Campus Tour
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Georgia Tech
Junior
Parents
Questions
Underclassman

Hey Ya!

Prefer to listen? Check out the audio version of this post!

I’ve coached my son in soccer since he was 4. Between falls, springs, and a few Futsal winter sessions we’re sitting at 15 seasons total. He has gone from running aimlessly around the field with a uniform shirt touching his kneecaps to carrying a ball in his backpack at all times and watching professional YouTube highlights.

At the beginning of the spring season he told me he was interested in a more competitive league and wanted to try out for our local “academy” team. We talked about this in the past, and now with several of his friends from school and a few neighbors already on the club, I was not surprised. When the season ended, he had not wavered. We told him it would be competitive and there was no guarantee he would make it. But he remained interested and kept playing and practicing after school every day.

Season 2. I call this one “See no evil, hear no evil.”

So last week, despite the dismal forecast, we headed out to the fields for the first of a three night tryout. He was excited but anxious. “What kinds of drills do you think we will do? How many guys are trying out? Do you know any of the coaches?” Once we arrived they divided the players into various colored pennies and sent them to one of three fields with a few coaches to start their warm up and drills.

After 45 minutes, the club director gathered all of the parents for a quick meeting. “Thank you all for coming out tonight. We really appreciate your son showing interest in our club.” With rain coming down and whistles blowing on the fields all around us, it was tough to lean in and hear all of his words as he addressed about 40 parents huddled under tents along the sideline.

“We are about player development. There will be three teams: elite, premier, and united. If your son wants to play professional soccer, we will try to help him reach that goal. This is an academy–and we treat it like that–a school. We are here to teach the game and help your son get better. This is a community club and we are committed to having players from all backgrounds on our teams. Your fees will go to helping about 75 players a year who otherwise could not afford to play and travel, so thank you for your commitment.”

At this point, he paused and took a look over at the three fields filled with 9 and 10-year-old boys wearing blue pennies, getting absolutely soaked, and clearly enjoying every minute. “At this age, we are not too concerned with wins and losses.  Our commitment is to help each player improve and achieve his goals. Any questions?”

I’m just being honest.

DAD #1 from under a Price Waterhouse Coopers umbrella. Q: How many spots do you have on the elite team this year?

A: All returning players also have to try out again, so that number is yet to be determined.

MOM #1 standing just outside the tent with rain now tumbling off her loose-fitting jacket hood.  Q: “If my son has a bad tryout and gets placed on the lower level team, can he move up?”

A: Yes, we will move players. Sometimes during the season and sometimes they’ll need to try out at the end of the year in order to be assessed for a different squad.

I loitered around after the public meeting and heard: “You said that our fees subsidize players who cannot afford to play. Is there a preference for families that will pay a higher amount to subsidize additional players?”  I’m guessing the director was thinking was, “and this is why US Soccer won’t be competing in the World Cup this summer.” But instead he responded, “We always welcome donations but your son will be placed on the team that suits his ability, regardless of monetary contributions.” Well played, coach.

These questions sounded eerily familiar as parallels to college admission. The only one I did not hear was, “If I also played Academy growing up, does my son get any type of advantage?” Maybe that was emailed in later. But good to know that if the soccer talent in the area dries up, the league director has transferable skills.

I came home and gave my wife the report. “He did pretty well in the drills. Definitely did not get the ball a ton in the scrimmage but there are two more nights of tryouts, so we’ll see.”

Which team do you think he’ll make?

“Tough to say. There are a lot of really good players out there and even though the coach said there are no guaranteed spots for returning players, that may or may not be totally true.”

Even as I was talking I could see the same nervous, concerned look on her face our son had a few hours earlier.

I’m writing this post on night three of tryouts from an airplane that has been sitting on the tarmac in Washington D.C. for well over an hour due to terrible storms on the east coast. With no internet and lightning erupting around us, I inexplicably can only get one song on my Spotify playlist, “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. Hence the themes and subheadings.

Phone rings.

“Hey. How did it go?” I ask quietly so not to interrupt my neighbor who is already most of the way through her now lukewarm Panini and A Phantom Thread (not a recommendation).

He did ok. Not as well as last night, although he had a good shot on goal. He was upset coming home and said he’s worried he may get placed on the lowest level team. I tried to tell him even that quality would be higher than your team… I mean… you know what I’m saying, right?

I love this woman. Definitely keeps me humble. “Yeah, I hear you. Can I talk to him?”

Footsteps on stairs. Running water. Something crashes. Daughter complaining about brushing teeth in background.

Hey, dad.

“Hey, bud. How was your day?”

He launches into an assessment of the drills and his play overall.

“Gotcha. Well, I’m sorry I could not be there. Always love watching you play.”

No answer initially. And then…Yeah. We did play a pretty cool game I can show you when you get home.

I hung up and was about to put my headphones back on to see if I’d escaped the Hey Ya! loop when my neighbor asked, “Your son?” She was in her early 60’s, wearing glasses and a scarf. Her headphones were off now and she’d turned toward me.

A recent plane neighbor. What? You thought I was kidding?

Yeah, he had a soccer tryout tonight.

I’m sure he did great.

We’ll see.

Well, it sounds like you handled it pretty well. He knows you love him and that’s what is important.

To be honest I’ve recently had a string of airplane neighbors who immediately covered themselves with blankets when I said hello, so it took me a second to make the transition not only to an interaction, but someone with actual sage wisdom. (Side note: I wrote this part after we deboarded in case she was watching my screen like she was eavesdropping on my conversation.)

After she went on to explain she was not going to make a connecting flight to Des Moines for a speech her husband was supposed to make in the morning, I offered her some local hotel options in Atlanta, and she went back to her movie.

Me? I closed my eyes and hit play.

Alright, alright, alright, alright, alright.

I had a couple of thoughts.

1- He will probably make one of those teams (which, as we have established, are all better than what he has experienced before) and the coaches will help him continue to improve.

2- If he does not end up on a team with his friends, he will make new ones. He always does.

3- Not knowing is the hardest part. Once he is placed and starts playing, he’ll have a blast.

But what kept going through my head was Outkast. No, wait… it was, “He knows you love him, and that’s what is important.”

Thank God for mom and dad for sticking together.

If you are a parent of a junior or sophomore who is planning to apply to selective colleges, I’m imploring you to have these conversations with your son/daughter, your spouse/partner, and with yourself, BEFORE applications are submitted (aka tryouts) and definitely before admission decisions are released.

When a school has an admit rate of 20% or 12%, the talent, preparation and skills to contribute on that field are incredible. And the truth is those percentages don’t exactly translate to 1 of 5 or 12 of 100 because that year they may only be looking for a few “defenders”, i.e. students in a particular major or from your state, etc.   You will not be able to control who else or how many others are trying out. When you apply, there is no way to know if there are in fact some “reserved” spots (although I’d assume there are). What you do control is your mentality. You do control your perspective. You weren’t thinking this was all totally fair were you?

When you tour schools this summer, when those brochures arrive in the mail, when you talk to friends or colleagues about the variety of colleges they attended, when you look through the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs, I urge you to really read. REALLY listen. Notice what they have in common. No, I’m not talking about how you can grab three friends and a professor and start a juggling club. No, not the part about how apparently each place sends kids abroad to stand on high points and ruminate over life’s deeper meaning. I’m talking about the bigger connection and takeaway message—they are ALL about student development.

They ALL have faculty, programs, opportunities that say precisely what the coach said in the rain last week: if you come here, commit, work hard and plug-in we will help you reach your goals. (See Frank Bruni’s book for more on this.)

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make the Elite team. There is nothing wrong with visiting and applying to Ivy League or Ivy-like schools. But the big misconception, the big myth, and frankly the big misplaced mentality is that “getting in” to those places is a parent’s report card or that this perceived Elite, Premier, United structure of schools is somehow an indicator of a student’s future success and opportunities.

I want to challenge you to dig deeper into the methodology that dictates the tiers the US News Rankings prescribe. Question whether you really see a discernible difference in student quality or alumni outcomes at a school that is 15 percentage points higher/lower in selectivity. Read the statistics behind 100 points variation on an SAT before you mentally classify them into Elite vs. Premier. Look around you. Every day I meet people who went to schools that admit well over half of their applicants. What are they doing now? Running their own businesses, leading teams, and influencing their communities. Fundamentally, whether it is Northwestern or Northeastern, whether it is Washington State or Wash U, this is what colleges do for students who want to learn, grow, thrive, and work hard to achieve their goals. Get behind them!

What makes love the exception?

Get excited about every school your son or daughter puts on their list. Take the tour, buy the t-shirt, go to a game, and ultimately put that sticker on your car with pride. I get it can be tough when classmates or friends or neighbors end up on a different team. You stick with constant encouragement and they will embrace the opportunity— trust there are great new teammates to meet and coaches waiting to help them reach their goals. But, above all else, stick with the message of unconditional love. What makes love the exception? It’s not Andre3000, it’s the rule.

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That’s Not How It Works (#TNHIW)

Eat all your broccoli. “I did. That entire piece.” Mmm… That’s not how it works. Every single piece on your plate.

You collected all the trash, right? “Yep. It’s all downstairs now.” But, son, it needs to actually go to the street. “Well, I…” That’s not how it works.

Did you wash your body and hair? “Well, the shampoo ran down my body, so…” Uh-uh. That’s not how it works.

Innocent misinterpretations, wishful thinking, or legitimate manipulation? It’s debatable. I’m sure you can think of illustrations in your own family, on your team, in your neighborhood, or at school reflecting similar disconnects and the distance between one person’s interpretation and another’s expectation or reality. I’m sure any professional can also describe common questions or myths in their niche.

To your accountant: “Well, no. I don’t have a receipt for that, but I bet we can call them and they’ll vouch for me.” Um… no. That’s not how it works.

To the city water clerk: “I’m not paying that bill. We had a leak in our pipe and the toilet runs incessantly, but it’s not like we really used the water.” Cocked head, one eye squinted. Lips pursed.

College admission has many of these situations. This time of year there are a few #TNHIW for you to be aware of:

The Waitlist

“I have decided not to come to Georgia Tech, and I have a friend on the waitlist. I’d like to give her my spot.” It’s a kind idea. Not only should you be proud of getting in, but also for thinking of your friend. But no, that’s not how it works. Throughout the month of April you’ll find there’s very little waitlist activity (with a few exceptions). Why? Because other schools are still making admission offers, financial aid packages are being released (and compared), and admitted students are coming to visit campus to compare options. Most admitted students wait until the last two weeks of April to commit to a college and pay a deposit (while colleges would love for you to commit earlier, take as much time as you need before May 1). So schools have to wait and see how their class forms.

In the end colleges use their waitlist to shape their class. For example, Georgia Tech is comprised of 60% Georgia residents and 40% from outside of Georgia. If we do not have enough students deposit from our state, we will make offers to round out that part of our class. The same could be said of any demographic, including major, gender, or another nuance a school is trying to grow. This is why colleges typically tell you that they don’t rank their waitlist. We’re not trying to be cagey—we’re being honest. If we hit our target for students from abroad on May 1, we might offer 500 spots from the waitlist but none to international students.  If you’re on a school’s waitlist, hopefully this gives some perspective. More here.

If “Someone” told you that you could just show up to a tour without a reservation, definitely bring an email confirmation or number in case they aren’t working that day.

Visiting Campus (particularly in March/April)

“Yes, I saw online you were full today but I thought if I showed up…” “We booked tickets two months ago and now we are here. You have to work us in…” “Do you really think I would come here without a reservation?” “No. I don’t have a confirmation number. But this is the only day that works for us and I talked to someone who said…” At this time of year, thousands (truly, thousands) of students and families visit campus each week. Between spring breaks, admitted student programs, and improving weather, it makes sense.

Look, I’d love to show up at an Atlanta United match without a ticket and have them “work it out” for me too, but you’ve already got people sitting on each other’s laps so that does not seem like a good plan. A big smile and desire isn’t going to change that I don’t have a ticket.  Does not mean they’re not nice. Does not mean they’re not flattered by the interest. That’s just not how it works.

Now, don’t mishear me. If you check online and a school is full for visits, you can still go in the hopes they have some no-shows or a extra tour guide shows up. But be ready to improvise. Ask the front desk for a self-guided tour map, go eat on campus, and listen to students as they talk. Check out the buildings where your major is and ask students walking by some questions. Shy? Bring a Frisbee and a dog and see if that helps break the ice. Just promise me that you won’t show up and give some poor student or junior staffer at the front desk a hard time because what you already saw online days ago is now reality.

Appealing an admission decision

“My son is amazing! Didn’t you see his test scores? And we know someone who got in who is not as good. How do we appeal?” Well… first, it’s very nice to talk to you ma’am. Not being admitted to a school that you really want to attend stings. There is just no easy way to say it. And at most selective schools, denied and waitlisted students can easily make a case for

Basic tip for visiting campus and life in general…

why they would be great students on campus. However, applications have been read multiple times in a holistic process and ultimately are made in line with achieving institutional priorities. I see how you could read that as the party line but it’s actually just confidence in our decisions.

A couple of things to know here: first, we want to talk to the applicant in these cases. Not someone who does a good voice imitation of the student, and not someone who really loves the student. Honestly, our first thought when we speak to a parent or connected alum about an appeals is, “does the student really want to come?” If so, it seems like they’d be the one to pick up the phone, send the email, or complete the appeal form.

Second, we explain on our website what makes a valid appeal. It varies from school to school, so check their information. Our reasons for a valid appeal normally include medical information, significant life circumstances, or academic details that were not correct on the transcript initially. We also list some of the invalid reasons for appeal. You’ll notice among others that pictures as an infant on campus, a really strong desire to come, or “it’s the only school I applied to” don’t fall into the valid category. #TNHIW

I could go on about how score ranges don’t guarantee admission or how we don’t have quotas of admits by school, or how the recruited athlete didn’t really take your spot, or the fact that deadline really means deadline, or how remnant shampoo doesn’t really wash your body, but I think we’re on the same page now, right? Got some other admission or life examples? We’d love to see them on Twitter @gtadmission using #TNHIW.

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The More The Scarier

(Thanks for indulging the seasonally themed title.) 

I’m a huge fan of The Lonely Planet– their travel books/guides, their website, their name. Love ’em. I followed their recommendations on travel in Europe, Africa, and even parts of the U.S. When we went to Hawaii a few years ago, LP advice not only helped us save money and see amazing spots, but it also provided a memorable and helpful line I’ve quoted often: “Where there’s a line, you should dine.”

This is basically true, right? When you walk into a restaurant and you’re the only customer, it’s a sign. Conversely, the joint where hungry folks are wrapped around the block is usually popular for a reason.

Unfortunately, too many students take the same approach when applying to or considering colleges. I’m going on record as saying, “Yes–I have a problem with that approach.” Believe me, I understand you see dominant messages and marketing materials in high school which point you to certain schools (it often comes in the form of sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and matriculation lists on your high school profile). The national media typically focus on the Ivy League or Ivy-esque schools, and your local news stations and billboards in your community feature your state’s flagship university or another major public in the region.

There’s nothing wrong with these places. But as their application numbers continue to go up and admit rates go down, and before you take another sip of the Kool-Aid, hit the pause button. Since when did “the same” become cool? Familiar is safe but it usually has a ceiling. Is staying with what’s familiar going to help you maximize your potential, or is it comfortable? Often those two things are in conflict with one another.

Honestly, there is no reason to stand outside in the cold waiting for the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign to flicker on if you have a gluten sensitivity, right? It’s an extended metaphor. Bear with me.

Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you move forward in your college search:

Why are you in line?

Is the place you’re visiting or applying to of interest because you put it on your list, or because someone else told you to look there? If it’s the latter, you should seriously consider their motivation. Maybe it’s a school counselor who has seen many kids like you go in the past and believes it will be a great fit. Perfect. Maybe it’s a parent or another relative who went there (or wishes they did) and has pressured you to apply, visit, or ultimately attend. While that isn’t inherently wrong or bad, it is worth raising an eyebrow. Is this about you or them? Is this about ego or reputation or appearances, or is it about you, as a student at that school, and in that campus community?

Every year I talk to students who visited or applied to Tech who don’t truly want to come. They typically admit it just out of earshot of their mom or dad who is an alum or who “works with a lot of Tech people and thought it would be a good place to visit.” My advice is tell them today. Rip off the Band-Aid. Don’t live the lie. Selecting a college is not like the sweater you got for your birthday last year. You know—the one you opened, forced a grin, and wore out the door the next day and then stuffed in your bag and tried to trade for some headphones. You can’t consign a college. You’re talking big money, lots of investment, emotions, and expectations. Be honest early. If you realize you’re in the wrong line, step out now and have the uncomfortable conversation. Whoever told you to get in line loves you. I know it may manifest itself in pressure or lots of questions or text message reminders, but it’s actually love. And they’ll still love you when you level with them. Don’t apply somewhere for someone else.

Have you done your homework?

I know, I know. You aren’t reading this to get hassled (but while we’re at it, you did clean your room, right?). Anyhoo, last week I attended a retreat with leaders from other Atlanta-based schools, including MorehouseSpelman, and Agnes Scott. It’s possible if you live outside of the South you have not heard of all of these or don’t know much about any of them. But when you look at the opportunities they’re creating for students, the incredible professors, research, support, alumni networks and successes they’ve all had, it’s truly remarkable.

What are those colleges in your city, state, region? Check your mail. Quit lock-stepping and be willing to explore instead of following such a worn route. Have you heard of Colleges That Change Lives? Have you considered or visited an HBCU or a single-sex college option or a university outside the U.S.? Have you looked at the list of schools who don’t require test scores? Again, I’m not telling you to absolutely get out of line. But if your list is filled with predictable options of big name places “just because” then you’ve plagiarized. DO YOUR OWN WORK.  Check out BigFuture. Download Admittedly. Do your homework!

Who else is in line?

Two of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta are Homegrown on Memorial Drive and EATs on Ponce De Leon. Coming to campus or Atlanta soon? Check them out. Live in the Atlanta area and never been? Stop reading now and get in the car. I like them both for the same reasons: great food, good prices, and an amazing cross-section of people. When you are waiting for a table at either place, you will see everything from policemen to hipsters to judges to construction crews. The diversity adds to the experience.

Who is line where you are applying? Are these your people? When you go to an open house or one of the college’s online communities, do you connect with the other students or families? Sitting in an information session on campus or going on the tour and listening to questions and conversations, do these feel like future friends? Ten schools can look identical on paper– same academic profile, same admit rate, same majors offered, but the ethos, the demeanor of the students can and does vary widely. A college search done well requires extreme honesty and a willingness to listen when that still small voice says, “Nope. I don’t see it.” When it happens, trust it. Nod your head, grab your bag, get out of line and move on. Trust me– it’s the first step down a more unique and fulfilling path anyway.

Who is not in line? 

I visited my old high school (where about 55% of the students go on to four-year colleges) to talk to students about Georgia Tech. While I watched the buses line up after school, I couldn’t help but think about the kids I knew in my class who did not go to college. Looking back I realize I only took care of myself in my senior year. I watched my friends who had involved, proactive parents help them navigate the process and move on too. Knowing what I do now, I deeply regret not looking beyond myself. I could have made the effort to engage them in a conversation of “why are you not going to college?” or, knowing what I did about some of their families, I could have encouraged them about their academic potential.

I’m challenging you to consider the kid on your team who needs extra help or tutoring to pass; to think of your friend from work who is jeopardy of not graduating. Who do you see that is questioning if they should go college? Who is not in line? Let me be clear. Encouraging them is not going to help you get into college. It’s not going to be something you can put on a resume or even on an application. It’s the right thing to do. It’s an opportunity you have now to start a pattern for thinking beyond yourself. Do you go to a school where 100% of seniors go to college? No excuse. It means you definitely have the resources and privilege to be part of this effort. Yep, it will take effort. Dig deep, look around, and pull some folks who need to be into the line.

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Our Bad. Your Problem.

We had an office retreat last week. One session included a quiz on Gen Z vernacular.  While our results were kept anonymous, I’m going to out myself and admit I did not score what most would define as high. “‘Ship them’, ‘Sips Tea,’ ‘Goat.'” As I watched one unfamiliar phrase after another pop up on the screen, I oscillated between trying to decipher their origins and thinking back on some of the popular phrases from my high school experience.  One of the most common, especially playing soccer, was “My bad.” 

I’ve come to realize “my bad” is essentially synonymous with “Bless her heart.”  A little girl trips during a ballet recital and Aunt May leans over and whispers, “She isn’t the most coordinated, is she? Bless her heart.” There are some real parallels between that comment and making a lazy pass to a teammate that ends up setting him up to get completely cracked by a charging defender. “My bad.” “Yep. Darn right it’s your bad. Nearly got me killed.” And to be honest, much of the consternation surrounding the admission process is “Our bad.”

Our bad!

Colleges should do a better job differentiating ourselves in the materials we send, the presentations we give, and the websites we build. In an effort to be broad and aesthetically concise, we end up blurring all schools together.

We want you to think, “Wow. I can see myself there” or “I’ll have friends and professors who will care about me,” so we stage diverse groups of students under trees with professors in front of our prettiest building on a perfectly sunny day. Now, you can attribute some of this to an overuse of the same marketing firm(s) within higher education.  “Check out the 2018 template. In this one we moved the football team winning a pivotal game to page two, and decided to get a drone shot of the steeple clock tower at sunset from the east. Don’t like that? Okay, how about the one with the study abroad picture on the cover and the ultimate Frisbee shot as a centerfold?” Maybe we need StitchFix to start creating college brochures. Give me a little more Atlanta and dial back the political activism–that’s really more us.

Our attempts to be inspirational or aspirational wind up being synthesized into three or four word taglines, such as “Change Your  World,” “Dream Big-Live Bigger,” or “Create the Future.” (Rumor is “Drain the Swamp” started with a consulting firm working for a college, but currently that’s been dismissed as fake news.) These attempts are ultimately why, based solely on brochures or websites, you might struggle to see a consequential difference between a small, private college in the middle of Ohio and a flagship public university in the Pacific Northwest. Our bad!

Truth be told, we do the same on tours too. We find the most involved students and best ambassadors to talk about all of the amazing research they’ve done, trips they’ve taken, and jobs they have lined up. While telling their story, they work in equally impressive anecdotes about friends or roommates studying abroad or creating companies– all the while somehow impervious to the 90 degree heat.

I’ve taken several tours this summer on my travels (registering under either George P. Burdell or Navin R. Johnson), so I’m not speaking only for Tech, or conjecturing about what may be happening. This is real, people.  These students are amazing- and they’re actual humans- not prototypes or conglomerates of a variety of top students. Not sure about you but I’ve walked away from some of those tours with an even mixture of being impressed and depressed.

Your Problem!

So, unquestionably, it is our bad. We set you up. We skim over lots of details. We give you very generic information online and in brochures, and then expose you to our best- whether its buildings, students, professors, or alumni. It’s the equivalent of us lazily passing the ball toward you. What are you going to do with it? Well, like any receiver (regardless of the sport) knows, you can’t sit and wait for it, because it will either get intercepted or you’re going to get hit upon arrival.

Run Toward It

1- Read and Research: Pick up an alumni magazine while you are on campus (tip: they’re always available at the college’s alumni building and most are readily available online too). What are they touting? Where are alums living and working? Inevitably, there are stories of professors, researchers, students, and even messages from the president or other influencers you won’t find in admission publications. Grab a school newspaper, look online for social media that’s not generated by admission, i.e. the academic department or clubs you are interested in joining. These posts are always more organic and less polished, which is a good thing.

2- Walk and Talk: If you visit a college with a friend or parent, try to split up and take different tours. Even though, theoretically, it’s the same route and basic script, the voices and perspectives will always vary.   It’s incredible how many times a tour guide’s personality, choice of footwear, the day’s weather, or some off-handed comment will influence your impression of the university. I challenge you to not let any one voice be too powerful in this process. You don’t read only one review on Yelp or Amazon, right? After the tour, go stand in the longest coffee line you can find on campus. Those are the conversations you need and want to hear. Sit down, compare notes, pretend to read, and enjoy the variety of discussions. Eavesdropping gets a bad rap. It’s a life skill.

In the near future, colleges will all have virtual or augmented reality tour options. You’ll be able to choose your tour guide avatar, customized tour route, and set your voice narration style. Imagine having Thomas Jefferson take you around UVA or Mark Zuckerberg take you around Harvard. Not “throwing shade” here—as I  told you, eavesdropping was a life skill.  It’s on you to limit your bias by soliciting as many opinions as possible.

3- Ask and Task: We’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating: It’s on you to ask good, probing questions. Don’t let the admission counselor pull the string in the back of their belt and start droning on about getting seven friends, a snitch and sponsor to start the Quidditch club.  Dig deeper. They’re not being nefarious—but they are  being lazy. Get beyond the first layer spiel. Stop the tour guide, pause the presenter. Ask them to delve into some detail about their student: faculty ratio or the availability of campus housing after sophomore year, or the percentage of undergrads actually doing research.

brb. Well, next week anyway.

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Four Letter Words & College Admission

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth,” I said to my six-year-old. “Only four letter words, remember?” Let me back up.

I’ve been on vacation in Vermont the last week. It’s been amazing. Cool weather, sunny skies, incredible views of the lakes and mountains.

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that when you go on vacation and are eating out after a long day of travel,  you better be prepared while  waiting on food. A pack of cards, crayons, books, and worst case, games on the phone. I’d rather exceed the day’s allotment of screen time than verbally lambaste my kid in public. Life (and college admission) are all about decisions, right?

So we are playing hangman as we wait for our pizza and we’d agreed to use four letter words. The only issue is that a kindergartener can’t exactly spell them all correctly, and after a day of travel and a lack of food, I forgot to put on my phonics hat, which is how we arrived at: L-E-R-N.

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth. Only four letter words, remember?” which I followed with, “That doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.”

My wife’s calm but firm response, “It makes sense to her.” And a simultaneous eyebrow raise and upward chin flick, which can mean only one thing… yep, the waitress was standing right there. I can’t be sure but I’m fairly confident she spit in my next drink order. And, you know what, deservedly so.

“It makes sense to her.”Image result for lern

I thought about that later in the evening, as I listened to the other three sleep contentedly in our hotel room. Don’t worry. I’m not going to preach on how everyone shouldn’t get a trophy or why “A’s” aren’t that important.

Instead, I’m just going to remind you of something very elementary but somehow easily forgotten about your college search process… it’s YOURS. YOU get to fill in the blanks. Ultimately, it’s YOUR word. YOUR solution. Sure, read the guide books; consider where older peers or club members or teammates have gone; go visit that obscure school your crazy uncle advice keeps mentioning. Listen to the advice and opinions and excitement and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, etc. Remember– the landscape if vast.

But more than anything, as you visit schools this summer and fall, as you apply to schools, and ultimately when you decide where to attend, the most important thing is: What makes sense to YOU?

Spoiler alert: The categories below are very basic. Probably the things you have already heard or read or are already considering. I’m just hoping that you’ll think differently about the same buckets by constantly reminding yourself that they are YOUR blanks to fill in.

LOCATION- Over the last week, I had the chance to visit both University of Vermont and Middlebury College. Separated by only 35 miles, they’re worlds apart in ethos and environment. Burlington is the largest city in Vermont at about 43,000. Middlebury is a quaint town of 8400. I know people who proudly graduated from each and would not trade their experience for anything or anywhere else.

What is important to you? Do you want access to more restaurants and an airport? Do you want to share the town with tourists and business people and conventions and the other things that bigger cities typically bring? Or do you like the idea of a college town where the students are the lifeblood and the faculty live right in the community? Distinct experiences, distinct dynamics, distinct student bodies. What makes sense to YOU?

WEATHER/CLIMATE-  I showed my id to a cashier in a store in Stowe, VT this week. “Georgia, huh?”

Image result for middlebury college

Middlebury College

“Yep. Have you ever been there?”

“Sure. I’m from Tennessee.”

“Ok. Cool.” “What brought you up to Vermont?”

“Well, I’m a junior at Tufts in Boston and just spending the summer here.”

“Interesting. So what would you say to someone from the South who is looking to go to school in the Northeast (I know. I know. I can’t turn it off)?”

“Visit in January…and buy a good coat. It takes a year to adjust but I’m glad I’ve come to experience a different part of the country. It’s made me appreciate the South and I also love New England.” She’s thinking of pharmacy school when she graduates.

Are you ready for a complete change of scenery (and wardrobe)? Florida feels great in February, but you will not see much of a change of season. Cool (no pun intended)? One of the best things about our country is its diversity in higher education options. You are seeing that with all of the brochures that keep showing up in your mailbox (and writing from Vermont I am contractually bound to remind you to recycle). Consider places you’ve never heard of: check out their Instagram feed; take the exit off the highway on your road trip; Google famous alumni. You have to rule places in and out. That’s part of the process. But be open and be honest with yourself. Lots of voices and opinions will continue to swirl and sometimes amplify, but don’t stop listening to your voice, your gut, your dreams and hopes and goals. What makes sense to YOU?

Image result for university of vermont and burlington, vt

University of Vermont at top of hill in Burlington

SIZE OF SCHOOL- Do you want to know most of your classmates by the time you graduate? Or are you someone who relishes some anonymity? Do you appreciate close-knit culture and the loyalty and bonds it brings? Or are you excited by a big alumni base? Do you envision graduating on a lawn or in a stadium? Big schools will talk about how they can feel small. Sometimes small schools talk about how they can provide a big school network and experience. But at the end of the day: What makes sense to YOU?

Final Tip- use your network. This summer talk to seniors who are about to go off to college. Where did they start out looking? Which schools were at the top of their list last year? Where do they wish they’d visited? And why are they excited about where are they ultimately going. No one person’s opinion is gospel truth, which is why you need to ask and seek opinions from as many people and sources as  you can. Use. Your. Network (it’s a life lesson).

YOUR college EXPERIENCE. YOUR college CHOICE. YOUR college VISIT. Now– go “L-E-R-N” what makes sense to YOU!

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