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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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Waiting Well

Q: “Mommy, what eats a hyena?”

Me: “I don’t know, maybe a lion…?”

Q: “Well, let’s get your phone and I’ll look it up.”

As the mom of small children, I find myself constantly asking my girls one thing: wait. And please, be patient.

Turns out young kids have a hard time with waiting. And who can blame them? Our world is driven by “right now.” If my 6-year old has a question and I don’t know the answer, she simply picks up my phone and Googles it (see conversation above). No waiting, no looking it up in a book. If she wants to watch a TV show she has Netflix (and the Disney Jr. app)… when i was a kid you had one shot at watching cartoons: Saturday morning. If you missed your favorite show, too bad—you had to wait a week to see it.

The art of waiting (or lack thereof) even filters down to the books I read to my 1-year old. Each night we read Llama Llama Red Pajama–a story about a young llama whose mom tucks him into bed then goes downstairs. He then calls for her and, in the midst of waiting, spends the next few minutes growing increasingly worried (and ultimately panicked) wondering what’s taking her so long. Of course in the end she comes in and offers some good ol’ mom wisdom: “llama llama what a tizzy… sometimes mama’s very busy. Please stop all this llama drama, and be patient for your mama!” (And yes, this slight reprimand is followed with a hug, kiss, and reassurance that everything is okay.)

Still waiting (for the point….)

All of us, as young as 1, and as old as, well, 30-something, could do a bit better with waiting. There will always be something to wait for in life. When you’re in preschool, you wait for kindergarten. When you’re in middle school, you wait for high school. When you’re in high school, you wait for college. When you’re in college, you wait to graduate and get a job. When you get a job, you wait to find the right person to marry… house to purchase… you see where I’m going here. The list goes on and on. Regardless of what stage of life you find yourself in, you will always be waiting for… something.

If you’re a rising senior, you’re likely waiting for August 1 when many applications (including the Common App and Coalition App) open up. Once that happens, you’ll find yourself in motion as you work on your application and line up all of the documents you need and so on. Hopefully you’ll find yourself all done with your application long before the actual application deadline (hint, hint). At that point all you have to do is wait… and the question becomes: how do you wait? And moreover—how do you wait well?

Make a list, check it twice 

Once you hit that magical submit button, there’s still tasks to be completed. Your list of action items will likely vary from college to college. Follow up with your school counselor to be sure he or she knows what you need from them (transcripts to be sent, recommendation letters uploaded, etc.). Your job is to follow up and provide what is asked of you (so keep an eye on that applicant portal/checklist where you can monitor your status!). But here’s the key: don’t follow up every. Single. Day. Don’t camp out outside anyone’s office, don’t make phone calls every day, and don’t send emails multiple times a day pushing for a response. Make the request, give it a couple of weeks, and…. wait. If you’re getting close to a deadline and still haven’t gotten a response, of course be sure to check back in. If you’ve done your part and asked for the info, and the other person assures you they’re doing their part and working on it, then the next thing to do is…. Wait.

Stay in motion

This one may seem contradictory after what I just said. But just because you’ve submitted your application and requested all of your additional information doesn’t mean you get to just sit around. While you wait be sure to stay in motion. Sitting around and worrying isn’t going to benefit anyone, especially you! If your recommendation letters are finished, write a thank you note to each person. Lead a project at school, help out a friend, spend time with your family, and of course keep studying and working hard in class. Be active, and grow where you’re planted. Right now, in this moment, actually BE where you are instead of worrying about where you will be. Easier said than done, but trust me, practicing that now will help keep your blood pressure down in the future.

Find Reassurance

In the end, it’s okay to be a little bit like Little Llama. Sometimes it all becomes too much, and the only option left is to jump, pout, and shout. When that time comes, find your safe place and let it all out. That place could be with a parent, a friend, a teacher, or a coach. It may not be a person, but an activity that is your safe place (music, sports, horseback riding, hiking, etc.). Find a way to get all of the angst, anxiety, and worry out of your system, without judgement. Take a deep breath—actually, take a lot of them. It helps more than you might think. Remember that if you’ve followed the two steps above, then you’ve done all you can do. It’s out of your hands now… and that’s okay.

If you’re like most students, you’ve done your share of waiting this summer. As you head into your senior year you’ll move from waiting-mode into action-mode. But after all the hustle, and the busyness, of a new school year passes, you’ll find yourself back in waiting mode. And I encourage you: find your way to wait well.

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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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Four Letter Words & College Admission

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth,” I said to my six-year-old. “Only four letter words, remember?” Let me back up.

I’ve been on vacation in Vermont the last week. It’s been amazing. Cool weather, sunny skies, incredible views of the lakes and mountains.

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that when you go on vacation and are eating out after a long day of travel,  you better be prepared while  waiting on food. A pack of cards, crayons, books, and worst case, games on the phone. I’d rather exceed the day’s allotment of screen time than verbally lambaste my kid in public. Life (and college admission) are all about decisions, right?

So we are playing hangman as we wait for our pizza and we’d agreed to use four letter words. The only issue is that a kindergartener can’t exactly spell them all correctly, and after a day of travel and a lack of food, I forgot to put on my phonics hat, which is how we arrived at: L-E-R-N.

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth. Only four letter words, remember?” which I followed with, “That doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.”

My wife’s calm but firm response, “It makes sense to her.” And a simultaneous eyebrow raise and upward chin flick, which can mean only one thing… yep, the waitress was standing right there. I can’t be sure but I’m fairly confident she spit in my next drink order. And, you know what, deservedly so.

“It makes sense to her.”Image result for lern

I thought about that later in the evening, as I listened to the other three sleep contentedly in our hotel room. Don’t worry. I’m not going to preach on how everyone shouldn’t get a trophy or why “A’s” aren’t that important.

Instead, I’m just going to remind you of something very elementary but somehow easily forgotten about your college search process… it’s YOURS. YOU get to fill in the blanks. Ultimately, it’s YOUR word. YOUR solution. Sure, read the guide books; consider where older peers or club members or teammates have gone; go visit that obscure school your crazy uncle advice keeps mentioning. Listen to the advice and opinions and excitement and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, etc. Remember– the landscape if vast.

But more than anything, as you visit schools this summer and fall, as you apply to schools, and ultimately when you decide where to attend, the most important thing is: What makes sense to YOU?

Spoiler alert: The categories below are very basic. Probably the things you have already heard or read or are already considering. I’m just hoping that you’ll think differently about the same buckets by constantly reminding yourself that they are YOUR blanks to fill in.

LOCATION- Over the last week, I had the chance to visit both University of Vermont and Middlebury College. Separated by only 35 miles, they’re worlds apart in ethos and environment. Burlington is the largest city in Vermont at about 43,000. Middlebury is a quaint town of 8400. I know people who proudly graduated from each and would not trade their experience for anything or anywhere else.

What is important to you? Do you want access to more restaurants and an airport? Do you want to share the town with tourists and business people and conventions and the other things that bigger cities typically bring? Or do you like the idea of a college town where the students are the lifeblood and the faculty live right in the community? Distinct experiences, distinct dynamics, distinct student bodies. What makes sense to YOU?

WEATHER/CLIMATE-  I showed my id to a cashier in a store in Stowe, VT this week. “Georgia, huh?”

Image result for middlebury college

Middlebury College

“Yep. Have you ever been there?”

“Sure. I’m from Tennessee.”

“Ok. Cool.” “What brought you up to Vermont?”

“Well, I’m a junior at Tufts in Boston and just spending the summer here.”

“Interesting. So what would you say to someone from the South who is looking to go to school in the Northeast (I know. I know. I can’t turn it off)?”

“Visit in January…and buy a good coat. It takes a year to adjust but I’m glad I’ve come to experience a different part of the country. It’s made me appreciate the South and I also love New England.” She’s thinking of pharmacy school when she graduates.

Are you ready for a complete change of scenery (and wardrobe)? Florida feels great in February, but you will not see much of a change of season. Cool (no pun intended)? One of the best things about our country is its diversity in higher education options. You are seeing that with all of the brochures that keep showing up in your mailbox (and writing from Vermont I am contractually bound to remind you to recycle). Consider places you’ve never heard of: check out their Instagram feed; take the exit off the highway on your road trip; Google famous alumni. You have to rule places in and out. That’s part of the process. But be open and be honest with yourself. Lots of voices and opinions will continue to swirl and sometimes amplify, but don’t stop listening to your voice, your gut, your dreams and hopes and goals. What makes sense to YOU?

Image result for university of vermont and burlington, vt

University of Vermont at top of hill in Burlington

SIZE OF SCHOOL- Do you want to know most of your classmates by the time you graduate? Or are you someone who relishes some anonymity? Do you appreciate close-knit culture and the loyalty and bonds it brings? Or are you excited by a big alumni base? Do you envision graduating on a lawn or in a stadium? Big schools will talk about how they can feel small. Sometimes small schools talk about how they can provide a big school network and experience. But at the end of the day: What makes sense to YOU?

Final Tip- use your network. This summer talk to seniors who are about to go off to college. Where did they start out looking? Which schools were at the top of their list last year? Where do they wish they’d visited? And why are they excited about where are they ultimately going. No one person’s opinion is gospel truth, which is why you need to ask and seek opinions from as many people and sources as  you can. Use. Your. Network (it’s a life lesson).

YOUR college EXPERIENCE. YOUR college CHOICE. YOUR college VISIT. Now– go “L-E-R-N” what makes sense to YOU!

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Make It A Summer… again!

Memorial Day is one of my favorite holiday weekends because it’s low key. Memorial Day is like that quiet, smart, and deceptively good-looking person we all know who just goes about their business doing their thing without looking for praise or the spotlight. Every now and then you take a look and they’ve just aced a test or scored a goal or are dating some amazing person. This is the infectious and admirable quality of contentment and self-awareness. 

Memorial Day isn’t going to bring fireworks or presents or greeting cards (which is truly something in the world of holidays). It just goes about its business every year, gently and encouragingly shepherding us into summer. It confidently holds open the door where sunshine glints through and kindly warms the room. You can hear laughing and music and the smells of barbecues as you approach and enter the season.

Summer is here, my friends. It’s a time to breathe. It’s a time to rest. It’s a time to slow down and enjoy people and books and being outside. I guess The Fresh Prince said it best– it’s a “time to lay back and unwind.” Memorial Day is an usher (no capitals, no link… the role not the artist) to Summertime. So embrace it– summer is your friend.

Last year I wrote a blog for rising seniors on how to “Make it a summer.” In recent conversations with friends, colleagues, and family, I felt like it was worth sharing that post with you again this year. Drums please!  Bonus: Looking for some other song suggestions? You’re in luck.

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