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Spring Cleaning

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission (West Coast) Ashley Brookshire to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

It’s a time to close the door on winter and set your sights on the sunny days to come. Spring cleaning allows me to catch my breath, get re-organized, and look forward to the excitement of warm weather and summer travel. It’s not without its burden – I don’t particularly enjoy scrubbing baseboards and emptying closets – but I do love the relief of having the work done and updated systems set to keep my home a place of rest and relaxation.

When I think about spring cleaning, I often think of my house. In reality, there are many aspects of my life that could use this kind of attention. My finances, work, and personal inbox – amongst many other areas – can use the renewed TLC this time of year brings.

As rising seniors looking ahead to the college application process next year, make time to conduct some spring cleaning of your own. Here are some good places to start:

New You

If you haven’t already noticed, colleges send a lot of emails. A LOT. One way to keep your personal or school email inbox manageable over the course of the upcoming year is to create a separate email address for your college communications. Something simple (and appropriate) like myname@gmail.com allows you to segment this portion of your life for the next few months and isolate the emails you’ll receive daily (okay, probably hourly) from the rest of the messages you’re balancing for school, work, clubs, etc.

Unsubscribe

There are tons of ways you can start receiving communication from colleges. Outside of actually signing up on a college’s website to receive more information, if you’ve taken the SAT or ACT, visited a college campus, attended a college rep presentation at your high school, are related to a passionate alumnus who knows your email address and birthdate, or breathed in the vicinity of a college fair table, you could find yourself on a college’s contact list.

As you begin to explore your college options, you’ll likely discover some of the 4,000+ colleges in the US are not a great fit for you (that’s a good thing!). As you discover what you’re most passionate about in a college experience, you’ll begin to identify schools that don’t quite match what you’re looking for. Your best friend should become the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of each email you receive. As you begin to narrow the list of schools in which you are most interested, it’s time to triage your inbox. You don’t want the one really important email from a university you’d love to attend to be accidentally missed in an inbox full of messages from colleges you are no longer considering.

Compile Your Thoughts and Research

As you start to look at different colleges and programs, there are an infinite number of data points to consider. Take time this summer to turn messy notes and thoughts into a useful resource. A Google Doc, Excel spreadsheet, or PowerPoint can be key in helping you capture all of the information from your college search and turn it into a handy tool. Helpful items to represent on your document include important deadlines (both for admission and financial aid), programs aligning with your personal and professional interests, qualities about the school that excite you, any red flags for you, and the contact information of your admission representative. Remember, this is a resource for you, so make sure it’s set up in a way that best captures what matters most to you! You’ll have enough on your plate as a senior in the fall – use this time to set up a system that keeps you organized and all of the information you’ve gathered in an accessible format.

As the school year winds down and you head into summer, make sure you’re taking on a few tasks to set you up for success this fall. Not all spring cleaning takes place in cobb-webbed corners or under beds, so take some time to de-clutter and get organized.

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Would You Rather…?

Would You Rather…? Yep. This question was a big part of the Olympic viewing experience at our house.

  1.  Would you rather have no training and compete in the Skeleton OR Ski Jump? Personally, I’m going Skeleton all the way here. Sure, it would be moderately terrifying to go that fast, but worst case you roll off (careful for those blades on the dismount) and walk to the finish line. Meanwhile, with Ski Jump, I just see no way I’m walking away with less than two broken bones.
  2.  Would you rather be in Ice Dancing OR Curling? Our kids are split here. Our son is adamant that he’d never wear that costume and dance with a girl. (In this case, I am translating “never” as “check back when I am 16.”) Our daughter adamantly argues that Curling is the most boring thing she’s ever seen. “Is this still on?” “Sweeping is not for fun,” and my personal favorite, “He looks like our neighbor.” Hard to argue.

I didn’t pose this one but it did go through my head (because this is the kind of thing that does): Would you rather participate in a sport that has a score/time to win OR one that is judged? I can see both sides here. You’ve trained for four years (some would argue a lifetime). You’ve risen early, worked, sweated, and bled. You’ve sacrificed your time and sleep and diet and even personal relationships to get to this point.  It makes sense that you might want a very objective, neutral, quantifiable measure to differentiate you from the other competitors. And if you compete in one of those sports, that’s exactly what you get. Granted, it must have been heart-breaking for the US Luge Team not to medal when they finished .57 seconds from Gold and .103 from stepping onto the podium for a Bronze, but they signed up for it.  And clearly the German bobsledders who finished upside down were not concerned about impressing any judges on route to their Gold medal. They were the fastest. Period.

In Freestyle Skiing or Figure Skating it is all about the difficulty of your program, the execution of your routine, and your style (could argue personality) that you exhibit to the judges. Frankly, as a native southerner, I was just impressed when someone made it down the hill, landed a jump, or managed not to fall during a routine.  As I watched some of these events, the eventual medalists were not always the athletes I thought were the best from the outside looking in. Of course, I was not privy to all of the metrics or aspects they were looking for to make those determinations. Still, I could see how after all of those practice sessions and injuries that having a group of judges deduct or reward points based on the slightest angle of a skate or hand position on a snowboard would be maddening. And yet, it’s not like they were racing. They were not expecting their results or medal to come from time or speed. They knew that there would be a level of subjectivity leading to or from the medal stand.

So many lessons to be drawn from Olympians about perseverance, dedication, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. but I am going to stay in my lane and focus on how this applies to college admission.

Let’s start with this.  Most schools make decisions based on quantifiable metrics. Of the four thousand post-secondary options in our country (with over 2000 four-year colleges), the average admit rate is 65% (See page 3). In the vast majority of schools nationally, they have space available for talented students like you, and they are going to use your GPA and test scores to make those decisions.  These are publicly available formulas that are clearly outlined on their sites, in publications, and in presentations. In most cases, these schools have admit rates over 50% and they have determined that if you are performing a certain level in high school, you will be academically successful on their campus. At least one of these schools should be on your list. The good news is that you will absolutely find more than a few where: you will be admitted; you will find a lifelong friend; you will find a professor who will mentor you and set you up for success in graduate school or as you launch into a career; you could take advantage of phenomenal internships, study abroad opportunities; you can afford and may even provide you with scholarships as well.

Like an Olympic athlete competing in a sport that is evaluated by people, here are some things you should know if you are applying to a highly selective college that has very few spaces and yet a pool of incredibly accomplished students.

  • Numbers are not going to be the deciding factor. Yes, we ask for test scores. We look at them and consider them, but at Georgia Tech this year two of every three applicants had a 1400+ SAT/ 30+ ACT. The College Board and ACT research clearly demonstrates that using “cut scores” (i.e. drawing an arbitrary line between say a 1360 and a 1370 is a misuse or abuse of tests). Our own campus specific research verifies this as well. Testing is far less indicative of academic success on our campus than rigor of curriculum and performance in classes. This is why students appealing a denial at a highly selective institution because they have a 1500 SAT has no merit. This is not short track racing. We never said it was going to be about your testing- and our decision only demonstrates that we were transparent here.
  •  Strength of program matters. If you watched any of the Snowboarding or Aerial or Figure Skating, you heard the announcers talking at length about difficulty of program. An athlete who attempts and converts a quadruple salchow or double lutz or a Triple Lindy is rewarded for that accomplishment, skill, and ability at a higher level than a competitor who hedges their difficulty in order to avoid a fall or mistake. In admission committee and file review, we do the same thing. This is why colleges that have a difficult curriculum (not always directly correlative to admit rate or rankings) also value your course choice in high school. The bottom line is that a student from the same high school, i.e. has similar access to courses, who takes AB Calculus and Physics II and does well is a better fit for our Civil Engineering program than a student who has opts instead for Pre-Calculus and AP Psychology.  You don’t see the Olympic judges walking out of the arena questioning their decision to place value on this element, and we do not either. Rigor matters. 

 

 

 

 

  • Paper vs. Practice. “How could you deny my son? He has all A’s.” I understand, sir. However, since his school adds extra points for rigorous courses, an A can range from 90 to well over 100. A 91 and a 103 are not the same… and we are going to differentiate. This year we have a school that sent us nearly 200 applications. Of those 160 had above a 90, i.e. an A average. Now we can go round and round all day about the chicken and the egg here on grade inflation just like we can try to grapple with how Russia’s Alexander Krushelnitsky failed a doping test for Curling, but that seems counterproductive. Highly selective schools, just like Olympic committees, are going to differentiate great from outstanding.
  •  Style matters. Yes, we look at the technical as well as the full program. Review includes essays, interviews, and opportunities for you to tell us what you do outside the classroom. Why? Because you will not just be a student on campus, you will be a contributing citizen. Ultimately, once you enroll and graduate, you will be an ambassador. Judges give style points. Admission committees do as well. We care where you are from. We are listening for your voice. We want to know how you have impacted and influenced your community. We are counting on your counselors and teachers in their recommendations to build context around a GPA or a test score or an IB diploma. And because all of this is plays out in a holistic admission decision, the student with the highest test score or most APs or who sits at the top of a spreadsheet on a sorted GPA column is not necessarily the gold medal winner. Nobody is holding a stopwatch in admissions committee.
  • It cuts both ways. The hard truth of selective college admission is that it is a very human process. The upside? You’re not being sorted out based on GPA or test score alone. We are looking in depth at school curriculum, grade trends, course choice, performance, as well as who you are, who you want to be, how you impact others, and how you will match with our culture and mission. The downside? We are human. Read: judgment calls, conversations in committee, subjective decisions based on institutional priorities. Not gold, silver or bronze… grey.

Ultimately, if you are choosing to apply to a highly-selective university, you have to submit your application with the mentality of an Olympian. The competition will be stiff and there is no guarantee that you “end up on the podium.” Trust your training. You have prepared well. You have worked hard. Watch the closing ceremonies this weekend. Whether an athlete has a medal around their neck or not, they will walk through that stadium with incredible pride in their accomplishments, as well as confidence and hope for the future. If you are a senior this spring, regardless of admission outcomes, this is how you should be walking the halls each day and ultimately across the stage at graduation. Confidence and hope, my friends. Your future is bright.

Sneaky Teachings from the Bench Lady

One of the first people I met when I came to Georgia Tech as an admission counselor was Robin Wilburn, or “Ms. Robin” as we all call her. Back then we did not read applications by geographic territory but rather by alphabet. So while I traveled to recruit students in various parts of Georgia and other states, Ms. Robin and I were responsible for ensuring all applicants with last names of A-C were complete, reviewed and ready for a decision. We agreed early on we would be the best team—the most efficient, the most accurate, and the most accessible to families and students with questions.  She took our pact seriously. Depending on the situation, Ms. Robin would call me “Mr. Clark” or “Boo” or just “you,” as in “You better get in here!”

I call Ms. Robin a “sneaky teacher,” because you have to really listen, watch, and wait on her wisdom. I sat down to chat with her this week and reflect as she just completed her 25th year at Tech. In our 30 minute conversation, I was again reminded of how much she has to teach. Outside of admission, many know Ms. Robin as “The Bench Lady.” Whether it be first thing in the morning, while taking a break around lunch, or waiting for her son, Andre, to pick her up in the evening, you can count on seeing her on one of the benches around our building.

So what are you doing while you’re sitting there?

“Mainly praying. Just getting my head together so I can be a blessing. I always say, ‘let your light so shine!’ And I just sit on the bench sometimes to say good morning or ask people about their day.”

I told you she’s special. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, and a few gems for you to learn from as well.

What brought you to Tech and why have you stayed here?

“I began as a Tech Temp. For seven months I basically just filled envelopes. Then I was sent to Tech Tower (the most quintessential building on campus).” (It’s important to note she still has a sense of awe and reverence when she reminisces about this. While Robin grew up less than three miles from Tech, she shared that people in her neighborhood did not feel they belonged. Tech was perceived as elitist, pretentious, and “not for us.” She said the 1996 Olympics changed that perception. Somehow by opening our campus and city to the world, we also opened it to our own city as well.)  “I worked calculating GPAs—200 a day. Most days we’d either skip lunch or work through it. The philosophy was ‘Get ‘er done,’ which you still hear me say today. But I’ve stayed because I love the vision. I love we are reaching more students and diversifying.  Every year we get better, and you know, we never stay still.”

How is the work different today than it was when you started? 

“We gather information faster and there is less human error. But there is less contact with students too because of the technology—and I miss that. I used to see a lot more walk-ins, take more calls from students, and speak with counselors on the phone more often. I love the freshmen. Love seeing them come in young and then grow and learn and get their degree. I just love watching them grow.” (Note: that was three “loves” in three sentences. She’s beaming at this point.) “You know I love the students who work for us. I get to become mama or auntie. Just the pride of seeing them grow up… and plus, they keep me young and lively.”

You’ve seen so many students come as first-years and then graduate. What advice would you give a student about to go to college?

“If you have the drive, you can do it! But you’re going to have to do the work. Our students are always shooting for that A.  But they need a lot of encouraging. They may act like they’ve got it all together but they can really hurt too. I’ve seen it happen. We work here because we love them. But they don’t always tell us how we can help. So we have to really get to know them, to stop and listen, so they trust us.”

What have you most enjoyed about the people you’ve worked with on campus?

“No matter who it’s been, “(and she rattles off about ten folks, including several former VPs and Directors) “they always pushed me to my potential. It’s never been about title here or what degree you have. They entrusted me with important work and exposed me to people around our division and around campus. Basically pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to feel like part of a team. That’s what I love—being part of a team. I love being around people who make me better. And that’s always been what I’ve found here. The top of the top. These people don’t play, Mr. Clark. You know that.”

So how can you take these thoughts and apply them to your journey as a student, and as a person?

“Let your light so shine.”

We lead busy lives. You take tough classes requiring you to study at night and on the weekends. You put significant time in with your team or club or job (or in some cases all three)—in addition to the basics like friends, family, eating, sleeping. You know…life. And I’m here to tell you: it never slows down. It won’t slow down in college or grad school or in your first job or once you have a family. You have to slow it down. It requires being intentional, and being mindful of what makes life full—not what fills your life. Slowing down is so much easier said than done (and for me, so much easier written than lived). Ms. Robin gets it. She sits. She prays. She “gets her head right.” And doing those things allows her to meet new people, to invite them to sit, share and be encouraged. She’s available—and her availability brings joy not only to her life but to the lives of those who know her. The holidays are here. Rather than spinning through them, I hope you’ll sit through them.

“Get er done.”

200 transcripts a day! If you’ve ever tried to locate grades on the variety of transcripts a school like Tech receives, you’ll know that is fast! And besides fast, Ms. Robin has always been incredibly accurate. She takes ineffable pride in her work being excellent, even if it means working through lunch, taking files home, or being the first in the office. It’s how she’s made, and it’s the very nature of who she is. Never, and I mean that literally, has Robin boasted about working harder than anyone else. Being a part of the team, buying into the vision, reaching more students—those goals are what drive her. Not recognition. In fact, it took me a few weeks to get her to agree to be interviewed! Only after her pastor encouraged her did she agree to collaborate on this project. She’s humble, consistent, faithful, and selfless. When you encounter someone who embodies that type of integrity, it’s inspiring and challenging.

I have no doubt you are bound for success. And with your success may come a platform and an amplified voice. When you achieve and excel; when you reach your goals in high school, college, or beyond, I hope you’ll remember our Bench Lady. Quiet confidence, relentless pursuit of excellence, and always the perspective that others helped you get there—you are a small part of something much bigger. I think fundamentally we all find fulfillment and immeasurable satisfaction when we realize these moments in life.

You belong here.

Ms. Robin has always been conscious of not having a college degree. She brought it up in our discussion, and many times through the years she’s expressed some regret and concern about this fact. She said she’s thankful that at Tech the focus has not been on title or pedigree, but consistently, “Can you do the work?” She commented our office has always modeled that title does not matter (which is why, even though I’m the Director now, she’ll still yell down the hallway, “Hey, you. Get in here!”). The imposter syndrome is a real thing on college campuses.

Ironically, the day after I interviewed Ms. Robin I flew to Houston to talk to Computer Science deans and professors from Top 10 programs about enrolling more under-represented students in CS PhD programs. These people not only hold doctorates, they create more doctorates. They are expanding the base human knowledge. Me? I went to public high school and college. I slept on the couch the night before. “Who am I to give them advice?” went through my head multiple times on the plane and even during the talk.

Every year our first-year students say they have a moment in class or in the middle of a conversation when they ask themselves, “Am I good enough, and smart enough to be here?” Our seniors constantly say, “I would not get in if I applied these days.” Inevitably, you’ll have some doubts. Maybe it will be because of where you are from, or what your parents do, or what you know you made on the SAT/ACT. But don’t let these thoughts keep you from applying to a certain college. Don’t let these thoughts diminish your confidence at a college visit, or during orientation, or in your first semester at college.

You were admitted. We did not make a mistake. Character, work ethic, how you treat others, and your determination—these are the traits that helped you stand out in an admission process, and will differentiate you in the future as well.

Ms. Robin got me through my talk. Before I walked in the room, I sat down, took a deep breath, pictured her on the bench and “got my head right.”

“Get ‘er done!”

“Let your light so shine!”

“You belong here.”

Told you she was a sneaky teacher.

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Do You Have That Itch?

My wife called last week to tell me some horrible news. No. She’s not leaving me. Actually, far worse.

“Our daughter has lice.”

“Oh crap.”

“No. Lice. She has to leave school.”

“Okay. Got it.”

Since my wife works at a hospital, she can’t leave at a moment’s notice, so I started packing my bag and canceling meetings. Five minutes later she called back.

“Our son also has it.”

“Oh CRAP!”

“No. Lice.”

“Yeah, I’m on it.”

I put down my phone and started scratching my head. Power of suggestion, I suppose.

45 minutes later I picked them up from school and we went immediately to “Elimilice.” For some reason lice places seems to pick cutesy or punny names like: The Lice Ladies or Lice Happens, as though this is a light or laughing matter! Simply walking in that place was enough to make me want to immediately shave my head and beard. As we waited in a private (read: quarantined) room, I was rubbing my eyebrows, prodding at my armpits, and intermittently scratching my ankles (you know how they love to congregate on the lower leg).

When our “technician” came in, she asked a few questions. “Do you have evidence of active lice? Have you had head to head contact with someone with lice in the last few days? Are there known cases of lice in your school?”

Um. Uh. Well, someone called me and now we’re here. Honestly, I felt like the clueless, stereotypical dad you see on a sitcom. And I was ready to shell out any amount of money because someone told me the kids had lice. I was also convinced I had lice… and they were currently burrowing into my ankles.

After Lice Lady looked at me like “same thing, different day,” she proceeded to do an initial examination. And after some combing and searching, she determined we did in fact all have it.

Three hours of steel brushes, hair scrubbing, and applications of copious products ensued, until we finally emerged minty fresh with detailed instructions on essentially bombing our house. Wash the sheets, pillow cases, and clothes, cover the couch, vacuum the seats in car, bag up all stuffed animals (all of them? Holy cow, that could take days!). See, contrary to popular belief, lice can’t jump or fly. It’s only through head to head contact they can spread. And if they don’t have human contact for more than 48 hours, they’ll die. Frankly, I was ready to burn everything and start over, but my wife talked me off the ledge.

Are You Itching?

One of the funniest things (and really there was only one) about the lice-capade was anyone I told immediately started itching. They’d move back a little and wince, or shift in their chair and alternate twitching their shoulder blades.

Paranoia, power of suggestion, and the possibility of a problem

The college admission process is eerily similar. We hear stories about smart kids not getting into certain schools, or read articles about the growing competitiveness of our state’s flagship, or see social media about the newest rankings or ROI statistics, and we start to itch.

To the perfectly sane, normal, loving, laid-back mother of a well-adjusted and thriving seventh grader who is thinking about pulling your kid out of public school because the family down the street did, I urge you to get your head checked. Look into the course offerings, extra-curricular opportunities, and culture of the schools you are considering. Before you convince yourself there is an “active problem,” commit to taking a close look at who your student is and where they’ll actually learn and thrive, rather than too quickly giving way to the power of suggestion.

To the student who gets denied from a school in December, it does not mean you double down by submitting 10 more applications to similar schools. Wash your clothes, check your pillow cases. As long as you have a solid, well-balanced, thoughtfully considered list including schools of varying academic profile and selectivity, you aren’t itching. It’s like the phantom cell phone vibration in your pocket.  You are good. Repeat: you are good! 

To the family about to shell out thousands of dollars to an independent consultant (who has no background in college admission other than a son who got into Vanderbilt two years ago), I am asking you to sit quietly in the waiting room for a few days. Does your student need that additional outside help? Perhaps. And there are some fabulous independent counselors who provide meaningful and helpful aid (like Ellimilice) But before you simply show up in an office, do your homework to know why you are there, and if they have the credentials and background your family needs. Lice don’t mount an assault from the ankles. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

To the deferred student who wants to “demonstrate interest” in order to increase your chances to be admitted in the spring, don’t write to, call up, pop in, tweet at, or send an owl or a gift to the admission counselor at the university. This is not a fire sale. You don’t have to bag up the animals. Fill out the form, send in your fall grades, and send a quick email to let them know you appreciate their time and continued consideration of your application.

To the junior who is unhappy with your initial test scores- I’m not telling you to avoid human contact for 48 hours, but start by checking out FairTest.org, and look into free sources like Khan Academy or ACT before you support test prep companies who are having company retreats in the islands and bidding on art at auctions to adorn their newly upgraded suites. Believe me, when we look at your application, we are not splitting hairs (couldn’t help myself) over 80 points on an SAT or 2 points on an ACT.

Just because someone else is acting crazy does not mean you have a problem. It’s the head to head contact we need to avoid. See crazy, say something! We have enough rankings hawking, test obsessing, anxiety inducing agents out there already. Don’t perpetuate the itching. The first step here is admitting you don’t have a problem. And let me tell you, it feels great. When we walked out of our “follow-up” appointment three days later, after being declared lice-free, we went all out on our celebration– ice cream. But we did ask them to hold the white sprinkles.

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Challenge By Choice

This past August I went backpacking in Scotland with 10 first-year Tech students. Our trip was led by Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT). One of their core tenants is “challenge by choice,” which means most of the activities have modifications based on your comfort level. “Today we are mountain biking. You can do the 23 mile trail with boulders, jumps, rattle snakes, and a few places you could careen off the side of the mountain. OR you can do the eight mile loop around the lake.” The goal is to give the participants options, but also to push them outside their comfort zone and stretch them beyond what they think they can do.

On our trip, however, there were no options. We were going point to point, and the distance was what it was, with one exception: Ben Nevis. At 4,400 feet Nevis is the highest peak in Great Britain. While it may not be Pike’s Peak, I could not see the summit from the trail head and there were lots of switchbacks.

After the first hour of climbing, our group naturally broke in half. The lead pack had more experienced hikers and moved at a pretty aggressive clip. I was not in that group. I was in the back… actually, the way back. After 2.5 hours we stopped for lunch, estimating we were about halfway up. Folks were tired. We had blisters, we had headaches, and we also had real doubts.

As we resumed our hike, the plan was to go 20 more minutes and check in. We’d plod forward, step by step, trying to talk about random subjects to keep our minds off of the hike. For the next hour we went from one logical stopping point to another. “Everyone good?” A few “Yeps,” a few “I think so’s,” and a few closed eyed grunting nods. “Challenge by choice,” one of the ORGT leaders would say. “We can turn around if y’all want, but I think you can at least make it to the next point,” as she pointed toward a large cairn a few hundred feet up the trail.

Ben Nevis taught me five lessons that are applicable to both life and college admission:

We all have more in us.
Admission websites, publications, and presentations often talk about competitive GPAs and rigor of curriculum. But we fail you by not always describing why we care to see you stretch and challenge yourself academically. Very little of our conversation in committee is about your ability to actually do the work. Most applicants to selective colleges have that covered. The truth is that some of the greatest difficulty of the first year is re-establishing yourself and a community around you; or adjusting to living in a completely new part of the country; or figuring out if you should use the warm or cold cycle on the washer. So in the admission process at competitive schools it’s not about the number of difficult courses you take, it’s about a character trait. It’s not about seeing that you packed in more but that you put in more, so that when you arrive on campus you thrive in the classroom and have the capacity to engage, influence, and connect outside the classroom. When we review your application, and particularly your transcript, we are asking if you have chosen challenge, because we want evidence that when you are stretched you respond well. So what is the next level for you? Maybe that is something quantifiable like taking HL instead of SL Spanish, or perhaps it is less tangible and translates simply to working harder or learning more deeply in a particular course you are taking. Set your eyes on the next switch back, and pull your backpack straps a little tighter. This is not about getting in. It’s about preparing and also learning an incredibly valuable lesson that will set you up for success in college and beyond—there is more in you!

Celebrate your wins!
One student, a hard-core swimmer who was recruited by Division I programs, was in the back with me as we neared the top of the mountain. In a pool, she can swim all day (literally).  But the term “fish out of water” has never been so fitting. We saw the crest and she was pumped. But as we drew closer, it became clear it was a false summit. We found a natural stone bench and sat down to have water and a Kind bar. She looked around at the incredible views and vistas, then looked back down the mountain at hikers who appeared like tiny specks at the bottom. “This is beautiful,” she said, then added astutely, “I know a lot of people will never see this.” The vantage point was incredible. And she could not have been more right about the latter piece too. Getting there had taken a ton of work and we’d seen several groups turn around along the way. About 83% of high school students graduate, and only 65% of those go on to college, which means approximately half the students who started the climb are not sitting where you are. So when you get accepted to college, whether it’s your first choice or your fifth, celebrate your win. Consider the work that it’s taken to get there and the people who have been encouraging and supporting you on your climb. Look back at your hard work and stop to appreciate the view. (We celebrated with Skittles. I’ll leave your reward to you. Just promise me you’ll slow down, enjoy, and celebrate.)

There’s more than one summit.
This is your climb and your trek. You know where you’ll flourish. You know where you’ll find a community to challenge and stretch and support and encourage you. And if you are doing this search and application process well, you’ll realize there are many places to find the view and experience you need to realize your dreams. So don’t let a family member or a friend tell you that there is only one school you “need” to go to or “deserve” to go to. If a place is too cold or too homogeneous or too pretentious or too urban for you, it’s false summit for you. You define your summits.

It’s not a race.
Holistic review by definition means schools look at way more than one number (GPA) or a set of numbers (count of AP/IB/Honors, etc.), and certainly more than test scores, which continue to decline in predictive value. The person to the top the fastest does not necessarily win, and admission decisions from highly selective colleges will not be quantifiable. The student hiking in the back of our group had never been on a trail. She was not as fast as some of her peers, but her desire and indefatigable spirit were unrivaled. As we sat at the false summit dividing out red Skittles, I asked, “You good?”  I’ll never forget her response, because when she looked up at me I thought she was going to cry. But instead she replied, “Rick, I didn’t come her for nothing.” Wow! We got up and trudged another 45 minutes to the top. Selective colleges want to admit students like her because they are grinders, workers, strivers. Sometimes these are students whose parents did not attend college, and yet they’ve achieved incredibly inside and outside of school. Sometimes this is the student who was diagnosed with a life-limiting condition in their sophomore year requiring eight surgeries, yet they’ve still managed to make B’s while juggling constant treatments and medical attention. Sometimes this is the student from a school which didn’t offer Differential Equations and courses beyond AP Computer Science, but who sought out online options or dual enrolled at a local community college for a challenge. On a scatterplot, they may come in below a college’s profile, but an X and Y axis can’t capture “I didn’t come here for nothing.”

Hike Well.
You can’t fake number four (see above). You may be the kid in the front group with plenty of exposure to hiking, a high dollar backpack, and Gortex boots. If that is your background, this becomes a matter of how you climb. I wrote last week about controlling what you can. You control how you hike. The admission process is not fair. You will see a student with “lower scores” get admitted to a school where you do not. You will see a recruited blue-chip athlete get into a university that does not admit your best friend who took “better classes.” It will happen—it happened last year, it happened a decade ago, and it will happen this year. Want to know what doing it right looks like? When we reached the top, the first group had been there an hour. It was chilly, it was blustery, and they still had a 2-3 hour climb back down. But they waited. When we rolled in, there were high fives, hugs, and applause. It was one of the most genuine, inspiring moments I’ve been a part of in a long time.

If you are defining your own summits, then seeing someone else get there too is not going to bother you, it’s going to encourage you. That, my friends, is character. And character, for all of us, is a challenge by choice that lasts a lifetime.

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