Archives for September 2016

College Admission: False Voices and Escape Strategies

Little kids love stories. But if you are going to truly entertain them, you have to really develop the villain. Since I went to UNC, I often base my antagonist in Durham. With the Blue Devils living there, it’s quite easy to build a series of stories around the devious King K plotting in his Gothic towers to corrupt the world through sinister back channels (and occasionally back injuries). In many of these bedtime yarns, K would whisper in the ear of a good guy how he can make him more powerful, or more rich, or more safe, etc., if he/she just joins the Devils. (Note: No dig here on Duke. Great school. It just works well in anecdote… and the architecture does lend itself to the role.)

At times my kids would literally yell to the protagonist, “No! Don’t do it!” or “Can’t you see what he’s trying to do?” And in these stories, it was incredibly obvious: K was playing on their fear, or exaggerating his powers, or trying to manipulate for his own gain. They identify and call this out immediately. And that’s the point. I can make it a fairly quick story and get out of the room. Brilliant!

Identifying Voices in Real Life

But, in real life, as you get older, the tenor, motivation, and transparency of the voices around you are not as easy to discern. Messages become more nuanced, and it’s easy to be confused because many times these sources seem credible. Nobody is literally dressing up in a Devil mascot outfit with a pitchfork trying to convince you to attend a certain school or pay for a particular service.

But “false voices” are in this process, so it’s important that you listen closely. Here are a few things to watch out for as you learn to identify those who speak the truth, and those who may not.

  •  Hyperbolic language: (The quotes in this section are actual phrases that have been used, not hypothetical examples). If someone around you is continually saying things like “disaster,” “panic,” “insane,” “stress,” or “peril,” you should be very cautious. To the best of my knowledge the world hasn’t ended during admission season, even when test scores are delayed, admission applications crash, or recommendation letters fail to load. You want people around you that provide solace, wisdom based upon experience, big picture data, and the power of options. Language of fear has no place in the admission profession, so consider any trace of that a red flag. While you would not do this during bedtime tales, it’s ok to physically run from “storytellers” like that.
  • Excessive Fees: If someone is charging you for their services, you should expect sound, expert, distinguished advice. This is a life lesson. You’d have high standards and a rigorous process for selecting a financial advisor or marriage counselor who is guiding you on your investments financially and relationally, right? The same is true in the admission process. And this is where the nuance occurs, because there are some very talented, experienced professionals in the admission process who will charge a reasonable fee to assist you in college list development, application packaging, scholarship navigation, etc. There are also some parents who just went through the process with their own kid who happened to get into “a good school” and now think they are an expert. If anyone is guaranteeing you admittance to a school, promising receipt of a specific selective scholarship, or implying they have a magic bullet in their “essay crafting,” you need to yell loudly in your own brain, “NO! Don’t do it!”
  • For Profit Schools: If you are considering attending a for profit school, I would urge you to read more about debt loads, graduation rates, recruitment tactics, and scratch well below the surface before enrolling.  Often the language you see in marketing and enrollment strategy from these institutions is highly exaggerated, both in what they deliver and the results of your degree.
  •  Test preparation: There is a wide misconception that because you pay for something it’s better. Absolutely false. Khan Academy has phenomenal free preparation material and ACT is partnering to develop opportunities for free or greatly reduced tutorial options. I encourage you to start with free options before exploring fee-based avenues; particularly those “guaranteeing” certain score increase ranges.  And if you are going to invest in test prep, do your homework. There are a lot of very reasonably priced local options, including community colleges and even private high schools. These typically charge less yet get similar results to the more corporate test prep industry entities.
  • The Media: Journalists are under immense pressure to turn stories around quickly and increase readership. This means that headlines are often dramatic and frequently articles don’t tell the complete story. For instance you’re almost never going to read that only about 100 schools in our nation admit less than 33% of applicants, and that the vast majority our nation’s 2000+ schools admit more than they deny. That story is not going to sell, so the “full story” goes unpublished. Again, some education beat writers are thorough, balanced, and excellent researchers. But if you see something in print/online about a school you are interested in, I implore you to go straight to the institution for clarity and perspective.
    Bonus Tip: You’re young. Save yourself. Don’t read or contribute to the comment section below these pieces, as they quickly devolve into petty, unrelated banter.

You’re 17 or 18 years old, so I am guessing saying things like:  “No! Don’t do it!” Or “Can’t you see what he’s trying to do!” are a bit too simplistic for you. So if someone is whispering drama, fear, and hyperbole in your ear, how about borrowing from one of my favorite songs?

Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley

“Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are/

Ha ha ha bless your soul You really think you’re in control/

Well, I think you’re crazy I think you’re crazy I think you’re crazy/

And then make a run for it!

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The Definitive College Admission Field Guide

Last week my kids had Fall Break. I’m not going to lie…. I went into it feeling pretty cynical. A: it’s not fall, and B: they really don’t need a break. Six weeks and then a week off. Come on, man. Soft.

But my wife wanted to be sure “we did something fun ‘FOR THEM.'” (She’s crafty like that.) So while I worked at the beginning of the week, I took the latter part off and headed to the lake to meet up with them and some friends. I drove alone late one night and got there in the pitch black dark. The whole way I was thinking about all the things I could be getting done at home. But when I woke up the next morning to the sun shining off the water, a good cup of coffee in my hand, and some built in entertainment for our kids, the switch flipped immediately. Just the latest in a long line of “You were right” moments in my life and marriage.

“You’re hungry? Grab some pretzels. I know it’s 9 a.m. Don’t care. I’m on vacation.” We took the boat out. The boys wake boarded and knee boarded and jumped between dueling tubes. Me? Snacked. Put my hat over my eyes and lounged. Finally, I got on the mega inflatable couch with the two 5-year old girls and then basked in the sun as they sang and danced to “Shut up and Dance with Me!” Didn’t question the lyrics or think about this same pair 10 years from now in bathing suits with boys next to them. Nope. I leaned back… and breathed.

Take a Breath

We all need that, right? Just a good, long, selfish breath. We get into patterns that are necessary but also tiresome: Wake up, head to school, go to practice, study. Rinse and repeat.

And in the admission process you need that breath, too. Same brochures coming each day with taglines only varying by verb tense, school colors, and font. Campus tours like death marches with polo clad, flip flop wearing guides citing the number of volumes in a library or the myriad flavors of ice cream available in the dining hall. College reps at fairs and at your school touting that they’re #23 for number benches on campus. And the beat drones on…

We feel your pain. And in a “lake moment” we decided to create the definitive “Admission Field Guide.” I hope you will find it different. And refreshing.

It’s created to help you navigate this year smoothly: to give you helpful tips for your application, essays, and interactions in the college admission process; to remind you to laugh and breath along the way; and ultimately to enable you to find the college that will help you thrive and achieve your goals.

Even if you don’t click on these links or watch the videos, I earnestly encourage you take breaks this year. Go to the lake (even if it’s figuratively). Dance and sing. Surround yourself with the people who know how to help YOU take care of YOU. At the end of the day I’ll be singing this: “Shut up and breathe with me!”

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The Rankings, meh….

Fall has arrived (well, almost). And with it comes college football. I have a friend who used to pick the best Saturday each year (in terms of match-ups) and invite a bunch of guys to his house. This was proudly coined the “Sit A–athon.” You accrued points by consuming food and drinks, but lost points by getting out of your seat. Points were deducted at higher rates based on the purpose of your absence, as well as the duration. It made for a day filled with cheering, heckling, and creative ways to win, which is appropriate for football itself, right?

I share this with you not to encourage duplication but simply to illustrate that I am a fan. A big fan. Someone who is often surrounded by others who have adamant opinions about which team is the best. And while I don’t always agree 100% with college football rankings from week to week, I do understand the basis for them: points scored, points allowed, home win vs. win on the road, strength of opponent, and obviously what else happens around the country– all basically valid when deciding on top talent and a comparison of talent. By about week five I’m willing to concede that there is a fundamental difference between number 20 and number 10.

College Rankings

Yesterday, US News and World Report released their annual rankings. Feel free to check out the link but the Clark’s Notes are: not much changed. Still have a bunch of Ivies and schools with old brick and stone ranked highly; no school with an undergraduate population above 10,000 until Cornell at #15; no public school until UC-Berkeley at #20.  A complete methodology is here, but quickly here is how it breaks down:

22.5% – Graduation and Retention rates –  How good of a job is the school doing a good job retaining, supporting, and graduating students?

22.5% –  Academic Reputation –  What do academic professionals from other colleges (Presidents, Provosts, Deans, etc.) and counselors on the high school level think about that school?

20.0% –  Faculty Resources –  How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?

12.5% –  Student Selectivity –  What were the school’s admit rate, test score averages, and number coming from the Top 10% out of high school?

10.0% –  Financial Resources –   What is the average per-student spending on instruction, research, student services, etc?

7.5% –  Graduation rate –  Did a school’s graduation rate outperform or underperform as it relates to how the US News would have expected?

5.0% –  Alumni Giving –  At what rate are alumni giving back to their alma mater?

Each year we hear stories from students who say they were not allowed to apply to schools ranked below the Top 25; or thought they could only apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school to which they were admitted.  That being said, I wanted to be sure you know how these rankings are formulated.

If you or someone advising you on the college admission process is pointing to the rankings as a source for differentiation, I encourage you to ask these questions:

  • Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)?
  • Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
  • Do I really think there is a difference in prestige/quality/experience between The (note definite article) University of Virginia and University of Michigan because of the three slot difference putting one inside and the other outside the Top 25?

Here’s Your Job

Your job as a student in the college admission process is to figure out what is most important for YOUR college experience. Admittedly, that job becomes more difficult with every glossy, shiny brochure that shows up essentially saying, “Look. We are all the same. We have happy, smiling students here who bask in the sunshine both on campus and while studying abroad.” So ask this first: why are you going to college? If you start by answering that, you come up with answers like: to explore more deeply inside and outside the classroom, to meet more people passionate about the things I care about, to get a job doing X, to learn more about a certain subject, to have fun, to go to grad school in Y, to spend time in a different part of the country, and so on.  That then leads you to narrow down your list because while School Z is highly ranked and despite the fact that they did send you a very clever email (or 12 perhaps), it is in the Midwest, or doesn’t have your major, or has an overabundance of students who looked frustrated and pale on the tour.

It’s important you keep that in mind too, because pretty soon you will start getting an entirely new round of marketing materials from schools touting their rankings. And your parents will be getting emails with press releases and solicitations to buy books or magazines (or more likely online subscriptions or logins to both) with these lists and seemingly infinite subgroupings. Before you use (or are pressured to use) rankings to make a college list or draw some draconian line, and especially when you are sitting on offers of admission and considering where to attend next year, I implore you to consider:

  1. If a college is perfect in a great location, has a dynamic student body, is a good academic fit, but ranks ten spots below another, should a rank (based on the factors above) matter?
  2. If the school is outside the Top 100 but is offering me a scholarship and has graduates thriving in the field I want to pursue, should I turn it down for a higher ranked but less affordable option?

You want colleges to understand that a test score does not define you. And you would not want 50 points difference to be the reason one student is chosen over another. Similarly, I’d assert that selecting a school on a number is equally myopic.  But most importantly I challenge anyone answering “Yes” to those last questions to debate me in the First Annual Sit Admi–ionsathon.

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On the Road Again…

This week I’ve been on the road traveling to spread the good word about Georgia Tech, or as I say, “Preaching the GT gospel.”

I love this part of my job, even though I don’t get to do it as much as I used to. There are many days when I’m in a meeting with a task force, committee, or commission and people are endlessly using phrases like “at the end of the day” or “synergy.” During those times, I find myself wishing I was waking up to a complimentary hotel breakfast and signing in at a high school to talk to students.

I’ve always thought that high school is one of the most critical times in a person’s life because of the implications it has on where you go, what you do, who you know, and how you ultimately see and experience the world. This is a huge part of why I got into college admission. What can I say? People have to work hard to stay interesting and optimistic as they get older– and most don’t. Conversely, the energy, enthusiasm and hope of teenagers and college students is contagious.

Since lots of college reps are about to come through your doors for visits or college fairs, I wanted to take some time to give you a few tips on how to maximize your time with these counselors.

  1. Do your homework. “What?! School just started and I’m taking 6 APs! You’re telling me I’ve got homework for college admission too?” Yep. Before a college visits your school, check out the programs that interest you about them. What do you want to do outside the classroom? Outdoor recreation, band, etc.? Research these. Then when they ask you what you want to know about, you’ll be ready. (If they’re not asking you that, see Tip 3 below).
  2. Shake their hand and introduce yourself. Pretty basic. You’re not doing this to advantage yourself in the admission process. Most the time they won’t remember your name from your handshake, since they’re also seeing 8 or 20 other students in that session. But it sets you up for questions later in the session and follow up in the future. Remember- this is the college admission PROCESS, and often it starts here.
  3. Interrupt. Yep, I said it. Too many admission counselors basically pull an invisible chain in their back and go into a useless spiel about study abroad, inter-disciplinary curriculum, and statements like “We have 400 clubs and activities. But if we don’t have what you want to do, just grab a friend and a professor and you can start one.” This is when the teacher’s voice from the Charlie Brown starts rattling around in my head. Your job is to throw them off script. They’re only there for 45 minutes. Make it worthwhile. Ask questions like “What are one or two things about your college that only a handful in the nation can also claim?” OR in a different version, “What makes your school unique?” “Why should someone from my city or state pick your school over the many similar in size and culture that are closer, further, less expensive, higher ranked, etc (you insert the appropriate descriptor).”
  4. Stay after or follow up. Sometimes you’ll have to leave immediately following the presentation. If that is the case, send a quick email to the rep thanking them for coming and letting them know if you have plans to visit their campus. Or wait until you apply and then send an email to say, “Hey. I really appreciate you coming to my school in September. Just wanted you to know I am really excited about Charlie Brown U and I have just applied.” (Don’t copy and paste that. I’m far more confident in your writing abilities than mine on this). But if you can stay after, be sure to get your questions in, remind them of your name, and then follow up as described above.
  5. BONUS: These folks are traveling. They’re hitting five schools a day, eating in their car, and trying to follow WAZE while not denting the rental car. Help them out. Give them a tip on a local restaurant for lunch or dinner. Tell them a good place to shop in the area or a park nearby if they want to go for a run. They’re just people. They appreciate that type of stuff. And it breaks both of you out of the normal college admission relationship that too often becomes robotic.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: No one person holds a corner on the market for what a school is really like or really about. You may find the rep hilarious. Doesn’t mean anyone else on that campus is- they may not even be an alum. You may find the rep really cute. That relationship isn’t going anywhere, and it’s definitely not a good way to pick a school. Or, you may find the rep dull and indifferent. Don’t let their personality (or a tour guide’s for that matter) be the reason you rule a school in or out.

Think about it like this: if you are looking at a school of 20,000, it’s basically a small city. Nobody speaks completely for that town. Your job in the process is to get as much info as possible to make a good decision on the best fit school for you. You can start with engaging the representative as we discussed here, but remember, your ultimate goal before you apply or choose any school is to talk to as many people as possible; alumni, current students, professors, and so on.

I hope that you’ll enjoy the college reps that you meet this year. Remember: You can make them better at telling their school’s story if you follow these tips. And ultimately, that is going to help you, your classmates, the other students they visit, as well as them as professionals in the long run too.