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Feel The Burn

Last week I visited Jekyll Island, Georgia as part of a leadership program. If you have never been to the Golden Isles of our state, I hope you will make an effort to visit sometime. Not far from Jekyll you also have some incredibly preserved treasures like Cumberland Island and Sapelo Island. The entire region provides a rare and amazing combination of beaches, wildlife, restaurants, and recreation. Truly something for everyone in this beautiful part of Georgia.

One afternoon we went on tour with Joseph Colbert, Yank Moore and other members of the Jekyll Island Authority Conservation team—a group charged with everything from protecting nesting loggerhead turtles and dune systems to preserving the integrity of tidal marshes. They showed us how they tag and track alligators, rattlesnakes, armadillos, turtles, bobcats and more in order to understand patterns, threats, and ecosystems. The diversity of wildlife was fascinating, but I have to say the most intriguing part to me was the discussion around prescribed/controlled burning.

Feel the Burn

Fire and burning is part of the natural cycle and ecosystem. Our modern human tendency to suppress fire actually increases the presence of invasive, homogeneous plants and weeds, effectively killing native grasses and flowers, and in turn reducing plant and animal diversity. Prescribed burns not only limit the damage of future fires caused by lightning or other sources that could severely damage the habitat and animals, but they also eliminate intrusive and dominant plants and brush that actually hinder the emergence of the far more diverse, vibrant, beautiful growth underneath. Ironically, the dominant, invasive, homogeneous plants and brush that grow in fire-suppressed areas are more flammable, so when fires do occur the damage is far worse. (These are the Clark Notes. Apologies to all students of ecology, agriculture, or members of the fire service world who may be cringing at my very rough summary.)

Listening to Joseph describe the process and rationale of controlled burns was convicting. It made me realize we often allow the known and visible to limit our vibrant, full, beautiful life and the possibilities that exist deeper in all of us. Pain (burning/fire) is inevitable, but short-term discomfort or perceived danger is a necessary part of a rich, diverse, flourishing future. Too frequently we inaccurately associate homogeneity with safety.

If you are a graduating senior

You are almost done. Congratulations! Seriously, congratulations. You may have always expected to graduate high school and move on to college, but in reality tens of thousands of American students do not. You’ve worked hard and accomplished a great milestone in your life. Well done! But… (you knew that was coming, right?) now the hard work lies ahead. You can see it as hard, or see it as an opportunity.

Sure, it would be easy to go off to college and keep doing what you have done. On some level, you have a recipe for success. Good grades, achievement, leadership, contribution. All good things. But what lies beneath? What do you know is within you that is going to require some burning to bring forth? What scares you but excites you? What do you want to be, to accomplish, to achieve, to explore? College is an opportunity for finding those things.

I am not saying you have to completely reinvent yourself, but I implore you to spend time this summer, before you leave home, to reflect on why you are going to college and how you are going to intentionally grow, thrive and develop there. Be bold enough to burn. Be courageous enough to peel back the top layer (as impressive or pretty as it may appear on the outside) to expose those parts of you perhaps only you know or believe have been suppressed, so they can rise and flourish. The process is not easy or painless. But Joseph would tell you, and I’m telling you, most people twice or three times your age know suppressing the fire is far more damaging in the long run.

If you are a junior/sophomore

In terms of college, it is easy to only see the top layer. You know where mom and dad went to school. You’re surrounded by the big schools or popular schools in your state and region. You read the list of highly ranked schools that are commonly cited in articles. You’ve been told about the “acceptable” or “expected” schools for a student from your school, community, or neighborhood. Burn them down (the ideas—not the schools!). The landscape of higher education, like the biodiversity under the visible, dominant intrusive top-layer is rich, vibrant and beautiful. But it will take some work to lift it up and see it.

So when schools email you or send you invitations to visit; when you receive brochures in the mail or someone from a school you’ve never heard of calls you; when colleges visit your city or school next fall, I urge you to pause and consider. If you do not at least dig down, burn through, and explore the variety of options you have, you will continue to see your choices as limited and suppressed. And that is not what the admission process is supposed to be. Instead it should be dynamic and life-giving. In the end, you should only go to a highly visible school after you have recognized and considered all your options and then chose it.

Regardless of where you are in this process, I challenge you to not accept what is in front of you because it appears safe, comfortable, or acceptable. And that does not only apply to colleges, my friends—that applies to life in general.  Safe, comfortable, acceptable, homogenous… if too many of those adjectives are your rationale for anything, you have some burning to do. You will be glad you did.

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Time to Level Up

This week we welcome Communications Officer (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

When you think about stressful experiences, taking a test in front of a crowd probably ranks pretty high on the list. Last year Rick shared a story about his son’s Taekwondo belt test. My 6-year old daughter has been in Taekwondo for a few months now and is getting ready for her third belt test. Now that we’ve been through a couple of tests we know what to expect… but that wasn’t initially the case.

Her first test to move from a white belt (beginner) to a yellow belt (slightly more advanced) was a nerve-racking experience for her—as well as for me as a parent. She had no idea what to expect, and candidly neither did I.

The white belts and yellow belts tested together in the same room. Clearly the instructors know what they’re doing, because the yellow belts were tested first, giving the white belts a chance to watch and get an idea of what’s going on. When their time came, all the white belts stood in a group, and 12-15 kids were tested on their basic form, kicking motion, and board breaking simultaneously. Meanwhile a crowd of parents (and newly minted orange belts) watched.

Focus… Concentration…

Everything went according to plan until the board breaking portion. Older students (or junior instructors) each paired up with younger students to hold their boards for breaking. The kids got ready as the Master led the chant: “Focus…. Concentration… kyah!” A series of boards around the room shattered… except for one.

One boy did not break his board. The rest of the students celebrated with smiles on their faces and sat down in their spots. The Master continued the chant for the boy: “Focus… concentration….” The boy tried again. And again. And again. At least six tries went by before he quietly whispered to the junior instructor “can you crack the board for me a little?” She whispered back, “no, but I know you can do it.” Every eye in the room was on this kid, and I started to feel uncomfortable to the point I felt bad for watching, so I intentionally averted my eyes to look out the window. When I glanced back, the board suddenly cracked and the room erupted in cheers. He sat down with a smile, belt testing continued, and each student received their yellow belt.

On the drive home we talked about the experience. My daughter asked, “Why did you cheer for him? You don’t know who he is…” An understandable question for a 6-year old involved in a sport for the first time. I replied, “We cheered because that was tough. Everyone was watching as he failed over and over again. It would’ve been easy for him to quit—but he didn’t. He kept going, even with people watching, and that takes courage. And when you see someone have courage like that it’s worth cheering for.”

Belt Tests and Graduations

Belt tests and graduations have some things in common. As you work up to the big event, you go to class, you practice, you study, and you prepare. You work for the goal, and lots of people—some you know, many of whom you don’t—show up to watch and cheer.

As a high school senior on the cusp of graduation, here are three takeaways to keep in mind as you finish out your year.

You don’t know someone else’s story. In our case we saw the boy struggle to break his board and, after many tries, ultimately achieve success. But most of the time in life that’s not the case. Now that May 1 has passed, you’ll see peers recognized for acceptances, scholarships, and other achievements. It’s easy to look at another person’s end result and think about how lucky they are. But behind that “luck” is a lot of hard work, time invested, and sacrifice. You may not see the number of times they failed. You may not know the physical or emotional challenges they overcame to achieve their goal. Cheer them on, and remember…

Someone else’s win isn’t your loss. This is the time to celebrate! You did it! You’ve worked hard for years to graduate from high school. You may have a friend who got into their (or your) dream school and you didn’t. You may still be sitting on someone’s waitlist. Of course that stings. But remember, you’ve gotten accepted (and hopefully have deposited!) to a great place too. And guess what? There are people at that school making plans right now to welcome you to campus next fall, and they want to make your first year an amazing experience. So enjoy these last few weeks of high school and summer with your friends. Then…

Get Ready to Level Up. After my daughter got her yellow belt, we celebrated and told her how proud we were to see her work for a goal and achieve it. Then we reminded her: it will get harder from here. Each level you go up in life, things become more challenging. More is expected of you—if you want to succeed you have to continue to work hard. It’s the same for you as you head to college. You’re moving up a level. More will be expected of you—not only in the classroom, but also in life. No longer will your family be there to make sure you get places on time, to feed you healthy meals, to do your laundry, or give you a curfew to make sure you’re in bed at a decent hour to sleep. These life choices are now up to you.  You can take your new-found freedom and run wild—or you can make the best choices for you as you take the next step into adulthood. Life won’t be as easy as it has been—but as you already know, nothing rewarding comes easily.

Make time for work, but also make time for fun. Your moment of truth is here, Class of 2018. Celebrate each other and get ready for your next adventure. After all, life moves pretty fast—if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

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The Rules They Keep On a-Changin’

I travel a lot. I don’t have TSA Pre or Clear or Global Entry or Jedi mind powers, or any special clearance allowing me to bypass some of the issues I’m about to describe. I’ve had friends literally scoff in my face, and others, including close relatives, utter statements like, “What the @x>~?!” (Valid question, mom.) What can I say? I like being with the people. Maybe I don’t want to pay the fee. And frankly I simply haven’t taken the time to fill out the application and bring my passport to the airport to go through the process. If you know anything from reading this blog it’s that I’ve got some issues.

Atlanta Airport Security: “Remove your belt, shoes, and everything from your pockets, and place them in the bin. Laptops need to be in their own bin.” As I begin undressing in front of my fellow travelers, I hear, “Sir, sir. You do not need to take your iPad out of your bag.” With belt in mouth and one shoe off, I’m simultaneously hopping and fumbling to put my iPad back in my backpack. The TSA officer rolls her eyes. It’s shift change and I hear her replacement say something slightly more R-rated than “Same stuff. Different day.” They both look at me askance with an expression which can only be interpreted as, “Idiot.” And, truthfully, as I’m holding my pants up and chugging water from the bottle I forgot I had in my bag, it’s hard to disagree with them.

But not that hard, really.

Washington D.C. Security: “You do not need to remove your belt, sir. Please keep your belt on.” Eye roll, eye roll. Is this person the Atlanta officer’s cousin? Because I’ve definitely seen that expression recently. I re-buckle and remove my laptop. “Do you have an iPad also, sir?” Yes, I reply. “Well, you need to put it in the bin too.” I comply. “Not in the same bin as your laptop.” Oh. Ok.

“And shoes need to be placed on the belt directly.” 

This command confuses me. I slowly move my shoes toward my mid-section, “I thought you said I didn’t need to take off my belt,” I replied.

“The belt!” And he points at the conveyor belt leading into the security scan. I may not be hopping around like I was in Atlanta, but I still get the “Idiot” glance again. No shift change this time but he has really mastered the look, so it is equally condemning.

In Tampa they insisted I take off my hat. In New York they scolded me for getting out of line to put my hat in the bin. The Vermont officer was clear that you ALWAYS have to take food out of your bag. Umm…. I beg to differ, my friend, because your comrade in Houston was singing a different tune. Of course, it does no good to get into a debate about it. So I pull out the pretzels and Kind bar from my bag. Oh, crap. I realize as I pull them out one was half-opened. Crumbs, crumpling of wrappers. I know its coming and then, yep, there’s that look again.

As you can see, I cannot explain why security measures vary from one city to the next—and sometimes the same city from one week to the next. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It’s moderately disconcerting. Why can’t they all be the same? And if they’re all different, how am I supposed to know the rules?

What the @x>~?!  

The rules they keep on a-changin.’ And if you are junior just starting your college search experience, you probably feel the same way.

At one campus, you’re told how critical teacher recommendations are and all test scores must be officially sent from the testing agency. Two hours south and a quick stop at Wendy’s later you’re informed, “We are test score optional. So we don’t need the score report I see in your hand, but you will need to have an on-campus interview.” Got it. Bathroom break, drool-laden nap against the passenger seat window, two state boarders crossed, espresso shot: “Our College deeply values demonstrated interest. And please don’t send us rec letters, because we are not going to read them.”

And on it goes: We are exclusively Coalition App… We don’t accept the Common Application, but rather have our own school specific app…. We have Early Action, so it’s not binding…. We have Restrictive EA, which means, well, it’s restrictive… We don’t have ED1 but we do have EA and ED2, so consult your doctor if you experience any side effects in the application process…. We’re really thinking about implementing ED 2.1 next year or just skipping right to The X. It is confusing. Undoubtedly part of the anxiety and stress of applying to college arises because it’s not a uniform process from one place to another.

Admission is not Airport Security.  

I can see how the differences may be confusing and potentially frustrating, but unlike TSA, it’s logical for colleges to have different processes and requirements…BECAUSE they’re different. I realize it’s not always clear from our brochures, websites, and emails that are misleadingly and often embarrassingly similar, but it is true. We value and prioritize different things, and ultimately each school is trying to create a distinct class and community.

Over 1000 schools across our nation have determined their best match students do not need to send test scores because they can demonstrate their talents and ability to succeed on campus through different elements of an application. Georgetown University requires interviews, and many colleges highly recommend you interview with an admission representative or an alum. These places are setting aside significant time to get to know you, to let you ask your questions, and sometimes (through alumni interviews) to see a bigger part of their community and network.

Inside Tip: View the requirements of a school as an indicator of their culture. Allow those front facing webpages to lead you to ask questions and do your homework—to dig. I wanted so badly to ask the guy in Miami why I can’t put my business cards in my shoe, or why the laptop and iPad can’t share the same bin. Of course I didn’t ask for fear of ending up in some back room answering questions about that run in with the cops on Halloween of my junior year in high school. But you should ask questions when it comes to college admission. In doing so, you’ll quickly learn the school asking you to write four essays on their application is doing so because their students write a lot in class. Don’t like completing the application? Well… four years somewhere else might be a better choice. Hate interviews or personal exchanges in general? Universities requiring or recommending interviews typically deeply value classroom discussion, debate, and dialogue as a cornerstone of their curriculum and pedagogy. It’s what makes them distinct—not just in the application but in the student experience too.

Advance information. Technically, TSA has a Security Screening site but it does not provide helpful information about expectations upon arrival. This is my favorite line: “…you may notice changes in our procedures from time to time.” Yeah, I have. In contrast, colleges go to great lengths on websites, in publications and in presentations to lay out exactly what they are asking for from applicants. I wrote this on an empty stomach and decided to go with the cheese theme to pick three schools and find their requirements: Colby College, University of Wisconsin, and American University (I got all three links in less than three minutes with a total of 11 clicks).

Inside Tip: Create a spreadsheet with your college choices. Initially include basic information you can build on: school name, admission website, admission contact info, application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, requirements. You may find additional columns or sub-headings to add to this base. Once you apply, each school will give you a way to track your submitted documents, but as you’re searching for schools, and before you apply, a spreadsheet is a great way to keep up with colleges’ nuances.

Bonus: Be sure to add the admission email address to your safe-sender list, and adjust your Junk, Promotions, Updates and other folder settings throughout the process. “I didn’t get that the email” or its cousin “I didn’t see the email” are not going to be valid excuses for missing deadlines or not sending critical information (yes, we’ve seen this happen).

Double Bonus: Kudos if you got the hat-tip to Bob Dylan in the title. His song remains relevant today and even applicable in the admission experience. More on that next week.

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The Secret Sauce Behind Scholarship Selection (part 2 of 2)

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, is back for the second in a 2-part series about scholarship selection. Chaffee has worked for prestigious merit scholarship programs at Duke University, NC State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome back, Chaffee!

As I mentioned last week, in my experience as a scholarship director, there are three issues affecting your chances of receiving a major (and sometimes even minor) scholarship: Fit, Numbers, and Composition.

This week we’ll talk about the third issue on the list that affects your chances of receiving scholarships: Composition.

Two Types of Major Scholarships

Before we get into composition, let me define what I mean by a “major” scholarship. There are two key types I am focusing on. The first is the kind that offers more than just money. These scholarships also include personalized mentoring, enrichment experiences, leadership development, research opportunities, shared experiences with a cohort of fellow scholars, and/or admission to an honors program. All or some of these experiences might be offered in addition to a full (or near full) ride to college. There might be anywhere from 5 to 50 scholarships to go around for each incoming class at various schools in the United States (the Stamps President’s Scholarship at Georgia Tech falls into this category).

The second kind of scholarship is the most expensive or most prestigious scholarship at a particular school. It’s not unusual to find 5 or 10 of these scholarships sitting there for the students deemed “the best of the best” in the incoming class. Criteria for selection is often very academically focused, but not exclusively. Incentives beyond funding for the cost of attendance are hit or miss, usually miss (though sometimes they come with admission to an honors program). Regardless, there are probably still anywhere from a handful up to 25 or more per incoming class.

Back to Composition…

Now, what do I mean by composition? I’m talking about what type of backgrounds will be sought in a full cohort of incoming scholars. What will they look like with regards to gender, geography, ethnicity, major, and so on? It might have to do with secondary factors like organizations they represent. Each school and scholarship program will have a desired composition or enrollment priority.

This is usually where someone gets worried that their demographics will work against them.

For example, a few years ago in a public forum someone asked me whether or not we reserved a certain number of spots for students of color in our scholarship program. I asked him if he meant qualified or unqualified students of color. He indicated qualified students. I replied, “If they’re qualified, why would I have to reserve any spots? Did you actually mean unqualified students of color? Because we don’t reserve any spots for unqualified students of any type.”

Judging from my conversations with families in the past, some people seem to fear that our aim to build a diverse cohort means we are selecting unqualified students over qualified students in the name of diversity. While I have no doubt such a thing has happened somewhere at some point in time, I have not encountered that situation in my career anywhere I have worked (or seen it happen among my colleagues at other scholarship programs at other schools).

Each scholarship program you might be considering will want to build a full cohort representing our society, not just one or two predominant segments of it. They will aim to pick scholars from various walks of life. The overall composition of the group of incoming scholars is important because in the programs that offer more than money, they usually want the scholars to work together on various projects, where success is enhanced by having a multitude of different perspectives and backgrounds involved.

It’s about the numbers.

It’s about the fit.

It’s about the composition.

Fake News (or something like it)

Hollywood, the media, and broader American culture often provide a distorted picture of the availability of scholarships and what it takes to get them. Popular myths, including having straight A’s, being involved in 10 different clubs, or having relatively good grades and being a great athlete and student body president, send the message that a scholarship is an easy thing to come by. These are all generally fiction. Not exactly what would qualify as fake news, but it’s pretty darn close. So are alarmist stories of how certain students can’t win scholarships based on their demographics.

Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t win a scholarship (or the particular scholarship that you wanted) that is normal, even for gold stars. Don’t take it personally, don’t believe you have been rejected (an awful word in my experience), and don’t be resentful. Above all, don’t let not receiving a scholarship keep you from attending a college if it’s the right fit for you. Attend the  best college for you and pursue a career and life full of meaning … even if it didn’t come for free. The best things in life, despite the old adage, are not necessarily free.

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The Secret Sauce Behind Scholarship Selection (part 1 of 2)

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us for the first in a 2-part series about scholarship selection. Chaffee has worked for prestigious merit scholarship programs at Duke University, NC State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

Imagine you are a child playing with a blocks and cutouts set. You have stars, triangles, squares, circles, and rectangles. Each block is made of pure gold. You place all of them until you get to the last set. In your hand is a gold star, but the remaining cutout is a square. So the game is over – you just can’t fit a star into a square.

This scenario is a good way to think about your chances of winning a major full-ride scholarship to a college or university. Even if you are made of pure gold, among the best students out there, it doesn’t change your shape. It doesn’t change who you are fundamentally. What can change, however, are your expectations for financing college education.

In my experience as a scholarship director, there are three issues affecting your chances of receiving a major (and sometimes even minor) scholarship: Fit, Numbers, and Composition.

Fit

I’ll start with the concept of Fit. Many students think if they aren’t selected for a scholarship it’s because they weren’t good enough—that something is wrong with them, or something is wrong with the selection process. Both of those scenarios are rarely the case when we are talk about truly competitive students (the gold stars). Instead, it is usually about a lack of fit.

For example: the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship at Georgia Tech is the Stamps President’s Scholarship. Our program focuses on four pillars: scholarship, leadership, progress and service. Let’s say we see a student who is solid gold in all their pursuits, but they’ve spent only a little time in service. While the student’s overall quality is high, their fit for our program is not, as service is a fundamental trait we value. On the other hand, that same student might be an amazing leader with a very strong background in athletics. Another well-known, prestigious scholarship program at another school may focus on physical vigor among other qualities. So the same student who may not fit in our program very well may fit into another.  When quality is high and fit is high, the chances of receiving that scholarship increase. (For the record, we do have athletes in our program. Other scholarship programs that do not focus on service still have students with great records of helping others. These are just general examples being used to illustrate a point.)

Now, notice I used the word chances. It’s a chance because fit isn’t a check box—there’s more than one aspect of quality being sought in the same student, not just service, or just physical vigor. It’s more than a yes or no. Many different aspects of a student and their background are held up against the desired characteristics of any particular scholarship program. Students are complex and so are scholarship programs.

My Advice:  when it comes to fit, be sure to apply for scholarships that fit you and your accomplishments, rather than chasing awards a well-meaning parent, alum, or counselor told you would look good on your resume.

Numbers

What do I mean by numbers? On one level, it’s about the quantity of scholarships, and on another, it’s about statistics. We’ll start with quantity of scholarships. If a student is admitted at Tech in early action, that student is in the running for one of our 40 Stamps President’s Scholarships. That’s right –not 1,000, not 100. Only 40. The numbers are similar at many other schools with prestigious, merit-based, full ride scholarship programs-. At Tech, this translates to a less than 1% chance of receiving the scholarship because we admit only about 4,500 students in the early action round.

Why are the numbers so low? The reality is every full ride scholarship a university offers to undergraduates is usually thanks to generous private donors who wish to help fund the education and professional development of a single scholar. Many, if not most, scholars must be funded from the income generated by permanent endowments, especially at public universities. Multiply that by dozens of scholars per year, then by four years’ worth of scholar cohorts. You quickly get a very large amount of money each school must raise from private donors.

The bottom line? There are many more gold star students than there are funds for a prestigious full ride merit scholarships.

What about statistics? Some schools have SAT/ACT minimums or GPAs that must be met, while others do not (for the record, Tech does not have a minimum threshold for our program). Chances for scholarships can, and do, depend on which school and scholarship program you’re targeting. Sometimes scholarship programs make such eligibility factors public, but not always. Even if there are no minimums, the truth is that for students seeking academic scholarships, GPAs, course selection, and test scores still factor into the equation. And even if a program doesn’t have a minimum requirement for academic scholarships, your GPA, course selection, and test scores will still factor into the equation—how can they not? The good news is several scholarship programs use a holistic review just like many admissions offices. Regardless, unless a student with lower academic performance has incredible leadership or extracurricular activities, it is hard to ignore the intellectual superstars in favor of better-than-average students.

One other thought:  To be a valedictorian or in the top 5-10% at your high school is an incredible accomplishment. But when all the top students at high schools across the nation start competing for colleges, only a portion become the top 5-10% of all applicants. It’s mathematically impossible for all of them remain in the top 5-10% at the college level. Yet that is often the mentality of a valedictorian or salutatorian – being the big fish in a small pond in high school often ends with being among the average when it comes to selection for major scholarships. I can’t tell you how many parents have called me over the years to say “but my child was valedictorian, so that means a scholarship.” Sadly, the numbers don’t make that a possibility. Besides, valedictorian is only one measure of strength.

My advice: apply for scholarships and always hope for the best, but get comfortable with the idea that you will pay for college with student loans, work-study, and other sources, even if you are a solid gold performer. Most students going to college have to pay, and they do so knowing they’re investing in themselves and their future salary will pay off those loans. If you’re still concerned about cost, take a look at the schools ranked high for best value, as these are also excellent choices.

Next week we’ll talk about the final piece of the puzzle: composition.

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