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College Admission Brief Podcast

We started the GT Admission Blog in 2015. At the time, I had a regular Thursday afternoon “running meeting” with our former director of enrollment communications, Matt McLendon. We’d set off with a full agenda to cover, but inevitably somewhere along the Beltline I’d start rambling about a particular challenge or admission issue. One day (mid-run/ mid-rant), Matt gently suggested I “write this stuff down.” He asserted that families needed to hear more honesty and openness from admission deans and directors, and my random analogies and anecdotes may actually be a refreshing way to present subjects that often stir anxiety. (Is it likely he was just trying to enjoy the run and stay on task? Absolutely. Nevertheless, here we are.).

In the early days of the blog, I was the sole/soul author. And for the first month, it was basically just my wife, mom, and aunt reading (using several email accounts to up our subscriber number). Since that time, we’ve found ways to bring in a variety of different voices from our admission team, enrollment division, as well as campus partners. The goal remains to provide perspective, insight, and helpful tips in a relatable and accessible tone–and hopefully to also bring some levity and solace along the way.

At the time of this writing, we have over 3,550 subscribers. We know that parents and counselors regularly share our blogs in their communities and friend sets. Thank you! And while we occasionally hear from applicants who have read an entry or two, we understand high school students may not always be up for reading another 1,200-1,400 words in an already word-filled day/week of going class, studying, taking notes, etc.

Still, we know from questions in and after presentations, as well as from emails, calls, and online posts, students want to get perspective about college admission. They want to know how decisions are really made, what they mean (and don’t mean), and often simply need to be reminded that the people reading their apps are just that—people.

College Admission Brief Podcast

To that end we just launched a new podcast, The College Admission Brief. Just like our blog, we hope to personalize the admission process by sharing timely tips and encouraging advice from colleagues and campus partners. While we’ll sometimes use Georgia Tech as an example, the goal is to include general information, advice, and broadly applicable admission insight for students to use in their college admission experience.

A great example of why we launched this podcast is my obnoxiously long (2,160 words to be exact) blog from last week. If you read it, thank you. Grit is a valued trait and you have it in spades, my friend. (Plus you now have a sense of what Matt was dealing with on those runs). The actual title was “What’s Taking So Long?” and anyone who is honest would admit they asked themselves that precise question several times during the reading.

If you skimmed a few paragraphs and clicked back over to Instagram or scrolled down twice hard with your thumb only to realize you were only to the second picture, I understand why you bowed out. Seriously, I get it. Good news- our latest podcast episode with our Senior Associate Director, Mary Tipton Woolley, covers the same content in under 10 minutes. Bonus- you can listen while walking, driving, or waiting around for a practice or rehearsal to start. (Multitasking is a skill and we’re here for you.)

Listen to “How Are College Admission Applications Reviewed? Episode 3: Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.

We are still tweaking the audio and working out some behind the scenes kinks, so just like: the world; my laundry folding skills; the admission experience; or any one of us, it is not perfect. Still, we hope you’ll find these interviews and recordings encouraging, relatively light, shareable, and at times humorous. But if nothing else we guarantee this—they’ll be brief! Each episode is less than 10 minutes. How bad can it be? Download and listen on iTunes, Spotify, or Spreaker to check it out. Happy listening!

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More and Less, Part 1

“You’re going to be out 14 nights in November?!”

Now. What I should have said was… nothing. But what I actually said was, “Yes. But I’ll definitely be home for Thanksgiving.”

Let me back up. My wife and I have a planning and calendar meeting each month. This exchange (well, that and her getting up and leaving the room) was how our October meeting ended. 

I knew I’d bitten off more than I could (or should) chew. In addition to Georgia Tech programs, I was also chairing the search for a new pastor at our church, and had committed to a few speaking engagements connected to the book I recently published.  

Being a keen observer of non-verbal cues, I made sure our November planning meeting went differently. First, it started with flowers and a deep apology. Second, I’m proud to say I made sure I did not board a plane or sleep in a hotel in December.  

The final week of the year was by far the best.  Georgia Tech was closed, and for the first time in my 16-year tenure, I did not try to “catch up” or “keep up” during that time. In fact, I took email off my phone and left my laptop at work. I encouraged my team to do the same. “It will all be here when we get back. Enjoy your break and your family!” 

After truly unplugging, here were my two biggest takeaways: 

  1. Balance within any single day is a myth. We will drive ourselves nuts attempting to squeeze everything we value into a 24- hour period. Whether you are in high school, college, or 20 years past both, we need to continually ask, “What do I value and why?” And just as importantly “Am I making appropriate time for these things? And what frequency is realistic?” 

Otherwise, we end up unnecessarily spinning our wheels, or feeling like a failure when something gets dropped. I’m hopeful in 2020 we’ll all give ourselves more grace and look at balance less in the context of a day, and more in the context of week or month. If you value spending time with friends, reading, or traveling and those things are not happening in a broad period of time, then you are out of balance. 

The beginning of the year is the time to reflect on this. Make time to actually write down what brings you joy and energy. What (or who) challenges you, helps you grow, and adds value to your life? How can you make time for these things and people? And what regularity is healthy and realistic? 

2. Priorities also adhere to Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion (For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”).  If I am going to make room (or more room) for one thing, something else needs to be reduced or eliminated. While our culture incessantly tells us to keep adding things to our plate, that is fundamentally impossible.

We frequently hear the term “More or Less,” but the truth is we need to think about “More and Less.” As we head into 2020, here is my list:   

Top 3 Mores:

  1. More dates/trips with my wife.
  2. More nights/weekends totally unplugged.
  3. More reading physical (not Kindle) books.

Top 3 Less’: 

  1. Less checking email/social media on my phone (especially while walking).
  2. Less saying “Yes” without considering the implications/trade-offs.
  3. Less tabs open at the same time.

As I thought about the year ahead, I came up with the mores and lesses I hope to see in my college admission colleagues. Parts 2 and 3 of this series will include thoughts for school counselors, parents, and students, but this week I’m writing for those doing admission work in colleges around the country. 

To my admission colleagues…

Whether you are in year two or 20, I want to say a big thank you for the great and important work you do! If you (and your team) did not take the time to look back at 2019 and marvel at your accomplishments, make that a priority. Celebrate your wins! It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle and move from one goal to the next. Particularly in the cyclical world of college admission, we need to be intentional about pausing, reflecting, and appreciating how we’ve grown and what we achieved, rather than dwelling on all that could have gone better or the particular metrics we missed. The truth is even when we hit enrollment targets or meet net tuition revenue or increase or decrease what was asked of us, someone will have an issue with how it was done or some nuance buried within the macro. We must learn to focus on and be encouraged by our progress and opportunity, rather than bogged down and burned out chasing perfection.   

More Transparency

Let’s be honest. 2019 was a pretty low point in the world of college admission. Operation Varsity Blues brought our work into the spotlight and called the integrity of the process into question. Far from Hollywood the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice cited our field’s largest professional organization, NACAC, for violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act due to the Association’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. Combined with escalating tuition, a growing narrative around the value of college, as well as more closures of colleges around the nation, public trust naturally eroded. 

As a result, there has never been a more critical time for admission representatives to be honest and open about how admission decisions are made, what we are looking for in students, and how our distinct institutional missions impact our timeline, process, and class goals. I hope admission and enrollment reps from schools with a broad reach and platform will commit to telling a bigger story about the landscape of higher education. It is incumbent upon the enrollment leaders at these colleges to model this approach and empower their teams to adopt a more inclusive mentality and philosophy. 

Specifically, I hope 2020 brings more variety and diversity in consortium travel, rather than traditionally narrow groupings. If you work at a school that only collaborates with others similar to you in size, selectivity, or athletic conference, I hope you will question if including a more diverse set of schools could help tell a more robust narrative about the options students have in our higher education ecosystem.  The Colleges That Change Lives Tour and the RACC events in California are great examples, as they convey a variety of campus cultures, missions, curricular focus, and selectivity. (Send more examples via Twitter to @clark2college and I’ll retweet and add those to the list.)

In addition to publishing a macro admit rate, I hope colleges will make more of an effort to display in presentations how these vary based on decision plan, e.g. ED, EA, Regular Decision, by residency (if public), or other influencing categories when possible. Currently, families have to dig too deep into the dark corners of our institutional research sites to procure this. Again, we build trust and raise transparency when we are willing to be forthcoming with data. Going forward highly selective schools should be banned from saying, “We are looking for reasons to admit applicants.” It sounds good on a panel, but if your admit rate is >25% this is semantics at best and patently false at worst. Be willing to articulate how supply and demand and institutional priorities, rather than fairness or purely quantifiable metrics dictate admission decisions.

I hope schools will be more specific about their college’s real costs and net price, and work to simplify and clarify financial aid letters. Too many families are unnecessarily confused and cannot make the best comparisons and financial choices because of the conflation of loans, scholarships, grants, and institutional aid. When astute professional accountants receiving these packages are bemused, something is broken. Additionally, I hope admission offices will collaborate either internally or externally to create videos, provide webinars, or host programs to help families in your community better understand scholarships, financial aid, debt repayment, and other terms.

Yes, this is more. A lot more. But if we truly want to enter 2020 and the new decade committed to being better- more equitable, more positioned as educators, more in line with fulfilling the mission of higher education as a public good, then this is not only necessary, but our fundamental responsibility. 

Less Isolation

College admission is tough work. Between weeks or months of recruitment travel, hundreds or thousands of applications to read, dozens of speeches and information sessions to give, and countless emails and phone calls to return—not to mention occasionally squeezing in some laundry and dishes, there is no wonder our profession sees high turnover, particularly around the three to five year mark. 

As you enter 2020, my hope is you will be committed to building a broad and diverse network and support system. It is easy, especially in the winter, to become myopic and mired in the cycle turning from review to yield, or immediately back to recruitment of the next class. Make an effort this month to find someone outside of your office to connect with. Perhaps that is a colleague on campus, an admission officer from another college in your town or city, or someone you met during your travels who you can commit to keeping in touch with professionally in the year ahead. 

I hope you will be proactive to initiate a monthly coffee or lunch, or a regular call to check in, catch up, and share celebrations or frustrations. What I’m describing is completely free. Don’t allow yourself to be limited by the perspective and opinions of people in your own office or institution. Do not wait around for someone to tap you or fund you to go to a conference or join a professional organization. We all need sounding boards, encouragement, and colleagues who understand our challenges.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

What are your mores and lesses for 2020? Again, if you have not already done so, I highly encourage you to take some time this week to write them down and revisit them periodically in the year ahead.

Next week, Part 2: More and Less for school counselors. 

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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!)

Interviews and Authenticity

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

When I was in high school, I was fortunate to be selected to interview for a scholarship at a large university. So was one of my best friends. Since only 30 scholars would be selected in the end, it would seem one or both of us might very well end up without it. After all, we didn’t come from a particularly noteworthy high school and, for all I knew, space was limited.

One of my interviewers asked me which of us was the stronger candidate. Wow! How does one answer THAT?! Without hesitation, I said, “We’re both strong in some different and some similar ways. She’s brilliant in math, kind, caring, and works very hard. I’m the more extroverted of the two of us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more engaging. We’re very close friends so this is tough to answer. If you are asking who I think is the better overall person, that would be her.”

To our surprise, we would learn later we had each received the scholarship. We also both received a note from the interviewer in the mail (yes, the mail), afterwards stating that each of us had been asked the same question and answered similarly. We spoke of our own strengths but suggested the other one was a slightly better choice.

The Importance of Authenticity

I share this story to illustrate the importance of authenticity. Not a word of what I said or she said was anything less than honest. Yet both of us knew it might cost us the scholarship. I think we both intuitively knew that in the end, no matter the result, we would end up at whatever college was right for us, and it would all work out. Being true to ourselves and each other was paramount. Being authentic was a priority and it was natural to both of us.

In full disclosure, I was authentic in other scholarship interviews and they didn’t pan out. Pretty sure she had a similar story. What I want to share with you are some practical tips for what to do after you’ve applied to colleges and might end up interviewing for a spot at a college or in a scholarship program where interviews are a part of the process.

What I share is not solely about interview preparation, but how to present yourself as a self-aware, authentic person in other areas of life.

Prepare a resume

Yes, that’s right. Even if you have already done so, keep reading. I am going to suggest a framework that focuses on quality rather than quantity.

  • Start by keeping it to one page. Doing so focuses you on what’s most significant in your life. You may ask, “But how can I possibly fit my life onto one page?!” The answer: by considering where you are the most talented, most happy, most deeply involved. “But what if those things don’t align with my dream school?” Answer: why do you want to go to a college that doesn’t think who you are is pretty amazing? How do you know they won’t like your involvements? I hear from students all the time that they pick STEM-type activities to focus on when submitting their application to Georgia Tech because they think that’s all our institution cares about. Totally a false assumption.
  • When you are done with your first draft, you will no doubt be over a page. Don’t shrink the font and choose 0.05” margins to fit it all on. Drop the stuff that means little to you. You’ll get it down to one page and it will still be robust. Trust me! Furthermore, if someone asks you questions about your resume, you want it to be about the things that matter to you, because your answers will be more honest and authentic.
  • Pull a relevant story from each major part of your resume and think about how to tell it to someone who was interested in that part of your life. No, I am not suggesting you put that in writing on your resume. This part is a mental exercise alone. For example:
    • Did you list a sport? Talk about a lesson you learned playing on a team or competing.
    • Were you a leader in a club (whether or not you had a title)? Think about a clear time you as a leader influenced others for a positive impact.
    • Did you win an award? Why and/or how did you obtain it – and how can you say that confidently but humbly.

Prepare for an interview

Notice I didn’t say rehearse for an interview. Rehearsing has its place, but it can be the death knell of your interview hopes if you focus on it too much.

  • Consider different kinds of interviews.
    • Standard: anything goes. Tell us about yourself. What’s your favorite book? Who do you idolize? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What books/articles have you read recently that impacted your way of thinking?
    • Behavioral – they’ll ask you what you have done in specific situations, e.g. tell us about a time you experienced a challenge to your leadership – what did you do and how did you handle it?
    • Group exercise: sometimes there may be something unique, like you and other interviewees will be given a task that you must work on together – hard to prepare for, but think about how you would want to approach that and work well with the other members.
  • Consider the setting of an interview.
    • Several will be on the campus or at a local business – not much to prepare for there.
    • Some may be by video chat or telephone, especially at preliminary phases. Make sure what the interviewer sees on the other end is a neat and tidy space. If it’s your own room, make sure the space says, “this is who I am” without saying “TMI” (that may be the one caveat to being too authentic!). If your interview is by phone, stand in front of a mirror. You will convey in your voice the expression on your face and over the phone that is especially helpful.
    • Note that college interviews, as opposed to scholarship program ones, often involve an alum of that college chatting with you at your home, or at a coffee shop, etc. Dress appropriately and if you must err between too formal and too casual, always choose too formal. Think about how to have a neat suit or pants and shirt/tie or blouse that will work. They need not be expensive, but they should be clean and neat.
  • Consider your answers.
    • Regardless of the type of interview, review and be familiar with what you put in your application for the particular university or scholarship program – you will often be asked about it.
    • Be you! Rehearse enough that your answer flows easily but don’t memorize what you are going to say – if something is truly meaningful to you, you shouldn’t have to rehearse that much – that’s a sign you might not be a good fit with whatever you perceive the opportunity is evaluating you on.

Additional considerations

  • Chat with older friends from the schools/programs you are targeting during winter break if you can – find out what their campus experiences have been – and get more than one opinion for each school if possible.
  • Visit some schools if convenient, but remember if you end up interviewing you might be invited to campus – find that out and visit the schools that don’t do campus interviews to get the most bang for your travel time buck.

Finally, don’t stress – enjoy winter break, keep focusing on your grades and transitioning your activities, if you are a leader in them, effectively to those who will remain after you leave for college.

Am I saying that if you do all these things you will end up admitted to a prestigious school or winning a major merit scholarship? No. But you will better position yourself to be where you want to be. Louis Pasteur once said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” I could also add “prepared heart.” After all, I could never have predicted the question about my best friend in high school, much less prepared for it. My answer was as authentic and spontaneous as it could get.

And if you end up somewhere you never expected to be – because you were authentic – that’s a win in and of itself that will hopefully carry you through a life of happiness.

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

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(A College) Search of Greatness

A few weeks ago I watched In Search of Greatness, a documentary featuring some of history’s best known and most accomplished athletes, including Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Pele. It covers their backgrounds, motivations, challenges, unconventional styles, and inimitable spirit.

I’ve engaged in some vehement debates with friends about who was the “greatest of the greats,” but we all agreed on one thing: seeing true greatness in action is a rare privilege. Over the course of the last decade, that’s exactly the position I have been in serving under our now outgoing president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson.

Anyone who saw MJ at the height of his game or watched Pele play loves to tell stories about “that day” or “that game” because indelible moments leave lasting impressions. As Peterson prepares to retire from Georgia Tech, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned from his leadership.

Engage Fully

Move-in day in August is one of my favorites of the year. It’s gratifying (and frankly relieving) to see students arrive on campus. When numbers on spreadsheets and essays on applications manifest themselves in actual people with cars filled with boxes of shoes, bedding, and neatly packed toiletries, I may say, “Welcome to campus!” but I’m really thinking, “Phew. Thank God. I get to do this for at least one more year.”

The incoming class in 2009 was the first I brought in as director and happened to be Peterson’s first fall on campus as well. I was invited to join a group of administrators who were helping students unload cars at the residence halls.

Along with student volunteers, we greeted cars as they pulled up on the street outside residence halls and helped them unload from the curb. Doors would open, trunks would lift, and a swarm of movers would descend upon the wide-eyed family’s vehicle. It was hot and there was a steady stream of cars.

Many leaders would see move-in day merely as a photo opp. Grab a shoe box or some hanging clothes, shake a few hands, and wait for the article to be written up. But invariably, President Peterson would grab the mini fridge in the back of the car or the largest and heaviest box he could find and bound through the doors of the dorm and up two flights of stairs before the student’s younger brother even got out of the car.  Peterson has never been about appearance. He approached that minor activity the same way he consistently operates—fully engaged and invested.

Your Takeaway

The admission process will Jedi-mind trick you with dates, deadlines, applications, decisions, seemingly dry or mechanical components, and an endless deluge of emails and brochures in your mailbox. It’s easy and understandable to look at the 16th  college tour of the summer or another supplemental essay you have to write merely as a task to be done or an inconvenience in the midst of your busy life.

Peterson’s was formally recognized last week in the form of a $17 million endowment in his honor to help students with financial need.

My hope is you will follow Peterson’s lead and fully engage. Approach this not as a process, but rather as an experience—an opportunity to grow and learn. Instead of simply listing and describing what you’ve done on the extra-curricular section of applications, give real thought as to why you participated and what you learned. What did you get out of being on the swim team? Why did you join the Spanish club? How did it shape and change you? And do you want to broaden, deepen, or discontinue that involvement in college?

Don’t just ask teachers for recommendations. Take the opportunity to thank them for their time and effort. Share what you learned in the course and how it’s helped or impacted you. College applications should not be treated only as a vehicle for delivering information to schools. If you fully engage, they actually have the potential to be an exercise in reflecting on your high school career and assessing how your experience directs you in the future, regardless of where you end up going to college.  Engage Fully!

Ask Simple Questions

While there are many anecdotes I could recount, one of the most poignant occurred when President Peterson learned I was considering a position at another university. The title was higher, the portfolio was bigger, and the salary was larger.

He invited me to sit down and discuss the opportunity. After he shared a similar story from his career he said, “Really, there is just one thing to consider.” I waited expectantly, convinced this would be my answer, and he had the pearl of wisdom I needed to make a decision. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I want that job?’” He did not try to convince me one way or another. He did not encourage me to build a big spreadsheet of pros and cons or attempt to strategically analyze how this may impact my long-term career. Instead, he asked me to consider the perfect question—one that triggered a series of others I needed to reflect upon: Is this a fit? Where will I thrive? His question helped me tune out external pressures, opinions, and perceived factors and to be honest about what I really wanted…and why.

Your take-away

Too many students follow the crowd in the admission process. They apply to the same schools their siblings or friends applied to. They only consider local options or the most popular colleges in their region. They want to please their parents or feel like they must go to the most selective or highly ranked school to which they are admitted.

In the past we’ve written about asking better questions and even asking the same questions again and again. I stand by that advice, but to take a page out of Peterson’s book, my hope is throughout your admission experience you will continually ask the most important question: “Is this for me?”

When you are on a college campus listening to an admission officer or tour guide or academic advisor, ask, “Is this for me?” When you put together the list of colleges to apply to, ask, “Am I applying here for someone else or is this for me?”  When you are selecting a major or deciding what topic to choose for your essay or making a final college choice, ask, “What are the outside pressures I am feeling? Is this being pushed on me, or is this really for me?”

Around November of the first year (sometimes earlier) many students begin to question their college choice. They spend consecutive nights endlessly scrolling Instagram or visiting friends at other schools and returning to a dark dorm room believing they made a mistake. Sometimes this happens because they limited their admission experience to a process and simply went through the motions. They “ended up” somewhere rather than choosing it. Outside factors and pressures corrupted an honest, intentional, introspective experience. I hope you’ll have both the courage and confidence to ask, “Is this for me?”  Ask Simple Questions!

Family First

President Peterson has four (now adult) children of his own. He and his wife, Val, have fostered nine others. If you are around him long enough, you’ll hear him recount stories about conversations with President Obama, Fortune 100 CEO’s, and some of our nation’s highest-ranking military officials. He will passionately discuss thermodynamics or complex engineering concepts. But I’ve seen his greatest joy come as he’s shared simple stories about his kids and their families.

One day, early in Peterson’s tenure at Tech, we were informed of an admitted student who died in an automobile accident while driving his sister to school. We learned these were the only two children in this particular family. He invited me to his office to learn more and discuss the situation, as this was an admitted, not an enrolled or current, student.

I explained that traditionally I took care of writing to families during the admitted stage. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, then slightly shook his head and said, “You know, Rick. I’ve had a lot of titles in my life: professor, dean, provost, Chancellor, but by far the one I cherish the most is ‘father.’ I simply cannot imagine how these parents are feeling tonight.”

He wrote the letter that day. I went home, hugged my wife, and slept on the floor next to our son’s crib.

Your take-away

After sitting at the intersection between high school and college for the last 20 years, I’m convinced that at its core the admission experience is fundamentally about family. Admission officers rattle off factors and stats and dates that appear quantifiable.  Students and parents focus on elements like grades and test scores and decisions and money and other elements that appear to be sterile. The truth is the admission experience is not defined numbers but is instead deeply relational. It is rooted in both individual and collective hopes and dreams.

Visiting and applying to colleges, handling decisions, weighing options, and ultimately arriving on a campus provides an opportunity to connect rather than divide; to trust each other rather than be paranoid and skeptical about how decisions will turn out; to control what you can control—how you treat and love one another. Family First!

In Search of Greatness

Georgia Tech’s motto is “Progress and Service.” I like to modify it when talking to students and our team to “Progress (not perfection) and Service.” If you watch the documentary, you’ll notice each of the stars talks at length about losses, setbacks, challenges and difficult moments. Clearly, the refusal to accept the status quo and the desire to continually refine and improve is a commonality among the greats.

I hope you’ll take a similar approach to your next year of high school and keep that mentality as you enter college. Nobody expects perfection from you, even though at times it may feel that way. They simply see your greatness and want you to strive for it. Similarly, I cannot offer you a perfect way to go through your college experience, because it’s your experience. I can only encourage you to Engage Fully, Ask Simple Questions, and keep Family First.

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