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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. Chaffee has administered prestigious scholarship programs for the past 20 years, and is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. 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.

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The College Visit Checklist

This week we welcome Associate Director for Guest Experience, Andrew Cohen, to the blog. Welcome, Andrew!

Back in November I wrote a blog post about moving to Atlanta over the summer, and how that move was a big step out of my comfort zone.  I often think back on my initial interview and visit to Atlanta. I imagine my first visit to Atlanta felt similar to what many students experience when they visit college campuses. Once I knew I was seriously considering a move from New York to Atlanta, I realized how important it was to not only find answers to all my questions, but to also take the time to really get to know my (at the time potential) new city. From walking around campus to trying out the food, my overall experience helped me better understand what life could look like in this new place.

I’m now more than six months in and am working with our staff to prepare for our newly admitted students to flock to campus to see if Georgia Tech is the right fit for them. Whatever college you’re considering, it’s important to make your campus visit about more than just the standard information session and tour. Take advantage of these tips to help you make the most of your time on campus.

Allow yourself extra time to explore.

During my first visit to Atlanta, I allowed myself to spend an extra day in the city to better explore the overall feel of the area.  If I was going to move here, I needed to know if I liked it.  I explored the area around campus and different neighborhoods, and also experienced some of Atlanta’s local highlights, like Ponce City Market.  When you plan your visit to campus, try to allow extra time to become more familiar with the area rather than rushing to visit another school or catching a flight home.  After your “official” visit is over, further explore academic facilities for your intended major, eat on campus, or spend some time in popular places like the student center (don’t forget to eavesdrop while you’re there!).

Talk to Students

See these tour guides? They’re also regular, every day students. Talk to them!

During your time on campus there is a real benefit to speaking with current students.  This is a great way to get an authentic look at what it is like to be a student at the institution you are visiting.  Whether it is the person behind you in line for food in the dining hall or a student employee working in one of the departments you visit, students are usually happy to chat with you. When I visited Atlanta for the first time, I had dinner with friends who lived in the area, and they gave me some great advice about moving from New York and living in Atlanta.

Build Your Own Visit

During my initial visit to Atlanta I wanted to be sure to experience some of the local highlights. I planned a full day of exploring, which included things like eating breakfast at the Silver Skillet, walking on the Belt Line, and visiting some of the downtown tourist attractions.  Just like these extras that I was able to add on, it is important for you to customize your visit to make the most of it.  When not restricted by time, you can make a whole day out of your time on campus, even if you are only scheduled to attend a 2-hour information session and tour.  At many institutions, departments and colleges offer sessions about specific academic programs.  Even if there is not a formal session scheduled, reach out in advance and talk to someone, as chances are someone would be able to meet with you.

Experience the Weather

This one is a bit more difficult because you cannot always visit during specific times of year, but it definitely is important to understand the weather you might encounter during your college career.  I went to school in Upstate New York, where it is cold, grey and windy for a large portion of the academic school year.  It is very different to visit there in the summer than it is in February.  Although weather was not a big factor for me personally, if it is for you, make sure to plan your visit accordingly.  If you are going to live somewhere for four years, it helps to know what it will feel like.  (Although it does get cold in Atlanta, I have been enjoying the much milder winter!)

Ask for Advice

Georgia Tech admission staff appreciates the work of school counselors! #nscw19

Prior to my visit to Atlanta, I reached out to a number of people to get advice.  I got food recommendations, learned local lingo (like OTP and ITP), and learned more about Georgia Tech. Utilizing resources like your college counselor are crucial throughout the whole college decision-making process.  Ask for their advice before you visit campus.  They can help ensure you make the most out of your visit.  They may be able to put you in contact with a student at the institution you are visiting, or share some information they know about the school.  A conversation with your school counselor will help better prepare you for your visit, which in the end will result in a more informed visit.

(To all of the counselors reading this post – thank you for all of the work that you do with students, we really appreciate it.  And happy National School Counselor Week!)

On behalf of all of the campus visit professionals around the country, we are looking forward to seeing you on campus over the next few months. Happy Visiting!

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A (Fox) Worthy Approach to College

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in January 2016.

When asked to name some of the greatest minds in history, many would respond with Plato, DaVinci, Descartes, or Tesla. Certainly there would be controversy in assembling such a list, and ordering would be nearly impossible.. However, when it comes to establishing a clear front-runner today, it’s much easier than looking back through history. Clearly, one man would rise to the top… Jeff Foxworthy (and you were worried this was going to be an idle diatribe about college rankings!).

Model Release-Not Needed

I am confident we can all attest Foxworthy’s portfolio is impressive and wide-reaching, from The American Bible Challenge to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. What launched such success, brilliance, range and influence? Well, certainly his education at Georgia Tech did not hurt, but ultimately it was his astute ability to help others with effective, actionable self-realization. Foxworthy utilized extensive qualitative research to develop what is known in modern psychology as You might be a redneck. His approach was simple—systematically use “if – then” prompts to suggest indicators of this condition and help listeners self-diagnose: If your family tree does not branch, then you might be a redneck. Valid and noted, sir.

I think many parents can use Jeff Foxworthy’s approach to take a pulse on how they’re doing. Ultimately, this litmus test comes down to pronouns.

  • If you’ve recently said, “We are taking the SAT next weekend” then you might be overly involved.
  • If you said to a friend in the bleachers last week, “Our first choice is Columbia” then you might be overly involved.
  • If, as your daughter was leaving for school the other day, you said, “Let’s ace that Calculus exam!” then you might be overly involved.

Shift from Parent to Partner

Listen, I get it. We’ve already established that people love their kids, so your desire to help and see them thrive is absolutely commendable. But this spring is the right time to make an intentional shift from parent to partner. We talk a lot about this concept in our orientation and first-year programs. Stepping back (not away), changing pronouns, and providing opportunities to make practical, diurnal decisions before heading to college is critical.

If you have a high school senior, they are going to be on a campus somewhere in a few short months (grab some Kleenex, but keep reading). And once there, your student will face options and opportunities each day that you’ll never know about. Bolster your confidence in them now by stepping back and empowering them as they navigate this spring. If you have a junior or underclassmen, you can set a pattern now for your support and direction and control of the college admission process.

Going for a college visit soon? Let them find the hotel and make dinner reservations. Talk through the budget, the details on logistics, and what they’re wanting out of the trip beyond seeing the school.

Son was deferred by a college? He should be the one to reach out to his admission counselor or to verify that all necessary transcripts or supplements have been received.

Laundry/Credit Card bills? Who is taking care of those things? And who will during freshman year in college? Or who will when they’re 24? The time to provide opportunities to become more independent and more aware of limitations is now—while you are there to answer questions and give guidance.

I’m no Jeff Foxworthy, but I hope you’ll take these prompts to heart, watch your pronouns, and seize the opportunity to start making that frightening yet crucial shift from parent to partner today.

(By the way, our survey is still open! More than 200 people have already shared their thoughts–we hope you’ll join them!).

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Say It Again!

Last November we made a plan for the blog.

We looked out at the spring and created a log.

To various staff we assigned certain weeks.

We wondered how to improve–what are the necessary tweaks?

That’s when we realized we really need you

To tell us how to be helpful, encouraging, and true

We really want to know what you think,

So please help us out and visit this link.  

In our original January blog plan, we were only going to send out the survey this week without any additional message or content surrounding it. But I convinced my sweet, amazing, beautiful editor/communications manager if we put the link in three times, y’all would still do it. Maybe it is from reading so many amazing applications lately, but I decided to go for four. Love you, Becky.

Decisions, Priorities, and Goals

Saturday we released admission decisions. As I write this, I have 164 emails in my inbox. I am going to give you one guess at how many are from students/families who were admitted… right—that would be one less than your number of guesses.

Here are some of the subject lines: “Concerns for admission process” or “Broken system.” Most of these messages include details about a particular student’s statistics and how they either compare to our published middle 50% ranges or to other students they know (or have heard from a second cousin twice removed) who were admitted.

At the heart of these notes (gentle euphemism) is a plea for the numbers to dictate, or a desire for admission officers to point to one particular reason why, the student was not admitted. We are never going to do that. Not because we aren’t willing to be transparent or because we are not good people (despite a few emails with some creative language asserting that opinion).

Ultimately, it is because holistic admission is completely counter to isolating numbers, sorting data in a spreadsheet, or putting all rationale for a decision on one single factor. Ultimately, both application review, and certainly admission decision-making (particularly at the macro level), are driven by an institution’s priorities and goals.

While I was listening to music on the train earlier this week, I came across a song that I had not heard in a while, “Say It Again” by Don Williams. I took particular note of that tune because it was such a stark transition from the songs that preceded it (“With My Own Two Hands” by Ben Harper and “So What’cha Want” by the Beastie Boys). Word to the wise: shuffle your full song history at your own risk. I’m not recommending you download “Say It Again” but the refrain stuck out to me: “Come on. Say it again.”

Since I was not supposed to really write anything this week (because of the survey), I decided to provide you a few greatest hits from the archives, as well as a couple quick listens, that may be helpful.

  • Admission: It’s Not Fair. This post further explains the concept of institutional priorities and mission, as well as how they dictate admission decision. Audio version here.
  • Handling Those Decisions. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with my friend and colleague, Mark Stucker who is a college counselor at KIPP-Atlanta and also has podcast called “Your Collegebound Kid.” In episode 49 and 50, we talk about how decisions are made, as well as how you can respond and take action once you have been admitted, denied, deferred, or waitlisted.
  • Be Cool. Another blog from the archive, particularly for admitted, denied, and waitlisted students, so I went back and recorded an audio version.

Have a great week. (Oh… and did we mention the survey?).

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Beyond Admission

Listen to the audio version here!

Recently, our family took holiday pictures. The photo shoot was scheduled for a Saturday morning and neither of our kids wanted to go. To be honest, I was not looking forward to it either. Thankfully, the session was only scheduled to last 45 minutes and it was at a local park. How bad could it be?

Actually, it was terrible. It was exhausting, frustrating, and maddening all at the same time. Our son was super-hyper (thanks in no small part to my rookie mistake of making pancakes that morning) and he kept running or falling down during the staged walking pictures or trying to climb on top of me from behind during the posed seated shots. Meanwhile, our daughter could not muster anything close to a natural smile, which was driving my wife crazy. I guess on some level this sounds reminiscent or uncomfortably familiar. Happy Holidays, right?

In the end, of the hundreds of pictures the photographer took that day, we were able to find 3-4 usable images for the requisite collage holiday card (granted, one of them is my daughter literally grabbing and pulling my cheek, but we are selling it as playful not annoying).

Ultimately, what message goes out to our friends and family? The Clarks are doing great! They look really happy and unified.

This is also the story you see every time you go to social media. People post their best pictures (or edit and filter them until they are close to perfect). And we all post comments, quotes, articles, and stories that make us look smart, cute, funny, popular, (insert adjective you are trying to be known for here).

Almost comically, colleges do the same thing in our brochures and websites. When was the last time you saw a student crying in a viewbook? You won’t find a shot of a grungy dumpster or a dead squirrel or roommates arguing. The message is always, “come here and your life will be amazing!”

What is so unfortunate, especially this time of year, is when you feel lonely, unconfident, insecure, or depressed, it is easy to look around and believe you are the only one struggling. It is easy to think everyone else has it all figured out and their life is perfect. Here’s the truth: they don’t, and they’re not. At any age, we need to be reminded of that fact.

So before the holidays get even more rushed, consumed, and complicated by travel plans, shopping, and obligations, I want to close 2018 with two very simple messages—not  about college or admission–we’ll get back to that in January.

You are loved. Look around you today and this week. Take note of the people who text you, want to spend time with you, give you cards or gifts, go out of their way to help you, or simply offer a kind word in this season. Too often we brush these gestures off and become desensitized to what a gift it is to be part of a community. At times we mentally or physically isolate ourselves as we question if we are truly accepted, known, understood, or loved. YOU ARE!

Check out this article featuring a graduating senior who initially left Tech due to substance abuse, depression, and apathy. You’ll read about his detachment and isolation, as well as an unwillingness to seek help. This is not a unique story. It occurs every year, at every high school and college, all over the world.

If you are going through a tough time right now, I hope you will be reminded people are all around you who want to help—and they can relate, even if they’ve never acknowledged it before. Your friends are not too busy. Your parents love you more than you could possibly know. If you are struggling right now, don’t do so alone. Reach out because you are loved.

You are called to love. I have been a part of interventions for friends who were deeply depressed. I have been through QPR training. Even with those experiences, training, and knowledge, I still feel ill-equipped to initiate conversations with friends and family I know are hurting, isolated, or depressed. It is never easy. It is never comfortable. The good news is we are not supposed to feel “ready.” We are just supposed to feel love.

I’ve talked to several Georgia Tech seniors in the last week who, on the surface, have it all together. They lead clubs, held prestigious internships, and excel in school. Yet each of them has talked about rough and lonely times. Importantly, each has also talked about one or two people who have been their rocks and their solace in those moments.

If you know someone who is hurting, reach out to them. You don’t have to have all the answers. All you need is the time and desire to be available. This is not complicated. We are called to love.

Happy Imperfect Holidays, friends. See you in 2019!

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