Archives for October 2017

Be Batman! 

This picture of my son came up earlier this week as a Facebook memory from a few years ago. You might think given the timing it was because he was getting ready for Halloween. Nope. For about a two year period, no matter where we went, he dressed like a superhero. Perhaps we should have tried harder to curb the habit, but in parenting like in life, you have to pick your battles. And this was not a hill I was going to die on.

Want to dress like Spider-Man for our ride to North Carolina? Fine. Going to wear the firefighter helmet and a cape to church? Whatever. So this picture from our local Waffle House was not a one-off occurrence. It was a pattern (and in hindsight an incredibly beautiful one). But the regularity of our visits to WaHo became apparent when a few of the servers started making requests on his next costume. “Bring back Green Lantern!” and “We want The Flash!”

I distinctly remember taking this picture because I was actually wearing a Captain America costume (long story) and because of something one of the cooks asked him over the counter: “Where is Batman?”  Without fail, when he’d wear his Robin costume this was the prevalent question. Interestingly, however, nobody ever asked about the Boy Wonder when he was dressed as the Dark Knight.

If you’re a senior reading this just ahead of the looming November 1 deadlines lots of colleges around the country have, I am going to assume it’s because you’re hoping for some pearl of wisdom, rather than merely procrastinating (if it’s the latter, I recommend this instead). In either case you’re most likely finalizing your admission essay or supplemental questions, and since we’ve been reading a lot of these lately, I have a few tips for you.

But First, an Exercise…

Close your eyes. Wait. Hold on. First, I want you to think of the kids in your school who have similar grades and classes to you. Maybe not exactly the same but essentially equivalent difficulty and a comparable GPA. Got a few? Okay. Now, consider those classmates who also have scored relatively the same on their ACT/SAT (those you expect to be within 100 points on the SAT or 2-3 points on the ACT, i.e. statistically insignificant). Now think about those students outside the classroom—keep in mind only those who may not be involved with the exact same sports, clubs, work, etc., but basically have had similar impact and influence outside the classroom (aka extra-curricular activities). My guess is all of you still have 3-4 people you could name— maybe more. Still with me? Good. Close your eyes and think about a college’s applicant pool. 10,000? 20,000? Maybe 30,000 applying? (By the way, you can open your eyes now).  For colleges with admit rates under 50% most of the applicants have “good” grades, “good” classes, and are involved outside the classroom too.

On paper you are the same. But you are not the same.

1 – You. Are. Batman!  You have a unique story to tell, and we want to hear it in your writing. When an admission counselor reads your essay or short answer responses, they already have a sense of where you are from, your academic background, and even what you’ve chosen to do with your time because they’ve already looked at the rest of your application. But they have not heard you yet. They have a caricature; they have a black and white sketch; they have a shadow; they have Bruce Wayne. Your writing adds color, dimension, and completes the picture. Your essay brings out Batman. Don’t waste it by walking back through what we already know or telling us what makes you the same as so many other applicants.

2 –  Batman does not have superpowers. What’s cool about Batman is, unlike most superheroes, he does not have any actual superpowers. Instead he relies on his intelligence, strength, agility, and other skills (plus some super cool gadgets) to fight the forces of evil. I’ve talked to so many students who say they don’t know what to write about because nothing amazing has happened to them. The truth is some of the best essays are about mundane topics or experiences. You don’t have to write about the most dramatic or tragic or exciting event to have a great essay. Your voice, your story, your fit for a school, in fact, comes more from your character than external events.  We don’t expect you to be perfect. Often the sanitized, squeaky-clean is boring, safe, and insipid. We want to hear your passions and quirks and different perspectives or dreams. Most memorable essays, like superheroes, balance abilities and skills with humility and vision (X-ray or not).

3 – Be Batman! Remember how I asked you to think of all of those other applicants? Well, now forget them. And definitely don’t worry about who is reading your essay. You stand on your own. You are not defined by or associated with anyone else. You are the caped crusader. All due respect to Robin, you are Batman. Don’t try to be something or someone you are not. Your power is your identity– not an extra, nothing “super” or foreign or imaginary. Be distinct. Be different. Be yourself. Be Batman!

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The More The Scarier

(Thanks for indulging the seasonally themed title.) 

I’m a huge fan of The Lonely Planet– their travel books/guides, their website, their name. Love ’em. I followed their recommendations on travel in Europe, Africa, and even parts of the U.S. When we went to Hawaii a few years ago, LP advice not only helped us save money and see amazing spots, but it also provided a memorable and helpful line I’ve quoted often: “Where there’s a line, you should dine.”

This is basically true, right? When you walk into a restaurant and you’re the only customer, it’s a sign. Conversely, the joint where hungry folks are wrapped around the block is usually popular for a reason.

Unfortunately, too many students take the same approach when applying to or considering colleges. I’m going on record as saying, “Yes–I have a problem with that approach.” Believe me, I understand you see dominant messages and marketing materials in high school which point you to certain schools (it often comes in the form of sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and matriculation lists on your high school profile). The national media typically focus on the Ivy League or Ivy-esque schools, and your local news stations and billboards in your community feature your state’s flagship university or another major public in the region.

There’s nothing wrong with these places. But as their application numbers continue to go up and admit rates go down, and before you take another sip of the Kool-Aid, hit the pause button. Since when did “the same” become cool? Familiar is safe but it usually has a ceiling. Is staying with what’s familiar going to help you maximize your potential, or is it comfortable? Often those two things are in conflict with one another.

Honestly, there is no reason to stand outside in the cold waiting for the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign to flicker on if you have a gluten sensitivity, right? It’s an extended metaphor. Bear with me.

Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you move forward in your college search:

Why are you in line?

Is the place you’re visiting or applying to of interest because you put it on your list, or because someone else told you to look there? If it’s the latter, you should seriously consider their motivation. Maybe it’s a school counselor who has seen many kids like you go in the past and believes it will be a great fit. Perfect. Maybe it’s a parent or another relative who went there (or wishes they did) and has pressured you to apply, visit, or ultimately attend. While that isn’t inherently wrong or bad, it is worth raising an eyebrow. Is this about you or them? Is this about ego or reputation or appearances, or is it about you, as a student at that school, and in that campus community?

Every year I talk to students who visited or applied to Tech who don’t truly want to come. They typically admit it just out of earshot of their mom or dad who is an alum or who “works with a lot of Tech people and thought it would be a good place to visit.” My advice is tell them today. Rip off the Band-Aid. Don’t live the lie. Selecting a college is not like the sweater you got for your birthday last year. You know—the one you opened, forced a grin, and wore out the door the next day and then stuffed in your bag and tried to trade for some headphones. You can’t consign a college. You’re talking big money, lots of investment, emotions, and expectations. Be honest early. If you realize you’re in the wrong line, step out now and have the uncomfortable conversation. Whoever told you to get in line loves you. I know it may manifest itself in pressure or lots of questions or text message reminders, but it’s actually love. And they’ll still love you when you level with them. Don’t apply somewhere for someone else.

Have you done your homework?

I know, I know. You aren’t reading this to get hassled (but while we’re at it, you did clean your room, right?). Anyhoo, last week I attended a retreat with leaders from other Atlanta-based schools, including MorehouseSpelman, and Agnes Scott. It’s possible if you live outside of the South you have not heard of all of these or don’t know much about any of them. But when you look at the opportunities they’re creating for students, the incredible professors, research, support, alumni networks and successes they’ve all had, it’s truly remarkable.

What are those colleges in your city, state, region? Check your mail. Quit lock-stepping and be willing to explore instead of following such a worn route. Have you heard of Colleges That Change Lives? Have you considered or visited an HBCU or a single-sex college option or a university outside the U.S.? Have you looked at the list of schools who don’t require test scores? Again, I’m not telling you to absolutely get out of line. But if your list is filled with predictable options of big name places “just because” then you’ve plagiarized. DO YOUR OWN WORK.  Check out BigFuture. Download Admittedly. Do your homework!

Who else is in line?

Two of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta are Homegrown on Memorial Drive and EATs on Ponce De Leon. Coming to campus or Atlanta soon? Check them out. Live in the Atlanta area and never been? Stop reading now and get in the car. I like them both for the same reasons: great food, good prices, and an amazing cross-section of people. When you are waiting for a table at either place, you will see everything from policemen to hipsters to judges to construction crews. The diversity adds to the experience.

Who is line where you are applying? Are these your people? When you go to an open house or one of the college’s online communities, do you connect with the other students or families? Sitting in an information session on campus or going on the tour and listening to questions and conversations, do these feel like future friends? Ten schools can look identical on paper– same academic profile, same admit rate, same majors offered, but the ethos, the demeanor of the students can and does vary widely. A college search done well requires extreme honesty and a willingness to listen when that still small voice says, “Nope. I don’t see it.” When it happens, trust it. Nod your head, grab your bag, get out of line and move on. Trust me– it’s the first step down a more unique and fulfilling path anyway.

Who is not in line? 

I visited my old high school (where about 55% of the students go on to four-year colleges) to talk to students about Georgia Tech. While I watched the buses line up after school, I couldn’t help but think about the kids I knew in my class who did not go to college. Looking back I realize I only took care of myself in my senior year. I watched my friends who had involved, proactive parents help them navigate the process and move on too. Knowing what I do now, I deeply regret not looking beyond myself. I could have made the effort to engage them in a conversation of “why are you not going to college?” or, knowing what I did about some of their families, I could have encouraged them about their academic potential.

I’m challenging you to consider the kid on your team who needs extra help or tutoring to pass; to think of your friend from work who is jeopardy of not graduating. Who do you see that is questioning if they should go college? Who is not in line? Let me be clear. Encouraging them is not going to help you get into college. It’s not going to be something you can put on a resume or even on an application. It’s the right thing to do. It’s an opportunity you have now to start a pattern for thinking beyond yourself. Do you go to a school where 100% of seniors go to college? No excuse. It means you definitely have the resources and privilege to be part of this effort. Yep, it will take effort. Dig deep, look around, and pull some folks who need to be into the line.

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Freshman Application Review – The Nuts and Bolts (part 2 of 2)

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, returns to complete her two-part series. Welcome back, Mary Tipton!

In part two of our file review series, I’ll focus on how we’re preparing for review this year, especially in light of the changes we are making to our approach. To recap from last week, seeking greater accountability, efficiency, norming and prioritization of staff time, we moved to a new model for file review known as Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). In this model, an admission staff member, the driver, will be paired with a seasonal staff member, the passenger, to review applications.

Training for file review every year is a big undertaking, but especially when we are implementing a new model. I am only the encourager and the voice of this implementation in our office, but I can’t take credit for figuring out the schedule for CBE (more on that later) and training staff on the change. I must acknowledge the staff member in our office who has coordinated logistics, worked with seasoned staff members on implementation and ensured all permanent and seasonal staff are trained and ready for reading this week. She has been a superhero in this effort!

Preparing for CBE

To prepare for CBE, we first had to figure out how many teams we could have reading at one time, what schedule worked best for staff, how to cover other office duties (daily visits, phones, emails, visit events, etc.) and where (as in the physical location) we could read. The location piece is more challenging that you may think, given 10 of our staff work in an open, collaborative space we affectionately call the “collabora-dome.” With 12 full-time readers available, we settled on a daily schedule of 8:30a-2:30p in CBE. This schedule ensures we can most effectively utilize our seasonal staff who don’t work a full work day and prevent reader fatigue for everyone. Maintaining this schedule requires knowledge of 42 different calendars and an understanding of each reader’s inherent biases and reading tendencies. In other words, it’s important we pair people who will complement each other and not engage in group think. The result is the color coded spreadsheet you see below!

In two days of “live” CBE and without a full staff (some are still on the road!), we completed over 250 application reviews all the way to a recommended decision stage. That’s compared to less than 200 that had only been first reviewed last year on October 10. These are obviously early returns, but I am beyond pleased with the efficiency gains we are seeing! Once we hit peak reading, we are expecting pairs to read 50 applications in a day for a total of 3,000 per week inclusive of all teams.

Of course, we didn’t just undertake this change for efficiency sake; we wanted to ensure staff felt more confident in their review of a student and their recommended decision because they were discussing the application with a colleague. First, we had to ensure that all staff are normed within a reasonable range of each other (norming means all staff are evaluating the strength of a student’s contribution, fit to Georgia Tech, etc., in the same way). We did this by reading groups of 2017 applications from in- and out-of-state and international. We then discussed their academic and out of class strengths and weaknesses to ensure we were considering items similarly. We got tripped up on a transcript with a strange math class name and a US Citizen in an international high school, but, all in all, we were recognizing and evaluating the nuances necessary to make decisions in a competitive admission environment.

What Does it Mean for You?

Now that you know a little more about how we prepared and implemented CBE, here is what this change means for you. Truthfully, I could stop typing here and say that nothing has changed, but I was told this blog should be no less than 1.5 pages. In all seriousness, let me explain what I mean. There’s been a lot of talk and some consternation about the speed in which applications are read in CBE. As explained last week, the person time on an application has actually increased. Having to only read one portion of an application has allowed us to dive more deeply into school profiles, letters of recommendation and other parts of the application where necessary.

However, there’s a few common sense things I think students and counselors alike should consider, whether the school to which they are applying is utilizing CBE or a traditional application review model.

Fronting Your Application

My biggest piece of advice is to “front” your application (or, for counselors and teachers, the recommendation letter). What do I mean by fronting? It’s a retail term my husband introduced me to from his background working in his dad’s store as a kid. When we first moved in together, I noticed he would go into the cabinets periodically and move all the canned goods and containers to the front of a shelf. I couldn’t understand why he was wasting perfectly good space behind the can of black beans, but he explained to me that it was good merchandising. As I didn’t understand the need to merchandise our cabinets, this was one of the many things we didn’t see eye to eye on when we first moved in together! As an aside, you won’t be surprised to learn that 17 years and a child later, he could care less where the canned goods go in the pantry!

Back to fronting and what it means for you…

Students, front your activities. List your most significant activities first, then put the remainder in descending order of importance to you. It could be descending order of time spent, or significance of impact – you know best what will work for you. We discussed the review of activities in our staff training, emphasizing the importance of looking at both pages of activities in our review, but we all confessed we’d missed significant activities because they were at the end of the list. The same advice goes for the long essay. Just like a book or article, you should work to hook us in the first paragraph. We really do read all essays, but if we aren’t hooked early, we might miss something important in a later paragraph because we are reading quickly.

Counselors, put the most important things we need to know about a student at the beginning of your letter. We don’t need a lead in paragraph—we  need to be directed to the things that are most important for us to understand about a student. More importantly, these should be things the student didn’t tell us, or at least given from a perspective the student does not have about themselves. Many of you are considering using bullet points in your letters. I applaud this move, and it’s really helpful for us to hone in on the information you want to highlight. However, a paragraph with a dot in front of it is not a bullet point! It’s still a narrative. Either format is fine, but put the most significant things early in the letter or at least draw our attention to them with highlighting, italics or the like. The example below is consensus for one of the best formats we’ve seen!

Above all else, know that we are enjoying reading applications again. Admission is a seasonal profession, and that’s something we all love about it. With this change of season and, more importantly, the change in model, I see a re-energized staff enjoying application review. Reading with a colleague is fun, and the whole process seems less daunting than ever before. I’m excited about the year ahead and look forward to reporting more as the year progresses!

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Freshman Application Review – The Nuts and Bolts (part 1 of 2)

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

If you’re reading this blog you’re likely a high school student (or connected to a student!) who is, or soon will be, applying to college. Once you send in your application, you probably wonder what in the world happens between the time you hit “submit” and when you receive your admission decision.

This year we’re changing the way we read freshman applications. This week and next I’ll explain why we made this decision, what we’re doing differently, and, most importantly, what it means for you!

How We Got Here (a little background)

Let me start by explaining how we got where we are now. Institutions across the country have seen large increases in applications over the last decade (not news to most of you!). But the growth in applications is rarely followed by an increase in staffing, leaving admission offices with roughly the same number of admission staffers processing and reading applications as we had a decade ago when we received a lot fewer. You can see how this could impact our review of your application and attention to your needs throughout the admission process. From a leadership perspective, we also have to consider how this volume affects our staff members. Admission offices across the country struggle to retain staff, due in large part to the nights and weekends staff are asked to give up to read applications.

Each full-time reading staff evaluates anywhere from 2000-2600 applications over a roughly twelve-week period from October through March. Our expectation was for our staff to read approximately 50 applications per day, or 250 per week. That accomplishment alone would be daunting, but along with reading, our staff is also expected to give information sessions, answer emails, plan events, work with student recruitment teams, and coordinate other responsibilities in our office. Staff are left wondering how to prioritize file review, customer service and project responsibilities throughout reading season. It was clear we couldn’t continue for fear of mass staff defections!

Times Are Changing…

Last spring we surveyed our (very burned out) staff to find areas for improvement. Several themes emerged for file review, including a desire for more accountability, efficiency, norming and clear office priorities. Let me unpack these:

Accountability – We all remember “that person” on a group project who we didn’t think pulled their weight. The same perception was happening in file review, and, true or not, it’s a hit on office morale. Additionally, from a leadership perspective, there is nothing fun about pressuring/nagging/cajoling staff to read the applications assigned to them.

Efficiency – We had some big technology hurdles and we’re addressing those while implementing our new review system, making it much easier for us to adopt a new model.

Norming – Staff felt the evaluation they gave an application initially carried too much influence throughout the process. In other words, in committee we relied heavily on the notes from the initial reviewer. While there were additional eyes on the application, advisors felt the decision they made without anyone else’s perspective carried too much weight later on.

Office Priorities – When staff were left to read on their own, when and how it was done varied widely and some people managed their time better than others. Not being seen reading at your desk (even if you were reading late into the evening at home) contributed to the accountability issues mentioned above.

Two Heads are Better than One

All of this leads up to our adoption of Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). What is CBE, and how can it address these concerns? First and foremost, we cannot take any credit for the concept. We tip our hat to the ingenious staffers at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the CBE model, and to their leadership for supporting the concept and willingness to share with colleagues around the country. I encourage you to read this article about CBE (or this one) if you want to dig in even more.

The overarching concept: together, two staffers can do better and more efficient work than one alone. To get into the weeds a bit, it means having two staff members spend an individual 8-10 minutes on an application (16-20 total review minutes) is not as efficient as having two people review and discuss one application for 8-10 minutes. The time in which an application is reviewed is the same, but it is accomplished in roughly half the time because two people look at it together.

You may be thinking this is not saving time because you cut the staff to file ratio in half. We’re getting around that in two ways. First, the 18 seasonal review staff we hire each year will make up one half of our CBE pairs. They are invaluable to our file review effort and are here training as I type to prepare for this change in our process. CBE also saves us time by allowing us to take a file to a final decision earlier in the process. If two people have reviewed and discussed an application, we can feel more confident in the decision they recommend than we could with the input of only one person.

The team approach to file review also addresses accountability because staff are assigned a partner and times to read, and must ask permission of their supervisor to be excused. It’s a bit of micromanaging their time, but, as I’ve said to staff, we’re only asking to do this for about 12 weeks out of the year. The benefits outweigh the negatives in our minds and also send a clear signal about prioritization of our office and individual time during file review season.

Drivers and Passengers

It’s also important for you to know who is doing what in the review. Here at Tech, the driver will read the school report/profile, transcript and recommendation letters. The passenger will read the application, including the activities and essays. Both the driver (permanent staff and territory managers) and the passenger (seasonal staff) will open an application and review a summary sheet together.

The driver has inherent knowledge of the school and is expected to provide a summary to the passenger. For example, the driver might say something like, “This is a school in an affluent, suburban part of Atlanta where most students will attend college. They offer a robust AP program, and students admitted to Georgia Tech in the past took an average of six of those courses. Because they are in such a heavy technology corridor, students have lots of opportunities for internships at technology firms.” Our goal is to allow the driver, who has more knowledge of an area and school, to manage this part of the application.

The driver and passenger will read their assigned portion of the application file and discuss an applicant’s strengths and weaknesses and fit to Tech. After CBE is complete an application can move on to an additional committee. So, yes, committee reviews still exist, but we hope to narrow the focus of committee to the applicants needing further discussion the most.

Now that I’ve explained why we adopted CBE and what it will mean for our file review process, tune in next week to learn how we are preparing for file review this year and what our change to the CBE model means for you!

Read part 2 now!

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