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Ad(mission): It’s not fair.

I suppose I could have gone with “An Admission: It’s not fair!” What can I say, catchy titles are not my thing. Working on it. But at this time of year, “fairness” is a resounding theme.

“How can you waitlist my son? He has 30 points higher and two more APs than your average. And we know someone down the street who got in that….”

“Something is wrong with your process if my daughter who has been through as many medical issues as she has and still has a 3.8 is not getting in. Talk about not being fair….”

“And don’t get me started on financial aid… or lack thereof.”

These are actual quotes from real people. Granted, they’re being used without acknowledgment (I didn’t think asking for permission to use them would be part of the healing process). Undeniably, there is something hardwired in us that longs for right, equal, just, fair, and perfect results. And these are noble aspirations.

Kids are among the most vocal about longing for fairness. Spend the same amount of money on presents? “Well, he got more gifts.” Buy the exact same number of gifts? “That one of her’s is bigger!” “Okay, tell you what, I’m going to take all of these out to the fire pit then and you can play with this cardboard box.” Now they’re both screaming in unison, writhing on the ground and flailing, with great gnashing of teeth. It’s like a scene from Revelation followed by a simultaneous and guttural reaction: “That’s not fair!”

Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was “better” or “more qualified” or “should have gotten in.”

I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted.  But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.

Mission Drives Admission.

Selective colleges publish mid-50% ranges or averages on our freshman profiles to serve as guides, not guarantees. These are the quantifiable factors that provide an overall sense of the admitted or enrolling class. Yes, we look at test scores, rigor of curriculum, course performance, impact on a community, essays, interviews, and so on. But what drives a holistic review process and serves as a guide for admitting students is a school’s mission. Counselors in high schools talk a great deal about “fit.” Where are you going to thrive? Where are you going to create a network or be challenged? Where do you see students that will push and challenge and stretch you to grow as a person and as a learner? These questions come from the fact that they’re savvy and educated not just about our admission processes and stats, but more importantly about our distinct missions. Ultimately, choosing the right school should not just be about “can I get in?” from a statistical or quantifiable standpoint, but “do I align with their mission?” It takes more work to figure that out, but that’s your job as an applicant or prospective student.

If you look at the academic profiles of Caltech and Amherst, they are very similar. But take a look at their missions.

Amherst (abbreviated) “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence… and is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”

Caltech “…to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

The difference in missions is why an individual student sometimes gets in to a higher ranked or more selective school and is denied at another. The student applying to Amherst has the same profile, involvement, writing ability, scores, and grades. but is a totally different fit in their process than for Caltech. This is, at least in part, what counselors are talking about when they say “fit.” It’s fit with mission. You’ll hear schools talk about “institutional priorities.” These are simply components of the macro vision and mission of a university.

A quick look at Georgia Tech

Founded: 1885. Classes begin 1888. One major- Mechanical Engineering. All male. It was a trade school responding to the needs of 19th century and early 20th century Georgia and US South.  The focus was on training and preparation for product creation and being prepared to lead and create the next in an industrializing state, region, and nation. Were there more “qualified” or “smarter” students at the time who had aspirations of becoming ministers or lawyers or physicians? Unquestionably. And had they applied with those intentions, they likely would not have been admitted. It was not our mission to educate students for those roles.

1912: Tech establishes a “School of Commerce” which is essentially a business program. 1952: Tech begins enrolling women. 1961: Georgia Tech becomes the first school in the South to integrate classes without a court order. It’s not hard for me to envision a younger brother in 1954 who is by all counts smarter than his older brother not being admitted to Tech due to this change in mission. Supply and demand drive admit rates. If your supply shrinks due to a shift in your mission, then admission decisions also change based upon factors besides grades, scores, or performance.

The University of North Carolina system is mandated by their legislature to enroll no more than 18% of students from outside of the state. This is why the admit rate for Chapel Hill is more than three times higher for in-state students vs. non-residents.  There are valedictorians from around the country not admitted to UNC (mission here) who get into Ivy League schools. Does this sound controversial or unfair? Not if you understand that mission drives admission.  Schools end academic programs. They add majors. They create new co-curricular programs or add or terminate sports teams. Mission changes and with it admission decisions are impacted to support those goals.

At Tech, our mission is “to define the technological university of the 21st century.” Our motto is “Progress and Service.” Our commitment is to “improve the human condition.” So while we are going to provide stats and averages and profiles like all other schools, these are the conversations in admission committee that contribute to decisions. Fair? No. Perfect? No. Reality? Yes.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a senior (or a parent of a senior) who has been denied or waitlisted: You are most likely just as smart, capable, and talented as other students admitted to that school. Move past the numbers and the comparison. You’re absolutely right: it’s not fair in a comparative sense. But that school has made its decisions in light of advancing their mission. Inevitably, you’ve also been admitted to a school where, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone denied with higher scores or more APs or better grades than you. But you fit their mission. Embrace that!

If you are an underclassmen (or parent of one): Selective schools will say, “We are looking to shape a class.” Counselors will talk to you about “fit.” As you try to digest and comprehend what that really means- or where that comes from- look to the school’s mission. Use the academic ranges they provide as a guide. Check out the profiles and other historical data to see how “students like you” have done in the past. But keep in mind those graphs don’t show the qualitative elements. When you are writing or interviewing at schools, do your homework in advance by researching. The essay you write for Caltech should not be the same one you write for Amherst. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (see what I did there?), is to find a school that aligns your academic ability with your vision of the future. Data is helpful. Stats are important. But fit, ethos, campus community, and your ability to be honest with who you are and want to be– that’s the best way to approach the process.

The other day my son was inconsolable. “She got presents on my birthday, and I never get anything on hers. It’s just not fair!” Finally, I just grabbed him, held him, and kept saying, “I know, son. I know.” So listen, you may not feel any better after reading this blog. Still angry. Still frustrated. I get it. I just wanted to save you that part of any email you send schools or the first part of a phone call. You can go right into other grievances and skip the “it’s not fair” part. We know, we know.

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The Magic is in You (Part 2 of 2)

In case you’re just joining us: to recap our Disney trip: we had a plan, we had a vision, and ultimately our experience was completely different than what we thought our day would look like.

You can read the details of that in Part 1, but the bottom line is while our day diverged from our initial concept, it was indeed magical, largely because our kids were thrilled with rides and experiences that we had not included in our original plan.

That being said, if you are a parent of a senior and you’ve had less than a Disney-rific college admission experience, this blog’s for you (isn’t that how the saying goes?). Anyway, we’re going to keep it very simple: One question, one favor, and one suggestion.

A Question:  Who is more disappointed, angry, hurt, frustrated or embarrassed?

Space Mountain is closed. Repeat: Space Mountain is closed. It’s tough to watch your kid cry. It’s tough to see others walk onto the ride who are no smarter or capable or talented. I get that. But before you go berating a “gate agent” or calling the folks you know “at Disney” or pulling out a checkbook or making threats and spewing insults, check in to be sure it’s really that big of a deal to your kid.

Sure, articles are written every year about the kid who gets into every Ivy League school, and people love to go home and brag about how they “rode every ride by 2 pm,” but at the end of the day, you can only attend one place. And if you’ll really stop to listen and consider what they’re saying, you’ll be amazed at how often they’re cool with a different space galaxy.

A Favor: No. I’m not going to do anything for you. I’m asking you to do yourself a favor: Give yourself a break and enjoy the ride. We both know you booked the hotel, packed the snacks, set the alarm, and had everyone there on time. You did all you could. Look. Rides break, power goes out, apps fail, and then there are people. Don’t get me started. But this is not about finger pointing and blame. This is not about what is deserved or fair or right. I’m not going to lie, I felt like I had failed my family when we got shut out of Seven Dwarfs Minetrain. Does that sound ridiculous? Well, my friend, I understand that the analogy between college admission and Disney is not perfect, but it’s also ridiculous for you to be blaming yourself or feeling guilty because your kid did not get into Duke or UCLA. Fact. Do yourself a favor: Enjoy. The. Ride.

A Suggestion I’ve talked to many parents over the last few weeks who have shared admit letters, financial aid packages, and scholarship offers from schools around the country in hopes of altering our decision- be it to get in, come off the waitlist or increase our aid award. 

If this is you, I want to suggest that instead of continuing to “refresh the app” hoping that more FastPasses are going to open up, you get fired up about Barnstormer or Buzz Lightyear. Go on! Buy the Space Ranger merchandise at the closest kiosk and get super excited because these are amazing rides that will take your kid to new heights and provide them with an awesome experience! Now, I recognize that was a lot of superlatives and exclamation points. And that is intentional. Whether you believe it or not, they always have, and will now take their cues from you. Celebrate! Late April is a time for excitement. It’s a time for dreaming. It’s a time for hand holding and ice cream and fireworks. Yes. I’m suggesting you provide that. Because, at the end of the day, MAGIC does not discriminate based on age- and IT IS IN YOU!

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The Waitlist… well….

Freshman admission decisions are out at Tech, and will soon be out at many other schools across the nation (if not already). As we mentioned in last week’s blog, emotions run high during this time of year, and it can be a stressful time for students, families, counselors, and admission staff.

When it comes to dealing with a decision of “waitlist,” there’s only so much to say… and last year Rick covered most of it in our 3-part series, “The Waitlist Sucks.” We hope you’ll check it out and learn more about the waitlist from the college perspective, the student perspective, and tips on what to do next.

The Waitlist Sucks

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You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

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The Great Kindness Challenge

I arrived home from work Monday to my kids asking to do a “funny, crazy dance” for me.  So I sat down and watched as they flailed around, sang, and fell down a few times. Honestly, it looked like most of their everyday antics. But when they were done, they went over to a sheet of paper and checked something off.

Apparently, doing a crazy dance for someone qualifies as being kind. In case you didn’t know, this week is The Great Kindness Challenge. I apologize for sending this out towards the end of the week, but there is good news: you can actually be kind anytime you want.

Throughout this week, they’ve progressively checked things off the list. “Say Good Morning to 15 people” led us to scare the crap out of a few runners and dog walkers on the way to school. “Thank a crossing guard” brought up a conversation about how people appreciate being called by their actual name. “Good morning, Crossing Guard! Dad, where is my checklist?”

Being Kind and the Admission Process

Why does this matter to you? One thing I’ve observed in the college admission process is that  students can, unintentionally and progressively, become very myopic and self-absorbed. Some of that is necessary and not entirely wrong. Naturally, you need to be selfish with your time when you are writing essays or preparing for an interview. But the unhealthy side is that you can also stop celebrating the wins of others or truly demonstrating empathy in their disappointment, because the immediate thought is either comparison or “what does this mean for me?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the admission process (Good thing, right? … since that’s my job). When process is a noun it becomes something you encounter or that you endure. My hope is that you will begin to flip the script to processing. When the admission “process” becomes a verb, you change because you challenge yourself to think and grow. There are many ways you can do this along the way. But for now I hope you will ask yourself a few basic questions about who helped you get to where you are today, and consider taking time to thank them, encourage them, or check in on how they’re doing. You know… be kind. Look beyond your world, your problems, your current concerns, or your celebrations.

Your Kindness Checklist

While The Great Kindness Challenge may be coming to a close, your admission process (and processing) has not. I encourage you to consider a few of these people and acts.

1- Thank a teacher or counselor who wrote a letter of recommendation for you or provided you with some good advice and insight during the admission process. Some of these folks write hundreds of rec letters. As a reader of those, I can tell you that their effort, passion, and advocacy for you is inspiring. So think about dropping off a note or swinging by their classroom/office and give them a high-five, hug, or fist bump.

2- Give mom, dad, sibling, or another family member a call, hug, or text with earnest emojis. Family does not always get it right. Sometimes they annoy you, pester you, or give unsolicited feedback. Do you know why? THEY LOVE YOU. I get it–sometimes expressed love does not look like we want it to, and sometimes it’s covertly disguised in questions or reminders. But that is what it is. So give it back in a way you know they’ll appreciate it.

3- Go back to your elementary school or middle school. (Sounds like a penalty on K-12 monopoly). I don’t talk much in this blog about my own college experience, mostly because it’s not that interesting and I think you’d find it outdated. But one thing I did do right in my senior year was go back to my elementary school with a classmate. We went one day at the end of school and talked to a second grade class. After the bell rang, we just walked the halls and said hi and thanks to the teachers who taught us. Not only was this a reminder of how far we’d come (highlighted by the incredibly low set urinals in the bathroom), but it also meant a lot to the teachers. We told them a bit about what we were up, to but I remember distinctly talking to several almost like friends about their class, the school, and their memories. Good stuff all around. Costs you nothing but time. Do it.

4- Check in on a friend or classmate. Nothing in the conversation about you. How are they doing? How are they feeling about college, graduating, getting in or not getting in? Best done over a meal or coffee that you pay for, but a walk, run, or long drive also works.

5- The Kindness Checklist ends with “Create Your Own Deed,” so I’ll leave the creativity up to you. But consider who in your life has helped you. When you think about how you are “processing admission,” who comes to mind as an influencer or someone you trust? Answer that and you are halfway there.

February 17 is officially “National Random Acts of Kindness Day.” Frankly, I somewhat take issue with the word “random” if you’ve been planning on it and marking it on a calendar, but who am I to stand in the way of goodwill?

Lastly, if you just want to smile, check out #greatkindnesschallenge.

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