I suppose the title of this post is a bit cagey, though in this modern day of content creation us creators have to do all we can to draw viewers in. I’m sorry for baiting you, if I did, and please let me explain. Towards the end of 2022 there were two situations where notable people were found to have misled their constituencies and it got me thinking. Famous and influential people lying to the public isn’t anything new, and you might even roll your eyes after I reveal who I’m referring to (bear with me). Despite the fact that these situations don’t directly relate to student success nor college admission, it got me thinking about how often schools employ modern day “marketing” practices to increase application numbers. It made me reflect on how we all naturally want to compare ourselves to others. And in this modern day, that means scrolling through social media platforms (yes, the plural is intentional) looking at how others live. Together, it created a moment of pause about how outward appearances are never what they seem.
So Who Is It?
You may now be wondering the two examples that inspired this revelatory reflective moment: (*pause for dramatic effect*) The Liver King and George Santos. I know, I know. Some may be questioning whether or not it’s worth reading on, but please continue to bear with me. I found both of these situations as a kind reminder that we need to question what we see, read, and hear–making sure to ask ourselves some clarifying questions. First let me start by providing some background.
Brian Johnson, AKA The Liver King, is a social media influencer and business-man who quickly grew to influencer status by preaching his “ancestral tennents”. These tenants included, among other things, controversial guidance on exercise and nutrition. For instance, he promoted eating raw animal products like beef liver and bone marrow. How popular was he? His instagram account was created in June 2021, and by January 2023 he had 1.7 million followers. His facebook account was opened in September 2021, and by January 2023 he had nearly 600,000 followers. His pages, filled with videos of him showing off his impressive physique while completing an intense workout routine or eating raw liver, suggested if everyone lived life like him, they would look like him and experience immense success. As his brand grew, so did the number of folks questioning that he earned his looks and success by following his tenants. Turns out the skeptics were correct. In December 2022 he was exposed as spending upwards of $10k per month on steroids and testosterone supplements (something he adamantly denied prior). So The Liver King became both popular and rich, with millions of followers, numerous public engagements, and a net worth of $12 million all by deceiving his audience.
The second example is George Santos who was elected in 2022 as the congressional representative for New York’s 3rd congressional district. During his campaign he made, what were later found out to be, a multitude of false claims about his family history, personal health, employment, and education. For example, he claimed his ancestors were European Jews who survived the holocaust–when in fact his family is from Brazil, going back 3 generations. The actual list of falsehoods is lengthy and not worth repeating. Suffice it to say Santos grossly deceived New York’s 3rd district electorate, earning a coveted seat in the US Congress. Why? Like Liver King, Santos is the only one who can truly answer this question. My personal opinion is to have power and influence.
So….What Does This Have To Do With School?
Fair question. First let me again acknowledge that these situations aren’t new. Throughout history folks have lied, cheated, stolen, tortured, and killed for fame, fortune, power, and influence. That said, there was something about the timing of these particular situations which hit me just right. It got me thinking about two things I see as an admission and student success coach.
Let’s tackle college admission first. Colleges have become adept at using modern day marketing and advertising practices to meet their enrollment goals. To a certain degree, I would argue this is a good thing. The better schools can gain exposure, the more likely they are to enroll a diverse group of students creating a better overall experience for all. That said, many schools are willing to fall into the trap that they “can be everything to everybody”. They can’t. During the 2022 admission cycle the total number of applications rose 41% compared to 2021. In addition there was a 26% increase in the number of applicants in 2022 compared to 2021.
This means two things, more students were applying to college (that’s to be expected); second, more students were applying to more colleges–this wasn’t anticipated. Here’s the part that no one else is really talking about, these schools aren’t necessarily expanding their class sizes–meaning they aren’t looking to take in more students into their schools. What’s the outcome? They create the appearance they are more selective than they actually are. After all, selectivity is one of the primary factors we are all drawn to right?! I mean, the more exclusive a school is, the better it is. Mmmm…I question that thinking and so should you.
The next connection I saw was to a student’s social-emotional well-being. I have worked with countless students navigating imposter experience. In short, students who feel they don’t belong because it appears to them that their peers are smarter/better/well-adjusted/etc. While reality is often a far cry from this thinking, it becomes very damaging to the student very quickly. In my experience, some students retreat into themselves questioning their own self-worth and value. Others travel the dangerous path of “keeping up with the Joneses”–thinking they need everything their peers have in order to be successful and happy. What I have seen, either way, is that they eventually end up in a heap of anxiety and depression, not knowing what to do. Losing sight of the larger picture, they start to spin and spurn, and cope in a whole host of ways (some helpful, most not).
Who’s “Truth” Are We Learning About?
I have this sarcastic/light hearted quip about living life today: “if it’s not on social media, it didn’t happen”. It came out of this light bulb moment when I was talking with a supervisor. While I have an ability to turn a phrase (or 2), I think the more society progresses the more this is actually true. With that in mind, I feel it is important for us to have a critical eye when we are reviewing other’s outward projections of their “truth”. As we scroll through social media, talk with someone, or read an article, regardless if the content is positive or negative, all we are really seeing is the tip of a very large iceberg. Something often forgotten in the moment, but we accept as actuality. How does this apply to education? Very easily.
Higher Education Marketing
In college admissions, I challenge you to find an ugly picture in any school’s marketing materials (digital or print). I challenge you to find an unkind word. I challenge you to find one acknowledgment of criticism or imperfection. You won’t. In fact, as a business owner myself, it would likely be ill advised by any advertising or marketing professionals. What should you do? Well, do your due diligence. Go visit the school in-person. Talk with students who aren’t part of the admission team. Talk with professors (regardless if they are recommended by the admission team or not, they always speak their minds). In these conversations ask them tough questions. Don’t play their game, one where they distract your attention away from what’s really important to you. Identify first what you want out of a college experience, then go find colleges that can deliver. Don’t let the colleges tell you what you should want out of an educational experience, then have them show you how they can deliver. Side-step the traps of any organization that says they have the list of “best” colleges. My immediate question is “best for whom?”
Finding A Unicorn
As a student, avoid falling down the deep dark rabbit hole assuming everyone is better than you. It’s not true. We all possess strengths and weaknesses. Perfection doesn’t exist. So avoid seeking it, and avoid assuming others have attained it. Take a personal inventory (through personal self-reflection) of what you are good at, and not good at; take stock in what you like about yourself, and what are some areas you want to improve. Then spend time celebrating your strengths; continue to pursue activities and opportunities that play to your strengths, and pick one thing you would like to improve about yourself. Then embark on the journey of doing what you do well, and improving what you can. If someone is good at something you want to be good, get to know that person. Perhaps they can support you on your quest for improvement. At the same time, ask yourself if what others are “good at” is what you want to be good at. We don’t need to be all things to all people.
Find And Pursue Your Truth
When all is said and done the Liver King and George Santos lost sight of a very important fact of life: what we do and how we do it matters. The tricky part is taking the time and energy to discover what we want to do. This is a sticky and uncomfortable process, and without which we will wander this earth lost and unsure of ourselves. Additionally, understanding and pursuing your Truth becomes a life long and meaningful mission. When we live our lives in pursuit of other people’s truths we remain empty and hollow. We sacrifice who we are until the point that we become willing to violate whatever moral code we set for ourselves. Furthermore, it forces us into thinking that there is a “best”. We clamor over each other in pursuit of being at the top, when in reality there is no top, just another mountain to climb.
If you accept my premise, then why not climb the mountains you want to climb because you want to climb them. Let’s release ourselves from the extrinsic judgment of what is “better” or “best”. Is the University of Virginia better than Northern Virginia Community College? I think that depends on perspective and what a student’s ambitions are. Is being a lawyer better than delivering for Amazon? Again, this depends on what people want to do with their lives. Stay true to yourself and the impact you want to have on others, the rest will fall into place.
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