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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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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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The Great Kindness Challenge

I arrived home from work Monday to my kids asking to do a “funny, crazy dance” for me.  So I sat down and watched as they flailed around, sang, and fell down a few times. Honestly, it looked like most of their everyday antics. But when they were done, they went over to a sheet of paper and checked something off.

Apparently, doing a crazy dance for someone qualifies as being kind. In case you didn’t know, this week is The Great Kindness Challenge. I apologize for sending this out towards the end of the week, but there is good news: you can actually be kind anytime you want.

Throughout this week, they’ve progressively checked things off the list. “Say Good Morning to 15 people” led us to scare the crap out of a few runners and dog walkers on the way to school. “Thank a crossing guard” brought up a conversation about how people appreciate being called by their actual name. “Good morning, Crossing Guard! Dad, where is my checklist?”

Being Kind and the Admission Process

Why does this matter to you? One thing I’ve observed in the college admission process is that  students can, unintentionally and progressively, become very myopic and self-absorbed. Some of that is necessary and not entirely wrong. Naturally, you need to be selfish with your time when you are writing essays or preparing for an interview. But the unhealthy side is that you can also stop celebrating the wins of others or truly demonstrating empathy in their disappointment, because the immediate thought is either comparison or “what does this mean for me?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the admission process (Good thing, right? … since that’s my job). When process is a noun it becomes something you encounter or that you endure. My hope is that you will begin to flip the script to processing. When the admission “process” becomes a verb, you change because you challenge yourself to think and grow. There are many ways you can do this along the way. But for now I hope you will ask yourself a few basic questions about who helped you get to where you are today, and consider taking time to thank them, encourage them, or check in on how they’re doing. You know… be kind. Look beyond your world, your problems, your current concerns, or your celebrations.

Your Kindness Checklist

While The Great Kindness Challenge may be coming to a close, your admission process (and processing) has not. I encourage you to consider a few of these people and acts.

1- Thank a teacher or counselor who wrote a letter of recommendation for you or provided you with some good advice and insight during the admission process. Some of these folks write hundreds of rec letters. As a reader of those, I can tell you that their effort, passion, and advocacy for you is inspiring. So think about dropping off a note or swinging by their classroom/office and give them a high-five, hug, or fist bump.

2- Give mom, dad, sibling, or another family member a call, hug, or text with earnest emojis. Family does not always get it right. Sometimes they annoy you, pester you, or give unsolicited feedback. Do you know why? THEY LOVE YOU. I get it–sometimes expressed love does not look like we want it to, and sometimes it’s covertly disguised in questions or reminders. But that is what it is. So give it back in a way you know they’ll appreciate it.

3- Go back to your elementary school or middle school. (Sounds like a penalty on K-12 monopoly). I don’t talk much in this blog about my own college experience, mostly because it’s not that interesting and I think you’d find it outdated. But one thing I did do right in my senior year was go back to my elementary school with a classmate. We went one day at the end of school and talked to a second grade class. After the bell rang, we just walked the halls and said hi and thanks to the teachers who taught us. Not only was this a reminder of how far we’d come (highlighted by the incredibly low set urinals in the bathroom), but it also meant a lot to the teachers. We told them a bit about what we were up, to but I remember distinctly talking to several almost like friends about their class, the school, and their memories. Good stuff all around. Costs you nothing but time. Do it.

4- Check in on a friend or classmate. Nothing in the conversation about you. How are they doing? How are they feeling about college, graduating, getting in or not getting in? Best done over a meal or coffee that you pay for, but a walk, run, or long drive also works.

5- The Kindness Checklist ends with “Create Your Own Deed,” so I’ll leave the creativity up to you. But consider who in your life has helped you. When you think about how you are “processing admission,” who comes to mind as an influencer or someone you trust? Answer that and you are halfway there.

February 17 is officially “National Random Acts of Kindness Day.” Frankly, I somewhat take issue with the word “random” if you’ve been planning on it and marking it on a calendar, but who am I to stand in the way of goodwill?

Lastly, if you just want to smile, check out #greatkindnesschallenge.

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Breaking Down The Admission Team: Week 4: Wide Receivers and Running Backs

One hot August night during college, a friend of mine (who happened to be the starting center on our football team) and I got pulled over by a cop who immediately started berating us about the speed limit and asking why we were out so late and if we had been drinking (we had not). My friend handed over his license and registration to the officer who grabbed it and headed back to the patrol car.

Through the rearview mirror I saw him stop, turn, and come back to the driver side door. “Listen. Going to let you off without a ticket tonight. But be safe, slow down… and good luck this season.” I was pumped! Win, right? But my friend had a different reaction, “Man. If I were a running back or wide receiver, he would have recognized me right away. #linemanproblems

Yep. That’s how running backs and wide receivers roll. They are the face of the organization. It’s their name and picture on websites and cards. And so it goes for Fantasy Football. Along with the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have the big names, the featured press conferences, and the long interviews– but with better celebration dances, bigger personalities, and generally warmer demeanor.

Well, my friends, I’ve just described admission counselors (though typically with fewer tattoos and less ability to evade speeding tickets, especially in places like Waldo, Florida. Ughh… still bitter). Counselors are the faces of the college. They are the ones who travel around the country and meet thousands of people each year at schools, programs, and coffee shops. If you visit campus, they are the ones who give the presentation or meet with you and your family.

Who are they?

1- Like many of the star running backs and wide receivers in the NFL, most admission reps who are recruiting and doing first/second read on college applications are in their 20s or early 30s.

2- They generally get into admission because they love their alma mater, so they typically start out working there. Others may simply be intrigued by Higher Education or love working in a college environment. Others may be buying time before grad school– and more so lately they are doing both simultaneously.

3- They are affable and generally extroverts who have good public speaking, communication, and relational skills. Those who don’t have those skills get a ton of practice refining and improving all of these within the first six months on the job.

4- Like RBs/WRs who are asked to be versatile and flexible in their routes and game plans, the same is essential for admission counselors. They walk into schools around the country not knowing exactly what to expect. “Today you’ll be speaking with four kids for 10 minutes.” Next school: “We are putting you in the auditorium. Thought you could speak to our 10-12 graders for an hour about college admission and maybe your school for max five of those.” Next: “We don’t have any students for you to see today, but we are short-handed in the cafeteria. How are you with prepping veggies?”

Admission counselors get into this field because they love students. They want to have a positive impact and believe they can in this role. They enjoy meeting new people, and love experiencing new places and opportunities. They are curious, open-minded, positive, genuine, bright, and passionate. They see the best in others. An added bonus is they want to have fun while accomplishing all of that.

counselor-picThere is no shortage of jokes, laughs, dance moves, and big personalities in admission offices around the country. I realize this may be slightly self-serving, but I believe these are some of the very best people you’ll ever meet.

Why Should You Care?

Unfortunately, in recent years, the stress surrounding the admission process has increased. Much of this is due to more students applying to more colleges, but it’s also correlated to financial costs, family pressures, and competitive, achievement-centered high school environments. As a result, “getting into college” has become more transactional and less relational. But that does not have to be your experience. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind when interacting with an admission counselor:

When meeting in person…
When an admission counselor shows up at your school or you meet them on campus, remember that they simply want to talk to you and help you. These are not judgmental folks. They’re not perfect and they don’t expect that from you. So ask your questions and listen, but also relax. Talk about the things you love in school and in life. Share your personality. Allow them to make connections with you and for you by being genuine. You’ll learn a lot more from that than from asking them to quote the library’s book sharing policy or what percentage of kids study abroad. Sure. A running back can answer questions about offensive schemes, but what you remember from interviews are the stories. Ask good questions.

On your application….
An admission counselor is the kind of person you want reading your essays and reviewing your application. Remember what you know about them: they are positive, and they naturally see and are trained to look for upside. On your application, they are listening for your voice. They want to know you and want to be in your corner. I’ve asked high school students to close their eyes and describe who they think is reading their essay. The typical response is a white, middle-aged male who has spectacles, patches on his tweed coat, and snarls as he opens his red pen. Look at a few of the staff websites or office social media accounts of the universities you are interested in (not the actual counselor’s Instagram, mind you— that’s weird). Check out Google images for “admission counselor.” Mean people? Nope. Running Backs and Wide Receivers.

So whether you are working on an application right now or planning a visit to campus soon, keep these admission counselor traits, motivations, and personalities in mind. While this won’t change the low admit rates at UPenn or Pomona or University of Michigan, it hopefully puts in perspective that these folks see themselves as being on your side. And that makes all the difference.

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Thanksgiving Thoughts

Every Monday morning we meet as a Communications Team to talk about what is going on and what is going out that week. Basically, the agenda is broken into four parts:

1. Immediate outbound messages (aka email blasts): what are we saying to applicants and prospective students? FYI- prospective students are non-applicants who have either visited campus, met our staff during our travels, or whose name we’ve bought or been given from list sources (hm…. seems like we might need a blog soon on the entire search process, i.e. “how did you get my name?”).

2. Urgent/Fires: We’ve had 100 calls this week about X. Clearly, X is confusing on our website or in our publications, so we need to help people better understand X. Although, sometimes it’s about Y, which is dismissed as “Yeah, people are just going to call about that. It’s Y. Happens every year.” Or put differently “Y Happens.”

3. Future focus/Strategic: These are the bigger communication projects we’re working on, such as the production of videos, and publications that we’ll mail out in the coming months.

4. Social Media/ Timely: We talk a lot about helping people get a day to day sense of Tech. Pictures, stories, events… a “sense of face and place” is our basic purpose. We’ll review what we have and should be saying on social media. What is helpful and interesting? What can we learn from that engagement? Every few months we’ll discuss delving into Snapchat or whatever new social media platform is emerging. Then we’ll inevitably shelve that to “look at the analytics,” which is code for “<<insert new medium here>> just feels like we’re going too far.”

It’s in section four we talk about this blog. Have we received comments, or do people seem to be sharing it with others? What is happening right now in the admission cycle that we can attempt to bring some insight to? Or, did my kids do something ridiculous that we can somehow stretch into an analogy?

Is anyone out there?

Well, friends, this week is Thanksgiving. The basic consensus was that people are checked out. “Sure, you can write a blog but doubt anyone is going to read it.” They’re watching football, hanging out with family, sleeping, traveling. Counselors, teachers, and others in schools who may read occasionally are finished with most of their recommendation letters and just need a break. If they’re reading anything this week it’s a good novel they’ve put off for the last few months as school started and admission deadlines took over their lives.

Students aren’t reading this week either. They’re either totally checked out after meeting said deadlines, or they are focused on finishing papers or studying for impending tests. Parents… nope. Cooking, cleaning, driving, dealing with sometimes awkward Thanksgiving family dynamics (I suppose that can be said for anyone on this list).

So, you might ask, why am I already 500 words into this post? It’s a valid question. Maybe it’s because I promised to write weekly. Maybe it’s because the office is quiet right now and I can’t answer another email or continue working on bigger projects. Call it being committed, or stubborn, or even procrastination.

I say it’s because I’m thankful. I’m thankful you are only reading this because you want to this week. And to add cheesy to the list, I’m also just thankful for you. Thankful that your family is in town, or you are going to them. or that you have friends to gather with. Thankful that you get a chance to read whatever you want for a change, or just go see a  movie. I am thankful that you are going to sleep in, or nap on the couch after eating too much. I am thankful that in a fall of tests and elections and deadlines that you can take a step back.

A Time for Reflection

See, the admission process, like life, is filled with looking forward. It’s clogged and clouded with impending deadlines, decision release dates, campus visit planning, and the list goes on. But this week… this week is an oasis, a respite. It’s about reflection. It’s about sitting still for a minute and ruminating and considering. 

I’m not trying to give you homework.. but I do hope you’ll consider using a little of your downtime to brighten the week of those around you. How?

Ask
Who has helped you to this point? Who has written a recommendation letter for you, or helped you edit your essays?  Who has given you some good advice on where to apply (or where not to)?

Act
Amidst the frenzy of the fall, we often forget to thank these people. Sure, maybe in passing or in a text, but really,  I mean really, say thanks.  I encourage you to recognize these people with a hug, or a jubilant high five, or an actual hand written, postage stamped note. Even a genuinely heartfelt email will do the trick. To make it easier for you, feel free to copy-paste or edit the following statement as needed: “Hey {name}. Thanks for writing that rec letter. I know you are crazy busy and you have written a ton this year. Whether I get into {college name} or not, I really appreciate your time and willingness to support me.”

A Note to Seniors
Mom and dad need some love too. Fall of your senior year is not easy on them. They’re excited for you, but they’re nervous. And despite what they might say, it’s not all about where you are going to get in or how much it will cost. They know a year from now you’ll be on a college campus somewhere. Maybe they don’t know exactly where, but they know you won’t be at home. Don’t let their plans to convert your room to an office or guest room fool you. Their hearts are breaking a little right now, so they could use that same hug and note.

As for me, we’ll be with my wife’s family this week. My folks will be on the opposite side of the country, but I want you to know that I plan to practice what I preach, and am getting out some note cards now.

PS – We’ll get back to Fantasy Football Admission next week with an inside look at The Bench (the Seasonal Readers). Until then, give thanks, friends. Life is good.

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