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What’s Your Bus?

This week we welcome Communications Officer (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

Last month a piece of Atlanta history came crashing down. In case you missed it, the city imploded the Georgia Dome. As with most demos, news crews from all over the city were there to cover the action. After all, who doesn’t love to see a good building implosion? But The Weather Channel’s coverage easily won the internet that morning.

I’ll be honest—when this video came out, I couldn’t get enough of it. I laughed until I cried… over and over. Never in a million years could you have timed this better– a MARTA bus rolls in and completely blocks the biggest moment of the day (which only lasted around 30 seconds at most). The frustration, disappointment, and angst in the videographer’s voice is priceless!

In full disclosure, much of my fascination with this video has to do with my background in local TV news. Before I started in education, I worked as a television news producer. My experience gives me a little bit of insight into what likely happened behind the scenes that day:

1 – The videographer scouted out the ideal spot to capture the action weeks ahead of time.

2 –  He arrived at said location in the early, early morning hours on a very cold day, probably around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., testing his equipment and making sure he had a clear connection back to the news station.

3 – Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, a whole host of staffers—including producers, reporters, and anchors—were all waiting for this video and had created their newscast around it. (Note: the bus part was not part of the plan or script).

What should have been an easy live shot turned into a completely botched effort, and the outcome wasn’t anywhere close to what they expected. And as for the videographer, I’m sure in that moment, he’s thinking, “You have to be joking? This bus literally ruined everything. Why me?!”

MARTA Buses and Admission Decisions

Last week a host of EA/ED colleges and universities across the nation released their admission decisions. While I don’t know all of the details on percentages, it’s likely that many of you got more bad (or uncertain) news than good. A lot more of you received a decision beginning with the letter D (defer or deny) rather than A (admitted).  You could say you had a MARTA experience, as the bus came rolling into your frame at a crucial moment, completely blocking what you’ve worked so hard to attain.

It’s easy to feel defeated—and that is totally understandable. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like being put off for another few months, or flat out rejected.

So how can you handle it when a bus rolls into your live shot? Take a couple of lessons from the MARTA bus incident:

Trust. There’s two ways to look at the bus: you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and throw in the towel. Or, you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and… wait. The bus in front of you will eventually move, and you’ll be left with a completely new perspective. Once the bus moves, you’ll have some great choices—so get ready.

Reassess. While you can’t go back in time and change your application, you can look back over the process and see if there’s anything you can do differently going forward. If you were deferred, is there a piece of information you can add into your deferred applicant form? Will their admission office accept an updated transcript with fall grades? If you have other open applications at other schools, have you ensured you’re working towards your deadlines and getting what they need to make a decision? If you were denied, do you have applications in at other schools that fit what you’re looking for in a college? There are still schools whose applications haven’t closed yet—get those apps in!

Accept. Sounds a little harsh on the outset, but bear with me. You’re probably asking yourself “what does she know? She doesn’t know how it feels to get shot down by your dream school.” But actually, I do. When I was a senior one of the Southern Ivy’s was at THE top of my list. I was smitten with this school in every way coming and going. I applied ED and was deferred to Regular Decision. Then, a few months later, I was denied. I remember getting the letter (ahem, because back in those days you actually had to wait on the mail to arrive to get a decision—so think about how much anxiety that created!), and sitting down with my parents and crying for three solid hours. So yes, I actually do know how you feel, and I remember how disappointed, sad, and betrayed I felt. I allowed myself time to mourn what I wasn’t going to experience, and the end of a dream. A couple of weeks later I chose to attend another school and never looked back. I’m sure the videographer allowed himself a pity party as well. But then, he picked up his equipment, jumped in the truck and headed to the next shoot. One step at a time, my friends.

Turning Abject Failure into a Big Win

Here’s the key: at the end of the day, what felt like abject failure to the guy behind the camera actually turned into a huge win for him, and The Weather Channel. The station posted the video on YouTube and as of today it has more than 1.2 million views. No way would it have gotten so much mileage if everything had gone right that morning. The video trended on social media all day. National news outlets picked it up, and before long spoofs were made of the incident (my personal favorite was this one created by Sports Illustrated).

I’m not telling you to broadcast your defer or deny all over social media (in fact—please don’t). What I am telling you is what looks like, feels like, and is one of the hardest moments of your life to this point will eventually turn into something good. You will find a college to call home… you will find a school that wants you on their campus… and when you ultimately get there in the fall, the sting of this decision will fade away as you make new friends, pursue new dreams, and make new memories.

Hang in there… easy to say, hard to do, but please try. The holidays are here, and you have a couple of weeks to rest, recover, and breathe. Be with family and friends, do something fun, read a good book, and invest in your well-being. You’ve got one more semester to tackle before your life changes… clear your head, and get ready! Great things are ahead!

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Our Bad. Your Problem.

We had an office retreat last week. One session included a quiz on Gen Z vernacular.  While our results were kept anonymous, I’m going to out myself and admit I did not score what most would define as high. “‘Ship them’, ‘Sips Tea,’ ‘Goat.'” As I watched one unfamiliar phrase after another pop up on the screen, I oscillated between trying to decipher their origins and thinking back on some of the popular phrases from my high school experience.  One of the most common, especially playing soccer, was “My bad.” 

I’ve come to realize “my bad” is essentially synonymous with “Bless her heart.”  A little girl trips during a ballet recital and Aunt May leans over and whispers, “She isn’t the most coordinated, is she? Bless her heart.” There are some real parallels between that comment and making a lazy pass to a teammate that ends up setting him up to get completely cracked by a charging defender. “My bad.” “Yep. Darn right it’s your bad. Nearly got me killed.” And to be honest, much of the consternation surrounding the admission process is “Our bad.”

Our bad!

Colleges should do a better job differentiating ourselves in the materials we send, the presentations we give, and the websites we build. In an effort to be broad and aesthetically concise, we end up blurring all schools together.

We want you to think, “Wow. I can see myself there” or “I’ll have friends and professors who will care about me,” so we stage diverse groups of students under trees with professors in front of our prettiest building on a perfectly sunny day. Now, you can attribute some of this to an overuse of the same marketing firm(s) within higher education.  “Check out the 2018 template. In this one we moved the football team winning a pivotal game to page two, and decided to get a drone shot of the steeple clock tower at sunset from the east. Don’t like that? Okay, how about the one with the study abroad picture on the cover and the ultimate Frisbee shot as a centerfold?” Maybe we need StitchFix to start creating college brochures. Give me a little more Atlanta and dial back the political activism–that’s really more us.

Our attempts to be inspirational or aspirational wind up being synthesized into three or four word taglines, such as “Change Your  World,” “Dream Big-Live Bigger,” or “Create the Future.” (Rumor is “Drain the Swamp” started with a consulting firm working for a college, but currently that’s been dismissed as fake news.) These attempts are ultimately why, based solely on brochures or websites, you might struggle to see a consequential difference between a small, private college in the middle of Ohio and a flagship public university in the Pacific Northwest. Our bad!

Truth be told, we do the same on tours too. We find the most involved students and best ambassadors to talk about all of the amazing research they’ve done, trips they’ve taken, and jobs they have lined up. While telling their story, they work in equally impressive anecdotes about friends or roommates studying abroad or creating companies– all the while somehow impervious to the 90 degree heat.

I’ve taken several tours this summer on my travels (registering under either George P. Burdell or Navin R. Johnson), so I’m not speaking only for Tech, or conjecturing about what may be happening. This is real, people.  These students are amazing- and they’re actual humans- not prototypes or conglomerates of a variety of top students. Not sure about you but I’ve walked away from some of those tours with an even mixture of being impressed and depressed.

Your Problem!

So, unquestionably, it is our bad. We set you up. We skim over lots of details. We give you very generic information online and in brochures, and then expose you to our best- whether its buildings, students, professors, or alumni. It’s the equivalent of us lazily passing the ball toward you. What are you going to do with it? Well, like any receiver (regardless of the sport) knows, you can’t sit and wait for it, because it will either get intercepted or you’re going to get hit upon arrival.

Run Toward It

1- Read and Research: Pick up an alumni magazine while you are on campus (tip: they’re always available at the college’s alumni building and most are readily available online too). What are they touting? Where are alums living and working? Inevitably, there are stories of professors, researchers, students, and even messages from the president or other influencers you won’t find in admission publications. Grab a school newspaper, look online for social media that’s not generated by admission, i.e. the academic department or clubs you are interested in joining. These posts are always more organic and less polished, which is a good thing.

2- Walk and Talk: If you visit a college with a friend or parent, try to split up and take different tours. Even though, theoretically, it’s the same route and basic script, the voices and perspectives will always vary.   It’s incredible how many times a tour guide’s personality, choice of footwear, the day’s weather, or some off-handed comment will influence your impression of the university. I challenge you to not let any one voice be too powerful in this process. You don’t read only one review on Yelp or Amazon, right? After the tour, go stand in the longest coffee line you can find on campus. Those are the conversations you need and want to hear. Sit down, compare notes, pretend to read, and enjoy the variety of discussions. Eavesdropping gets a bad rap. It’s a life skill.

In the near future, colleges will all have virtual or augmented reality tour options. You’ll be able to choose your tour guide avatar, customized tour route, and set your voice narration style. Imagine having Thomas Jefferson take you around UVA or Mark Zuckerberg take you around Harvard. Not “throwing shade” here—as I  told you, eavesdropping was a life skill.  It’s on you to limit your bias by soliciting as many opinions as possible.

3- Ask and Task: We’ve covered this before, but it bears repeating: It’s on you to ask good, probing questions. Don’t let the admission counselor pull the string in the back of their belt and start droning on about getting seven friends, a snitch and sponsor to start the Quidditch club.  Dig deeper. They’re not being nefarious—but they are  being lazy. Get beyond the first layer spiel. Stop the tour guide, pause the presenter. Ask them to delve into some detail about their student: faculty ratio or the availability of campus housing after sophomore year, or the percentage of undergrads actually doing research.

brb. Well, next week anyway.

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Make It A Summer… again!

Memorial Day is one of my favorite holiday weekends because it’s low key. Memorial Day is like that quiet, smart, and deceptively good-looking person we all know who just goes about their business doing their thing without looking for praise or the spotlight. Every now and then you take a look and they’ve just aced a test or scored a goal or are dating some amazing person. This is the infectious and admirable quality of contentment and self-awareness. 

Memorial Day isn’t going to bring fireworks or presents or greeting cards (which is truly something in the world of holidays). It just goes about its business every year, gently and encouragingly shepherding us into summer. It confidently holds open the door where sunshine glints through and kindly warms the room. You can hear laughing and music and the smells of barbecues as you approach and enter the season.

Summer is here, my friends. It’s a time to breathe. It’s a time to rest. It’s a time to slow down and enjoy people and books and being outside. I guess The Fresh Prince said it best– it’s a “time to lay back and unwind.” Memorial Day is an usher (no capitals, no link… the role not the artist) to Summertime. So embrace it– summer is your friend.

Last year I wrote a blog for rising seniors on how to “Make it a summer.” In recent conversations with friends, colleagues, and family, I felt like it was worth sharing that post with you again this year. Drums please!  Bonus: Looking for some other song suggestions? You’re in luck.

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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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Ask The Same Questions, again and again…

If you have ever been to Chick-Fil-A, you know their staff will always respond to your thanks with “My pleasure.” 

Customer: “Thank you for the ketchup.”

Staffer: “My pleasure.”

Customer: “Thank you for the lemonade.”

Staffer: “My pleasure.”

Customer: “Thanks for the sandwich.”

Staffer: “My pleasure.”

I once tried saying, “Thanks for saying ‘my pleasure,'” and received a sideways look. My current record is four “My pleasures” before they simply nodded to the next customer to approach the counter… I may go for five at the next drive thru. But you have to give it to them: they’ve clearly been trained on exactly how to respond, and they don’t deviate from that script.

Here’s the good news about colleges: they’re not Chick-Fil-A. You talk to a student, a tour guide, a professor and an alum and you will get different answers to most questions. This is a good thing.

Ask… then Ask Again

Last week we talked about asking better questions and follow up questions (and we established U2 as the best rock band of all time). This week we look at the questions you should ask over and over again to as many people as you can.

What makes this campus different or unique than other schools? This question is ESSENTIAL. If the student or tour guide or admission counselor or faculty member cannot answer that question, RUN! One of the most challenging parts about the college admission process is discerning how one school stands out from the other 4,000 in our country. This is a CRITICAL question, and you need as many different voices to respond as possible. Look for the answers online, and ask the question in information sessions. Talk to alumni about it. If you find some uniformity, you have likely found the school’s real identity. If you find great variance, you may be excited by the possibility of literally doing anything you want there. But if you find an inability to articulate a unique culture, you have a problem.

What is the most exciting thing happening on campus? If this is all about sports and you are not a fan, who cares? If this is all about some new building in a major you won’t be pursuing, who cares? If this is about political activism or the new vegan options or the 16 screen movie theater and you are an apolitical carnivore who has a fear of loud noises and big crowds, none of this will matter to you. But if their answers are all about the incredible start-up culture or the ways students work together to solve problems or the decision for all students to have an international experience and those are your passions, you have broken through the noise and found a real fit. Congrats!

What question has not been asked today that should be asked? Good one to work in at the end of a tour or an information session. This gives them an opportunity to hit on something that really matters to them. It will not be scripted, so you can count on it as being authentic and honest.

What do you wish you had known before deciding to come here? I’d ask this to students, tour guides, and, frankly, professors or admission staff who may not even be alums. There’s no way you’ll get a consensus “My pleasure “on this one. And the responses you get will give you more information to consider as you make your decision to apply or attend. Are all of those “pleasant surprises” about how nice folks are, or how good the weather is, or all the things to do near campus? Or are they predominantly negative about how expensive it is to live in that area, or that there are not direct flights to most places, or the food is terrible, or the girls are all mean? Again, this is simply information for you to digest and contemplate.

What has this college provided you to set you up for success and fulfillment in the future? Here again you can ask this of freshmen, seniors, recent graduates, or alumni well into their careers. This is also pertinent to faculty and upper level administrators. Are you hearing answers like, “The incredible network” or “the phenomenal reach and reputation” or “the ability to think critically and work collaboratively toward solutions,” and do those answers resonate with your goals?

Bonus questions (for overachievers or those who want five but did not like one or two of the above): What has disappointed you? What do you wish were different?  What is the most frustrating thing you’ve run into? Where do you see this school in five years or ten years?

The Gospel Truth…?

Here is the bottom line: Don’t take any one person’s opinion as gospel truth. I am the Director of Admission at Georgia Tech. But I am not the expert on all things Georgia Tech. To be honest, I’m not the expert on much at all on campus. And the same is true for any alum, or any tour guide or someone in the Chemistry department. Neither your sister nor the school President have a corner on the market of THE REAL STORY. It is the combination of all answers, all experts, and all perspectives that will serve you the best.  So use message boards and social media and read the school paper. But most of all ASK YOUR QUESTIONS. And ask them to as many people involved with each school as possible.

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