College admissions and jewel heists

Last weekend I went to see Ocean's 8 with my wife. We're fans of the story: I've seen the 1960 original with Frank Sinatra and the "Rat Pack," the 2001 re-make with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, the not-so-great sequels Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13, and now this new one. Except Ocean's 8, I've seen them all multiple times. They're well-executed, elegant cinematography to look at, and they're clever. The movies are just smart enough that you don't feel like you're watching mind-numbing entertainment, but don't actually require a whole lot of thinking. 

And while I was watching Ocean's 8, I was thinking a lot about college admissions. Partly because thinking about college admissions is just what I do, even on the weekend, but also because I've used the "bank heist movie" analogy for college applications before.

The thing about the bank heist genre is that pretty much everyone has a specialized role. There's the mastermind, the investor, the safe-cracker, the getaway driver, the person on the inside, the pickpocket, the hacker, and so-on. The team works because it's made up of people with different skills, and they're all very good at their particular skill. Sure, they need some baseline qualities, like a willingness to engage in crime, but the team is built around a division of labor.

And if you want to join their team, you have to be really good at your specialty, not kinda good at someone else's specialty. Being a decent getaway driver isn't useful if they've already got a really good getaway driver. And none of the crew grew up hoping to be on Debbie (or Danny) Ocean's team, constantly asking "what can I do to get accepted to your team?" They just worked at being skilled at what they do, and then Ocean came to them.

Think of a college admissions dean like a Debbie or Danny Ocean. (Metaphorically. I searched for "most glamorous college admissions dean" and it looks like Google has never seen "admissions dean" and "glamorous" together.) Each year, they're putting together a team. Luckily, it's more than a team of eight or 11, it's hundreds or even thousands of people. But the basic principle is the same. They're never just ranking students in terms of how qualified they are and pulling from the top. They're always trying to make sure they have all the roles filled, each year. They need Humanities majors, Science majors, club leaders, fundraisers, athletes, artists, low-income students to help them achieve their goal of meritocracy, high-income students to help them achieve their goal of not going bankrupt, future professors, future business leaders, future board members. They need high school superstars to guarantee a certain level of success from the get-go, and they need "diamond in the rough" students to hope and cheer for. They need a team big enough to keep the school full, but not so many that the school is strained. There are a lot of bases to cover.

The admissions professionals at universities understand that this is what they're doing. The term they most often use for what they do is "building a class." They don't just accept individual students, they put together a group of students. Earlier this year I heard an admissions officer at a smaller liberal arts college refer to it as "crafting a community." I like that description. If you also understand this is what they're doing, you can increase the likelihood that you're part of the community.

Like the members of the bank heist team, there are some certain baseline qualifications everybody needs to have. You should take challenging classes in high school and do your best at them. You should write well. You should have someone--like a counselor or teacher--who can vouch for you in the form of a recommendation letter. 

The good thing is that there are plenty of colleges and universities who will accept you just for demonstrating those baseline qualities. But if you're hoping to go to a school that you would describe as a "dream school," if you're hoping to be invited to join a community that denies more people than it accepts, if you're hoping to go to a school known for its impressive students, then you have to do more than have the baseline qualities. You have to have qualities and skills that you've worked at and practiced. Simply copying what others have done because you know it worked in the past doesn't get you what you want, because it's missing the point. You'll end up being the decent getaway driver when they already have a great getaway driver.

So what do you do? Debbie Ocean has the answer. In the movie, when her (literal) partner in crime Lou asks her "Why do you need to do this?" Debbie answers "Because it's what I'm good at." This should be your motivation as well. Any time you wonder "what do colleges want?" you should instead ask "what am I good at?" There are some problems that you have a talent for solving. They may be mathematical or scientific problems. They may be analytical problems. They may be organizational, or emotional, or inter-personal, or physical. Figure out, if you haven't already, what kinds of problems you like to tackle. Then, find ways to practice tackling more of those problems.

When you do this, many of the extra-curricular programs at school will make a lot more sense. You don't join the robotics team because it looks good to colleges, you join it to practice solving complex physics and programming problems. You don't join the Model U.N. team because it looks good to colleges, you join it to practice solving negotiation problems. You don't join the volleyball team because colleges want you to be athletic, you join it to give you practice solving problems around teamwork and personal discipline. If you hone your skills, then it will be a lot easier to locate--and join--the best crew for you. 


Thanks for reading! My other favorite heist movies are Ronin, Bellman and True, Sexy Beast, and To Catch a Thief. What are yours? For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed.

Photo from  Ocean's 8 official website . These are actors, in a fictional story. You should not steal diamond jewelry to pay for college.

Photo from Ocean's 8 official website. These are actors, in a fictional story. You should not steal diamond jewelry to pay for college.