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Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome, Katie!

After reading Samantha’s blog on finding joy in your college search, I realized we were on to a theme. This particular post is not about making your college list, but the same case can be built to reframe how parents and students tackle college admission questions. Maybe it’s because it’s April–the time when countless admission professionals find themselves behind a table at a college fair, standing in the welcome center lobby, or on the phone answering, quite often, some version of the same questions.

Today we’re going to wrestle with this notorious inquiry: “I am (or, my child is) a junior/sophomore/seventh grader/eight years old (I’m not kidding), what extracurriculars should we be doing right now to be competitive?” I answer the same way every time. “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.” The vast majority of students and parents think I’ve dodged the question. I haven’t. I’ve given the same answer for well over a decade and I’m sticking to it.

Find What Makes You Happy

Maybe that answer is deceptively simple, which is why it’s often dismissed as hedging.  I’m not dodging the question—I’m giving you a framework. Perhaps a “re-framework” as you make big decisions, like should you try out for the travel team, spend the summer in an internship or mission trip, stay a third year in robotics or take that new advanced class offering. Instead, high school students everywhere (and their parents) should ask the same question: does this activity make me happy?

If you are about to dismiss this advice as soft, overly codifying, or unrealistic, wait!  I’m about to let you in on the secret of why admission officers think students who enjoy their activities are more successful in the college application process (and probably life in general).

1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive.

The byproducts of doing something you love (in high school or in your professional life) are surprisingly positive.  You don’t have to believe me because there is science to back that up.  Check out Shawn Achor’s research in his book, the Happiness Advantage (no time to read the book? Check out this quick Ted Talk). What he says about business success is also true in the college application process. Joyful participation in high school endeavors has a ripple effect, leading to things such as increasing a club’s membership, finding ways to lead or innovate on projects, resiliency from year to year, providing access to others—essentially all the attributes that stand out to an admission committee when they are reviewing applications. Look at your resume. What activities make you happy?  Do more of those things! Competitiveness will follow.

2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.

Nothing deflates a conversation more than a student trained to rattle off their 4-10 resume activities and then ask me if they are “good.”  Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ! I saw online that your college has WXY, do you think that’s a good fit?” This engagement translates to the application itself. Applications fall flat when you are checking off boxes, trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.  Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.  Telling your activities story is more authentic and believable. When seen through this framework, your activities list is no longer a bureaucratic hurdle to get to college, but a written conversation retelling the most meaningful parts of your high school career.

3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.

I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.  I don’t mean that everything you do in high school should be easy.  Easy and happy are not the same thing. Some of the hardest situations can result in a new-found strength, a renewed focus, a sense that what you are doing has great value because it came at great cost.  That’s when being happy graduates to the big leagues: joy. I am not advising you to quit all your extracurricular activities because binge watching Netflix makes you happy.  Critically look at how you spend your time and ask yourself some serious questions. I have some thoughts below.

As an ode to the KonMari method, this is a KatMattli approved checklist for whether you should or should not keep an activity:

  • Do you feel excited about going to the meeting/practice/session/class?
  • Do you have moments of inspiration about it (Eureka moments!) before you go to sleep at night?
  • Do you talk about what you could do in this club/team next year?
  • Do you try to get appointments with teachers/coaches/sponsors to talk more about it?
  • Are you plotting ways to lead this group next year?
  • Do you want to teach or coach other people who have had less training than you have?
  • Is this project really difficult/challenging, but you are excited to see the finished product?
  • Would you still want do this activity if you couldn’t list it on your college application?

On the flip side…

  • Do you forget about that meeting each week?
  • Do you feel icky walking down the hallway to this meeting/tournament/locker room/classroom?
  • Does it keep you up at night in a bad way?
  • Are you thinking of other activities while you are there?
  • If you didn’t have to fill out a college application, would this club ever see your face again?

I’m holding fast to my original answer: you want your extracurriculars to be competitive? You need to enjoy the activities on your resume.  Are you a freshman in high school and anxious about what clubs to join (which ones colleges will view as “good”)?  Forget about us.  Go enjoy your game/fan group/club/meeting. We will see you in a few years when you are thriving in something you love. Are you a junior in high school? Double down on the activities that bring you the most enjoyment. You will need that stress relief and balance as you hit tougher classes, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey.

And if you are eight years old?  (Where is that astonishment emoji with the big eyes?) I am not discounting you, as it takes maturity to talk to college representatives at your age. But my answer to you is still the same, maybe even more so: Go enjoy yourself.

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Does This Bring Me Joy?

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

Everyone has that one thing they struggle with, whether it’s watching YouTube until 1 a.m. (me), drinking enough water (still me…) or picking their socks up off the floor (also me. I regret making this list!). Months ago, as the world crept into 2019 and forged hopefully into tackling New Year’s resolutions, many people’s to do lists were topped with my #1 kryptonite: organization.

In elementary school, my mom used to get calls from teachers saying the contents of my desk were spilling, literally, out onto the floor. One time, my third grade teacher paired the class up to go through one another’s backpacks and reorganize the contents in hopes we’d stop losing assignments. Boy, did my partner have a daunting task ahead of him (sorry John).

My organizational skills today are no better. My closet is overwhelming—clothes  are unfolded, unorganized, and overstuffed. The problem just might be that when given the option on what to keep, I keep all of it. I can’t be the only one who has a second wardrobe of aspirational clothes. After all, you never know when you might need a floor length black sequined dress for a Halloween-themed masquerade ball. It could happen!

Tidying Up Your College Search

Luckily, but not coincidentally, a unique organizational method took the world by storm around the start of the New Year. Marie Kondo won our hearts, while Goodwill won the contents of our closets. Marie Kondo introduced us to the Konmari method through her Netflix series. Her minimalism-inspired approach encourages people to take stock of what they have, cherish those things that bring joy, and get rid of what does not.

What does this have to do with college admission? Good question. Right now, the college search and application processes are wrapping up for high school seniors, which means it’s time for the next class of students to get started! Juniors, right now you’re probably listening to parents and counselors advise you to build a list of colleges to visit over spring and summer break. With over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States alone, it can be absolutely overwhelming to know where, or how, to start.

Visualize the destination

The Konmari method starts with creating a vision of what you want your life to feel like once you’re done with the process—who  are you, and who would you like to be in the future?

When you start the college search process, it helps to visualize the end, so let’s work backwards. Where do you imagine yourself after high school? I don’t necessarily mean which college, specifically, but when you close your eyes and see yourself walking across a campus, what do you see? What don’t you see? There are categories that are more obvious in the college search process (big school, small school, urban school, suburban school, and so on) but don’t forget about the smaller stuff. For example, I didn’t know how important trees were to me until I moved to an area of the country that had lots of fields, but not so many trees. It mattered—and it didn’t feel like home to me.

Once you have a general vision, your college counselor is an invaluable resource to help you find a few matches. There are also online college search sites to get you started if a counselor isn’t available at your school. Still not sure where to start? Check out our college selection guide, designed to help you find the right match for you.

What fits, and what doesn’t?

A shirt can be a perfectly good shirt. A sequined dress can be a perfectly good sequined dress. And a college could be a perfectly good college. But if these things don’t suit you or your specific needs, then it’s time to move on. Before even opening up a web browser, the most important thing you can do is be thoughtful about what is most important to you (and your family!). Academic offerings, cost of attendance, distance from home, the list goes on. Choose which matter to you, and how much they matter to you. Only then can you know what fits.

A quick note on college rankings: we’ve talked time and time again about where college rankings might (or might not!) fit into the college search process. To sum it up briefly for our purposes here: once you dig a little deeper, there’s a good chance the methodology and values used in the ranking system don’t fit with the things that are most important to you. Rankings might be a good tool to help you discover colleges across the country, but keep the perspective of it being just that: one tool. You don’t have to force fit at a school just because it’s highly ranked. Also, be mindful of schools that might not top a ranking list, but could very well top yours. Keep going beyond the numbers, and keep in mind the things that are genuinely important to you.

What brings you joy?

Here’s the big one! The ultimate goal of the Konmari method is to surround yourself by the things that make you the happiest. A college might look great on paper, your goals might be aligned, but it’s still entirely possible it might not feel right. And that’s okay! Fit is entirely personal.  Much of this comes down to finding your place within the larger culture and community, and that isn’t something that can be reduced to a set of statistics in a glossy brochure or a website of major offerings.

Does the vision of the institution match your values and interests? Look up the school’s mission statement– what are they about? Look at videos and blogs, projects and organizations… who are the students at that school? It’s a magical thing to interact with a community of students and realize, sometimes for the first time, these are my people. Once you start narrowing down your list and eventually visit campuses, only you will know which campuses you see yourself at, and which you genuinely hope to return to as a student down the road.

So while I work on my closet, I wish you all the best as you work on your college search. And if you need a black sequined dress for a masquerade ball, you can now find it among the racks somewhere around Atlanta—I hope it brings you joy.

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Success Isn’t Guaranteed—Try Anyway

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us on the blog. Chaffee has administered prestigious scholarship programs for the past 20 years, and is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

Let’s start by admitting that not everyone’s experience growing up in the United States is the same. Rural, urban, and suburban life looks different, and there are certainly other differences when considering family background and other factors. Having acknowledged that, I think it’s fair to say the people of Generation X (to which I belong) grew up with a great deal more freedom to explore the world around them as children than today’s kids and youth. By late elementary school I could explore the neighborhoods around me a mile in any direction.

Talk to my Baby Boomer parents and they’ll tell you that not only were they given even more freedom, but also asked to work harder at an earlier stage of life. My father mowed lawns, drove a tractor, roofed houses, and used hatchets as early as fourth grade. Compare these experiences with today, where I know thriving middle schoolers who aren’t allowed to walk 500 yards to the nearest corner with a traffic light because of concerns about safety.

I don’t share these views to judge parents or children today. After all, today’s world is bigger, especially online. Taking more safety precautions is necessary. Yet coinciding with these observations is a feeling that several colleagues and I share—a feeling supported by frequent recurring experiences. High school and college students today do not experience failure because 1) they’ve been shielded from them when they occur or 2) are steered away from undertaking opportunities that might result in anything but clear success.

Take the Opportunity to Fail

Although versions of this topic have been trending the past few years (and even before that in some circles), I want to provide insight which I hope is new. I want to talk about why students should put themselves in circumstances where success is not guaranteed. When you look at it as an opportunity for success as well as failure, the intention and aim become different. Simply looking for opportunities to fail can be a hollow exercise, but earnestly pursuing a goal that may or may not be reached is an opportunity for a win-win experience, regardless of the final outcome.

I had a student ask me to write a recommendation for them for the Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive and prestigious scholarship for public service leadership. Some regard it as having the most rigorous application of any of the major national and international graduate scholarships. As you can imagine, the percentage of people awarded from among applicants is quite small. Despite the odds not being in anyone’s favor, the student elected to try. By clarifying purpose, thinking about future goals, losing sleep, and sacrificing comfort all in hopes of a slim chance to leverage the scholarship toward making the world a better place, this student gained tremendous personal insight. This kind of personal insight only comes through testing oneself, working hard, and reaching for something most likely out of reach. Did it yield a scholarship? No.

Undaunted, the student went on to apply for the Marshall and Mitchell scholarships as well. Again, hard work and sacrifice led to self-awareness, goals clarification, personal insight … but no scholarship. Yet on the horizon was the famous Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in another country, which my student ended up receiving.

Seems like three losses and a win, right? I count it as four wins. Each attempt helped my student to grow. Each attempt taught lessons in perseverance, grit, and humility. Even if my student had not won the Fulbright, it wouldn’t change my mind. Four wins, zero losses. I believe that if you asked my student, the response would be the same. The win was in trying to reach for the stars and the growth that resulted.

Pursue Possibility

I’ve been fortunate over the past seven years to travel with my students on outdoor leadership expeditions in some beautiful – and physically challenging – environments around the country and the world. These trips are led by experts in Georgia Tech’s outdoor recreation department. Scholarship programs around the nation often encourage or require their scholars to participate in these types of adventures with similar organizations. There is no defined “win,” only an expectation that you’ll make it from the start to the end, persevering through trying circumstances. Blisters, aching muscles, exhaustion, cold or heat, insects, cuts and scrapes. They are all there. Getting through means relying on your own inner strength and your team.

For a very few, these trips are easy (at least at first). For most others, they will mess up the cooking, go slower than the team, or otherwise “not be great.” Yet when they talk about these trips days, months, and even years later, many speak of how the difficult circumstances on the hike resulted in the ability to handle the rigors of college life better than they would have done otherwise.

One of my favorite illustrations of the points I’ve been making comes from the movie, Meet the Fockers. In it, Jack Byrnes, played by Robert De Niro, notices his son-in-law, Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, has a 9th place ribbon displayed at his parent’s house. Not second or third … but ninth. I love that Focker’s parents encouraged him to participate in something that he clearly did not win (and they probably knew he wasn’t going to, either). No matter what the outcome, Greg had to come to terms with the fact that he did not experience success, at least not by traditional measures. Did he learn something from competing, from trying, from watching eight others do better than he did? The movie doesn’t go into this, but I suspect he did.

If you’ve seen the rest of the movie, you know that Greg messes up a good bit, but in the end, how he handles these failures and keeps picking himself up amplifies his fiancé’s love for him and earns him the respect of his future in-laws. All that said, in real life I wish his “award” for competing wasn’t a ribbon but a pat on the back from his parents. Because part of the lesson in trying is not everyone gets a trophy nor deserves one.

If I were to outline a lesson from all this, it would be to challenge everyone to pursue possibilities where the chances for a win are moderate to slim. The challenge must be measured though. The more talented or well-trained an individual, the more they should pursue even more difficult experiences. Whether one is in high school, college, or well beyond, remember that we grow by reaching skywards, not by standing still.

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Say It Again!

Last November we made a plan for the blog.

We looked out at the spring and created a log.

To various staff we assigned certain weeks.

We wondered how to improve–what are the necessary tweaks?

That’s when we realized we really need you

To tell us how to be helpful, encouraging, and true

We really want to know what you think,

So please help us out and visit this link.  

In our original January blog plan, we were only going to send out the survey this week without any additional message or content surrounding it. But I convinced my sweet, amazing, beautiful editor/communications manager if we put the link in three times, y’all would still do it. Maybe it is from reading so many amazing applications lately, but I decided to go for four. Love you, Becky.

Decisions, Priorities, and Goals

Saturday we released admission decisions. As I write this, I have 164 emails in my inbox. I am going to give you one guess at how many are from students/families who were admitted… right—that would be one less than your number of guesses.

Here are some of the subject lines: “Concerns for admission process” or “Broken system.” Most of these messages include details about a particular student’s statistics and how they either compare to our published middle 50% ranges or to other students they know (or have heard from a second cousin twice removed) who were admitted.

At the heart of these notes (gentle euphemism) is a plea for the numbers to dictate, or a desire for admission officers to point to one particular reason why, the student was not admitted. We are never going to do that. Not because we aren’t willing to be transparent or because we are not good people (despite a few emails with some creative language asserting that opinion).

Ultimately, it is because holistic admission is completely counter to isolating numbers, sorting data in a spreadsheet, or putting all rationale for a decision on one single factor. Ultimately, both application review, and certainly admission decision-making (particularly at the macro level), are driven by an institution’s priorities and goals.

While I was listening to music on the train earlier this week, I came across a song that I had not heard in a while, “Say It Again” by Don Williams. I took particular note of that tune because it was such a stark transition from the songs that preceded it (“With My Own Two Hands” by Ben Harper and “So What’cha Want” by the Beastie Boys). Word to the wise: shuffle your full song history at your own risk. I’m not recommending you download “Say It Again” but the refrain stuck out to me: “Come on. Say it again.”

Since I was not supposed to really write anything this week (because of the survey), I decided to provide you a few greatest hits from the archives, as well as a couple quick listens, that may be helpful.

  • Admission: It’s Not Fair. This post further explains the concept of institutional priorities and mission, as well as how they dictate admission decision. Audio version here.
  • Handling Those Decisions. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with my friend and colleague, Mark Stucker who is a college counselor at KIPP-Atlanta and also has podcast called “Your Collegebound Kid.” In episode 49 and 50, we talk about how decisions are made, as well as how you can respond and take action once you have been admitted, denied, deferred, or waitlisted.
  • Be Cool. Another blog from the archive, particularly for admitted, denied, and waitlisted students, so I went back and recorded an audio version.

Have a great week. (Oh… and did we mention the survey?).

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Still Waiting…

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

My “quarter life commitment” came in the form of my first home purchase this summer, and I quickly learned buying a home doesn’t happen in half an hour as House Hunters will have you believe.

I know. I was just as shocked as you are.

After setting my parameters and keying into the type of home and neighborhood I was looking for, it was time to physically set foot in a few places.  The first one looked nice, but had a lot of candles burning to cover up a suspicious smell; the second one was sold before I even left my showing, but the third one? Now that I could work with (yes, I really only looked at three. Again, I’ve watched too much House Hunters)! Top floor unit, hardwood floors… sure, the bathrooms are painted school bus yellow, but otherwise, it was perfect.

I went home, had a few conversations with my real estate agent, and sent in my offer paperwork that very night. Then came the waiting. It was between me and a few other buyers. I spent several days waiting for the phone call telling me which offer the seller had chosen.  You know that forgot-to-breathe, heart-in-stomach sensation every time the phone lights up while you’re waiting for an important call or email? Let me tell you: I had it bad.

Finally, the phone rang! False alarm. It was my aunt. Thoughts swirled through my mind…

How would the seller judge me? Sure they had every piece of info about me besides my blood type and horoscope, but they didn’t even know me. 

The phone rang! My home security company. I pondered some more…

I thought my agent said they were going to get back to me yesterday. Should I send the seller cookies? A recommendation letter from my mom? (By the way, if you’re reading deep into this metaphor, the answer is no, don’t send colleges cookies).

Then…the phone rang.

How do you wait?

I only had to wait a few days, but college applicants wait a whole season. It gets especially hard this time of year when the answers are less than a few weeks and email clicks away. Many months go into actively searching out colleges and preparing your application, and then once you hit submit… radio silence. So, how do you wait?

Think about it

I will confess, this is how I wait: as soon as I confirm my orders on Amazon, I reread the product reviews and scrub through YouTube demonstration videos, imagining how great my life will be once my food scale arrives in two days. When I bake cookies, I sit in front of the oven, turn on the light and watch… and watch… and watch. And when I put an offer in on a house, I scroll through the property pictures, mentally planning the furniture layout, learning which grocery stores I will shop at, and Yelp all the restaurants nearby.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t cross the line into impatience, but I do use my nerves productively. Why? Because when I use my time wisely and channel my nervous energy towards a positive outcome, I’ll be more prepared for what comes next. And if it doesn’t go well?  I’ll be disappointed, but at least I’ll have an oddly impressive knowledge of all the grocery stores in a random Atlanta neighborhood.

I think, no, I know many college applicants feel the exact same way right about now. There are whirlwind trips for college tours, chats with friends at the schools where you’re applying, and perusals of excellent blogs (wink wink) to learn more. If you take this route, be sure to know & set your limits. Be careful not to let excited interest turn into unhealthy fixation. Ultimately, there’s going to be a lot of big decisions to make come spring, so if there’s something you’re curious about right now, this is the time to dig in and learn about it.

Don’t think about it 

Contradictory, aye? I can understand the continued focus on college causes people more stress, so not thinking about it might be more your style. The decision will come regardless of what you do at this point—the pendulum has to swing back. And while you’ve controlled your application, you can’t control what your admissions officers, or the rest of the applicant pool, will do. I could list a million different “live in the now!” clichés, but the reality is, you know this. You’ve probably played the “last” game all year now (my last year at home… my last first day…). There’s plenty going on right now that deserves your focus.

You might even be like my sister, who took a hands-off approach when she submitted her job applications last year mostly out of fear of “jinxing it.” (Fair enough, she does have her dream job now.) As long as you know that your colleges have everything they need from you, you’ve done your part. You’ve passed the ball, and you’ll get it back soon enough.

Get Busy

Are you holding your breath? Exhale. There’s no reason you can’t invite opportunities for growth right now because of decisions that will come later.

There’s a certain amount of freedom in these few months. You’re not in the college search process. You’re not writing applications, and you’re not making your college decision. You just… are. And if you can find peace with that, then you can see the opportunity. Is there something you want to do before you leave home? Remember this summer when you swore to yourself you were going to learn sign language, right after you learned how to cook? Now’s the time to do it. 

(Added bonus: if by chance any of your early action applications come back as a deferral, you’ll have something new to add to your application)

Wait Well

On behalf of college admission officers everywhere, thank you for waiting with us, and allowing us the opportunity and time to dive into your accomplishments. We’re in the home stretch.

Perhaps it’s the least discussed part of the college application process, but the wait is hard. The angst, the anxiety, the lack of control. We live in an era of instant gratification, a departure from which can be frustrating! There’s a maturity that comes with learning to wait for results, or even the simple passage of time, and it takes knowing yourself to know how to wait well. Find what works for you, and push forward in these last few weeks.

However you wait this season and whatever comes at the end of it, remember you will be okay. There will be triumphs, disappointments, and incredible opportunities.  And if things don’t work out as you’d hoped after the wait? Know there are so many great colleges where you can be a happy, healthy, and successful member of the community.

Turns out there are roughly 100 other condos in my complex with the exact same floor plan. Guess I didn’t have to go with the school bus yellow bathrooms after all. Lesson learned.

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