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Run YOUR Race

I went for a run in the woods the other day. I do that a lot this time of year. Last weekend it was a 15-mile trail race in North Georgia. In early December, I’ll go 19 miles through the rolling pines near Warm Springs, GA, where FDR famously spent time.  Late fall and winter is a busy time in college admission, so multi-hour runs are a catharsis of sorts.

On a particularly long and isolated stretch of forest last week, I began thinking about a conversation I’d just had with a friend whose daughter is a high school senior. He called me because they were arguing about her applications- mainly where she should apply and if she’d applied to “enough” colleges. “So, what would you tell her?”

I said I would think about it. And so somewhere around mile eight, that’s exactly what I was doing. Ironically, the more I ran, the more I realized how much trail running and college admission have in common. I also realized there was not much to “tell” – but definitely a lot to hope for.

So, seniors, as you run YOUR race this year– as you work on applications, await and receive admission decisions, and head into your final holiday breaks before heading to college, here are my TOP 5 hopes for you:

1-      That you will not be overly influenced by the opinions or experiences of others. Remain true to yourself and your unique and deeply personal college admission experience. Listen. In races you see some runners go out quickly. They charge up the hill or around the corner. That is not wrong, but it may not be your style or best approach. Maybe you did not have an Early Decision school that you felt 100% sure about and now you are questioning if you did something wrong by not applying under that plan. Maybe a few friends have already been admitted to college and you are still waiting on decisions or working on essays for other applications. Maybe you look around and believe everyone else knows where they want to go and you are still unsure and open. My friend, that is absolutely fine. Perfectly normal. You are not alone. Ultimately, your goal is to find a college campus where you can thrive both academically and socially. Pace of getting there will naturally vary. Keep the end in mind.

People will use the word “process” when they talk about college admission. This makes it seem like it’s a one-size-fits-all equation or formula, or that there is a specific way that leads to a predictable conclusion. That is a bunch of crap. Reject that. This is an experience. You have choices, options, and there will be inevitable turns and twists along the way. Run YOUR race. The beauty of trail running, in my opinion, is that you have to make decisions and keep your head up to look for blazes on the trees or signs in the woods. Unlike a road race where everything is cleanly marked, train running requires more thought and decision-making. The same is true for college admission. If you are doing this right, you won’t do it the same as your brother or best friend or the way you read it online in some guide. Keep your head clear and be confident. Run YOUR race.

2-      Enjoy your one and only senior year. Anytime you only have one of something it’s precious and should be treated and cared for as such. Enjoy your year. Don’t rush it or wish it away, because it will go fast enough on its own. Look around you in class or in the hallways or in the cafeteria next week. These people you have grown to know and love- and who also know and love you– will not be with you on a daily basis next year. Don’t take that for granted. Be proactive and give them a hug and tell them you appreciate them. Be specific about why they’re awesome. Make time for these people. You’ll never just have it.

3-      Be a light. Encourage people around you and help them. This is not going to help you get into college, but it is exactly the kind of person colleges are looking for. One thing I love about trail running is when someone misses a blaze and goes off track, other runners call to them. If a front runner sees a rock or a root or a branch, they call out or point to those obstacles and possible hazards. No matter what anyone tells you college admission it is not a zero-sum game. On almost every admissions panel I’m on someone in the audience will raise their hand and ask, “So if you have two applicants with the same GPA and same test scores, which one do you take?” In reality that’s not how it works.

I’ve often heard from high school teachers or counselors about students who won’t help others study for tests or share notes from class, because they’re afraid that will give their classmate a leg up. We’ve read essays about top students vying to be valedictorian who compete so ruthlessly academically they sacrifice their friendship. If thoughts like that are going through your head this year, I am imploring you to see the bigger picture. Helping others, sharing what you know, encouraging and facilitating the success of friends, classmates, teammates, colleagues is a life skill that will take you much further than the distinction of being valedictorian or getting into a specific school.

If you’ve been the subject of this type of behavior, I’ll simply quote the prophet Taylor Swift and say, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…” They may end up with a specific title or offer of acceptance, but long-term that type of behavior, character, and approach ends up empty and often alone.

4-      Celebrate every offer of admission. I get that some of you go to “college preparatory” schools or take Dual Enrollment classes. I understand that you’ve taken more Advanced Placement classes than I have hairs left on my head. In your family or school or community, it may be a foregone conclusion that you’ll go to college, but that is not really what the world looks like. Did you know that less than 40% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, and worldwide that number is less than 10%? Keep this in mind when you receive an offer of admission. It is not “Just the University of X…” No. No!! It is “I was admitted to the University of X!”

This is an opportunity and a choice. This is what you wanted from the beginning- options, choices, and offers. Congratulations! Celebrate every win. Go to dinner, buy yourself something. You do you. But promise me you’ll celebrate—and also thank those around you who have made your achievements possible.

5-      Tell your parents/family/support network THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU! I am always amazed when I get to the end of a long trail race and see how many family members are there with signs, food, smiles, and hugs. People drive long distances and wait patiently for hours (often in crappy weather) for runners to arrive at the finish line.

That teacher who wrote your recs or helped you prep for exams; that coach or club sponsor or boss who gave you opportunities, challenged you, and encouraged your best— that’s who I’m talking about. Write them a note, give them a high five, send them a text. Be sure you let them know you appreciate them, their time, & their part in your success. They don’t expect thanks, but they deserve it. If you are a senior, this is your job.

And for your family- whatever instrument or sport you play well now used to be very painful to watch and listen to. Still, they kept driving you, encouraging you, paying for lessons or practice or competitions, etc.

Not convinced? Go open up the cabinets in your kitchen. Pull out any bowl or plate. Then ask your mom, dad, or whomever has raised you how many times they washed that or filled it with food. Think about five years ago when you were twelve or thirteen. Seems like a long time ago, right? Well, for the first five years of your life (time you basically have no recollection of), they fed you, clothed you, rocked you, nursed you, sang to you, woke up in the middle of the night worrying about you. They may not be able to physically still hold you the way they did then, but they are still doing absolutely everything they can to lift you up and support you now. Does that love look kind of crazy at times? Absolutely. Love is weird like that. What can I say? Nothing. What can you say? “THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU!” Make an effort to say that weekly from now until you graduate.

Along the trail in a race, there are all kinds of variables: hills, rocks, roots, creeks, downed limbs, changing temperatures, rain, wind, snow, blazing heat, major elevation changes. You have to adapt and adjust. It’s unpredictable- and college admission is the same. So while I can’t promise or predict exactly where you’ll start in college next year, I can guarantee that if these hopes come true, you’ll finish this year well- and that is a race worth running.

Just Get Started

This week we welcome Communications Manager of Strategy and Enrollment Planning (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley back to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

Last week I chatted with the mom of a high school senior. She shared how her son came home in a flurry at 4 p.m. the Friday before fall break, stressed out over finishing an assignment that was due at 5 p.m. Of course, she’d given him the usual “why didn’t you start this earlier” speech, but it was too late at that point. We each conceded there are times in life your kids have to learn hard lessons for themselves.

As we talked about “his” procrastination, I had to admit that even as an adult I deal with the same issue. Just like a high school senior, I tend to put things off until the last minute, OR until everything is just right (call it the Enneagram 9 in me—not familiar? Check it out). Write a blog? I’ll troll the internet and think about it. Organize the closet? Let me make sure I have all the right storage solutions and containers. Make dinner? Let me first get everyone’s vote and then I’ll get on Pinterest. Sometimes my distraction isn’t even useful. Take a shower? Let me scroll through my Instagram feed…

The difference between me now (an adult) and me 20 years ago (a high school senior) is I have enough life experience to know my “sweet spot.” I’ve found the balance needed to produce quality work in a short amount of time. And while it’s good to know my sweet spot, there are situations when nothing can replace the investment of time—real, actual time—to complete a long-term project or goal.

No Substitute for Time

A year ago I started running. If you don’t want to take a trip down memory lane, here are the highlights: in my 20s I was super fit. In my 30s I had babies. After baby #2, I was NOT super fit, and went on a three-year exercise hiatus (oops). The hiatus lasted until “the photo” was taken, and it was then I knew something had to change. I researched different workouts and chose running—the ONE activity I swore I would never do (“why would anyone run for fun?”). I started a Couch to 5k program and finished my first 5k two months later. I’ve continued running and am now staring down my first 10k (less than one week away!).

I’ve gone from struggling to run 10 minutes to successfully running for an hour. But I’m not here to talk about my fitness journey—I’m here to talk about time. No matter how adept I become at procrastination, there are moments when I have to spend extended time to get things done. I can’t expect my body to go from running one mile to four miles in a single week. Building up that kind of endurance takes time (and a lot of it!). The key to maximizing that time is simple: just get started.

In an ironic twist of fate, I work in an industry where I routinely remind students via blogs, emails, and other marketing materials of the perils of procrastination. When I worked in the admission call center, student workers and I would regularly shake our heads at the number of panicked calls and emails we received from students who waited until THE LAST MINUTE to meet a deadline, ran into an obscure technical issue, then called us when they were melting down. And I’ll be candid—as a rule, our student workers didn’t have a lot of sympathy.

Early action/decision deadlines are right around the corner. Even if you don’t plan to apply early to a school, applications are still open and being reviewed at colleges across the nation right now. And if you’re like me, you may be sitting… and waiting… to start. After all, you’ve still got a (week? month?) to get it done.

It’s easy to fall into this trap. Don’t do it! We’ve written about time management, essay topics, and deadlines on this blog many times in the past. These posts are all worth reviewing again (hint hint!). When it comes to meeting admission deadlines, there are three main areas that tend to trip students up the most. Here are a few tips to get past those hurdles.

1 – The Essay

Take it from someone who writes (and edits) for a living—your first draft is NOT your final draft. Your first draft will, must, and should change. Seasoned writers go through multiple drafts to get their content right, and you’re no different than them. Yes, you need to think through your essay and find a creative way to tell us about yourself. Thinking is great, and necessary—but that’s not ACTION. Jot those thoughts down. Grab your phone and voice record your ideas. I’ve found I never actually listen to any of my voice recordings, but the simple act of talking it through—sometimes multiple times—is enough to get my brain to focus on my topic and narrow my thoughts. The most important thing is to write. Something. Down. Once you have a “brain dump” in a Word document, come back to it—two, three, maybe even four times—to make edits and changes. Each time you look at it with a fresh pair of eyes you’ll discover something new to say (or remove). If you wait until the last minute to actually write your essay, you lose those precious chances for review. So grab your laptop and write something down. Just get started!

2 – The Activity List

The amount of activities students list on their college applications astounds me. I don’t know how you squeeze so much activity into your schedules (kudos to you!). But some students get lost in how to best record those. Do you list by longevity? By contribution? In chronological order? If you have more than 8-10 activities, which ones should you leave out? It can become overwhelming. Similar to the essay, voice record your thoughts, jot them down, write them in a Word document (or a Google doc, I have no preference here), and let it sit there. Come back the next day and review it. Maybe what seemed important in that first draft no longer resonates. Perhaps you left out something significant. Or maybe you need to highlight your own personal contributions in a different way. Like the essay, if you wait until the last minute you lose that crucial time for reviewing, and re-reviewing, what you’ve written down. Just get started!

3 – Hitting “Submit.”

This part is possibly the biggest challenge you’ll face. There’s something about that final “submit” button that almost taunts you. Are you sure? Should you look again? Did you remember to say everything? Wait, did I use my legal or preferred name? Hitting the submit button is the final thing within YOUR control—once you submit, control no longer belongs to you. The ball is officially out of your court. This makes it tempting to wait until the last minute to check that box and call it done. After all, as long as it’s still in your hands it’s still within your control, right? While that may feel empowering, it’s also a weight that you don’t have to carry. Remember—if you’ve followed the steps above then you’ve done your job. The last thing on your to-do list is finish the race. Hit submit. Just get started!

Just Start!

As a mom, I implore my 2nd grader every day to just do your homework! Get it done and you can do whatever you want (within reason). But like me, she drags her feet—eats a snack, gets water, goes to the bathroom, wait, does the dog need a walk? Last week she had the light bulb moment: “Wait a minute,” she said thoughtfully. “If I do all of this right now, does that mean the next two days I don’t have to do this when I get home?” “Yes,” I emphatically replied. “That’s exactly what it means. So do you want to power through and get this done?” “YES!” she said.

Progress. She just had to get started. So did I. And so do you. Stop thinking about it, stop waiting for “x” to happen, and for all that’s good in the world, stop scrolling through your social media feed. Just get started!

Becky Tankersley has worked in higher education for more than 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2012 after working at a small, private college in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Prior to working in higher education, she worked as a television news producer. Her current role blends her skills in college recruitment and communication. Becky is the editor of  the GT Admission Blog, and also serves as a Content Coordinator for the American Association of Collegiate Registrar and Admission Officers.

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Time To Make The Donuts

We don’t watch a lot of TV in our house. In fact, until recently we only had Amazon and Netflix. But as big soccer fans we broke down earlier this summer and got a few cable channels so we could watch the Women’s World Cup. Now with college football upon us we (okay, I…) decided not to pull the plug just yet.

The other day at a commercial break I muted the TV and our 8-year old daughter looked at me as though I had thrown her favorite stuffed animal away.

“What? It’s just a commercial,” I said bemused.

She gave me the international facial expression for “What?!!!” and replied, “I know! That’s my favorite part.”

They seem to be big fans of GEICO and the Michael Bublé ad about sparkling water. However, understanding their sample size is limited to about four months and less than 10 channels, I searched “best commercials ever.” (I do realize that by providing this link you well may not read further, but I can’t hide gold from you.)

The phrase “internet rabbit hole” does not adequately describe what happened next, and before we knew it, we heard a car door slam and saw my wife on the back porch. The kids dashed into the other room and picked up books to feign reading.

“All finished with homework?”

“Uhhhh… pretty close. Yeah.”

Real Life Catchphrases

Whether they be movie quotes or pithy lines from commercials, what sticks with us are phrases that we can apply to everyday life. Can you say, “Dilly dilly!”

One phrase admission directors around the country are saying right now is, “Time to make the donuts!” It comes from this campy 1981 Dunkin Donuts commercial. It’s not polished, the acting is terrible, and the production costs had to be close to $0. But “time to make the donuts” caught on. For a solid decade (and occasionally even today) you would hear that reference as people headed to work, went in to take to take a test, or dealt with a variety of imperative tasks.  Now that classes on college campuses have resumed, admission deans and directors are waking up with those words on their minds. Time to do this again.

Before they start frosting, baking, or reaching for the powdered sugar, they start by talking to the shop owner, e.g. president, provost, board of trustees, deans, and so on. (please don’t tell them I made this parallel). Essentially, we need answers to two questions.

  1. What kind of donuts do you want this year?

Known as “institutional priorities” this helps donut makers determine the proportion and representation of certain flavors, such as demographics. Everyone on a college campus has their own opinions about which ingredients are essential. Deans from each academic unit will want more or less students in their program depending on faculty: student ratios or the health of job prospects in their industry. For example, Tech recently added a major in Music Technology. That means students who may not have been a good fit in the past are now very much on our radar. Conversely, if a college enrolled too many computer science or biology majors the year prior, or if they eliminated a major or a sport, the strawberry sprinkles or maple frosting that were popular in the past may not be as much of a priority in this year’s batch.

A college seeking to increase its academic profile will create a different mix than one whose primary objective is to increase international diversity, raise net tuition revenue, bolster its percentage of first-generation students, or enroll a student from each state. If a school does not enroll “enough” business majors one year, the next fall that donut maker is told to ensure more business donuts are included and prioritized. Therefore, not only do admit rates vary based upon donut type, but financial aid packages do as well. Bottom line: the mix matters. While I’m a sucker for the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign at Krispy Kreme, I’d be fired if our class was made up completely of cinnamon donuts.

2. What is the size of our box?

Each school has a different quantity target. A dozen, two dozen, 64 count of munchkins? It’s not the same from school to school—and interestingly it’s not always the same from year to year.

There are lots of reasons why the quantity changes: a university adds a new dorm, the public system issues an edict that demands the addition of 200 more students in this year’s class, the list goes on. Virginia Tech made news this summer by over-enrolling their first year class by 1,000. That is absolutely going to have an impact on the type and number of Hokie donuts moving forward.  Conversely, Bucknell missed their class target in 2019, so you can guarantee the Bison donut factory is altering their formula as they make admission decisions and determine financial aid packages in this year’s batch.

What does this mean for you?

  • You are not necessarily competing against ALL other applicants.

Public schools in North Carolina are legislated to enroll at least 82% of their class from their state. In other words, the Tarheel Donut Shop is largely locally sourced. You may be the sweetest, most flavorful spice out there, but if you were grown in Boston or Chicago, your odds of being included in that lovely sky-blue box are simply not as high as those grown in Wilmington or Asheville.

Fair? No. This is a donut making. The state you are from, the major you want to study, or the background and interests you bring to the table (pun intended), dictate your admission prospects.

  • Ask specific questions.

When you visit the campuses you’re interested in, ask them about students like you. “What is the admit rate from my state?” “Do you make admission decisions based upon the major I’m applying for?” These answers will help you determine how percentages vary beyond the macro statistics published on outward facing sites. At Tech our Early Action admit rate is higher than our Regular Decision admit rate, often by more than 15 percentage points. Part of that is driven by the fact that Georgia students apply early, and our total undergraduate population is 60% Georgia. Historically our most talented in-state students apply in the first round. Takeaway: Don’t just look at the numbers—ask them to give you nuance within the stats too.

Some schools won’t know all the various admit rates or demographics off the top of their head. Are they trying to protect their recipe? Usually not. A donut maker (admission rep) walking around your school in the fall has his/her mind on telling the story of the shop (university). That’s not cagey. It’s human. Ask them to get back to you with the answers. This demonstrates your interests, continues the conversation, and gives you a better understanding of how donuts like you are viewed.

The truth is when you ask these questions to highly selective schools nationally (less than a 20% admit rate), you’ll often get a confounding answer that sounds a lot like a Jedi mind trick or political stump speech. Don’t be frustrated. Just translate that as a reminder that there are scores of donut shops around your state and thousands in the country.

  • Control what you can control.

Your job is to express your flavor on your application and send it to a variety of shops with different size boxes and admit rate ranges. You cannot control the year you were born, or the macro directives or strategic changes made in boardrooms around the country. An admit rate might rise or fall the year you are applying to a specific school. That impacts you, but it’s not really about you. Quit comparing yourself to older siblings or classmates or teammates.

If you are looking at highly selective schools, you very well may end up in a different place than you have in mind right now. But the fact that you read this entire post, rather than getting totally derailed by random commercial links, gives me 100% confidence there is a donut maker waking up today who can’t wait to get you into their shop. And trust me, they are going to ensure the other donuts in the box around you are just as unique, interesting, and flavorful as you!

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Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome, Katie!

After reading Samantha’s blog on finding joy in your college search, I realized we were on to a theme. This particular post is not about making your college list, but the same case can be built to reframe how parents and students tackle college admission questions. Maybe it’s because it’s April–the time when countless admission professionals find themselves behind a table at a college fair, standing in the welcome center lobby, or on the phone answering, quite often, some version of the same questions.

Today we’re going to wrestle with this notorious inquiry: “I am (or, my child is) a junior/sophomore/seventh grader/eight years old (I’m not kidding), what extracurriculars should we be doing right now to be competitive?” I answer the same way every time. “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.” The vast majority of students and parents think I’ve dodged the question. I haven’t. I’ve given the same answer for well over a decade and I’m sticking to it.

Find What Makes You Happy

Maybe that answer is deceptively simple, which is why it’s often dismissed as hedging.  I’m not dodging the question—I’m giving you a framework. Perhaps a “re-framework” as you make big decisions, like should you try out for the travel team, spend the summer in an internship or mission trip, stay a third year in robotics or take that new advanced class offering. Instead, high school students everywhere (and their parents) should ask the same question: does this activity make me happy?

If you are about to dismiss this advice as soft, overly codifying, or unrealistic, wait!  I’m about to let you in on the secret of why admission officers think students who enjoy their activities are more successful in the college application process (and probably life in general).

1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive.

The byproducts of doing something you love (in high school or in your professional life) are surprisingly positive.  You don’t have to believe me because there is science to back that up.  Check out Shawn Achor’s research in his book, the Happiness Advantage (no time to read the book? Check out this quick Ted Talk). What he says about business success is also true in the college application process. Joyful participation in high school endeavors has a ripple effect, leading to things such as increasing a club’s membership, finding ways to lead or innovate on projects, resiliency from year to year, providing access to others—essentially all the attributes that stand out to an admission committee when they are reviewing applications. Look at your resume. What activities make you happy?  Do more of those things! Competitiveness will follow.

2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.

Nothing deflates a conversation more than a student trained to rattle off their 4-10 resume activities and then ask me if they are “good.”  Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ! I saw online that your college has WXY, do you think that’s a good fit?” This engagement translates to the application itself. Applications fall flat when you are checking off boxes, trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.  Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.  Telling your activities story is more authentic and believable. When seen through this framework, your activities list is no longer a bureaucratic hurdle to get to college, but a written conversation retelling the most meaningful parts of your high school career.

3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.

I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.  I don’t mean that everything you do in high school should be easy.  Easy and happy are not the same thing. Some of the hardest situations can result in a new-found strength, a renewed focus, a sense that what you are doing has great value because it came at great cost.  That’s when being happy graduates to the big leagues: joy. I am not advising you to quit all your extracurricular activities because binge watching Netflix makes you happy.  Critically look at how you spend your time and ask yourself some serious questions. I have some thoughts below.

As an ode to the KonMari method, this is a KatMattli approved checklist for whether you should or should not keep an activity:

  • Do you feel excited about going to the meeting/practice/session/class?
  • Do you have moments of inspiration about it (Eureka moments!) before you go to sleep at night?
  • Do you talk about what you could do in this club/team next year?
  • Do you try to get appointments with teachers/coaches/sponsors to talk more about it?
  • Are you plotting ways to lead this group next year?
  • Do you want to teach or coach other people who have had less training than you have?
  • Is this project really difficult/challenging, but you are excited to see the finished product?
  • Would you still want do this activity if you couldn’t list it on your college application?

On the flip side…

  • Do you forget about that meeting each week?
  • Do you feel icky walking down the hallway to this meeting/tournament/locker room/classroom?
  • Does it keep you up at night in a bad way?
  • Are you thinking of other activities while you are there?
  • If you didn’t have to fill out a college application, would this club ever see your face again?

I’m holding fast to my original answer: you want your extracurriculars to be competitive? You need to enjoy the activities on your resume.  Are you a freshman in high school and anxious about what clubs to join (which ones colleges will view as “good”)?  Forget about us.  Go enjoy your game/fan group/club/meeting. We will see you in a few years when you are thriving in something you love. Are you a junior in high school? Double down on the activities that bring you the most enjoyment. You will need that stress relief and balance as you hit tougher classes, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey.

And if you are eight years old?  (Where is that astonishment emoji with the big eyes?) I am not discounting you, as it takes maturity to talk to college representatives at your age. But my answer to you is still the same, maybe even more so: Go enjoy yourself.

Katie Mattli has worked in college admission for over 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2014 where she works with underrepresented minority recruitment focusing on female, first generation, African American and Hispanic recruitment efforts. Her previous years at a private liberal arts college for women fueled her love of student leadership and advocacy.

 

 

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Success Isn’t Guaranteed—Try Anyway

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Chaffee!

Let’s start by admitting that not everyone’s experience growing up in the United States is the same. Rural, urban, and suburban life looks different, and there are certainly other differences when considering family background and other factors. Having acknowledged that, I think it’s fair to say the people of Generation X (to which I belong) grew up with a great deal more freedom to explore the world around them as children than today’s kids and youth. By late elementary school I could explore the neighborhoods around me a mile in any direction.

Talk to my Baby Boomer parents and they’ll tell you that not only were they given even more freedom, but also asked to work harder at an earlier stage of life. My father mowed lawns, drove a tractor, roofed houses, and used hatchets as early as fourth grade. Compare these experiences with today, where I know thriving middle schoolers who aren’t allowed to walk 500 yards to the nearest corner with a traffic light because of concerns about safety.

I don’t share these views to judge parents or children today. After all, today’s world is bigger, especially online. Taking more safety precautions is necessary. Yet coinciding with these observations is a feeling that several colleagues and I share—a feeling supported by frequent recurring experiences. High school and college students today do not experience failure because 1) they’ve been shielded from them when they occur or 2) are steered away from undertaking opportunities that might result in anything but clear success.

Take the Opportunity to Fail

Although versions of this topic have been trending the past few years (and even before that in some circles), I want to provide insight which I hope is new. I want to talk about why students should put themselves in circumstances where success is not guaranteed. When you look at it as an opportunity for success as well as failure, the intention and aim become different. Simply looking for opportunities to fail can be a hollow exercise, but earnestly pursuing a goal that may or may not be reached is an opportunity for a win-win experience, regardless of the final outcome.

I had a student ask me to write a recommendation for them for the Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive and prestigious scholarship for public service leadership. Some regard it as having the most rigorous application of any of the major national and international graduate scholarships. As you can imagine, the percentage of people awarded from among applicants is quite small. Despite the odds not being in anyone’s favor, the student elected to try. By clarifying purpose, thinking about future goals, losing sleep, and sacrificing comfort all in hopes of a slim chance to leverage the scholarship toward making the world a better place, this student gained tremendous personal insight. This kind of personal insight only comes through testing oneself, working hard, and reaching for something most likely out of reach. Did it yield a scholarship? No.

Undaunted, the student went on to apply for the Marshall and Mitchell scholarships as well. Again, hard work and sacrifice led to self-awareness, goals clarification, personal insight … but no scholarship. Yet on the horizon was the famous Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in another country, which my student ended up receiving.

Seems like three losses and a win, right? I count it as four wins. Each attempt helped my student to grow. Each attempt taught lessons in perseverance, grit, and humility. Even if my student had not won the Fulbright, it wouldn’t change my mind. Four wins, zero losses. I believe that if you asked my student, the response would be the same. The win was in trying to reach for the stars and the growth that resulted.

Pursue Possibility

I’ve been fortunate over the past seven years to travel with my students on outdoor leadership expeditions in some beautiful – and physically challenging – environments around the country and the world. These trips are led by experts in Georgia Tech’s outdoor recreation department. Scholarship programs around the nation often encourage or require their scholars to participate in these types of adventures with similar organizations. There is no defined “win,” only an expectation that you’ll make it from the start to the end, persevering through trying circumstances. Blisters, aching muscles, exhaustion, cold or heat, insects, cuts and scrapes. They are all there. Getting through means relying on your own inner strength and your team.

For a very few, these trips are easy (at least at first). For most others, they will mess up the cooking, go slower than the team, or otherwise “not be great.” Yet when they talk about these trips days, months, and even years later, many speak of how the difficult circumstances on the hike resulted in the ability to handle the rigors of college life better than they would have done otherwise.

One of my favorite illustrations of the points I’ve been making comes from the movie, Meet the Fockers. In it, Jack Byrnes, played by Robert De Niro, notices his son-in-law, Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, has a 9th place ribbon displayed at his parent’s house. Not second or third … but ninth. I love that Focker’s parents encouraged him to participate in something that he clearly did not win (and they probably knew he wasn’t going to, either). No matter what the outcome, Greg had to come to terms with the fact that he did not experience success, at least not by traditional measures. Did he learn something from competing, from trying, from watching eight others do better than he did? The movie doesn’t go into this, but I suspect he did.

If you’ve seen the rest of the movie, you know that Greg messes up a good bit, but in the end, how he handles these failures and keeps picking himself up amplifies his fiancé’s love for him and earns him the respect of his future in-laws. All that said, in real life I wish his “award” for competing wasn’t a ribbon but a pat on the back from his parents. Because part of the lesson in trying is not everyone gets a trophy nor deserves one.

If I were to outline a lesson from all this, it would be to challenge everyone to pursue possibilities where the chances for a win are moderate to slim. The challenge must be measured though. The more talented or well-trained an individual, the more they should pursue even more difficult experiences. Whether one is in high school, college, or well beyond, remember that we grow by reaching skywards, not by standing still.

Chaffee Viets has worked in higher education for more than 20 years. He joined Georgia Tech in 2011 where he oversees a team that selects the Institute’s top merit scholars and then develops them along the lines of scholarship, leadership, progress, and service. His experience with various prestigious scholarship programs at four universities drives his passion for selecting and mentoring student scholars.

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