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Challenge By Choice

This past August I went backpacking in Scotland with 10 first-year Tech students. Our trip was led by Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT). One of their core tenants is “challenge by choice,” which means most of the activities have modifications based on your comfort level. “Today we are mountain biking. You can do the 23 mile trail with boulders, jumps, rattle snakes, and a few places you could careen off the side of the mountain. OR you can do the eight mile loop around the lake.” The goal is to give the participants options, but also to push them outside their comfort zone and stretch them beyond what they think they can do.

On our trip, however, there were no options. We were going point to point, and the distance was what it was, with one exception: Ben Nevis. At 4,400 feet Nevis is the highest peak in Great Britain. While it may not be Pike’s Peak, I could not see the summit from the trail head and there were lots of switchbacks.

After the first hour of climbing, our group naturally broke in half. The lead pack had more experienced hikers and moved at a pretty aggressive clip. I was not in that group. I was in the back… actually, the way back. After 2.5 hours we stopped for lunch, estimating we were about halfway up. Folks were tired. We had blisters, we had headaches, and we also had real doubts.

As we resumed our hike, the plan was to go 20 more minutes and check in. We’d plod forward, step by step, trying to talk about random subjects to keep our minds off of the hike. For the next hour we went from one logical stopping point to another. “Everyone good?” A few “Yeps,” a few “I think so’s,” and a few closed eyed grunting nods. “Challenge by choice,” one of the ORGT leaders would say. “We can turn around if y’all want, but I think you can at least make it to the next point,” as she pointed toward a large cairn a few hundred feet up the trail.

Ben Nevis taught me five lessons that are applicable to both life and college admission:

We all have more in us.
Admission websites, publications, and presentations often talk about competitive GPAs and rigor of curriculum. But we fail you by not always describing why we care to see you stretch and challenge yourself academically. Very little of our conversation in committee is about your ability to actually do the work. Most applicants to selective colleges have that covered. The truth is that some of the greatest difficulty of the first year is re-establishing yourself and a community around you; or adjusting to living in a completely new part of the country; or figuring out if you should use the warm or cold cycle on the washer. So in the admission process at competitive schools it’s not about the number of difficult courses you take, it’s about a character trait. It’s not about seeing that you packed in more but that you put in more, so that when you arrive on campus you thrive in the classroom and have the capacity to engage, influence, and connect outside the classroom. When we review your application, and particularly your transcript, we are asking if you have chosen challenge, because we want evidence that when you are stretched you respond well. So what is the next level for you? Maybe that is something quantifiable like taking HL instead of SL Spanish, or perhaps it is less tangible and translates simply to working harder or learning more deeply in a particular course you are taking. Set your eyes on the next switch back, and pull your backpack straps a little tighter. This is not about getting in. It’s about preparing and also learning an incredibly valuable lesson that will set you up for success in college and beyond—there is more in you!

Celebrate your wins!
One student, a hard-core swimmer who was recruited by Division I programs, was in the back with me as we neared the top of the mountain. In a pool, she can swim all day (literally).  But the term “fish out of water” has never been so fitting. We saw the crest and she was pumped. But as we drew closer, it became clear it was a false summit. We found a natural stone bench and sat down to have water and a Kind bar. She looked around at the incredible views and vistas, then looked back down the mountain at hikers who appeared like tiny specks at the bottom. “This is beautiful,” she said, then added astutely, “I know a lot of people will never see this.” The vantage point was incredible. And she could not have been more right about the latter piece too. Getting there had taken a ton of work and we’d seen several groups turn around along the way. About 83% of high school students graduate, and only 65% of those go on to college, which means approximately half the students who started the climb are not sitting where you are. So when you get accepted to college, whether it’s your first choice or your fifth, celebrate your win. Consider the work that it’s taken to get there and the people who have been encouraging and supporting you on your climb. Look back at your hard work and stop to appreciate the view. (We celebrated with Skittles. I’ll leave your reward to you. Just promise me you’ll slow down, enjoy, and celebrate.)

There’s more than one summit.
This is your climb and your trek. You know where you’ll flourish. You know where you’ll find a community to challenge and stretch and support and encourage you. And if you are doing this search and application process well, you’ll realize there are many places to find the view and experience you need to realize your dreams. So don’t let a family member or a friend tell you that there is only one school you “need” to go to or “deserve” to go to. If a place is too cold or too homogeneous or too pretentious or too urban for you, it’s false summit for you. You define your summits.

It’s not a race.
Holistic review by definition means schools look at way more than one number (GPA) or a set of numbers (count of AP/IB/Honors, etc.), and certainly more than test scores, which continue to decline in predictive value. The person to the top the fastest does not necessarily win, and admission decisions from highly selective colleges will not be quantifiable. The student hiking in the back of our group had never been on a trail. She was not as fast as some of her peers, but her desire and indefatigable spirit were unrivaled. As we sat at the false summit dividing out red Skittles, I asked, “You good?”  I’ll never forget her response, because when she looked up at me I thought she was going to cry. But instead she replied, “Rick, I didn’t come her for nothing.” Wow! We got up and trudged another 45 minutes to the top. Selective colleges want to admit students like her because they are grinders, workers, strivers. Sometimes these are students whose parents did not attend college, and yet they’ve achieved incredibly inside and outside of school. Sometimes this is the student who was diagnosed with a life-limiting condition in their sophomore year requiring eight surgeries, yet they’ve still managed to make B’s while juggling constant treatments and medical attention. Sometimes this is the student from a school which didn’t offer Differential Equations and courses beyond AP Computer Science, but who sought out online options or dual enrolled at a local community college for a challenge. On a scatterplot, they may come in below a college’s profile, but an X and Y axis can’t capture “I didn’t come here for nothing.”

Hike Well.
You can’t fake number four (see above). You may be the kid in the front group with plenty of exposure to hiking, a high dollar backpack, and Gortex boots. If that is your background, this becomes a matter of how you climb. I wrote last week about controlling what you can. You control how you hike. The admission process is not fair. You will see a student with “lower scores” get admitted to a school where you do not. You will see a recruited blue-chip athlete get into a university that does not admit your best friend who took “better classes.” It will happen—it happened last year, it happened a decade ago, and it will happen this year. Want to know what doing it right looks like? When we reached the top, the first group had been there an hour. It was chilly, it was blustery, and they still had a 2-3 hour climb back down. But they waited. When we rolled in, there were high fives, hugs, and applause. It was one of the most genuine, inspiring moments I’ve been a part of in a long time.

If you are defining your own summits, then seeing someone else get there too is not going to bother you, it’s going to encourage you. That, my friends, is character. And character, for all of us, is a challenge by choice that lasts a lifetime.

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Two Truths and a Lie

We’re officially in reading season. Recently I read an essay all about the balance beam written by a high school gymnast. She wrote about conquering her nerves and summoning reliance in her training, and then discussed the skill of tuning out the other routines simultaneously being performed and cheered in the competition. While the essay was for college admission it was not about college admission. However, the parallels (not bars– just similarities) are unquestionable.

Conquer your nerves and rely on your training.

Many of you recently submitted Early Action or Early Decision applications. Initially there is some relief in “being done,” but it’s understandable to experience an underlying feeling of nervousness and anxiety as you realize you no longer have control. There is no essay to read over and edit again; you can’t get one more person to take a look to be sure you haven’t missed something.

Good news: admission dean/director totally understands your pain. Think about it: every spring we admit thousands of students. Not only thousands, but thousands more than we have room for on campus. Last year at Georgia Tech we admitted about 7,500 students for a class goal of 2,850. Crazy, right? We admit more students than we can accommodate because of yield (not everyone says yes to our offer). When we initially finish and release decisions it’s a huge relief. We go home, sleep, eat some good food, sleep, remind our families who we are, and sleep. But inevitably in April a faculty member or alumnus will read an article about our admitted class then call or write me and ask, “Did you mean to admit that many? I thought our first year class was closer to 3,000?”

The “what ifs” start to flood in. What if we did take too many students? What if our predictive models are wrong? What if the housing department rounds up a posse and tries to haul me off in the night? The what ifs will kill you. Breathe, my friends. Breathe. You know what you’re doing (and I know what I’m doing).

Truth #1: You cannot control all outcomes. We believe if we pack the night before, leave two hours early and use Waze we’ll be able to tailgate before the game and be in our seats at kickoff.  But then you get stuck in horrific traffic, the ice in the cooler melts, you barely sit down before halftime, and the team you were favored to beat by 13 stages a fourth quarter comeback to win. We don’t know what’s going to happen, right?! And that’s kind of the beauty of it! Isn’t that why we live this life anyway?

The most likely scenario is you will not get into every school you applied to. You may get in and not be able to afford to go. You may get into your dream school, then your girlfriend breaks up with you and decides to go there, and you end up choosing another college 500 miles in the other direction. Listen, we’ve had years when we did overshoot our goal due to yield. One year we had a class of 3,200. Life!

But what does your training tell you? You’ve worked hard. You’ve applied to a variety of schools based on selectivity where you’d be happy to go. Finish the routine. Enjoy your senior year. If you wobble, correct it. If you fall off, jump back up.  You cannot sneak behind the judges table and alter scores or manipulate outcomes. But you can have a great, memorable senior year you’re proud of. Smile while you’re up on the beam and stick the landing.

Tune out the distractions around you. During your junior and senior year in particular, you are going to see and hear some crazy and loud voices.

  • You might read or hear you need to pay $800 for a test prep class in order to raise your ACT score by two points. Don’t look down. Tune out the distractions and remember the number of free, online options is growing and their results are equal to and outperforming many high-priced (highly marketed) companies in this space. If you or your parents believe you need to pay for something for it to be valuable, also look at local options. Many community colleges and area high schools offer great test prep for a fraction of the costs you’ll see when you simply Google for “SAT/ACT test prep.” (I’d also encourage you to go for a hike to disprove the theory of pay = value, but that’s a blog for another day.)
  • You might hear mom or dad tell Aunt Carol, “We are really trying to get that Calculus grade up,” or “Our first choice is Vanderbilt.” Keep your balance. Eyes straight ahead.
  • You might see a classmate get into your dream school who you think is not as academically talented or generally qualified as you, while you get deferred. Someone clapping and high-fiving them as they come off the floor exercise has no bearing on your beam performance. Take a deep breath. Finish strong.

Truth #2: You can control yourself. This is your routine. You own thisContrary to what some may say or write or tweet, your job is not to get in–your job is to get ready for college. You have a choice on how you get ready as you search for colleges, tour colleges, apply to colleges and ultimately select a college. Want to know if you’re doing it right? When your classmate gets in, you are the first one putting your hand up for a high-five. I came across a Hemingway quote in an essay last week: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Grow, encourage, explore, and improve. That’s a college admission process done well.

One Lie: (Yeah, this is not like the game. I’m just straight telling you the lie. You call it not as fun–I call it transparency–it’s all semantics.) The college admission process is not a balance beam. You are not on your tip toes, placing one foot in front of the other while performing flips, turns and twists. You can, and will, make missteps. You can score a point below your goal on the ACT, make a B+ in a class, score a 3 on an AP exam, or forget to underline a book title in your essay, and still get into your first choice college. You can do all of those things and not end up at your first choice college, and still be phenomenally happy.

How do I know? Because we have plenty of students on campus who will tell you Georgia Tech was not their first choice. They either didn’t get into their first choice school, or they did get in and couldn’t afford it. Similarly, there are students we denied who are now thrilled about being on another college’s campus and would not change it for the world.

The bottom line is there is not only one place for you. There is not one college that will help you get where you think you want to ultimately go in life. The truth is college admission– and college itself for that matter– is not a four-inch wide beam. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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Kitchen Bars and Common Data Sets

The Kitchen Bar

I am sure that there is a moment in every kid’s life when they regret the fact that their parent has a particular profession. Lots of child-sized thought bubbles like, “Oh. Crap. Why is my mom a doctor? Or in sales? Or a personal trainer?” I can imagine them reading in their room after a conversation or walking to school after a lecture telling their buddies, “Man, I wish my dad was not in consulting. You should have heard what he said last night.”

Well, that moment came to the Clark house recently. My son (a second grader) wanted to apply to be part of “Principal’s Council.” This is a group of student representatives who meet periodically to consider ways to improve the school, communicate important messages more effectively, or provide student insight into current topics, issues, etc. Great concept and I fully support it.

So I asked him, “How many will they pick from each grade?”

“Two,” he replied.

“And how many people are going to apply?”

“I don’t know,” (I thought that answer was not supposed to start so frequently until age 14 or so).

So my head immediately goes to his odds. First, you have to believe that they’re going to select a boy and a girl (figuring that was a fair assumption).

“And how are they going to decide who gets picked?”

He showed me the application. A few short answer questions on ideas you have and why you would be a good representative for your class. Thankfully (for him), it noted that handwriting was not a factor for selection.

I knew that there were 60 students in his grade. Then I checked the roster to find, interestingly, that they’re basically dead split on boys and girls. We lined up 30 items on the kitchen bar to represent each boy in the class, which took a while. We used salt and pepper shakers, fruits and vegetables, spice jars, and a few pistachios. I had to keep him from assigning specific people to the lemons or broccoli (which he calls “the vegetable that shall not be named”).

Then I asked him how many of the boys he thought would apply. Same question from earlier but now with props. (Turns out it was effective, so consider that tactic for future reference.) “Well,” he said, “I know Michael is. And Ryan. And Matthew…” He went on to rattle off another four or five more.

“So, do you think it’s fair to say at least 15 boys will apply?” I asked. Ultimately, we agreed on 14. Not sure why he was unwilling to concede that last tomato but for the point of the exercise, I was good with it.

“Okay. So, why should they pick you?” I asked. Told you there was a point in every kid’s life when they wish their mom or dad did something else. And, while he did not say it, I figured we had to be flirting with it here. I came to this conclusion not based on incredible parental intuition but more so on the audible sigh and pseudo-violent backward thrust of his head.

After he recovered (by eating two of his classmates… I mean jelly beans), it was pretty interesting to hear his responses, as well as to hear him acknowledge how great the other kids in his grade are too. Every time he’d say something about being honest or a good listener, he’d often follow it with, “but so is Jonathan” (or another of this classmates).

In the end, I said, “Listen, I think it’s awesome that you want to do this- — and I think if you’re picked that you would do a great job. But you need to understand that the chances of not getting picked are pretty high.”

He took a long, hard look at the other 13 items still on the bar and got out his pencil sharpener to start his application. The next morning, as we were walking up to the school, I told him I was proud of him for applying. I told him even if he did not get picked there would be tons of other opportunities to contribute and make things around him better. Yes, I know, I was laying it on thick.

“Okay. Dad. Got it.” And he ran off with one of the “apples” from the kitchen bar.

Analyzing Common Data Sets (CDS)

When you are applying to schools you are not going to know absolutely everything about their process or priorities. And you’re not going to know exactly who else is in that year’s applicant pool. But you’re not completely in the dark either. You have the ranges a school provides on their profile; you have last year’s admit rate; you have their mission and purpose,; but you also have the ability to look at public historical information that will provide you additional insight, perspective, and trends if you look at multiple years.

Let’s stick with the 7% number or 1/14 applicants selected. At that rate, we’re talking Princeton or Yale. (See selective admit rates here.) Note: It’s possible both are really somewhere in the 6.x range, but no need to split hairs (or vegetables if you’re using your kitchen bar for this exercise). You can quickly find most school’s CDS online (here is Georgia Tech’s) and use it to provide additional context beyond what’s listed in their marketing materials. Here are the ones for Yale and Princeton. Since these are standardized, you can always go right to Section C for information on freshman admission.Common Data Set Initiative

Section C1: Provides applicant breakdown by gender. Is the distribution equal in applicants or admits at the school you’re applying to? Generally, there is some variance. I’d encourage you to look over several years of data to see if there is consistency or a trend. Does the school currently have gender equity in their class? Does it appear from the data or from their messaging or from looking at multiple years that they’re increasing the number of men or women in their class overall?

Section C7:  This section outlines what each school places priority on in their admission and decision making process. You’ll find highly selective schools will incorporate far more factors beyond academics here (extra-curricular involvement, geographic origin, first generation students, etc.) and they also convey the level of importance they place on each factor. So expect schools below 20% in admit rate to check off plenty of additional boxes and assign relative importance. This is a somewhat quantitative illustration of a very nuanced holistic review that schools should be discussing on their websites and presentations. Good news: Yale makes this incredibly easy to find, as they have a site entitled: “What Yale Looks For.” (For the record, I think all schools should standardize that naming convention.)

Section C9:  This section provides test score information by band. Note: admitted averages are typically higher than enrolling averages (which is what the CDS displays). So it’s safe to assume that the representation for admitted students in the higher bands is greater than these tables display. In other words, if 75+% of enrolling students scored above 700 on each section, it’s likely that the admitted pool was some number above that. And therefore a lower percentage in lower bands.

Section C10: Class Rank. So at Princeton 94% of students finished in the top 10% of their class. At Yale that number was 97%. At Tech it was 87%. While many high schools do not rank, this is still a good frame of reference for understanding the quality of a school’s class. And, let’s be honest, the school may not rank per se, and some may not even provide percentile bands, but you still know where you relatively stand in the class in terms of performance- and how you’ll “read” in an application versus a classmate or someone who may have applied from your high school last year.

Feel free to delve deeper into the CDS of any school you plan to apply to. Other sections will give insight on number of students from in and out of state, detailed information on financial aid, size of classes, and faculty degree attainment information. All of these are more data and information that provide context for the admission process, but they also give you a clearer understanding of who is at each institution. But, we’re going to stop with Section C in an effort to keep this blog under 2000 words.

So What?

Unlike my son, you are not going to know 1/3 of the applicants personally. You won’t be able to put their “trustworthiness” or “entrepreneurial acumen” on a Likert Scale. But you can dig a bit deeper than simple ranges or profiles universities often put on home pages. And doing that is critical to help you better understand the competition and review.

  • If 92% of the students enrolling at a school were in the top 10% (and a higher percentage still in their admitted pool) and you are not, what will help make you part of that other 8%?
  • If a school’s CDS, in addition to their site and materials, is saying they don’t put much value or importance on testing and that is your strongest point within your application, you should be factoring that into “your admit rate” vs. the school’s published number.
  • If they report in their CDS that “demonstrated interest” is not part of their process…it’s not. No need to call or email incessantly, or ask others to do so on your behalf.
  • And lastly, if you are a valedictorian with a perfect test score are you guaranteed admission to all schools? NO. These numbers are helpful, but they don’t tell the entire story. The CDS provides data that reinforces what these schools will be saying in information sessions and outlining on their publications and websites– far more than academics are taken into account at our nation’s most elite schools.

Soooooo….What?!

  1. Do your homework. Read and research past the first page of a brochure or website. Read about a school’s mission. Check out their CDS. Ask good questions when you are on campus that really help you get to the answers that you need to make a good decision on where to apply, and ultimately where to attend.
  2. Acknowledge that at highly selective schools the kitchen bar is filled with lots of talent. Lots of far more perfectly ripe vegetables than they can possibly admit. And further, that many factors will be used to make admission decisions, so 100% predictability is impossible.
  3. Diversify your school set. I’m telling you the same thing I told my son. Go for it. Apply where you really want to go. But understand that you need to have schools on your list with a range of admit rates (7%-16% is not “a range”); schools that put priority on your strengths; and schools where their data and your interests align.

Made the sub-2000 word mark, but barely. Thanks for reading about data over the summer. Now go enjoy the pool.

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Breaking Down the Admission Team: Week 2: Offensive Line

In Fantasy Football, you score with skill positions, like quarterbacks and running backs. But we all know that in order for a player to succeed, he must have a group on the line blocking, working, and grinding every play. They don’t garner the spotlight, the headlines, or the score sheet, but make no mistake, the offensive line is the very heartbeat of the team.

And that is absolutely true of the phenomenal women and men who work in operations around the nation in admission. They don’t stand up on stages and deliver impassioned speeches about the school. They are not usually the ones talking with visitors. Their pictures aren’t prominently displayed on websites or publications. But day in and day out, they are moving the proverbial ball forward.

Back in the Day….

A decade ago or so ago basically all information that came into an admission office was via mail. I distinctly remember mail time. Back then we would literally wait for the truck to pull into the driveway. We’d have letter openers in hand and big tables nearby where we’d open, sort, and file documents for applications. Ultimately, those documents would be placed into folders (think dentist’s offices), and either delivered to counselors’ offices or placed on big sliding shelves in the mail room (think ELF, minus the dancing) for review. When supplementary information would arrive, operations staff would find the file, match the documents, and update the counselor. Besides the physical sorting, there was also a ton of data entry to do, including everything from social security numbers to addresses to test scores.

Fast Forward to Now…

These days schools have converted to reading applications on screens. Applications are submitted online, and transcripts either accompany that submission or come in via another electronic medium. But even now, admission offices are by no means completely paperless. Last year we received about 15,000 hard copy documents, including transcripts, recommendation letters, citizenship documents, school reports and profiles.  We also get a lot of extra information that students (or someone associated with the student) believe will be compelling. These range from projects (think paintings detailing Civil War battles or paper mache volcanoes), to pictures from actors / movie stars / athletes who are recommending students, to attendance records from the 3rd grade, to science reports from middle school.

But the majority of information comes in electronically. Tech works with 14 companies on a regular basis: testing agencies, foreign credit evaluators, application vendors, transcript avenues, etc. Not to mention we had over 6,000 emails last year from students, teachers, and counselors with attachments of documents. So while admission offices nationally may have led to the decline in stock prices for band aids and white out, their work load has not diminished—it’s just the nature of the work and skill sets of these folks has shifted. Big League (too soon?).

What does this mean for you?

I realize we’re getting into the weeds a bit, but this work directly impacts the efficiency and effectiveness in which admission offices operate. Operations folks are the ones who are updating your online checklists, your applications for residency, verifying transcript receipt, and confirming test score accuracy. They spend a lot of time doing quality control—making sure YOUR application contains YOUR grades, recommendations, and test scores, even though each of those may have been sent from a different source. Sound fun? This is what it takes to play on the Offensive Line. I’m telling you, these workers are the epicenter of every admission office in this country.

Any smart quarterback knows that he better take his offensive line out for steaks once a month and buy them some good Christmas gifts or he’s going to end up on the ground a lot more. So here are a few ways you can help yourself as you work with Operations Teams around the country.

Apply First. Test scores are very easy to match to applications. But when students send other things early (whether that be transcripts or immunizations form kindergarten) we don’t really have a mechanism for holding and matching. Think of your application as the cornerstone of a building. Everything is contingent and hooked to that foundation.

One and Done. If your counselor sends a transcript via Naviance or Common App or another electronic company, please don’t also mail, email, fax and carrier pigeon that to us to “be sure we have it.” You are just clogging up the system and adding processing time to your file and others. Schools give processing windows (messages saying it will be 2-3 weeks or 7-10 days before your online checklist will reflect receipt) for a reason. We have not yet found a way to bend the space-time continuum, so trust that timeline, check back, and take action if it’s not been received. We get that you are nervous about deadlines and being complete, but if 30,000 other applicants (and adding in eager parents, make that 90,000 people) are all calling, emailing, and showing up in person, you can understand the inefficiency that creates.

Know Your Name. Be sure you list the same first, last, middle name on your test scores, transcripts, and application. You may not love that your formal name is William, but using that on your application and “Willy B” on your SAT is going to lead to matching nightmares on our end. We find this issue particularly problematic for international students. We will call you whatever you want when you arrive on campus, but let’s keep it formal and official in the application process.

Go Green. Let’s work to save the world one transcript or recommendation letter at a time. If your school or county is not yet sending documents electronically, put pressure on them to rectify that. This is not a vendetta against the US Postal Service but the bottom line is electronic documents are easier to handle, match, upload, process and read.

Shout Out!

One of the very best in the business talking about “all things operations” is David Graves at UGA. Dr. Graves is the Senior Associate Director there and does a phenomenal job talking about things specific to UGA but also applicable info on test scores and tips for working with processing offices within admission. Follow him on Twitter: @drgravesUGA.

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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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