The Secret of Great College Applicants: Genius, Joy, Ahlgren, Gretzky, Gladwell
Updated: Apr 22
Carl Ahlgren was a college counselor, who worked most recently at the Gilman School in Baltimore. Carl was wise and thoughtful-- it often felt like he was the smartest guy in the room. He was one of those people who would attentively take in everything everyone was saying, and then, in a calm low voice, offer both a brilliantly succinct summary and the insightful twist or observation needed to move the conversation forward. He cared deeply for kids in the college process, and collaborated with colleagues and organizations to make it better. You could say he was deeply engaged in the work and in the admission landscape.
Carl was someone I felt fortunate to call a friend. He was soulful, philosophical, and wickedly funny. He was one of a trio including my friend Jeff Durso-Finley of Lawrenceville School and me that collaborated on a national college admission conference presentation over a decade ago called: "The Myth of Fit and Other Chestnuts of College Counseling."
Carl set the tongue-in-cheek yet empathetic tone for a look at the way student and parent perceptions of college admission advice often lead to different forms of cognitive bias that inflate the sense of one's own probability of favorable outcomes. I wrote a piece inspired by that talk that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but Carl and Jeff contributed at least as much to this set of ideas. Life lesson-- collaboration and partnership lead to great things. Folks enjoyed Carl and Jeff's wit and wisdom, with my nerdy literary take, enough that we were actually asked to repeat the presentation for a second year at the same national conference. That was pretty cool.
Recently, one of Carl's former colleagues shared, in Carl's memory, a post Carl wrote for Gilman's newsletter. I'm sharing it here because, true to Carl form, it makes a thoughtful analogy to express an important idea about life and education.
In this case, the subject is engagement, and what separates a good college applicant from a great college applicant. It's not checking boxes, following a recipe or formula; it's having the support, courage and self-confidence to follow your own path, genuinely taking part in one's education, rather than viewing it and activities as means to an end.
Read Carl's words at the linked image, and see a few key quotes below.
The good students are truly good. They follow directions. They complete their assignments fully. They are conscientious and responsive. Their notes are meticulous. The great student will likely have good notes too, but he is likely thinking about what he is writing and hearing, rather than seeking simply to master it. He enjoys achievement, just like the good student, but is also personally intrigued by the relationship between Medici wealth and Renaissance creativity, the elegance of a geometric proof, or the promise of nitrogen energy for our global transportation needs.
These, I admit, are rare students, but the key to their eventual success, and the quality found more broadly in all kinds of students, is engagement. Engaged students it should be noted are only occasionally successful from the start.
Engaged students, musicians and athletes often have some sense of why they do what they do. They persist even when challenges, obstacles, and criticism appear. Why would they quit? The activity makes them happy!
Engaged juniors and seniors embark upon the college search process with a sense of excitement and discovery. They are eager to see what is out there, and where they might continue to find joy. They enter into the process not with a road map or a recipe book, but with a thirst and curiosity for what the next four years might look like. They likely have a sense of what they’d like to study, but rarely are certain about a major.
Both kinds of students can have a successful process and outcome. But there is a very high likelihood that the engaged college applicant will write a fresh essay and enjoy a richer interview.