Sunday, December 1, 2013

Is your student receiving a college admission decision soon? (revisiting an old post)

(I wrote this blog post last year.  I thought it was worth recycling as seniors enter into the admission results season again!)

It's that time of year again.

Early admission decisions are coming out.

The wait will finally be over.

And reality will come to roost.

I was asked by my headmaster yesterday what the "early forecast" looks like for our students.

Talk about being put on the spot in our administrative meeting.

My response.

The weather doppler shows an early winter mix of snow and sunshine.

Emily Dickinson gave great advice when she poetically waxed:

"Tell the truth but tell it slant."

Metaphors are helpful "slants" (/) to convey hard truths.


Just today The Choice blog published a post on advice for parents and students who are receiving news from colleges.

Many of my colleagues had excellent insights and anecdotes to illustrate the do's and don'ts.

The story of the mom recording "the moment" and failing to see her daughter sobbing because of the bad news - that's a "parent fail" moment (not that I haven't already had a bevy of fail moments with my 6 year old)

Or the parent who ordered two different Christmas cards.

One with the daughter in her Duke sweatshirt.

The other with her daughter in another outfit.

Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes - isn't it?


One thing I have to keep in mind is that this is not my moment.

It's not about me.

This is the student's moment.

My job in that student's moment is to try and practice what Harvard professor and theologian Henri Nouwen called the "ministry of presence."

To minister presence simply means being present in the present with the person in my presence.

This is never easy to do.

I have to resist the impulse to "fix" the situation.

I'm learning though that it is OK for things not to be OK.


All of us deep down hate to see our kids suffer disappointment.

We are a pain aversion society - aren't we?

We're a Happy Meal culture.

We're a Lake Woebegone world where every kid is now well above average.

We don't want to acknowledge that most meaningful success stories are shaped by a trajectory of suffering.

People who end up really mattering to the world are people who end up enduring great suffering to matter to the world.

I'm reading Team of Rivals right now, for example.

I've been amazed in just the first 100 pages by how Lincoln's suffering in his formative years molded his character.

And I've been equally amazed at how Lincoln handled personal loss and political defeat.

He wasn't a Clint Eastwood type.

He didn't just grit it out.

Lincoln grieved it out.

He had unstinting bouts of "hypocondria" that drove him to the edge of despair.

But it's that emotional edge that ultimately gave Lincoln his moral edge.

Lincoln wouldn't have been Lincoln without the personal and political set backs.

One salient thing Lincoln possessed during his lifetime was the ability to navigate those painful moments through story telling and good humor.  

Lincoln found ways in moments punctuated by grave disappointment or ferocious intensity to keep his sanity and perspective by telling a funny, homespun anecdote he gleaned from his father while growing up in the backwoods of Kentucky. 

The film Lincoln illustrates this poignantly when Lincoln tells a crude story about a toilet and portrait of George Washington that had his entire cabinet in raucous fits just moments before they received critical news from the Civil War battle front.

Perhaps there is something we can all glean from Lincoln here.


Often times the best thing to do when it is bad news for kids is not to say anything all.

"Chicken Soup words" just don't warm the soul.

It's best to do what Jews have done down through the centuries amid suffering.

Call it the ancient practice of just shutting up and being silently with. 

A hug.  Tears.  A steaming cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows bobbing on the frothy surface.

A fun Christmas movie like Elf.

Moreover, it's best for this moment [when the student thumbs open the letter, or clicks on to his or her admission portal] to occur in a private place with supportive people.

It's days or weeks after that I will try to reasonably explain the hidden perils that may have factored into the unfavorable application decision.

Especially at highly selective institutions where the goal is for the admission officer to find a reason not to admit the student.

I often begin by reminding the crestfallen student that the college made a decision on a 10 to 20 minute application review, as well as a set of institutional goals that the student may or may not have fit into as an applicant.

In other words, this college didn't deny you.

They denied your application.

Sometimes the college is denying your application because on page one they saw that you didn't fit a certain geographical demographic or ethnic demographic.

Or you checked off one gender box instead of the other. 

Or that you chose an academic major that is full.

Or that you have a smattering of B's and C's from your freshman year.

Or that you took a freshman level course like Chinese 1 in your senior academic program.

Or that you took Honors US History instead of AP US History. 

Or that your activities chart was too thin.  (They needed more generalist).

Or that your activities chart was too thick.  (They needed more specialist).

Or that you didn't check the "plan to participate in college" box.

Or that your parents didn't attend this particular college.

Or that your test score was "profile negative" by a single point.

There are a myriad of reasons that a student's application is admitted, deferred, or denied that is beyond one's control.

Beyond my control.

Beyond your parent's control.

Beyond some rich alumnus's control.

Just beyond.

And not being able to manipulate the results just plain sucks.


Life is moments.

And this will be for your student one of those moments.

It's not the ultimate moment.

It's just one moment among many moments that will shape them.

Looking back, I realize now that often the moment isn't about the news.

It's about the person's response.

I also realize that the moment isn't meant to be a solitary event.

It's meant to be a communal moment.

Some moments, in other words, are meant to be shared.  

Any disappointment can be absorbed and overcome in the presence of someone who cares, supports, encourages, and ultimately loves you.

I often remind parents in our first college meeting that a study has shown that a parent has roughly 3000 hours to influence a child.

That's 3000 dots.

No dots are more impacting than dots of love.

For in the end, love is always presence.

Every one of us needs to hear, regardless if we are hearing back from a college, that we are loved simply because.