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College Admission Essays: I’ve heard that one before…

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes and key messages. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all. My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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Ad(mission): It’s not fair.

I suppose I could have gone with “An Admission: It’s not fair!” What can I say, catchy titles are not my thing. Working on it. But at this time of year, “fairness” is a resounding theme.

“How can you waitlist my son? He has 30 points higher and two more APs than your average. And we know someone down the street who got in that….”

“Something is wrong with your process if my daughter who has been through as many medical issues as she has and still has a 3.8 is not getting in. Talk about not being fair….”

“And don’t get me started on financial aid… or lack thereof.”

These are actual quotes from real people. Granted, they’re being used without acknowledgment (I didn’t think asking for permission to use them would be part of the healing process). Undeniably, there is something hardwired in us that longs for right, equal, just, fair, and perfect results. And these are noble aspirations.

Kids are among the most vocal about longing for fairness. Spend the same amount of money on presents? “Well, he got more gifts.” Buy the exact same number of gifts? “That one of her’s is bigger!” “Okay, tell you what, I’m going to take all of these out to the fire pit then and you can play with this cardboard box.” Now they’re both screaming in unison, writhing on the ground and flailing, with great gnashing of teeth. It’s like a scene from Revelation followed by a simultaneous and guttural reaction: “That’s not fair!”

Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was “better” or “more qualified” or “should have gotten in.”

I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted.  But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.

Mission Drives Admission.

Selective colleges publish mid-50% ranges or averages on our freshman profiles to serve as guides, not guarantees. These are the quantifiable factors that provide an overall sense of the admitted or enrolling class. Yes, we look at test scores, rigor of curriculum, course performance, impact on a community, essays, interviews, and so on. But what drives a holistic review process and serves as a guide for admitting students is a school’s mission. Counselors in high schools talk a great deal about “fit.” Where are you going to thrive? Where are you going to create a network or be challenged? Where do you see students that will push and challenge and stretch you to grow as a person and as a learner? These questions come from the fact that they’re savvy and educated not just about our admission processes and stats, but more importantly about our distinct missions. Ultimately, choosing the right school should not just be about “can I get in?” from a statistical or quantifiable standpoint, but “do I align with their mission?” It takes more work to figure that out, but that’s your job as an applicant or prospective student.

If you look at the academic profiles of Caltech and Amherst, they are very similar. But take a look at their missions.

Amherst (abbreviated) “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence… and is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”

Caltech “…to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

The difference in missions is why an individual student sometimes gets in to a higher ranked or more selective school and is denied at another. The student applying to Amherst has the same profile, involvement, writing ability, scores, and grades. but is a totally different fit in their process than for Caltech. This is, at least in part, what counselors are talking about when they say “fit.” It’s fit with mission. You’ll hear schools talk about “institutional priorities.” These are simply components of the macro vision and mission of a university.

A quick look at Georgia Tech

Founded: 1885. Classes begin 1888. One major- Mechanical Engineering. All male. It was a trade school responding to the needs of 19th century and early 20th century Georgia and US South.  The focus was on training and preparation for product creation and being prepared to lead and create the next in an industrializing state, region, and nation. Were there more “qualified” or “smarter” students at the time who had aspirations of becoming ministers or lawyers or physicians? Unquestionably. And had they applied with those intentions, they likely would not have been admitted. It was not our mission to educate students for those roles.

1912: Tech establishes a “School of Commerce” which is essentially a business program. 1952: Tech begins enrolling women. 1961: Georgia Tech becomes the first school in the South to integrate classes without a court order. It’s not hard for me to envision a younger brother in 1954 who is by all counts smarter than his older brother not being admitted to Tech due to this change in mission. Supply and demand drive admit rates. If your supply shrinks due to a shift in your mission, then admission decisions also change based upon factors besides grades, scores, or performance.

The University of North Carolina system is mandated by their legislature to enroll no more than 18% of students from outside of the state. This is why the admit rate for Chapel Hill is more than three times higher for in-state students vs. non-residents.  There are valedictorians from around the country not admitted to UNC (mission here) who get into Ivy League schools. Does this sound controversial or unfair? Not if you understand that mission drives admission.  Schools end academic programs. They add majors. They create new co-curricular programs or add or terminate sports teams. Mission changes and with it admission decisions are impacted to support those goals.

At Tech, our mission is “to define the technological university of the 21st century.” Our motto is “Progress and Service.” Our commitment is to “improve the human condition.” So while we are going to provide stats and averages and profiles like all other schools, these are the conversations in admission committee that contribute to decisions. Fair? No. Perfect? No. Reality? Yes.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a senior (or a parent of a senior) who has been denied or waitlisted: You are most likely just as smart, capable, and talented as other students admitted to that school. Move past the numbers and the comparison. You’re absolutely right: it’s not fair in a comparative sense. But that school has made its decisions in light of advancing their mission. Inevitably, you’ve also been admitted to a school where, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone denied with higher scores or more APs or better grades than you. But you fit their mission. Embrace that!

If you are an underclassmen (or parent of one): Selective schools will say, “We are looking to shape a class.” Counselors will talk to you about “fit.” As you try to digest and comprehend what that really means- or where that comes from- look to the school’s mission. Use the academic ranges they provide as a guide. Check out the profiles and other historical data to see how “students like you” have done in the past. But keep in mind those graphs don’t show the qualitative elements. When you are writing or interviewing at schools, do your homework in advance by researching. The essay you write for Caltech should not be the same one you write for Amherst. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (see what I did there?), is to find a school that aligns your academic ability with your vision of the future. Data is helpful. Stats are important. But fit, ethos, campus community, and your ability to be honest with who you are and want to be– that’s the best way to approach the process.

The other day my son was inconsolable. “She got presents on my birthday, and I never get anything on hers. It’s just not fair!” Finally, I just grabbed him, held him, and kept saying, “I know, son. I know.” So listen, you may not feel any better after reading this blog. Still angry. Still frustrated. I get it. I just wanted to save you that part of any email you send schools or the first part of a phone call. You can go right into other grievances and skip the “it’s not fair” part. We know, we know.

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The Magic is in You (part 1 of 2)

The alarm went off early in a pitch black hotel room. We didn’t shower, and we barely brushed our teeth before piling into the elevator to head downstairs. We grabbed some fruit, bagels, a bottle or two of juice, and anything else that was easy to eat on the go. Then, it was on to a quick shuttle to the Transportation Hub where we caught the monorail over to the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

We were ready. We had a plan. We’d loaded up our backpacks with food, clothes, and everything else we could possibly need the night before, and 10 minutes before the gate opened, we were at the ticket booth. You see, FastPasses to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are incredibly tough to get, and both of our kids were dead set on going on that ride. So in order to avoid the incredibly obnoxious lines that will bring any six- or eight-year old, and most 30- and 40-year olds, to their knees in tears, we had been advised by a Disney guru friend to make a b-line for that roller coaster. No watching the opening show, no lingering on Main Street to see a character, no taking a picture in front of the castle. GO, GO, GO!

“Can I see your tickets?” asked the friendly cast member. I pulled up the Disney App and handed her my phone. “I need to see the bar codes,” she said. “Bar codes?” I asked. “Okay… I’m not sure where those are, but here are the times we’ve reserved to ride certain attractions.” “Yes, but I need to scan your bar codes.” “Hmm….I know I had those in my email before I loaded everything in the app,” I told her. I began searching my email for the tickets. I don’t know about you, but when I most need to find something in my inbox, my search words and terms bring back messages from two years ago rather than the week before. Loading, loading…. “Crap,” I say (after all, we are at Disney).

Tick Tock (Croc)…

Five minutes have gone by now. I abort the email search. My daughter was pulling on my backpack, “Let’s go,” she begs. I look back at the woman in the booth. “The tickets were loaded into the app. Now I can’t seem to find them in email. Isn’t there a way to retrieve them from the app?” I point to the “My Tickets” function, and she holds the phone, peers over her glasses, and says, “I’m just not as familiar with the app.” The sun seems to have gotten much hotter and brighter as another five minutes pass. Finally she calls over another cast member who immediately locates them. “Oh. Yes. They’re right here.” I don’t see what she taps but apparently she’s found digits to input rather than bar codes to scan. There are four of us and the codes are a good 12 digits long. “A.3.5.T…..”

My wife is now looking at me, shaking her head, and showing me the time. 8:05 a.m. Finally, the agent finishes all codes. “And that does it! You’re all set. Have a magical day!” Bag checks, clogged gates, people grabbing strollers and stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to tie shoes and pick up kids… buy an ice cream from a street vendor? Come on people, it’s only 8:10. By the time we got to the Mine Train the wait time showed 45 minutes. We stood for maybe a minute, partly in amazement, partly debating if our kids could handle the wait, and partly figuring out if our daughter really needed to go to the bathroom or not. Then the sign turned to 60 minutes. “Forget it,” I said. “Let’s go ride Barnstormer.” For those of you who don’t know Disney, Goofy’s Barnstormer is a classic, standard roller coaster, meaning it does not have the fancy animatronics or story line of some of the more premier rides.

To make a long story even longer, the other two rides our kids really wanted to ride that day were Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain never opened due to technical issues. Halfway through the line to Space Mountain it closed “temporarily,” only to remain closed the rest of the day. We re-routed each time. Due to closures we received complimentary FastPasses to Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise, we got front row seats for the parade and later the fireworks, and ultimately, at closing (15 hours…well, technically 14 hours and 50 mins, after entering and 9.2 miles later) we literally carried our kids out of the park.

Our daughter cried about leaving until halfway down Main Street, when she fell asleep on my wife’s shoulder. Sitting on the monorail, I asked my son what his favorite part of the day was. “Barnstormer,” he said without hesitating. “So much fun.”

Barnstormer. Rode it twice and the lines were no more than 30 minutes all day. It’s what you call an “access ride.” It does not have a big name. It does not a have a long waitlist or fancy animatronics. No supply and demand problem. No strategy involved to “get in.” The next day, on the drive home, and ever since, our kids have been dressing like pirates and begging to watch The Curse of the Black Pearl.

“Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it.”

If you are a high school senior who did not have the exact Disney experience you were hoping for in the college admission process, here are a few lessons I learned from our trip:

  1. Don’t blame yourself. If you did not get in to your first choice college, do not spend April (and certainly nothing beyond it) replaying in your mind how things could have gone differently. “If I had just taken one more AP class, or scored a point higher on the ACT, or chosen a different essay topic…” Nope. Move on. You have acceptances in front of you. You have places excited to provide you a great college experience. Maybe it’s not what you had “loaded into your app” a few weeks ago, but now they’re excitedly waving you in. There are plenty of other students going to that school who feel like they just won a bonus FastPass. Get in line with them. Buckle up, commit yourself to the experience, and enjoy the ride.
  2. Don’t blame other people. “If that admission counselor had come to my school and met me… if my counselor’s recommendation letter had mentioned my Eagle Scout award…” “Ifs” will kill you in the admission process– and in life in general. The closed doors, long wait lines, and low admit rates of life are what ultimately guide and steer you down different paths. So rather than looking back over your shoulder at the “mights” or “could have beens,” take full advantage of the options you have been offered. My best friend in high school did not get into Princeton. He was crushed. It was his dream school and he was convinced it was the only place for him. But I’ll never forget the day in April (probably right around this time) when he came in wearing a UVA shirt and a huge smile. “I’m going to Charlottesville!” Get your heart, your energy, and your mind pointed toward something and somewhere rather than staring back at something that is no longer there anyway.
  3. Clear your head. Is all of this starting to sound the same? Well, expect more of it because at this time of year you have big decisions to make. And you need a clear head to do that. The truth is that whether you are into your first choice, denied to all but one, waitlisted at more than you would like to admit, or still trying to talk to the gate agent about why they can’t find your tickets, you are going to be on a college campus this summer or fall. And the truth, and frankly the most important part, is not “where” you go. The infinitely bigger point, and the real long-term impact, is “how” you go, and “who” you are when you go. That’s what you should be focusing on. CLEAR. YOUR. HEAD! Go fully committed. Go excited. Go humble. Go looking forward. Go ready to help those around you make it the best experience for them.

When I finally laid my head down on the pillow again that night, I realized what I hope you will. See, they tell you to “experience the magic” as if it’s in the park, or in the characters, or on the rides, or in the experience. But the real magic, it turns out, is IN you.

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Embrace Your Inner Kindergartner

I am having a great week, largely because I’ve spent a lot of time with my daughter’s kindergarten class. On my birthday I had “lunch” with her, which starts at 10:45 a.m.! At that hour, I just opted for the chocolate milk (maybe it’s just me, but school chocolate milk is always better than other places… kind of like a Coke at a baseball game, or a hot pretzel on the street in New York).

Earlier in the week I got to be Mystery Reader, which is always a good time. You show up at a certain time and stand in the hallway while the teacher gives the kids clues about who is waiting outside. All 20 kids start with their hands up.

“Ok. He has brown hair.” A few hands go down.

“He likes to run.” A decent number go down on this.

“He loves Bojangles chicken biscuits.” I’m watching this one closely because no kid of mine is going to be friends with someone who’s not being raised properly. It’s down to just two kids now.

“He works at Georgia Tech.” I hear a scream and my daughter comes running out to get me. Who wouldn’t love that?!

King Hugo’s Huge Ego

I go in, say hi, high five a few kids I know, throw out some fist bumps or nods to the kids in the back of the room, and sit down to read. The book I brought was King Hugo’s Huge Ego. I’m only on the cover page when the first question comes up. “What’s an ego?” Now trying to break that down for this age group ain’t easy. Words like “id” and “conscious” are going through my head but I settled on something a lot less Psych 101.

“What does haughty mean?” He didn’t say “haughty” he said “naughty.” “Do you mean ‘hottie?’” We navigate all of this too.

In the story, King Hugo is an incredibly pretentious ruler. He brags all the time, asks his denizens to bow down as he passes, and delivers self-aggrandizing speeches from his tower every day. Finally, a sorceress puts a spell on him so that his head enlarges with every boastful statement. Still, he does not realize the error of his ways, and eventually his head gets so big that he floats away like a balloon in the wind. The sorceress then plugs up his ears and he finally listens and understands the implications of his incessant boasts. Ultimately, he repents, his head shrinks back to a normal size, and he becomes a fair, wise, and beloved monarch.

Thinking of Yourself a Lot

In the admission process, there is an important distinction between thinking A LOT OF YOURSELF and thinking of YOURSELF A LOT. The former can lead to some ill-advised choices in your application choices, some obnoxious lines in essays, and ultimately set you up for disappointment when receiving admission decisions. The latter, however, is one of the keys to having options, growing along the way, and ending up at a school that’s a great fit for you.

Since I’ve been hanging out with elementary school kids, I’m going to keep this pretty basic. If you are a junior or a sophomore in high school right now, I encourage you to draw on the adage of “STOP. DROP. ROLL,” and “LOOK. WATCH. STARE.”

LOOK.

As a sophomore or junior, you are starting to get a lot of college brochures. The first thing to remember (we’ve covered this before, but again, this is in the spirit of lower school “repetition for comprehension”) is RECYCLE. But before that, you should be LOOKing, at all of it. Never heard of the school? That’s okay. Nobody ever heard of Justin Bieber until he posted a few covers on YouTube about a decade ago. I would LOOK with one eyebrow raised at pictures. Helpful but maybe not in the “1000 words” kind of way. Many are photoshopped and some use models rather than real students. “How did they get three kids from different ethnicities reading books from three different genres while wearing three different styles?” It’s simple–they staged it. But LOOK closely at the words and statements. Who does the school say they are? Does that resonate with you? At Georgia Tech we talk a lot about innovation, entrepreneurship, and creating the next “fill-in-the-blank-here.” What is the school’s key message? Then, take a LOOK at yourself. Is that you? Is that who you want to be, or who you want to be around, or how you want your college experience to be defined? Finding the right college is a process, and it takes some work, not to mention honesty. REALLY LOOK.

WATCH.

It’s spring break time for high schools right now (like I needed to tell you). I know this not because I’m headed out on a cruise or putting a playlist together, but because we are literally receiving thousands of guests each week who want to tour Tech. When you go to a school for a college visit, I hope you will take some time before or after the tour and information session to just sit and WATCH. WATCH the other visitors. Do they look and sound like the kind of students you would want to go to college with? Find a good bench outside, or a table in the dining hall or food court, near a bunch of students. Go to a coffee shop right off campus and pretend to read, but really just listen and WATCH (do be careful not to make this creepy). What are they saying, reading, and listening to? Don’t rush on and off a college campus. Don’t just go on the tour, listen to the info session, and take the photoshopped brochure and leave. WATCHing takes time…. So make time for it.

STARE.

If you are a junior, I’m imploring you to get awkward and STARE. STARE intently at your senior (as in 12th graders) friends, neighbors, and teammates who are weighing their college options. They have gotten in at some places, been waitlisted or denied at other places, and perhaps they’re still waiting to hear from some final colleges and universities. STARE. And listen to how they’re processing these choices. What do you hear them saying? How are they going about making their final decision? Is it about the cost? Is it about the athletics, or the academics, or the location, or the opportunities? Again, you have to be willing to really assess who YOU are and who YOU want to be. What factor(s) do you want to make your college choice based upon, and which ones are most important to you? Write these down. How will what you see and hear impact where you will apply, and where do you want to be in a year from now with your choices?

BonusASK.

If you really want to be bold and embrace this process, then straight up ASK them. ASK what they would have done differently…. what they wish they had known… who they wish they’d talked to… and who they should have just ignored.

Like I said, I’ve been hanging with Kindergartners this week. I’m telling you: to do this college process right you need take a lesson from them–the master-askers of how, what and why; the unabashed kings of LOOKing, WATCHing, and STARE (bear with me) ing. So embrace your inner six-year old today. And never let go.

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You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

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