Will saying I’m a blueberry get me into college? Supplemental Essays 101

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome back, Katie!

I considered titling this post “Secrets to the Supplemental Essay,” but doing that goes against all I believe in. In my experience, the phrase “Secrets to…” in an admission post is almost always a blatant example of click bait and philosophically, I just don’t buy it.

There is no secret that will guarantee admission in a holistic review process. But there are ways to make your application stronger, so keep reading! You can still make good decisions, dare I say better decisions, as you craft your answers to your short essays, which will be beneficial both to you and to the admission committee.

So that we are all on the same page, I am not talking about the personal statement or main essay many colleges require.  I am speaking to the additional short answer or supplemental essay questions that often ask you to talk about why you are applying to the specific college or to give your thoughts on a prompt (one that is separate from the main, long essay).  Not all colleges or universities have supplemental questions, but if they do, you should take them seriously.

Supplemental essay questions can seem like the red-headed stepchild of the college application.  Seminars, camps, coaches, teachers, counselors, and peers spend A LOT of time talking about the activities section and main essay prompts on the college application.  Very little time is spent speaking about a short answer or supplemental essay response.  This small but mighty paragraph plays a stronger role than you might expect in the holistic admission process. I want to give it the respect and time it deserves—as should you!

See it for what it is—an opportunity to keep talking!

If I asked a group of students to raise their hand if they wanted to have a cup of coffee with me and just talk, all the hands in the room would shoot up.  If I ask the same group if they want to write another essay, most hands would go down.  I might even hear crickets.  I get it.  Seniors are busy and tired.  They are certainly tired of writing college essays.  But a supplemental essay is another way to talk to the admission committee.  Instead of rolling your eyes that, yes, you need to write something else, think about it like this:

  • What have I not had a chance to say?
  • If I don’t write this, what won’t they know about me?
  • Wow, thank goodness I have a few more lines to talk!

Does it really matter what type of fruit I am?

You may get a really out-there supplemental question, and yes, you should still answer it well.  I have seen all sorts of “creative” questions ranging from How are you like a chocolate chip cookie? to What three items would you want on a deserted island? and, the notorious, If you were a fruit, what would you be and why?

If you are tempted to not spend time on the answer or to get a little snarky in your response, don’t.  Remember, this is an opportunity! Someone on the admission committee will read your response, so enjoy creating the answer.  The purpose of this question is to understand how you think and give the committee a glimpse into your personality.  Whether you think you are blueberry, you would die without sunscreen, water bottle and your cat, or–like a cookie in the oven–you turn out well under pressure, the answer itself does not really matter.  At the end of the paragraph, they will know you better, and you don’t want to miss that opportunity.

Sorry to break this to you—you can’t cram for the “Why Our College?” question.

Many of these short answer questions will ask why you want to attend their college. It is understandable. A college doesn’t want to give up a seat in their class without discerning if a student actually wants to be there, or if they are just trying to collect acceptances. Scanning the college website to glean some key words or phrases to include in your answer is not enough.  Any admission counselor worth their salt knows immediately if you are just regurgitating the first paragraph from the “about” section of the website.

To answer this question well, you need to research, and real research starts with curiosity.

  • What intrigues you about this college?
  • What made you search and click and dive deeper?
  • What about this college piqued your interest to begin with and what have you learned that kept this college on your list?
  • What research specialty, unique program or offering makes you want to know more?

Those thoughtful reflections are the “secret” to answering a question focused on the college itself.

Low Hanging Fruit

CHECK THE NAME!  If you use the name of the college, university or institute in the supplemental essay, get the name right.  Will “college” vs. “university” seal your decision fate? No. Will it reflect the time and care you put into your application?  Yes!  I have seen brilliant, perfect-test-scoring, straight-A students not spell or even come close to typing the correct name on a short answer question.

This gives me pause. Again, it doesn’t sink an application because most admission officers are not cruel people. We realize many seniors are worn thin and have many priorities on their plates.  But it does plant the seed of doubt—are they genuinely interested? Since many times, supplemental essays are the last piece of an application reviewed, is that the impression you want to leave with the committee?  Probably not. That being said,  proof this writing piece as thoroughly as your main essay!

Parting Thoughts

I tell every student who will listen, “Write your supplemental essay.  Go to bed.  Read it again the next day.”  Students spend an inordinate amount of time stressing, dissecting and proofing their activities and main essays.  Then at the end of the process, when they are exhausted, they throw something down for the supplementals and hit submit. Give that puppy a once over in the light of day to see if it is well written.

This advice really aligns with my over-arching guidance for all high schoolers—take a beat!  Yes, there is work you must do, but when you can, as frequently as you can, schedule a breather.  I believe student work, and especially college application work, is better if you have a chance to review it with a clear head. So, if completing your college application just involved a Google search for “all the different kinds of fruit”, smile, take a deep breath and enjoy the process.  We can’t wait to read what you have to say!

Katie Mattli has worked in college admission for over 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2014 where she works with underrepresented minority recruitment focusing on female, first generation, African American and Hispanic recruitment efforts. Her previous years at a private liberal arts college for women fueled her love of student leadership and advocacy.

 

 

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(A College) Search of Greatness

A few weeks ago I watched In Search of Greatness, a documentary featuring some of history’s best known and most accomplished athletes, including Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Pele. It covers their backgrounds, motivations, challenges, unconventional styles, and inimitable spirit.

I’ve engaged in some vehement debates with friends about who was the “greatest of the greats,” but we all agreed on one thing: seeing true greatness in action is a rare privilege. Over the course of the last decade, that’s exactly the position I have been in serving under our now outgoing president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson.

Anyone who saw MJ at the height of his game or watched Pele play loves to tell stories about “that day” or “that game” because indelible moments leave lasting impressions. As Peterson prepares to retire from Georgia Tech, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned from his leadership.

Engage Fully

Move-in day in August is one of my favorites of the year. It’s gratifying (and frankly relieving) to see students arrive on campus. When numbers on spreadsheets and essays on applications manifest themselves in actual people with cars filled with boxes of shoes, bedding, and neatly packed toiletries, I may say, “Welcome to campus!” but I’m really thinking, “Phew. Thank God. I get to do this for at least one more year.”

The incoming class in 2009 was the first I brought in as director and happened to be Peterson’s first fall on campus as well. I was invited to join a group of administrators who were helping students unload cars at the residence halls.

Along with student volunteers, we greeted cars as they pulled up on the street outside residence halls and helped them unload from the curb. Doors would open, trunks would lift, and a swarm of movers would descend upon the wide-eyed family’s vehicle. It was hot and there was a steady stream of cars.

Many leaders would see move-in day merely as a photo opp. Grab a shoe box or some hanging clothes, shake a few hands, and wait for the article to be written up. But invariably, President Peterson would grab the mini fridge in the back of the car or the largest and heaviest box he could find and bound through the doors of the dorm and up two flights of stairs before the student’s younger brother even got out of the car.  Peterson has never been about appearance. He approached that minor activity the same way he consistently operates—fully engaged and invested.

Your Takeaway

The admission process will Jedi-mind trick you with dates, deadlines, applications, decisions, seemingly dry or mechanical components, and an endless deluge of emails and brochures in your mailbox. It’s easy and understandable to look at the 16th  college tour of the summer or another supplemental essay you have to write merely as a task to be done or an inconvenience in the midst of your busy life.

Peterson’s was formally recognized last week in the form of a $17 million endowment in his honor to help students with financial need.

My hope is you will follow Peterson’s lead and fully engage. Approach this not as a process, but rather as an experience—an opportunity to grow and learn. Instead of simply listing and describing what you’ve done on the extra-curricular section of applications, give real thought as to why you participated and what you learned. What did you get out of being on the swim team? Why did you join the Spanish club? How did it shape and change you? And do you want to broaden, deepen, or discontinue that involvement in college?

Don’t just ask teachers for recommendations. Take the opportunity to thank them for their time and effort. Share what you learned in the course and how it’s helped or impacted you. College applications should not be treated only as a vehicle for delivering information to schools. If you fully engage, they actually have the potential to be an exercise in reflecting on your high school career and assessing how your experience directs you in the future, regardless of where you end up going to college.  Engage Fully!

Ask Simple Questions

While there are many anecdotes I could recount, one of the most poignant occurred when President Peterson learned I was considering a position at another university. The title was higher, the portfolio was bigger, and the salary was larger.

He invited me to sit down and discuss the opportunity. After he shared a similar story from his career he said, “Really, there is just one thing to consider.” I waited expectantly, convinced this would be my answer, and he had the pearl of wisdom I needed to make a decision. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I want that job?’” He did not try to convince me one way or another. He did not encourage me to build a big spreadsheet of pros and cons or attempt to strategically analyze how this may impact my long-term career. Instead, he asked me to consider the perfect question—one that triggered a series of others I needed to reflect upon: Is this a fit? Where will I thrive? His question helped me tune out external pressures, opinions, and perceived factors and to be honest about what I really wanted…and why.

Your take-away

Too many students follow the crowd in the admission process. They apply to the same schools their siblings or friends applied to. They only consider local options or the most popular colleges in their region. They want to please their parents or feel like they must go to the most selective or highly ranked school to which they are admitted.

In the past we’ve written about asking better questions and even asking the same questions again and again. I stand by that advice, but to take a page out of Peterson’s book, my hope is throughout your admission experience you will continually ask the most important question: “Is this for me?”

When you are on a college campus listening to an admission officer or tour guide or academic advisor, ask, “Is this for me?” When you put together the list of colleges to apply to, ask, “Am I applying here for someone else or is this for me?”  When you are selecting a major or deciding what topic to choose for your essay or making a final college choice, ask, “What are the outside pressures I am feeling? Is this being pushed on me, or is this really for me?”

Around November of the first year (sometimes earlier) many students begin to question their college choice. They spend consecutive nights endlessly scrolling Instagram or visiting friends at other schools and returning to a dark dorm room believing they made a mistake. Sometimes this happens because they limited their admission experience to a process and simply went through the motions. They “ended up” somewhere rather than choosing it. Outside factors and pressures corrupted an honest, intentional, introspective experience. I hope you’ll have both the courage and confidence to ask, “Is this for me?”  Ask Simple Questions!

Family First

President Peterson has four (now adult) children of his own. He and his wife, Val, have fostered nine others. If you are around him long enough, you’ll hear him recount stories about conversations with President Obama, Fortune 100 CEO’s, and some of our nation’s highest-ranking military officials. He will passionately discuss thermodynamics or complex engineering concepts. But I’ve seen his greatest joy come as he’s shared simple stories about his kids and their families.

One day, early in Peterson’s tenure at Tech, we were informed of an admitted student who died in an automobile accident while driving his sister to school. We learned these were the only two children in this particular family. He invited me to his office to learn more and discuss the situation, as this was an admitted, not an enrolled or current, student.

I explained that traditionally I took care of writing to families during the admitted stage. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, then slightly shook his head and said, “You know, Rick. I’ve had a lot of titles in my life: professor, dean, provost, Chancellor, but by far the one I cherish the most is ‘father.’ I simply cannot imagine how these parents are feeling tonight.”

He wrote the letter that day. I went home, hugged my wife, and slept on the floor next to our son’s crib.

Your take-away

After sitting at the intersection between high school and college for the last 20 years, I’m convinced that at its core the admission experience is fundamentally about family. Admission officers rattle off factors and stats and dates that appear quantifiable.  Students and parents focus on elements like grades and test scores and decisions and money and other elements that appear to be sterile. The truth is the admission experience is not defined numbers but is instead deeply relational. It is rooted in both individual and collective hopes and dreams.

Visiting and applying to colleges, handling decisions, weighing options, and ultimately arriving on a campus provides an opportunity to connect rather than divide; to trust each other rather than be paranoid and skeptical about how decisions will turn out; to control what you can control—how you treat and love one another. Family First!

In Search of Greatness

Georgia Tech’s motto is “Progress and Service.” I like to modify it when talking to students and our team to “Progress (not perfection) and Service.” If you watch the documentary, you’ll notice each of the stars talks at length about losses, setbacks, challenges and difficult moments. Clearly, the refusal to accept the status quo and the desire to continually refine and improve is a commonality among the greats.

I hope you’ll take a similar approach to your next year of high school and keep that mentality as you enter college. Nobody expects perfection from you, even though at times it may feel that way. They simply see your greatness and want you to strive for it. Similarly, I cannot offer you a perfect way to go through your college experience, because it’s your experience. I can only encourage you to Engage Fully, Ask Simple Questions, and keep Family First.

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Sports Metaphors and College Admission

This week we welcome Senior Associate Director of Admission Mary Tipton Woolley to the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

I’m doing what we tell students not to do in their essay—writing about how sports are a parallel to life. But please indulge me for a minute. In fact, if you want to skip past my life story and get to the point of this blog, feel free to go straight to paragraph number five.

My daughter is seven. Since she was three we’ve joined countless other parents in trying out various local sport leagues. Why? The common refrain among parents is that we want him/her to have the experience of playing on a team. It typically ends with a phrase such as, “just like I did as a kid” (more on that later). First we, er… I mean she… tried soccer. Nothing says ‘team’ like a herd of three year olds running in a pack after the ball with one inevitably picking daisies in the corner of the field. By the time the kids turned 5 and pushing/shoving became more prevalent, mine decided she had enough of others up in her personal space.

Next, she decided to join our neighborhood swim team, and we were introduced to the production that is summer swim team in neighborhoods all over Atlanta. Swim lessons have vexed me her whole life. Unless you believe your child is the next Michael Phelps and want them to swim year round in a club, finding swim lessons that fit the schedule of two working parents is more difficult than getting tickets to Hamilton. Even knowing her swimming skills weren’t great, we dove right in (see what I did there?) to putting her on the team.

Finally, in a truly bold move, she decided to play softball. She didn’t know anyone who had played, none of her friends were doing it, and she would be the youngest in a combined 6U/8U league. In an even more shocking twist, I think she got the idea from me (likely one of the few things in her life she thought was a good idea from mom!). After she got hit in the face during tryouts by an equally inexperienced 6-year old, I thought she was done. But she persevered. We were introduced to a fielder’s mask and off she went!

It’s Not My Journey

So, what have I learned over the last few years? Most importantly, this is my daughter’s journey–not mine. Ugh – that’s a hard lesson that I’m confident I will have to learn over and over. I should confess now that she took two seasons of softball to get a hit, which finally came in the last game this spring (where she got three!). She also started the season as the slowest member of her swim team, and I’m editing this while I watch her swim in our city-wide meet at a real Olympic pool at Georgia Tech (where she finished 45 of 46).

Despite, or due to, this she is having fun, making new friends, listening to her coaches, improving and showing lots of signs of resiliency and bravery! These are all traits I can get behind – even if it isn’t the same path as mine. In fact, I’m working on getting behind them because it isn’t the same path as mine.

While my daughter may not be getting ready for college applications just yet, I do see similarities between this season of parenting and the one I’ll face in 10 years when she’s 17. I’ve worked with a lot of families as they’ve navigated the admission process, and here are a few takeaways for both parents and students as college admission season gets cranked up.

To Parents:

I’m sure you have similar memories of your student’s younger years, whether it’s sports teams, music lessons, or chess club. As parents of children in the midst of their college search, these same lessons apply but are often harder to remember, especially since it feels like more is on the line. It’s okay for your student to seek out different schools than the one you attended – they may even have a list that’s entirely different than yours! Ultimately, that’s a good thing.

This journey belongs to your student, and, just like these early life experiences, it can be humbling for a parent. Instead of focusing on the bumper sticker you want, focus on the experience your student is having in high school and what is really going to be the best fit for them in college.

Sit down and talk to your student about what they are looking for in a college. Questions about size and location are obvious. Some others to consider are:

  • How do you want to be involved on campus?
  • How do you want to remember your time in college?
  • What are you most looking forward to in your college experience?
  • Who do you want to be in college?
  • What kind of life are you expecting after college?

You should also visit campuses together as a family. If you can’t travel to a specific college due to distance, visiting local schools can still be helpful. Sit back and let your student take the lead on those visits – your focus should be on watching their reaction. What’s their body language? Are they smiling? Do they want to stay and see more than the tour covers or are they ready to leave immediately? Answers to these questions can help you as a parent gauge how truly interested, and engaged, your student could be at that particular school.

To Students:

Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell your family what you want out of a college experience. I know, that’s sometimes easier said than done.  But it is going to be your college experience for the next four years.

  • Ask good questions during your campus visit.
  • Consider each college’s mission and think about how it fits with what you’re looking for in your experience.
  • Talk to your parents, and discuss any legitimate constraints for your college search, especially surrounding finances. Having an honest conversation now can save a lot of stress down the road.

Finally, utilize resources you have at your disposal to figure out what you want in a college experience. High school counselors, friends and older students already in college are great resources. I’m always impressed by the clarity college students seem to have about the search process, despite how stressed they may have been when going through the process themselves. Hindsight is 20/20, so don’t be afraid to talk to those around you and learn from their experiences!

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“Cracking” The College Admission Code

Much of the media, gossip, and general conversation surrounding the college admission process includes words like “dates, deadlines, decisions,” or perhaps “stress” and “anxiety.” It does not have to be that way. The admission experience can be just that: an adventure- an opportunity to grow and a time to explore and discover. You just have to be willing to travel, twist, and trust.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to China. In the period of 10 days, we covered a few thousand miles and seven different cities.  On my last day in Shanghai, before boarding a 14-hour flight home, a friend who lives 60 miles outside the city invited me to come for the day promising, “Good food, good conversation, and the best massage in China.” Sure. It would have been easier to stay in Shanghai, but I was intrigued, so I followed his directions through the busy train stations and met him in Suzhou (Go check out the incredible gardens there, if you ever have the chance).

He delivered on his promise. Great food, a low key day touring the city, an opportunity to meet his wife and mother-in-law, and to cap it off a 90- minute massage that cost a grand total of $20. After sipping tea (literally- not the term), soaking our feet, and enjoying/enduring some much needed work on my neck and lower back, he looked over at me on the table and said, “Do you trust me?” In my stupor, and with a masseuse’s elbow squarely in my shoulder blade, I managed to nod and almost inaudibly reply, “Yes.” (Leaving my lips it sounded more like a question than an answer.)

He said something in Mandarin and within the minute two extremely muscular guys walked into the room. Understanding the international hand motion for “sit up,” I complied. Before I knew it, one of them had my hands interlaced behind my head and my arms up in a butterfly position. Quickly and expertly he grabbed and twisted my elbows. Every vertebrate in my spine cracked. I gulped hard. Instantly, he raised my arms again, repositioned me, and twisted the other direction. I threw my head back, simultaneously opened my eyes and mouth wide, and borderline yelled, “Whao! Holy cow! (Possibly the PG-13 version),” which caused my friend and the other masseuse to erupt in laughter. Once I realized I was not paralyzed, it felt amazing– refreshed, rejuvenated, and relaxed all at the same time. I would never have signed up for that in the States. In fact, if he’d explained all of this to me in English ahead of time, I’d have passed on it for sure.

I’m not sending professional “back crackers” to your house or school (although that would be both weird and kind of awesome if I could), but I am hoping your admission experience will be like my day in Suzhou.

Travel– Go visit as many schools as you can. If you have not already read this on our blog or heard it from a school counselor, consider yourself told (or “done told”). These don’t have to be 12 day blitzkriegs where you see 37 different places. Pull off the highway when you see a college’s sign or tag on an extra day or two to a trip this summer. The college admission experience offers you the opportunity to see new places, experience new cities or states, and consider who you really are and what you want from college and beyond.

Don’t just stick to the “Shanghais.” In other words, don’t limit the colleges you visit only to the big or popular or best known schools in your state or region. Don’t let someone else’s list or ranking dictate your decisions or thought process.

Go to Suzhou. When you are driving between the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky, swing over to see Centre College. When you are on your way to U Penn stop by Muhlenberg College (Insert your regionally appropriate example here).

Be willing to “go there” figuratively as well. If the list of schools you’ve visited or are researching doesn’t have one or two “surprises” on it, I’d argue you’re limiting yourself and the potential for discovery, adventure, and growth. Look beyond the colleges you constantly see around you on t-shirts and window decals, or playing sports on TV. If you will do that, it’s fine to end up at your state’s flagship or a university that has a Shanghai-like brand or name. But don’t throw away brochures that arrive in your mailbox or inbox just because you’ve never heard of them. Be confident enough to think through what you want and need from a college experience (and how those two differ), and then honestly match those to individual school cultures.

I could not tell you what I did last Wednesday. Probably took the train to work, wrote some emails, and washed dishes. But I can tell you in detail about my day in Suzhou- and I expect I’ll be able to years from now as well. Take some detours. Inconvenience yourself. Be willing to take the path less traveled. Don’t shortchange yourself in this unique time and experience. Travel!

Twist– When you apply to college, you’re definitely putting yourself out there. It’s kind of like sitting up on a massage table and allowing a man three times your size to crack your back. I hope you’ll keep that image in your mind as you apply to college and receive admission decisions and financial aid packages. Well… maybe not that image exactly, but the concept. There can be moments of pain or discomfort but that is not necessarily a bad thing, if you commit to keeping a long- term, big picture perspective.

As an example, this year we pulled over 300 students into our class from the waitlist. Many of those kids applied in October, were deferred in January, and then were waitlisted in March, before ultimately getting an offer in May. Is that a bit painful? Absolutely. Just typing that makes me wince a little. But I’ve met some of those students over the last week, since our summer term began. I’m seeing a lot of smiles (and good posture).

Still not convinced? This fall we are enrolling 600 transfer students. Well over half of those students applied for first year admission. Some were denied initially and went elsewhere. Others were admitted and could not afford to attend, but are now coming after attending a more affordable option for the first year or two.

I hope you will be willing to raise your arms, interlace your fingers behind your head, and endure some proverbial back cracking. Twisting is not breaking. The truth is that too many students get their feelings hurt when they are deferred admission or waitlisted. Too many families become angry or insulted when they don’t get that invitation to the honors program or other perceived merit- based option at a particular school. Getting denied admission or “passed over” for a scholarship is not a dead end, it’s just rerouting you to a different adventure. Twist!

Trust- A few years ago I was helping students move into residence halls. As I entered the building I saw a father out of the corner of my eye who I had met before. I remembered him clearly because a few years earlier he had been in the office yelling at me for denying his son’s admission (you seem not to forget those types of interactions).

I put the box down in the room of the student I was helping, wished her a good year, and then wiped the sweat from my brow. While the box was heavy and I had just basically sprinted up two flights of stairs, the perspiration was from that memory. Heading back out the front door (side door was locked) I scanned the lawn. Whew! He was gone.

Then… a hand on my shoulder. “Oh… Hi. How are you?” I managed to say in feigned surprise. After talking for a few minutes, his wife came up with their two sons. Unbeknownst to me, the younger brother had been admitted to Tech and was starting his first year. The older son explained he had chosen a smaller school and was now a rising senior majoring in business.

“Could not have been a better choice,” the father added, and then went on to proudly describe his son’s summer internship and added he already had a job offer waiting upon graduation.”

It’s understandable to be a little nervous or anxious about this whole college thing. You’re not crazy and there is nothing I can say, write or sing to make you totally trust me. Plus, I’ve learned folks don’t like hearing, “this is all going to work out.” But it’s kind of like standing in line for a big roller coaster. If you only see the drops and hear the screams, it’s natural to be scared. But watch the people coming off the ride. They’re “high-fiveing” and talking about how great it was. Trust them. Go to your high school’s graduation. Talk to graduates at the pool or a game this summer. Did their admission experience go exactly as they’d expected? Are they going to the school they thought they would be a year or two ago? Occasionally, perhaps. But I’d assert the most confident and excited traveled and twisted a bit along the way. Trust!

 

 

 

 

Same Boat, Different Missions

Last weekend our daughter spent the night out, which meant our 11-year-old got to pick the movie without having to compromise (the first three syllable word he was forced to learn).

He immediately began scrolling through superhero movies and ultimately landed on Captain America- The Winter Soldier. Highlights include seeing Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson share the screen, as well as a few truly incredible chase and fight scenes. The trade-off is you end up having to explain to a rising 5th grader that winning WWII took a lot more than an amazing ricocheting shield.

Photo credit: Microsoft.com

In one of the first scenes, Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) are sent to free hostages aboard a ship. During the battle, Rogers realizes Romanoff has diverged to complete another mission– extracting data onto a jump drive from the ship’s computers for S.H.I.E.L.D boss, Nick Fury.

This scene not only sets the stage for the entire plot (and encapsulates the complex relationship between Rogers and Romanoff), but also illustrates the differing missions and motivations of high school counselors and college admission officers. Let me explain…

High school counselors are Captain America.

If you know Steve Rogers’ background, you’ll recall he volunteered to give his life and body to his country. He was transformed through an experiment into a super soldier. His quest is always to serve, protect, and advocate. There is no second mission or ulterior motive. He’s always going to choose and focus on people.

The same is true for high school counselors. This is why they spend countless hours at school, wear far too many hats for too little pay, and still find, or make, time to go to games, dances, performances, and graduation celebrations. Like Captain America they are uniquely made and fully committed.

Admission officers, deans, and directors are Black Widow.

Still a super hero… but it gets complicated.  They care about people. They want students to be happy, healthy, and successful, and they spend a lot of time in Hampton Inns eating extremely questionable breakfasts to prove it. Their direction comes from S.H.I.E.L.D. (read: an institution). They are not independent agents. Their measurement of success and ultimate objective is getting that jump drive. Save as many people as  you can along the way, but the data and numbers are the supreme mission.

For many years, people have described admission officers and school counselors as working on either “side of the desk.” Frankly, I think it’s time to Marvelize the dynamic to “same boat: different missions.”

Over the last two years, I’ve co-authored a book to guide families through the college admission experience with my friend and colleague Brennan Barnard, a school counselor who is also the college admission program manager for Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project. As a result, we talk regularly about various components of this intersection between high school and college, and have written before on the varying perspectives on our field and work. He has helped me appreciate and consider how admission messages, decisions, and policies play out “on the ground” in school communities.

To Serve and Protect

He may not wield a shield, but you can hear his Captain America serve and protect mentality in our email exchange about UVA’s recent announcement to reinstate a binding Early Decision application plan with a deadline of October 15.

“October 15th for a seventeen-year-old student to decide where they want to go to college? I feel the same way about this as I do about back to school sales at the end of June, snow blowers for sale in August,” (he’s from New Hampshire, so this one was kind of lost on me), “or Halloween decorations in stores before Labor Day.”

When the UVA made their announcement, he talked at length about issues surrounding access and equity, rightly pointing out that under-resourced students often do not know about early deadlines, nor do they have the ability to visit multiple colleges to appropriately weigh their options.

He also pointed out the anxiety he and his colleagues on the secondary side observe in their schools and how he sees the move to earlier applications as part of the problem. Frankly, he’s a better writer than me, so I’m just going to hand it off here:

“It is no secret that mental health is a huge concern on college campuses and in high schools as well. In a recent NPR interview, the authors of “The Stressed Years of the Lives” identify college admission as one of the primary stressors for young people. It aligns with evidence found at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project about achievement pressure and concern for others and the common good in college admission. While Early Decision is not the singular cause of stress, it certainly contributes to the arms race and students feeling that they need to game the process.

Increasingly students are asking “where” they will go to college before they even answer “why” they are going, because they know the reality of acceptance rates. All we have been learning about brain development and decision-making suggests that, if anything, we should be giving them more time! We need further national research on retention rates, freshman year GPAs, mental health struggles and other indicators, split out by students who came in through early and regular application, including demographic information.

Early Decision has the unintended consequence of pushing everything earlier in high school and is rendering the senior year impotent. Not only do we see students obsessing over college in 9th and 10th grades, but the second half of senior year looks really different when more than half a class is already into college by December.”

Same Boat, Different Mission

As an admission director (aka Black Widow), I join in his concern about equity, stress, and senioritis. I absolutely care. My colleagues on other college campuses care as well. We want to save everyone on the boat. But ultimately S.H.I.E.L.D. is telling us to get that jump drive. Our job is to bring in a class of students who will succeed academically, proliferate the brand of the college, and ensure the revenue generated by tuition is in line with the overall budget.

Note guy in back right. Told you someone always has an eye on the data.

This is an unprecedented time in college admission (and I’m not referring to the Varsity Blues scandal). As author Jeff Selingo discusses in “How the Great Recession Changed Higher Education Forever,” state appropriations for public universities have continually been reduced. As a result, publics with the regional and national brand to attract non-residents made up for their budget shortfall by looking out of state for more students. The population is declining and will continue to do so in the Midwest and New England. In response, population dense California now has almost 200 representatives from institutions outside the state who live and recruit there, including regional admission directors.

A growing number of colleges are closing their doors or re-examining their mission and viability. In “The Higher Education Apocalypse,” Lauren Camera outlines these challenges and highlights specific cases. She also cites Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who predicts that as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.

One way to protect your class (and tuition revenue) is to install a binding ED plan. Is it a perfect or fair solution? No. Are there sometimes other motivations for having an ED process? Yes, of course. It can serve to lower admit rate, increase yield, and could have implications for some of the methodology within US News rankings. (Why do all of those caveats feel like the end of a commercial for pills combating the other type of ED?)

Is UVA in danger of closing? No. They have a different challenge. Since 2008 applications for first-year admission have more than doubled. You know what hasn’t mirrored that growth? Their staff size. As the director of admission at Georgia Tech, I can relate, because over the last decade our story has been similar.

Running a holistic admission process demands time, and a lot of it. Understanding the differences between school grading scales and curriculum takes time. Reading essays and understanding how a student’s high school experience has prepared them for college takes time. If we were just plugging test scores and GPAs into a formula, we could turn decisions around in a day. But, in a simplistic example, that would mean a student with a 1400 and no demonstrated impact on his community edges out the team captain, hospital volunteer, all-around good person with a 1390. Nobody wants that (except the uninvolved 1400 kid).

Ultimately, we set a deadline. Whether that be November 15 or October 15, basically nobody applies until three days before that date. In fact, there are typically more applications submitted four hours before the deadline than four days ahead of it. Once those applications are in, we are on the clock. Financial Aid is breathing down our neck so they can package students. Academic departments want to contact students. And there is a constant concern (particularly among the board, administration, or boisterous alumni) that other institutions are moving faster, releasing decisions more quickly, and taking our applicants.

If staff size is not changing, and application volume is increasing, what can we change? The timeline. Spread out the submission of applications. One solution is to move the deadline up. One solution is to employ ED. In the case of UVA, it was both.

Do I see the challenges this may present? Absolutely. As an institution with an October 15 deadline, I hear them every year.

Agree to Disagree

Brennan’s take is this, “Let’s face it, early deadlines for college admission really are designed to benefit colleges not students. Sure, it is nice for some kids to know early in their senior year that they have a college acceptance locked in. But that nicety is far outweighed by the myriad reasons why the creep of early applications is detrimental–Early Decision being the worst of these evils.” (He expounds on our conversation in Forbes.)

My response?

Black Widow: The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.

Captain AmericaThat’s a tough way to live.

Black WidowIt’s a good way not to die, though.

I told you it was complicated.

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