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Lice (and admission) Lessons

Three years ago, I wrote a blog about my family getting lice.

Here is how it went down.

Cue dream sequence…

My wife called to tell me some horrible news.

“Our daughter has lice.”

“Oh, crap.”

“No. Lice. She has to leave school.”

“Okay. Got it.”

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

“Our son also has it.”

“Oh, CRAP!”

“No. Lice.”

“Yeah, I’m on it.”

I put down my phone and started scratching my head. Power of suggestion, I suppose. 45 minutes later I picked the kids up from school and we immediately went to a local shop that specializes in debugging (my term, not theirs).

I had not seen the signs. I needed someone else to identify the situation, alert me to the problem, and ultimately deal with it for me.

Then, And Now

Not this time….

Fast forward to two weeks ago. I arrived home from a five-day trip well after midnight, slept on the couch, and awoke a few hours later to my son dropping a spoon on the tile floor in the kitchen (his coordination improves as the day goes on).

I stumbled over to start making coffee, gave him a hug, and asked, “How’s it going, bud?”

“Alright.”

“Had a good week?”

“Yep.”

Then I noticed it. In less than 90 seconds, he had already scratched his head twice. My Spidey senses (and frankly my own scalp) were tingling.

“Does your head itch?”

“Uh. Huh.”

“Has it been itching before today?”

“Yeah. Mom said it’s probably just dry scalp.”

Right at that moment my daughter came down the stairs. I’d always found her shuffling feet, wrinkled nightgown, and disheveled, tangled mess of hair to be endearing. I saw her rub her eyes, yawn, and then (seemingly in slow motion) move her hands to her hair to scratch the back of her head.

“NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

She looked hurt and confused. I did not care.

Meanwhile, my son had gone back to filling his bowl. I had to double take. Was that cereal previously regular shredded wheat? Because it definitely looked frosted now.

Not going to lie. I put on a toboggan hat (we were fresh out of shower caps and hair nets) and told them to get in the bathroom.

“But dad I’m hungry,” my daughter protested.

“Girl, right now you are the meal. Get in the bathroom.”

Still confused (and scratching) she followed my son down the hall.

I found a pencil and started examining. Unlike the last time when I needed the “lice lady” to tell me about their condition, this time I was positive within 30 seconds.

“Okay. I’m going to email your teachers and cancel my meetings today. We have to deal with this. And don’t sit on the couch, put on a hat, or move at all until I come back.”

I went upstairs, threw all of my clothes in the hamper, and took a shower. And yes, I may have cried just a bit.

Unlike the last time, I did not need anyone else to tell me about the problem. I knew what to look for and how to deal with it- right down to drying all towels, sheets, and blankets on high and bagging up the stuffed animal zoo my daughter has created in her bedroom. Moreover, even though I was confident they were infected, I knew I was lice-free. I had not had head-to-head contact with them recently due to travel, and I was able to do quick self-examination.

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

Just saying the word, “lice” causes most people to start itching. Inevitably they move back a little and wince, or shift in their chair and alternate twitching their shoulder blades, or simultaneously shake their head and crinkle their nose, while firmly closing their eyes and shaking their hands.

Let’s be honest. The college admission process is eerily similar. We hear stories about smart kids not getting into certain schools, or read articles about the growing competitiveness of a school that “used to be so easy to get into,” or see social media posts touting the newest rankings, admit rates, or ROI statistics—and we start to “crtich” (equal parts cringe and itch).

Are you infected?

In our labs at Georgia Tech, we are currently working on an “anti-admission itch cream.” Since it is patent pending and not immediately available for over the counter sales, let’s conduct a quick online exam and virtual treatment procedure:

  • You are a senior who was recently deferred admission in EA/ED.

Bugs: You are thinking about “demonstrating interest” to help your chances of being admitted in the next round by writing a letter a day to the admission office, or calling/emailing every member of the admission team to plead your case and articulate your love of the school (happens every year), or sending flavored, scented, or sweetened gifts to the admission director (no way I’m opening, let alone eating, any of that), or popping in, tweeting at, or just showing up… YES! You are infected.

De-Bug:  Do what they have told you to do. Most likely that will just be sending in your fall grades, filling out a quick form, or writing a supplementary essay. Want to go one step (ONE- not 100) further? I get it. Send a quick email to the admission officer who reads/recruits your school/state letting them know you appreciate their time and continued review of your application. That’s it. Stop scratching. There are no bugs. You are good. Repeat: YOU.ARE.GOOD! 

  • You are a parent considering using an independent counselor or consultant to help your family navigate the college admission experience.

Bugs: Their sales pitch (and basically only “credential”) centers around their own kid getting into an Ivy League school two years ago. They are not an expert. YES. You need to be examined. Someone in your neighborhood, school community, or workplace has leaned over and created a bug bridge from their infected head to yours. And if anyone “guarantees” you admission to a college (especially those considered selective or highly selective) you should both check your head and the headlines. Googling Rick Singer.

De-Bug: If you already have a high quality, well-trained, deeply experienced counselor in your school, you most likely do not need additional assistance. However, if after examining your situation, i.e. penciling your head closely, you believe outside or more individualized assistance is critical, find someone who is a member of HECA, IECA, NACAC, or another reputable professional organization.

  • You are a junior who is unhappy with your initial standardized test scores.

Bugs: Life is over. I’m not going to college. No college will admit me. I’m not smart. If any of those thoughts have gone through your head, then YES, you are buggy. The itch is real, my friend.

De-Bug:  There are 4,000+ colleges in America. Most of them admit far more students than they deny.  SPOILER ALERT: If you are reading this blog, you are not only going to college, you are going to absolutely kill it when you do. That is a guarantee! So, don’t avoid human contact. Instead, start by checking out the more than 1,000 colleges in our country who do not require or consider test scores as part of their admission process. A full list is found at FairTest.org.

Talk to the admission reps from schools you are thinking about applying to, and ask them if they are splitting hairs (couldn’t help myself) over 80 points on an SAT or two points on an ACT. Then, after they give you their scripted answer, say, “Really though? Is that just what you say publicly, because I’m kind of itching here and I need you to level with me.”

Go see your school counselor and keep working to create an academically and financially balanced list. And before you decide to spend your incredibly valuable time in test prep courses or paying hundreds/ thousands of dollars to a company who is having company retreats in the islands, look into low- cost, free, or online sources like Khan Academy.

  • You are the parent of a student who was denied admission.

 Bugs: “That’s my alma mater and I’m writing them out of my will and never going to another football game on campus.”

“I’m going down there myself and demanding someone tell me exactly why my son was not admitted.”

“They did not take my daughter because the only kind of kid they admit now is (fill in the blank).”

 De- Bug: What your daughter or son needs most is for you to just listen and reassure them with your presence and perspective. Sometimes that may mean saying absolutely nothing for a little while and just being able to sit with them in the disappointment.

Ultimately, however, they’ll look to you for important reminders: you love them, you are proud of them, and you’re there for them and with them every step of the way. They need you to remind them that they are the same talented, cool, interesting, and bound-for-a-great-future kid they were before submitting that application.

Reassure them that admit letters are coming (or have already arrived). And give them even better news– they’re going to end up on a campus filled with other talented, cool, interesting, and bound-for-a-great-future kids as well.

Enjoy these precious final months of their senior year. They go far too fast to spend them itching, scratching, and infecting others. You’ve got this!

Diagnosis

I understand you may feel a little unsettled at times. The admission experience can do that. Whether you are a parent or a student, you are going to see some serious “critching” around you, especially at this time of year.

Remember, others “condition” does not mean you have a problem. Stay calm. Get the facts. Don’t gossip, speculate, or presume. Talk to the experts. And for the love of all things holy, don’t go down internet or social media rabbit holes about this stuff. That’s the exact type of head-to-head contact you need to avoid!

Feel free to go upstairs, throw your clothes in the hamper, and take a shower. But there is no need to cry.  Now that you’ve read this blog, I’m officially declaring you “bug free.” You have my anti-itch guarantee on that.

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More and Less, Part 4

Over the last 20 years I’ve had the privilege of traveling around our country and the world speaking to families about college, the admission experience, and higher education.

During that time, both the work and the landscape have shifted dramatically. There is no question we currently face some unfortunate macro trends and realities: tuition costs continue to rise, putting greater financial strain on all families (particularly the middle class); decreased birth rates related to the recession in 2008-2009 will soon have significant impacts on the number of high school graduates; performance on standardized tests correspond heavily to a student’s socioeconomic background; state appropriations to public systems which were severely reduced over a decade ago have not recovered; and false narratives surrounding the economic value of a college degree have become pervasive.

Yet at its core, at the micro level, college admission is exactly what it’s always been—a family experience. Whether in Atlanta, Arkansas, Argentina, or Asia; whether a student is first-generation or from a multiple generation college-going family; whether the focus is on the Ivy League or regional publics in their state; regardless of religion or ethnicity or socioeconomic background, I’ve found one common and deeply encouraging thread: parents love their kids. While their questions may surround sterile topics like weighted GPAs or super-scored testing or application deadlines or graduation rates, they emanate from the same place: one of deep affection and unbridled love.

So before launching into the mores and less’ for parents, let me first say, “Thank you.”

Thank you for loving your kids.

Thank you for advocating for them.

Thank you for wanting them to have a better life and more opportunities and experiences than you have had.

Thank you for encouraging them and supporting them, even when they drive you nuts, roll their eyes, mumble one-syllable responses, or keep you up late at night worrying.

Thank you for washing the same dishes and clothes a thousand times.

Thank you for driving to and from practice and sitting through hours of swim meets or dance or music performances (just to hear or see your child perform for a fraction of that time).

Do I wish you wouldn’t disguise your voice in order to procure your daughter’s admission portal password? Sure.

Would admission officers prefer to come in the morning after releasing admission decisions, get a cup of coffee, and check the scores from the night before, rather than having parents outside (or in the parking lot) wanting to appeal or provide 13 additional recommendation letters? Yep.

Do I enjoy having my competence, intelligence, or soul brought into question based on an admission decision? Not particularly.

Nevertheless, as the parent of two kids, I get it. The truth is you are doing what you always have–loving them, protecting them, and providing for them. So for that, I thank you.

Understanding that is your goal, here are the mores and less’ for parents in 2020.

More willingness to talk about money early

Any admission or financial aid director can share countless stories about painful conversations with families in spring.  The student has been admitted, posted his intent to attend on Instagram, bought the hoodie, and already started scoping out dorms. Meanwhile, his parents are staring solemnly at the recently received financial aid package. They are weighing the fact that supporting this choice will mean no more vacations, or taking out a second mortgage on the house, or not retiring until the age of 78. Naturally, emotions are running high. At this point, I typically grab my laptop, place a box of tissues on the table, wish them the best and quietly close the door in search of the Keurig. I am simply not certified to moderate that type of discussion.

If you are the parent of a junior, now (before they apply to colleges) is the time to have honest conversations about what paying for college is going to look like for your family. You don’t need to itemize all of your expenditures, but “opening the books” and facilitating a transparent dialogue will shift your private financial burden to an open partnership and a collective investment. As a student’s first significant adult decision, they should be privy to the expense and implications of their college choice.

The beauty of the college admission experience is it can actually teach some long-term, real-life lessons. Sometimes that is about humility and dealing with disappointment when they are deferred, denied, or waitlisted; sometimes it’s the tension and difficulty of having to wait on results; and sometimes it is understanding how the lifestyle they know is financed, and how paying for college will factor into that.

I understand this can be uncomfortable initially. However, talking money early will not only keep you out of that dreaded April scenario I described, but will also help inform your college search. It will help generate important questions to ask on tours about co-ops, internships, major choice, return on investment, careers, salaries, and how those colleges help students pursue employment opportunities during and after college. It will help frame the difference between “sticker price” and actual cost before applying. It will allow you to use and process the results of Net Price Calculators as a family. I believe talking about money early will actually bring you together, rather than creating a painful silent wedge in your relationship during the college admission experience. Talk money early!

Draw less lines.

“My dad will only let me apply to schools in the Top X.” Before you put those types of conditions on your student’s search, I urge you to check the methodology behind how the rankings are formulated (this is how US News and World Report creates its rankings). Before you blindly follow a singular number as an authoritative signpost, ask yourself if your values are in line with their calculations.

More pointedly, do you care what one president (or their assistant who completes the survey) thinks of another college (20% of the methodology)? Is it of any consequence that a school looking to increase it’s position might intentionally inflate a small fraction of faculty salaries or decrease the class size in a major your daughter or son has no interest in pursuing (another 20% of the methodology)?

Secondly, just like college football teams may end one season inside the Top 25 and begin the next one outside of it, the same is true for university rankings. They change. The BIG difference is sports teams move up and down because of actual performance or losing a quarterback.

In contrast, last year Georgia Tech was ranked the #8 public school in the nation. This year we are in the fifth slot. The truth is we are the same place. Our students are just as bright. Our research is just as important. Nothing has changed—except that number. So before you tell your daughter she can only visit schools in the Top 50 or 100, consider not only the highly debatable methodology, but also the fact that last year number 94 was ranked 107 or visa versa (Note: I have no idea who is currently 107, 94, or any other number, except number five).

Admit rates are another line parents often draw that I urge you to focus on far less. A school counselor put this beautifully last week, “selectivity is not always a proxy for academic quality.” Bam! That is spot on. As a parent, I hope you will not find yourself coaching your daughter or son to, “only look at places with admit rates below X%.” Or to attend the “most selective school to which you are admitted.”

Here is my case study counter. When I arrived at Tech, we were admitting well over 60% of applicants. Just a few years ago we sat around 40%. This year’s class will likely see an admit rate below 20%. Are they any smarter, more talented, or more destined for future success? Absolutely not. Students we admitted at 60% are running companies now and sitting on boards of major organizations. If a parent was drawing draconian lines they may have counseled their oldest child elsewhere, but now demand Tech is the right choice for their 2020 grad simply because of a specific percentage threshold. Same dorms. Same food. Same job opportunities. Draw less lines!

Less talking to other high school parents and more talking to the parents of current college students (or those of recent college graduates).

When you were pregnant or figuring out potty training or trying to determine the best discipline tactics, or as your daughter was about to get her driver’s license, you consulted the parents of kids who had already walked that same path.

This is why high schools invite parents of alumni back to serve on panels. They have walked in your shoes. They have wisdom and tips and can console and empathize. You know what they never say? “We really wish we’d really stressed more about this whole college admission thing!” Nope. Instead, they may talk about the twists and turns. They will likely describe some lessons learned. They’ll certainly talk about how they wish they’d talked about money earlier or drawn less lines or discovered the Georgia Tech admission blog as a junior. But ultimately they say the same thing. It all worked out for the best: “she’s happy,” “he’s dating a girl we actually like,” “I never thought I could cheer for that team, but I have to admit it’s a pretty amazing school.”

editorial cartoon

So spend your time talking to your peers about the upcoming soccer game or whether their son is also going on that spring break trip, but don’t talk to them about college admission. Many exaggerate. Some straight up lie. And unless they’ve got an older kid or two in college, they are just as confused or anxious as you are. Escape your echo chamber!

As we end this four-part series, I again want to thank you.

If you are a fellow admission colleague out there bleary-eyed in the middle of reading season, thank you! Thank you for your diligence, your perseverance, and your commitment to building your campus community one application at a time. Stay hydrated. Get some sun. Connect with colleagues.

If you are a school counselor walking the halls each day, inviting kids into your office to encourage, console or just listen, thank you! Thank you for truly seeing them when they feel unseen or misunderstood. Thank you for being there to give them a hug or some perspective after a rough exam or a big break up. Thank you for juggling a million responsibilities but consistently putting your concerns aside and pouring out your time and energy into kids.

If you are a high school student, thank you. Thank you for the hope you convey in your essays. Thank you for the bold aspirations and tremendous accomplishments and talents you outline in your applications. Thank you for the boundless optimism and desire to improve our world that you discuss in your interviews (frequently despite carrying burdens of expectations, enduring a tragic loss, or weathering circumstances no teenager should ever have to endure). Our world is broken and dark at times. Too often we see the “worst of us” play out on the nightly news or in our social media feed. Particularly in an election year, when we hear polarizing rhetoric or see caustic divisions and factions, you provide incredibly refreshing light to those of us fortunate enough to read and listen. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

If you a parent, thank you! This role is an amazing, terrifying privilege that leads us down a simultaneously joyous yet heart-wrenching path without any real trail map or instruction guide. Thank you for the dozens of unseen sacrifices you make and silent prayers you offer for your kids every day. The truth is you will not be able to control everything about your family’s college experience. The good news is that is not what they need anyway. After watching this cycle repeat itself for two decades, I am convinced what they really need is what only you can provide– your love and support. Keep showing and telling them you trust them and that you are proud of them. Thank you for loving your kids!

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time of Year?

While the air may be filled with songs and the streets lined with lights and decorations, the holidays can be a frenetic and stressful time. If your family is like ours, the number of obligations over the next few weeks is staggering. Parties, school functions, visits from relatives, and holiday travel quickly result in a full calendar and empty energy tank. If you are the parent of a high school senior, you also juggle a unique set of concerns and pressures, as many college admission and financial aid decisions and deadlines loom just after the new year.

I do not purport to have all the answers to combat this stress, but after watching the college admission process repeat itself for the last 20 years, I do have a few tips (and hopes) for your family as you head into the holidays.

Ask big questions. The end of one year and beginning of the next lends itself to reflection. Families in the middle of their college admission experience should do the same. Instead of becoming mired down in the details about deadlines or grammatical perfection in essays, my hope is you’ll slow down and zoom out.

Your son or daughter has plenty of classmates, teammates, and random strangers asking them, “Where are you going to college next year?” Make time in the weeks ahead to have them consider a question far too few people ever ask, “Why do you want to go to college?”

Whether they have already been admitted to a few schools and are waiting to hear back from others, or have yet to submit a single application, this question is foundational. Encourage them to write their answers down. Knowing why will help answer where. It will help them think through each school they are considering and ensure it aligns with their purpose. Ultimately, it will serve as a filter this spring  when they are choosing between a few universities to which they’ve been admitted.

Protect Your Time. Discussions about college, especially during the holidays, can creep into far too much of regular life. This is the last winter break with your daughter or son living full-time under your roof—do not lose sight of that fact. These are fleeting and limited moments, my friends. What’s next is important, but what’s now is precious.

My hope is your family will put some ground rules in place. Establish an hour or two a week for a college conversation. This is more than enough time to look over an essay, double check deadlines, or schedule an interview or campus visit. Everyone must agree to show up with an open mind and a commitment to listen, but without a cell phone or terribly crunchy snacks.

Outside of those times, college conversations are off the table. The beauty of holding these “family meetings” is they allow everyone to truly rest and enjoy each other, and the much-needed vacation. If you find not talking about college outside of these isolated times is challenging, it is a good indication you should recalibrate in 2020.

Escape Your Local Echo Chamber. The great thing about the holidays is they bring people together. Unfortunately, that is also the downside. Conversations at parties often surround which students were and were not accepted in Early Action or Early Decision at certain colleges. Understandably, it is easy to leave wondering what that means for your own child or how unfair and confusing the admission experience can be.

Take time to look at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 lists of companies and their CEOs. Most come from schools that are not categorized as “highly selective.” Need more reassurance? Pick up and read a copy of Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

My earnest hope this holiday season is you will talk to fewer parents who have kids in high school and more who have kids in college. Ask them about their family’s experience. You’ll hear them say they wish they had not stressed as much. They will tell you about their daughter who was not admitted to her first choice school, ended up elsewhere, and is thriving now. They’ll talk about how their son did not receive the merit scholarship he had hoped for, selected another option from his choices, and now has an incredible internship and a girlfriend (who they actually like) that he never would have met otherwise.

Take A Break From Social Media.  I hope you will not post anything about your son’s or daughter’s college search online this holiday season. They call this an “admission process” and it should be just that. At this point, unless you have a kid who has gotten in ED to a school and is definitely going, you are only part of the way through. Hold off on putting things online about decisions, frustrations, deliberations, etc. This is not only healthy for you and your family’s relationships, but it also helps people in your community as well.

Unfortunately, social media is largely filled with terribly misinformed opinions, negative banter, catty comments, and frequently bold-faced lies. I’d encourage you not to read or engage in college admission dialogue online. Instead, take opportunities in-person to re-center the conversation with your friends, neighbors, or relatives.  If anything, my hope is you will use your platform to encourage, reassure, and provide healthy and desperately needed perspective when discussions go off the rails and fan the flames of anxiety.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

The college admission experience can seem incredibly complicated because it is filled with a myriad of dates and deadlines. It seems confusing because the press and marketed how-to guides provide incomplete and frequently inaccurate data. It seems consuming because friends and colleagues incessantly share “inside” information and anecdotes (or the alleged stories of relatives) on social media. It seems confounding because those same friends and colleagues have widely divergent experiences and opinions and are quick to share each time they see you at the school, store, or stadium. It seems complex because colleges and universities all have different processes, review different factors, and operate on different timelines.

Things seem this way because most people are solely focused on “getting in.” This holiday season I hope your family will instead ask big questions, protect your time, and escape your local echo chamber; and take a break from social media. In short, focus less on getting in and more on being and staying together as a family.

Happy Holidays!

A version of this blog originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution on December 11, 2019. See article here.

Remember The Important Things

What am I forgetting?

Sunday, December 1

7:13 a.m. – I awake to the faint sound of singing. This is not typical. Groggily, I open my eyes and look over at my wife. Dead asleep.

7:15 a.m. – I drag myself out of bed, pull on a shirt, and shuffle to the bathroom exhausted. After a week of traveling, spending time with extended family, and consuming more food in a day than I normally do in a week, we had returned home just in time to host eight 3rd graders for my daughter’s ninth birthday. We’d gone to bed around 1 a.m. after a night of ice skating, pizza, cake, popcorn, and a late night movie.

7:19 a.m. – I open our bedroom door and walk down the stairs to the unmistakable tune (though in a very high key) of “Jingle Bells” echoing from the living room.

“Good morning, ladies,” I croak. I received a few casual glances and then witnessed a truly incredible, seamless transition to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Turning on the coffee machine and leaning against the counter I ponder just how much money it would take to convince my son and his friends to sit in a circle wearing their pajamas, hold hands, and sing Christmas Carols.

7:23 a.m. – I pour a full cup of dark roast coffee. You may have seen the mug or sign “No Coffee No Workee.” For me it is more “No Coffee No Thinkee.” The synapses in my brain are powered by caffeine. I am simply a better human post- coffee. All of that.

7:25 a.m. – I begin mixing pancake batter and begin to have that strange feeling that I’m forgetting something important…

  • Accounted for all children in my charge.
  • Recounted number of cracked eggs.
  • Wearing pants.

*All of those would have been bad on some level. Jail time would vary.

8:03 a.m. Girls have now torn through 26 pancakes and are bouncing on the trampoline (still singing).  Amy comes downstairs and heads straight for the coffee. Sympatico.

Me: Hey. Was there something I was supposed to do today?

Her: Pretty sure you were going to rub my feet and wash my car. (Clearly, coffee is just a habit as her synapses seem to fire just fine on their own).

Me: I don’t know what it is, but there’s something significant about December 1.

Her facial expression is equal parts concern, bemusement, and disgust. Tilting her head down and to the left while simultaneously raising her right eyebrow, she sasks (partly saying/ partly asking) “It’s our daughter’s birthday.” Translation: “Are you kidding me right now?”

Me: Flipping my head in direction of the caroling trampoline… No. No. I do know that. Something else.

Her: Sips coffee. 

10:21 a.m. – The girls have been picked up and the house is quiet, but my mind is racing. Granted, I’m three cups of coffee in, but it is something else. Something about today. What am I forgetting? I check my phone calendar, my Ipad calendar, my laptop calendar (sometimes I have syncing issues). Nothing.

11:34 a.m. – I go for a run. This will clear my mind and help me remember. Nada.

12:08 p.m. – Stretching. Still tormented. Not quite Edgar Allen Poe The Raven level but definitely something rapping, tapping in my mind for sure.

3:13 p.m. – We are at the symphony watching Home Alone. Side note: If you’ve not gone to see a movie played with live music accompaniment, do it sometime. If you’ve not seen Home Alone, you’ve lived an incomplete life.  That is your holiday assignment for sure.

Mrs. McCallister is having the same type of day I am. She knows she has forgotten something important but cannot seem to remember what it is. Finally, she sits bold upright in the plane and yells, “Kevin!”

BAM!! That’s what it took to jar my memory. I looked over at my wife, tapped her shoulder, and whispered, “It’s Preparation Day! That’s what I could not remember.”

Her: (Again, with that vicious concoction of concern, bemusement, and disgust.) What is Preparation Day?

Me: Do you remember that blog from last year about students being deferred admission?

Her eyes gently close. She takes a long, deep breath, rocks her head back, and then slowly rotates it in a complete circle. I’ve learned this to be her non-verbal sign for, “When I open my eyes again, I’m going to pretend like you’re not here.”

Anyway…

As you may recall, last year I pronounced December 1 “National Preparation Day” and challenged seniors who had applied Early Action or Early Decision to colleges with less than a 50% admit rate to take the “PDP”—Preparation Day Pledge. (So I’m a few days late but thankfully was able to pull some strings and get you a deadline extension this year!)

While there is nothing magic about these words (although I worked some pretty cool ones in), my hope is by actually saying this pledge, you will: prepare yourself for the possibility of being deferred or denied, keep perspective, and move forward in your admission experience in a balanced, grounded, healthy way.

Take the Pledge!

“I, (state your name), being of sound (though overly caffeinated) mind and (sleep-deprived) body, do hereby swear that I will not presume anything in the admission process. I acknowledge that I will not look at middle 50 percent ranges and expect that my scores, though in the top quartile, guarantee my admittance.

I will not look at middle 50 percent ranges of hitherto admitted classes and expect my scores, though in the bottom quartile, will be overlooked based on my amazing essay, parents’ connections, pictures of me in a onesie from that college, or the 12 letters of recommendation that have been sent on my behalf.

I understand the heretofore explicated concept of holistic admission is neither fair nor perfect, wherein I will likely not agree with, nor be capable of predicting all results, despite the complex algorithms I employ or the kingdom fortunetellers I visit.

Furthermore, I agree that I will not view an admission decision as an indictment of my character, a judgment on my hitherto demonstrated preparation, nor a prediction of my future success.”

I got deferred…

Since many colleges will be releasing admission decisions in the next few weeks and being deferred is a very real possibility, I wanted to be sure that you had a few tips on how to understand and handle that decision.  What does being deferred really mean?

It means you have some work to do.

You need to send in your fall grades. You may need to write an additional essay or tell the admission committee more about your senior year extracurricular activities. Defer is a “hold on.” It is a “maybe.” Don’t like those characterizations? Fine—call it “tell us more.” They will be looking at how you’ve done in a challenging senior schedule, or if your upward grade trend will continue, or if you can juggle more responsibility outside the classroom with your course load. Bottom line is you have work to do. Are you going to get admitted in the next round? No promises. But if getting deferred is what helps keep you focused and motivated, you should look at their decision as a good thing. Finish well.

It means you may need to submit another application or two. 

If you’ve already got this covered, that’s great. You were ahead of Preparation Day. If not, then good news—many great schools have deadlines in January. The bottom line is you need applications in at a few schools with higher admit rates and lower academic profiles than the one that deferred you.

It means holistic review is a real thing.

If your scores and grades are above their profile and they defer you, they only proved what they said in their publications and presentations—admission is about more than numbers. At Georgia Tech we are knee-deep in application review. We have not released decisions, but day in and day out we are slating students for defer who have ACT scores of 35 or 36 and great grades. Is that “shocking?” It shouldn’t be. Institutional priorities, shaping a class, and supply and demand drive admission decisions. Similarly, if your scores are in the middle or below their profile, a defer also proves decisions are made using more than just numbers.

It means you need to check your ego and wait.

Does that sound harsh? Sorry—but sometimes, life is harsh. This is why you should take the pledge. If you are prepared for “no,” then a defer will not rock you as bad. Admission decisions feel personal. How could they not? Nobody loves spending a few more months in limbo. But this is not about you. This is about schools who are hedging their bets and wanting to evaluate you in context of their overall pool. Kind of sucks. I get it. But too many students do not send in fall grades, complete the deferred form, or send other information schools ask for because they’ve never heard of a “maybe” (perhaps the first they’ve ever heard). Think of the admission experience as your first foray into your college years and start looking at maybes as good things. If you liked a school enough to apply, finish the drill. Give them reasons to admit you in the next round. It is called an admission process. There are rounds for a reason. Don’t go halfway and stop.

It means you need to look forward, not backward.

Technically, defer does mean “to put off or delay,” but my hope is you’ll re-frame that as to look forward to something in the future. DO NOT look back! DO NOT second guess whether you should have taken AP Geography in the ninth grade instead of band, or blame Mr. Thompson for giving you an 89 instead of a 93 that would have bumped your GPA by .00083.

It means control what you can control.

People want so desperately to predict and analyze admission decisions that are influenced by macro institutional goals and made in rooms they will never enter. I hope you’ll focus more on the rooms you enter every day. Your classroom, living room, etc. Defer means stay focused on the micro. This is your one and only senior year.  Do well—but more importantly do good. Don’t worry about those rooms hundreds of miles away. Be a good friend. Be a good sibling. Be a good teammate. Go thank a teacher that wrote a recommendation for you. Hug your mama.

It means remember the important things. Don’t be like me or Mrs. McCallister. Take the Pledge!  (And seriously, go watch Home Alone for the first or fifteenth time. So good!)

A Parents Guide to the College Admission Essay

My son started with Taekwondo when he was five. A few weeks ago, he was invited to test for his black belt. It’s a big accomplishment and he’s definitely excited. My wife and I are proud of him (and honestly kind of proud of ourselves too- that’s lot of driving, watching, and paying over the past six years).

Before a student can officially participate in the test, there are two final assignments to qualify.

One- you must build a carrying case for an egg and carry it around without breaking it for the week prior to the exam.

Two- In order to receive said egg, you must write a 3-5-page essay about your journey to this point, lessons learned, and how Taekwondo has impacted your life.

Now, I’ve seen him spar against black belts and get knocked down pretty hard numerous times. I’ve seen him get verbally lambasted by the master in front of the entire class and on-looking parents. He’s twisted ankles and bruised ribs along the way. But nothing has made me question whether or not he can actually achieve this more than the 3-5-page essay assignment.

While he has seen friends test for their black belts in the past, somehow this facet of the process escaped him too. “3 pages?!” he said exasperated and then went rolling onto the couch and smothering himself with throw blankets and pillows. “Oh… my…. gosh!” he said with a mix of desperation and exasperation.

As he continued muttering incoherently, my wife looked at me with her head slightly tilted, nodded in his direction and mouthed, “Have fun with that…” (I mouthed something back, but this is a PG-ish blog, so I’m leaving that out.)

Are you with me?

If you are the parent of a senior, you may have experienced some of this same joint angst in recent weeks or months. The likelihood is that with more deadlines coming up for colleges, it’s not quite over either. Sorry to broach this if you were having an otherwise carefree and blissful day (please go immediately back to sipping your chamomile and mindfulness practices after you’ve read this).

Whether it be for college, Taekwondo, scholarships, job interviews, etc., as parents we simply want our kids to meet deadlines, write well, put their best foot forward, and not procrastinate. We know we should not do the work for them, but it is admittedly tempting.

Before you lose your mind in or snatch their laptop in frustration and begin writing or re-writing your daughter’s or son’s essay, I want to give you three tips to help them improve their essay and get it done, and then two others to help you keep perspective and sanity.

TIPS FOR STUDENTS

Have them voice record. My son had literally no idea where to start. The mere mention of three pages sent him tumbling over furniture and burying himself in a mixture of fleece and wool (not really the stuff of black belts, but I did not mention that to him at the time).

Whether they have not started on their essay, are merely brainstorming, or if they have been looking at a blinking cursor for the last three days, verbalizing their thoughts both changes and improves their writing. Suggest they grab their phone and simply get ideas out. This is not supposed to be perfect. Just words, phrases, quick sentences. Totally fine if they are not in a particular order or connected with perfect conjunctions or transition words. Just start expressing. Note: This is also helpful when they are done (or think they are done). We have all read an email or report we’ve written and thought it made perfect sense. Then, after hitting send, we realize we’ve left out a word or transposed two. As we know from reading books out loud to kids, there is great power in reading aloud. Suggest that before hitting submit, they print their essay out and actually read it again out loud.

Suggest they move around. In most cases, students are using mobile devices to apply—laptop, IPad, etc. If they’ve come into the kitchen eight times for snacks over a 47-minute period, you can officially diagnose them with writer’s block (citation: Dr. George P. Burdell, 1885).  You’ll need to find your moment, but encourage them to change locations. Go out on the porch. Head to a coffee shop. Find a table at the local park. Change of scenery does us all good. Charge the device and go.

Tell them to be specific. Many admission readers are reviewing between 30 and 50 essays a day. At Georgia Tech right now, we have 22,000 Early Action apps to consider before mid-January. That is a lot of different students, situations, lives, and stories. Think about the last time you watched American Ninja Warrior or the Bachelor (insert your show of choice here where multiple people are introduced). What helps us remember who is who? Specifics. We remember the guy from Indiana who grew up boxing with his cousin. We can vividly recall the picture they flashed on the screen of the barn with the Sharpie stenciled sign behind their makeshift ring. Why? Because it is specific. One of the best ways you can help your son/daughter write a “good” essay is by insuring that it is specific and unique to them. This is what admission folks mean when they say, “We just want to hear their voice…” or “tell us about your passions…”

Initially, I asked my son to simply type out what he wanted to say. Here are three verbatim sentences he wrote (and when I say verbatim, I mean I literally copied and pasted): Taekwondo has not always been easy. There have been times that I have wanted to quit. I like sparring.

He’s eleven. I get it. So after I read his first draft (which took him about thirty minutes to come up with and only included about four other sentences), we went for a walk. I brought my phone and just asked him a bunch of questions. Anytime he gave me something general (see above), I asked him to tell me a story: When did you want to quit? Who do you like sparring with and tell me about a specific time- what kicks and punches did you use, etc.? I understand that you are likely not going to be strolling your neighborhood asking your 17-year-old these types of questions, but the concept is the same. Be specific. Give details.

Parents are often tempted to re-write or edit essays by inserting multi-syllabic words or focusing on the transition from one paragraph to the next. Those suggestions are not entirely unhelpful. But what a reader is looking for is detail. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. They have already read 37 other essays that day. Daylight savings has kicked in and it’s cloudy outside. They just had their 2 p.m. coffee and are thinking about the text they just got asking if they can swing by the grocery store on the way home later.

Tell them a story. Be specific. Be memorable. “Taekwondo has not always been easy”…not memorable.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

It’s a thing. But it’s not the only thing. Yes, colleges require essays. They read them. They matter. Yes, readers want them to be good. They score them. They make notes and bring the subject and insight gained from essay up in committee. They are expecting them to be grammatically sound and flow well. However, the truth is they matter less than most students/parents think. For most schools if a student is solid inside the classroom, involved and impacting people outside the classroom, the essay is not going to be the tipping point. Decisions on a student like that are far more influenced by supply and demand and institutional priorities (where you are from, what you want to study, what the school is trying to increase or grow or achieve in their community) than an essay.

You’ll read on Reddit or see the video of a student on YouTube say, “Yea. I had seven APs and did well on my SATs, but I think it was really my essay that got me in.” No it wasn’t. That student was admitted because she had chosen rigorous courses and done well, had an impact on people outside the classroom in high school, and wrote an essay that was specific and (to use a very precise term here) not bad.

Similarly, my son’s essay for Taekwondo matters. His master is going to read it. It needs to not suck. But as long as he’s put solid effort and thought into it, the decision on whether or not he receives his black belt is going to come down to his performance and other factors (like that stinking egg).

Now, I understand you can read this one of two ways. A- What a relief! My daughter/son just needs to be specific and basically not write a bad essay. B- That is a bunch of crap. This is the magic bullet and everything hinges on it.

Admittedly, I am writing this to give you some solace. But I’m not going to lie to you. (Hint: The answer is A).

Simone Biles flipping before throwing out first pitch in GAME 2 of 2019 World Series.

Go off speed. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a Facebook Live interview with Grown and Flown (which is a great organization that produces a ton of good content for parents). At the end, for some reason my internet connection cut out. The question I was unable to answer was essentially, “What do parents do when their son/daughter has not finished their essay. Or when deadlines to schools are approaching and it feels like everything hangs in the balance?” Should you just finish it for them? Should you “make them” apply to two more schools or that one in particular. How do you motivate them to just get it done for God’s sake?!!

Maybe I’m being influenced by what I thought was a riveting World Series, but my answer is to throw an off speed pitch. The truth is that there is never a good time to have this conversation. If you bring it up again, things are going to go south quick. There is never going to be a “right time” or “right place.” So instead, I’m encouraging you to write also. Yes, it’s old school. Pick up a pen and piece of paper and write them a letter. This does not have to be an epistle. Simple is always best. Just remind them that you love them. Tell them you are proud of them and concerned because they have worked hard and deserve to put their best foot forward, i.e. you want them to succeed. Let them know you are there to help, but know you won’t be next year when they’re at school. And then have a glass of wine, go for a walk, i.e. let it go.

Tough for everyone but the truth is that the admission process is a necessary time for parents to also realize that kids will need to do their work, manage their time, and fight their own battles at college very soon- and certainly in life beyond. Put it down on paper. Find a good envelope and leave it for them to read on their own time and terms. Then, to reiterate, wine and a walk—very important.