which fundamentally diminish our attention and capacity for new and valuable lessons, opportunities, and connections.

3- Short term vs. Long term: In our frenzied, achieving lives we focus on doing, fixing, and finishing, rather than considering, empathizing, and committing.

Note: Sincere apologies if I ruined a simple and funny clip. I promise I won’t touch your cat videos or Jimmy Fallon dance-offs.

Unfortunately the college admission process presents all three of these pitfalls. The perverse “gamification” of getting in and the industry that’s grown up around it; the omnipresent “where are you going to college?” conversation; the increased competition based on selectivity; the rising costs of tuition; the increasing student debt averages; and the misappropriated attention focused on uber-selective universities have all culminated into a gigantic Jedi mind trick leading you to focus on the wrong things.

The Immediate: It’s not about the bumper sticker

When you drive around your school’s parking lot, you see a lot of the same bumper stickers on the back of cars. You see the same hoodies and t-shirts at the grocery store, the park, or in the stadiums in your community. When your school publishes its spring newspaper or sends out a newsletter around graduation you’ll typically see the same schools again. There is nothing wrong with any of these places. But the trap you can fall into is automatically assuming they are the right places for you because it’s where your sister went, or where “kids like you” go, or because everyone from your AP Calculus class is applying there.

I urge you to not be so quick to discard the email or brochure or campus program invitation from a college you haven’t heard of before. Listen when your school counselor tells you about a great campus they visited and recommends you should consider. When you sit down with your offers of admission, don’t make your selection based on which was the most selective or will impress your friends or please your parents.

I understand you see the nail. I am not asking you to completely ignore it, but I do ask you to try to look beyond it; to explore; to truly consider yourself as an individual and not as part of a group. I ask you to do something at 17 or 18 that people twice your age still struggle with—to be willing to actually walk down the less trodden path, the less known path, the less famous path, if you know it to be the right one.

Patterns and Routine: It’s not about the Ivy League

Last week I went to a conference in Boston. One afternoon I met with a few friends to catch up and discuss some of the sessions we attended. Several had just come from a presentation by the Dean (and some other alums) of an Ivy League school. “How was it?” I asked. “Not that good. Nothing new. I left after 10 minutes,” replied one friend. Another chuckled and said, “Same, I ducked out the back door.” We started to discuss why there is such focus on the Ivy League. They are all old, private, in the same part of the country, and relatively small (enrolling 14,000 new students a year or less than 0.4% of college students nationally—less than the combined total of Texas A&M and Michigan State), yet they continue to carry great sway.

Part of the reason people pay attention is media coverage. For example, last week most major news outlets covered the “disappointing” 8.1% annual return on Harvard’s endowment. The reason it was news was not because they planned to use the differential to develop a new innovative program or to double in size, but because, well…they’re Harvard. So it’s natural when admission decisions are released each year there are stories featuring the three kids nationally who got into all Ivy League schools, as though it’s an incredible accomplishment that should be emulated and revered.

I’m not hating here, and I’m not questioning if these are “good schools.” I’m not equating the Ivy League to the Kardashians of higher education. While perhaps there was a time these schools represented all of higher education, in today’s economy and marketplace they’re outliers, not signposts, in the college landscape. Schools like Georgia State University and their incredible efforts to increase graduation rates and support students are far more reflective of the direction and priorities of higher education in the 21st century. I hope the next “getting in to all the Ivies” headline is: “Student pays nearly $1,000 in application fees, $10,000 on college visits, and $1,250 in apparel,” but has yet to take a course.

I question the parents, board members, and other adult influencers in school communities who incessantly raise questions like: “Did Sarah get into Brown? How many seniors were admitted to Ivy League schools? When was the last time we had someone go to Penn?” I hope in the future true measurements of school success will not be the matriculation list of the top of the class but rather an assessment of whether or not more students were admitted to their first choice, or how many received grants and scholarships to lessen debt, or if a higher percentage are going to college in this class than last.

Short term vs. Long term: It’s not about the application

I understand the application is what’s in front of you. I know you feel the weight of the deadlines and looming dates on a calendar. I realize you have the pressure of juggling school, work, clubs and sports, and on top of all of that writing college essays, highlighting your extra-curricular activities, and checking in with mom or dad to confirm their work address or what year they graduated from college.

The truth is the application is the “nail” of the college admission process. It can require and be seen only as a significant exertion of energy and a source of stress. But I urge you to flip the script—to look at the application as the first step toward a finish line not about getting in, but about getting ready. Don’t let the application become lines you complete or prompts you respond to (transactional), but instead make it a series of promises you make to yourself and the colleges about who you will be when you arrive on campus (transformational).

An application is singular. It is finite. It is submitted. It’s not about the application. It’s about the admission and college process, which are infinitely larger. It’s a picture you paint about your passions, interests, and the influence you will ultimately live out. Sound overly aspirational or grandiose for a 17-year old? In an increasingly divided culture with a myriad of fractious issues, it’s precisely where we should put our hope, attention, and challenge. We need you to arrive at college ready to live out the application you submitted—ready to be a unifier, an influencer, an encourager, and a contributor with a long-term mindset.

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