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The Biggest Differentiator

By Robert LeVine

Take a moment to look at your nose. No, don’t look in the mirror. Cross your eyes and look down. Can you see it, at least part of it? Good!

In college admissions, originality is the nose on your face that we seldom see.

Everyone wants to be selected by their favorite universities. Everyone wants to be “the one.” Everyone wants to stand out from the admissions crowd.

To look different, you actually have to be different.

For America’s top universities, getting good grades is not enough, nor will perfect test scores guarantee admission. Even if our best schools wanted to select students based upon purely objective criteria, they could not. Every year, Harvard offers admission to about 2,000 students. Last year, 3,500 Harvard applicants had perfect test scores, and 8,000 applicants had perfect grades. There simply is not enough room to fit all of those people into limited space.

For good reason, our best schools look beyond academics in selecting students. They believe that smart, diverse students can actually contribute to the overall education through their interaction.

NEWS FLASH! You are not likely to contribute to a college classroom. You are not applying to be a professor. You are applying to be a student. In the academic world, you are a taker, not a giver. That is why you go to school – to learn – and that is why you pay tuition.

What about your non-academic activities? Even a great resume, full of leadership and achievement and service, does not make you different from all of the other 40,000 applicants. Every high school has a president. Every sports team has a captain. Every extracurricular club has a leader. Lots and lots of people win first prize in something. Hundreds of hours of community service makes you just as charitable as … most of your own high school class!

Yes, you should contribute outside the classroom – and you probably do – but is your contribution different? If what you have to offer is the same as what others have to offer, does a university necessarily need you?

We mouth the words all the time. Originality. Innovation. Creativity. But are you really different?

Unfortunately, while striving for the highest possible high baseline, our good intention of training our youth creates homogeneity. While it is true that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” it is also true that whatever the curriculum – IB, AP, AICE, even home school – everyone basically takes the same courses. Eating at the trough of high school offerings does not turn a pig into a prince.

This is also true for extracurricular activities, not just classes. Outside of high school, where strong communities create strong community members, a rich culture embraces interaction. Yet if everyone participates in music or dance or athletics or service, then everyone looks the same.

You cannot expect that conducting research will make you different. You cannot expect that an internship will make you unique. You cannot expect that spending money on a prestigious summer school or camp will distinguish you. A mission trip, while extremely worthwhile, does not differentiate you.

Although you must contribute to your communities, both in school and beyond, how do you stand apart?

It starts with changing your mindset. For students, recognize that high school steals your time but should not limit your mind. For parents, recognize that pushing students to be great at everything usually prevents them from being truly great at anything.

Do not think about what you must do. Think about what you can do. If you believe in a life without limits, you will no longer see limits.

Focus on those things you already enjoy. Follow your joy. If you like what you do, you will naturally do it longer and better. Do it further. Stretch yourself geographically. Make an impact on the entire world, not just your world. Do not spend your time quoting Gandhi. Spend your time being the change!

America’s best universities would admit Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Einstein, Edison, da Vinci, Picasso, Disney, Hemingway and Hitchcock. Nobody cares about their test scores. In the real world, achievement has nothing to do with grades.

Do you wish to be great? Truly great? Then the real question is: when are you going to start?

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email BobLeVine@SelectiveCC.com or visit www.SelectiveCollegeConsulting.com 


Ties that Bind

By Anu Varma Panchal

This fall, my Facebook feed informed me that I am now middle aged. No longer am I flooded with photos of gap-toothed munchkins with their tremulous first-day-of-kindergarten smiles. Rather, I see a lot of “Can’t believe she’s a senior,” and “Last year of middle school!” And this year, for the first time, I began to see something new on my feed: status updates of kids in dorm rooms, posted by parents dropping their freshmen off at college. Pride wrestles with pain on parents’ faces. The kids mask their nerves with excited smiles. They’ve left a part of themselves on that college campus, friends write sadly in their status updates after they’ve returned home.

I can imagine all too well the resulting emptiness of a first born leaving for college — the unfilled pockets of time in a previously packed day, the dull knowledge of a bed with undisturbed sheets down the hall, the unnatural quiet around the dining table. And then there are more mundane concerns. One friend sent her son off to a prestigious college, the culmination of years of hard work, and then proceeded to spend the ensuing weeks panicking about whether he’d starve without her cooking. An aunt spent every Sunday for years driving to and from her kids’ dorm rooms and apartments ferrying clean laundry and food. Another friend complained about the excessive amount of time her husband now insisted on spending with her now that the nest was empty.

Here’s the good news. If you’re the parent of a millennial, chances are, they’ll boomerang back home. We’ve all read the statistics about how millennials live with their parents in numbers much higher than in previous American generations. This is not exactly an aberration for desi parents. In “The Curious Case of the Parent-Dependent Indian Millennial” in the online magazine “Arre,” Ashwina Garg writes about how her years of helicoptering have resulted in kids who “still need to be told when to get up, when to go to sleep, and whether they should wear the green or the blue shirt.” Thanks to technology, Garg writes, this dependency does not end when the child physically moves away. Garg quips: “I am frequently messaged in the middle of the night by the older one, who studies abroad, asking me where his blue jacket might be. I know it’s in the top drawer because I told him to put it there.” Let psychologists complain that it’s an unhealthy symbiotic relationship, scoffs Garg; at least this way she’ll never worry about an empty nest.

Even if you’ve somehow miscalculated and released a well-adjusted and independent 18-year-old into the world, there is still hope. All you have to do if you want to see your child on a daily basis is wait roughly 10 to 15 years for them to get married and have a baby, and then societal expectations will render it the norm for you to listen to your children’s pleas, pack your bags and practically move in. Your future grandchildren will heartily approve, because if you’re like your parents, you’ll morph into a pile of unrecognizable mush as soon as you step up a rung in family hierarchy. My parents displayed split personalities almost immediately. “You shouldn’t yell at them,” my father would say reproachfully to me, as if he wasn’t one of a pair of callous adults who had let loose with bloodcurdling threats, said “no” before we even opened our mouths, and erected roadblocks to our social lives with gay abandon when we were kids.

But why only blame the millennials? My mother stayed with me for five-month stretches after my babies were born, an extraordinary act of generosity on my parents’ part that I took completely for granted. My Gen X sister just had a baby six months ago, and the wheels of interdependency began to spin almost immediately. My parents flew to Houston from India to spoil my nephew for months with around-the-clock adoration and on-demand snuggles (even at 5 a.m.) Then they went back to their social lives, household help and peaceful nights in India, abandoning my sister and brother-in-law to their sleepless fate. Not one to give up without a fight, my sister fed their addiction with daily Facetime sessions with the baby. She upped the ante by casually showing my parents what their new room in her new house looked like, with family pictures of them and their grandson adorning the walls and a sign with their names on it perched above the door. She predicts she’ll have lured them back by the end of this month. Even after moving to a whole other continent, true separation is clearly just an illusion. And thank goodness for that, because who else will stay up all night with a crying baby?

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of www.YourEditingSolutions.com

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