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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 Magic is in You (part 1 of 2)

The alarm went off early in a pitch black hotel room. We didn’t shower, and we barely brushed our teeth before piling into the elevator to head downstairs. We grabbed some fruit, bagels, a bottle or two of juice, and anything else that was easy to eat on the go. Then, it was on to a quick shuttle to the Transportation Hub where we caught the monorail over to the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

We were ready. We had a plan. We’d loaded up our backpacks with food, clothes, and everything else we could possibly need the night before, and 10 minutes before the gate opened, we were at the ticket booth. You see, FastPasses to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are incredibly tough to get, and both of our kids were dead set on going on that ride. So in order to avoid the incredibly obnoxious lines that will bring any six- or eight-year old, and most 30- and 40-year olds, to their knees in tears, we had been advised by a Disney guru friend to make a b-line for that roller coaster. No watching the opening show, no lingering on Main Street to see a character, no taking a picture in front of the castle. GO, GO, GO!

“Can I see your tickets?” asked the friendly cast member. I pulled up the Disney App and handed her my phone. “I need to see the bar codes,” she said. “Bar codes?” I asked. “Okay… I’m not sure where those are, but here are the times we’ve reserved to ride certain attractions.” “Yes, but I need to scan your bar codes.” “Hmm….I know I had those in my email before I loaded everything in the app,” I told her. I began searching my email for the tickets. I don’t know about you, but when I most need to find something in my inbox, my search words and terms bring back messages from two years ago rather than the week before. Loading, loading…. “Crap,” I say (after all, we are at Disney).

Tick Tock (Croc)…

Five minutes have gone by now. I abort the email search. My daughter was pulling on my backpack, “Let’s go,” she begs. I look back at the woman in the booth. “The tickets were loaded into the app. Now I can’t seem to find them in email. Isn’t there a way to retrieve them from the app?” I point to the “My Tickets” function, and she holds the phone, peers over her glasses, and says, “I’m just not as familiar with the app.” The sun seems to have gotten much hotter and brighter as another five minutes pass. Finally she calls over another cast member who immediately locates them. “Oh. Yes. They’re right here.” I don’t see what she taps but apparently she’s found digits to input rather than bar codes to scan. There are four of us and the codes are a good 12 digits long. “A.3.5.T…..”

My wife is now looking at me, shaking her head, and showing me the time. 8:05 a.m. Finally, the agent finishes all codes. “And that does it! You’re all set. Have a magical day!” Bag checks, clogged gates, people grabbing strollers and stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to tie shoes and pick up kids… buy an ice cream from a street vendor? Come on people, it’s only 8:10. By the time we got to the Mine Train the wait time showed 45 minutes. We stood for maybe a minute, partly in amazement, partly debating if our kids could handle the wait, and partly figuring out if our daughter really needed to go to the bathroom or not. Then the sign turned to 60 minutes. “Forget it,” I said. “Let’s go ride Barnstormer.” For those of you who don’t know Disney, Goofy’s Barnstormer is a classic, standard roller coaster, meaning it does not have the fancy animatronics or story line of some of the more premier rides.

To make a long story even longer, the other two rides our kids really wanted to ride that day were Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain never opened due to technical issues. Halfway through the line to Space Mountain it closed “temporarily,” only to remain closed the rest of the day. We re-routed each time. Due to closures we received complimentary FastPasses to Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise, we got front row seats for the parade and later the fireworks, and ultimately, at closing (15 hours…well, technically 14 hours and 50 mins, after entering and 9.2 miles later) we literally carried our kids out of the park.

Our daughter cried about leaving until halfway down Main Street, when she fell asleep on my wife’s shoulder. Sitting on the monorail, I asked my son what his favorite part of the day was. “Barnstormer,” he said without hesitating. “So much fun.”

Barnstormer. Rode it twice and the lines were no more than 30 minutes all day. It’s what you call an “access ride.” It does not have a big name. It does not a have a long waitlist or fancy animatronics. No supply and demand problem. No strategy involved to “get in.” The next day, on the drive home, and ever since, our kids have been dressing like pirates and begging to watch The Curse of the Black Pearl.

“Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it.”

If you are a high school senior who did not have the exact Disney experience you were hoping for in the college admission process, here are a few lessons I learned from our trip:

  1. Don’t blame yourself. If you did not get in to your first choice college, do not spend April (and certainly nothing beyond it) replaying in your mind how things could have gone differently. “If I had just taken one more AP class, or scored a point higher on the ACT, or chosen a different essay topic…” Nope. Move on. You have acceptances in front of you. You have places excited to provide you a great college experience. Maybe it’s not what you had “loaded into your app” a few weeks ago, but now they’re excitedly waving you in. There are plenty of other students going to that school who feel like they just won a bonus FastPass. Get in line with them. Buckle up, commit yourself to the experience, and enjoy the ride.
  2. Don’t blame other people. “If that admission counselor had come to my school and met me… if my counselor’s recommendation letter had mentioned my Eagle Scout award…” “Ifs” will kill you in the admission process– and in life in general. The closed doors, long wait lines, and low admit rates of life are what ultimately guide and steer you down different paths. So rather than looking back over your shoulder at the “mights” or “could have beens,” take full advantage of the options you have been offered. My best friend in high school did not get into Princeton. He was crushed. It was his dream school and he was convinced it was the only place for him. But I’ll never forget the day in April (probably right around this time) when he came in wearing a UVA shirt and a huge smile. “I’m going to Charlottesville!” Get your heart, your energy, and your mind pointed toward something and somewhere rather than staring back at something that is no longer there anyway.
  3. Clear your head. Is all of this starting to sound the same? Well, expect more of it because at this time of year you have big decisions to make. And you need a clear head to do that. The truth is that whether you are into your first choice, denied to all but one, waitlisted at more than you would like to admit, or still trying to talk to the gate agent about why they can’t find your tickets, you are going to be on a college campus this summer or fall. And the truth, and frankly the most important part, is not “where” you go. The infinitely bigger point, and the real long-term impact, is “how” you go, and “who” you are when you go. That’s what you should be focusing on. CLEAR. YOUR. HEAD! Go fully committed. Go excited. Go humble. Go looking forward. Go ready to help those around you make it the best experience for them.

When I finally laid my head down on the pillow again that night, I realized what I hope you will. See, they tell you to “experience the magic” as if it’s in the park, or in the characters, or on the rides, or in the experience. But the real magic, it turns out, 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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Be Cool.

I am not a big fan of having internet access on flights because it is a huge temptation for me to do work in the air. So one of my resolutions for 2017 is  to stop getting Wi-Fi on the plane. Instead, I read, write, listen to a podcast, or, depending on the length of the flight, watch a movie. With young kids and a wife who is the romantic comedy queen, it’s a rare thing to get to watch whatever I want to watch.

Chaos Around You…

Last week I was flying to Virginia and watched 13 Hours. It’s a super violent, super intense movie about an attack in Libya on two US compounds/outposts. The movie starts with a US special ops contractor flying into Benghazi.  Upon leaving the airport they immediately run into a road block and are boxed in by heavily armed and aggressive rebel fighters. It’s heated and confrontational. Guns are drawn and everyone is yelling at them in Arabic. But the two Americans are unflappable. They’ve been in situations like this before. They don’t raise their voices. They don’t panic. They stay calm and reason with the commander of the opposition force in a firm but balanced manner.  Not easy, right? Chaos around you. Lots of voices. Lots of emotions. Lots on the line.

At Georgia Tech, we are going to release Regular Decision notifications in a few days. And over the course of the next month, most schools will also be putting decisions on the streets. So, when you log in to a portal, or receive an email or letter from a school with an admission decision, keep two words in mind: Be Cool.  This is on you, because you can’t count on anyone else. Your parents may lose their minds. Your teachers or principal or neighbors or friends may as well. Again, lots of voices, lots of emotions, lots on the line. Two words: Be cool. Allow me to explain.

If you are admitted…

First of all, congratulations! Celebrate. Buy the t-shirt, go out to dinner, treat yourself to something you’ve been wanting to get, or just go get a double scoop of ice cream. Whatever makes you happy. Celebrate your win. Be proud. But keep in mind two things: 1- That could have easily broken the other way for you, especially if it was a highly selective college (30% admit rate or lower). Not saying you’re not the (wo)man, but holistic admission is unpredictable, as we’ve discussed. 2- Some crazy qualified and talented students did not get in, and they are disappointed and hurting.

What should you do? Act like you’ve been there before. Keep it classy, my friend. It’s okay to post your excitement on social media, but a little humility goes a long way. Big difference between: “Got into Northwestern today. They would have been crazy not to take me” vs. “Accepted to UCLA. Honored to have the chance to go there.”

What should you NOT do? Walk into school and make a big show by pronouncing your victory to the masses.  Not necessary. AND, trust me, definitely not what the school who admitted you would want from you in representing them. (This is also known as the opposite of being cool.)

If you are denied…

Well, honestly, it sucks. And you can be honest about being upset. But keep it all in perspective. Nobody died. Nobody was even physically hurt. Look in the mirror. You’re the same person you were the day before. Same talents, same passions, same goals. Just a different path to get to them. Nothing has changed. Say it with me, “Nothing has changed.” Be Cool.

What should you do? You’ll need to figure out how to work it out. Go for a long bike ride or drive. Burn the hoodie (safely, please). Play some cathartic video games. Build something. Go see a movie, or just cry. By now you know how to take care of yourself in times of disappointment. If you don’t, consider this the first lesson in that very necessary, and all too frequent, life skill.

What should you NOT do? Blame someone else. “If Mr. Pruitt had given me an A in that history class…,” “If my parents hadn’t made us move in sophomore year…,” “If Coach Williams had let me play Varsity as a freshman…” No finger pointing. No regrets or should haves. It’s time to move on. You have other options. Look at this closed door as a way to push you toward the next one. Does that sound cheesy or trite? Sometimes the truth is like that.

If you are waitlisted…

I’ve literally NEVER heard someone say they like to wait. “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?” “I don’t know. Was thinking I may just go wait somewhere.” Nobody loves “maybes.” But if you are waitlisted, that’s what you’re being asked to do. So, again, Be Cool.

What should you do? First, accept your spot on the waitlist. Yes, you have to do that. It may be as simple as completing a form or replying to an email. That is step 1; to read what they send, and do what it says. Secondly, well…wait. Easier said than done. Expect that you are not going to hear either way on admission until after May 1. Some schools, and often the extremely selective, will go to their waitlist in late April, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Most start working the waitlist in early May and it can continue well into the summer. So set your expectations on that timeframe. It’s not going to be late March and likely not mid-April. Grab a snack. Text a friend. You have time here.

What should you NOT do? Stalk the admission office. Showing up unannounced, calling every day, sending more than one letter or postcard… it’s not effective.

Next week I’ll be writing more on the waitlist.  For now, just two words: BE COOL.  You got this.

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