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Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

This week we welcome Associate Director for Guest Experience, Andrew Cohen, to the blog. Welcome, Andrew!

Over the summer I made a very big life change – I moved almost 900 miles away from the place I call home.  I was born and raised in Central New Jersey, attended college in upstate New York, and have lived in New York City ever since.  In June, I accepted a position with Georgia Tech and started planning my move to Atlanta.  Of course I was excited about this life change, but it was also a bit terrifying.  I’ve never lived more than a four hour drive away from home, and now I’m a 13 hour drive away from where I grew up.

On the other hand, many aspects of the move were very exciting.  I was excited for a fresh start in a new city with so much to explore.  I was also excited about all of the new opportunities coming along with my new job, not to mention the big life decisions that came with the move, like buying my first car (I always used public transportation in New York City).

The more I think about how my life has changed over the past few months, I am reminded of the many conversations I’ve had with high school students and parents about the location of the colleges they are considering.  Many times families set a limit on the driving radius from their home, whether it’s in miles or hours.  While I understand the comfort of being close to home, it is important to recognize there are opportunities you may be excluding with this kind of limitation.

When I was considering leaving New York City, I took into consideration things like job responsibilities and future opportunities, location, and even the weather.  That’s why I recommend thinking about the following items when you’re building your college list.

Opportunities for Growth

For me, position and career opportunities were very important. Here at Tech, I manage the campus visits team and customer service for our office.  The opportunity was different than what I was used to and that excited me.  Tech has a very unique story to share with its approximately 40,000 visitors annually.  I attended a smaller private college, then worked at a similar type of school for a few years, so working at a larger public institution was a big change.  Professionally, it was a great opportunity.

Just like I considered these opportunities, you as a student should think about the programs offered at each institution on your college list.  Besides thinking about your major, what opportunities are offered outside of the classroom?  What kinds of internships or co-ops are students participating in? If you’re not sure what you want to major in, then look at the variety of majors offered. What kind of support is available to help you choose a major?

For me, new opportunities were the biggest driving factor in making the choice to move to Atlanta.  As a high school student, new opportunities should also be a driving force selecting a college.

Location, Location, Location!

The next thing that I considered was location.  After living in NYC for many years, I knew I still wanted to be close to or in a large city.  I was not ready to make the jump to living in a more rural location.  I like access to the hustle and bustle of a city, so Atlanta was perfect.  While Atlanta is a large city, there is a balance of quieter suburbs and outdoor activities all around (even when I’m on campus I forget I am in the heart of Midtown Atlanta!).

As a student, don’t think of location as a mile/hour distance, but rather the type of place you want to live for four years.  Are you interested in being in a college town, a large city, or a more rural area?

Weather

The last of considerations for me was a bit more minor, but something that should not be overlooked – the weather.  As a native northeasterner, snow and freezing temperatures do not bother me.  Moving to the south was an opportunity to try something different.  I can happily say I survived Atlanta’s heat and humidity in August, and I’ve been loving the warmer fall temperatures.

As a student, weather should certainly be a consideration for you too–but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.  Is it worth giving up an amazing opportunity just because of a few cold winter months?  In the long run, college is only a few years. Looking back, I see how surviving a cold winter can build character (and make you appreciate warm weather!).  If you are thinking of going to school in a place with very different weather than you are accustomed to, be sure to visit the campus during that season.

After being in the south for only a few months, I am constantly reminded of the great decision I made.  It has been an adventure exploring the city and I have quickly adjusted to my new job.  If I was not willing to step out of my comfort zone and look past the 4-hour driving radius around the New York City area, I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity.  Even with being so much farther away from my family, I still have been able to see them quite frequently (thanks to Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport!).

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The Coach’s Guide to College Admission

Listen to the audio version here!

A few months ago I wrote about no longer coaching my son’s soccer team. This fall I have moved on from that 9 year-old boys’ team to my daughter’s 7 year-old squad. Let’s just say it’s been… a transition. The 9 year-olds, especially in those last few seasons, had really developed their skills and understanding of the game. We had progressed to using phrases like “check,” “square,” and “drop.” When they came to practice, they would (generally) listen, execute the drills, and understand what I was instructing them to do.

It did not take me long to remember what it’s like coaching 7 year-olds. In the first practice, one girl literally fell to the ground when I said, “drop” (I’m not sure what she would have “checked”  had I used that term). When I asked them to stand five yards apart and work on two-touch passing, I got a few blank stares combined with distances that left me wondering if it was their understanding of  “five” or “yards” we  needed to work on.

And then we had our first game. It felt like trying to verbally control Foosball players. I found myself calling out from the sideline, “Now you kick it to her, then you kick it to her, and…” Yeah. It didn’t work. On the ride home I realized I needed to re-think my approach and expectations. I decided on three simple priorities for the season: stay “jump rope” distance apart; dribble—don’t kick; and encourage each other.

If you are a parent (or “coach”) in the college admission “season,” I think these goals (pun intended) apply to you as well.

Jump Rope Distance

Clearly, the kids needed to see what five yards looks like, so I brought a jump rope to our next practice and had them take turns stretching it out and holding it. We talked about that being an appropriate separation to keep while you are on the field. At that distance, you can pass to each other and help each other defend. Maintaining that length keeps you from bumping into each other or knocking each other over while trying to get the ball.

As a parent in this process, you are a coach—not a player. You are a parent—not an applicant. Sometimes you may need to go for a walk or drive to re-examine your game plan and check-in: have you recently said something like, “We are taking the SAT next weekend,” or “Our first choice is Purdue”? We have all winced while watching through the slits in our fingers as a coach forgets their role and runs out onto the field, attempting to play for the team. Don’t be that coach! This means asking questions about college essays and making helpful edits or suggestions—not re-writing them with words like “lugubrious” or “obsequious.” This means backing away when you are at a college visit and letting your son or daughter ask their questions of a tour guide or an admission counselor. In a short year or two, they will be on a college campus. They will need to be able to advocate and navigate for themselves. Are you coaching them to be ready for that?

In a recent Washington Post article, Scott Lutostanski discusses executive function skills, which include organization, time management, and planning. He asserts parents need to be disciplined and cognizant of taking opportunities to empower their kids to grow and develop in these areas. Searching for, applying to, getting in, getting disappointed, and ultimately deciding upon a college are all opportunities to help your student enhance these invaluable skills. Don’t steal the ball. Remember: Jump rope distance.

Dribble—don’t kick.  

In practice, I let them simply kick and run after the ball. When they did that, the ball often went out-of-bounds or a defensive player quickly took it away. They realized they were out of control and ineffective. Since then we’ve been focused on dribbling—keeping the ball close so they can cut or change direction when necessary. As a parent/coach, that’s your job too. The college admission process is not Foosball where you simply turn the rod and control the players or the game. You cannot control admission decisions. You cannot control merit scholarships or financial aid packages. You cannot control the competition in any given applicant pool. Slow the game down. Keep perspective. One play at a time. One game at a time. Dribbling allows your team to keep things close and make choices, adjustments, and intentional decisions when the unexpected or uncontrollable happens. Dribble—don’t kick.

Encourage Each Other!

Most of the girls on our team have yet to score a goal. We have made it clear that success is not about scoring. Winning looks different for each one of our players. For some it is making a good pass, while for others it is performing a new dribbling move, or using their non-dominant foot to trap the ball. One of the most gratifying parts of the season has been listening to the players on the bench cheering for their teammates. Some of the loudest celebrations have come after a teammate makes a “jump rope” pass. The entire bench starts chanting “jump rope, jump rope!”

What is winning for your daughter or son in their college experience? Not where, coach (and not what you want!). What do they want to study? What kind of faculty and students do they want to be around? What part of your state, region, or country are they excited about spending their colleges years in? Keep asking them these questions.

I hope you will not make winning about getting in to a particular college. Coach so your son or daughter doesn’t feel like your expectation, love, and approval is tied up in getting in (read: scoring), but rather that your joy is in seeing them find multiple colleges that match their goals. Winning is finding affordable financial options everyone is excited about. Winning is staying connected and supporting your son or daughter—holding them up and celebrating them, rather than achieving a particular outcome.

Game Plan

In documentaries or press conferences, players do not talk about how the coach got them to something (titles, awards, etc.) but how they got them as a person—they built trust, believed in them, and encouraged them relentlessly. Similarly, in retirement speeches, coaches rarely mention championships or trophies, but rather define success by their bond with players.  It’s going to be a great season. Go get ‘em, coach!

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Drifting Through the Transfer Process

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director for transfer admission, Chad Bryant, to the blog for National Transfer Student Week. Welcome, Chad!

A couple of weeks ago I had a 3 ½ hour flight back home from a conference and decided to pass the time by watching a movie. As I was skimming through the Delta movie directory, I stumbled upon the movie Adrift. The movie is based on a true story and the description was interesting so I decided to watch.

SPOILER Alert: If you have not seen the movie, you may want to watch it then read this blog.

The movie centers on a couple’s shared love of adventure and sailing.  Midway through the movie, they accept an incredible opportunity to sail 4,000 miles to deliver a sailboat. I am not a sailor but do love the water and understand their attraction to the open seas and infinite horizons. As you can guess by the movie title, their trip did not go smoothly and they ultimately encounter one of the worst storms in history. It is a tragic yet true story of hope, perseverance, and strength.

As I was watching this movie, I thought about the college admission process, specifically students who choose to transfer from one college to another. While not a long distance sailing trip, the transfer process is an adventure many students pursue each year. Nearly half of all undergraduate students start at a community college with many pursuing a “vertical” transfer to a four-year institution. Other students discover their first choice institution may not be the right fit and pursue a “lateral” transfer path to another four-year institution.

No matter the reason, the transfer process can be daunting and requires hope, perseverance, and strength on the part of each student. Whether you are a high school student or college student exploring the transfer option, here are three tips to consider on your transfer adventure.

HOPE for the best, but have a backup plan.

You may have plotted the perfect course for your college experience, but you might have to change direction if those plans do not work out. I recommend students always ask colleges about their transfer options, especially if their ultimate goal is to enroll at a highly selective institution.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) 81% of colleges have at least one admission officer who works exclusively with prospective transfer students. Many have more than one and place considerable importance on transfer. Asking these four questions can give you a sense of how important transfer students are to an institution:

  • How many transfer students do you admit each year?
  • Do you offer a transfer information session?
  • Do you participate in any guaranteed admission programs or articulation agreements with other colleges?
  • Do you reserve dedicated financial aid for transfer students?

College admission is as unpredictable as the weather and there are several factors (and models) institutions use prior to making their decisions. Not receiving admission to a first choice institution can seem like a disaster, but hope is never lost. Preparing a backup plan and including transfer as an option is a positive approach you can control, rather than fixating on one single outcome which lies outside of your control.

PERSIST, even when you feel adrift.

It’s easy to feel lost or confused when exploring the transfer admission process. Transfer applications and credit requirements vary by institution. You may ask the questions above and not like the answers, but don’t give up. You have a right to know your responsibility in the process and how credits transfer. The responsibility of evaluating transfer credit may rest on the admission office, the registrar’s office, and/or within academic colleges and faculty. At the very least, each institution should have a clearly stated transfer credit policy within their course catalog and be able to answer these transfer questions for you:

  • What is the process for evaluating transfer coursework?
  • What credit will not be accepted, and why?
  • Do you accept credit by exam given by another institution?
  • Do you have a transfer equivalency table available for students to use?

Persistence can pay off, and time exploring transfer options can help you understand how policies reflect the mission and goals of an institution. These policies also serve as effective recruitment and retention tools by preparing students, limiting credit loss and prioritizing degree completion.

BELIEVE in yourself above all else.

Above all, a college education is an investment in yourself. Before transferring, there are a couple of items you should expect from an institution before paying an enrollment deposit:

  • A good faith credit evaluation report, and
  • A financial aid award letter (as long as you have submitted all requested documents).

According to NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, if an institution is unable to provide these items, you can request an enrollment deposit extension or refund.

No model can fully predict the weather, much less the type of college experience you will have. I’ve worked in higher education for 17 years and the best predictors of college success I’ve seen are sheer strength and determination. You may have to navigate through the rough waters of heartbreak, credit loss, or survival of another math course, but exploring transfer admission is a journey worth the risk and reward.

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You GET To Do This!

Listen to the audio version here!

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend time walking around farms in South Georgia as part of a leadership program. It was fascinating to hear farmers’ perspectives on everything from supply and demand to organic growing practices; from their daily monitoring and speculation about consumer behavior for their crops to the evolution of technology in farm equipment.

What struck me in particular was a simple concept: as a farmer, your job is to put a seed in the ground. Then you water it, fertilize it, pray over it, watch it grow, lose sleep worrying about it, and ultimately harvest it months later.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you know that (like the old school Tootsie Roll commercials) pretty much anything I see or hear reminds me of college admission in some way. That day was no different. Standing out in those fields, I could not help thinking about the months ahead and all the planning, time, work, and care it will take to enroll our next class.

#AdmissionsLife 

Fall is all about travel and recruitment—putting seeds in the ground, if you will. In fact, I started writing this post right before midnight on a Friday, and we’re still 30 minutes from landing at the Atlanta airport. This trip began in a very similar fashion to most trips in the fall: in the dark, as I crept out of my house Tuesday morning around 5 a.m. to catch a flight. Over the course of the next month, I’ll take three similar trips—early mornings, late nights, rental cars, and hotel breakfasts. That’s what you do in the fall in college admission: travel, shake hands, give talks, pass out business cards— rinse and repeat. (SIDE NOTE: The next time you see a college admission representative at your school or local college fair, ask them how they’re doing and give them a restaurant recommendation, or a good place to go for a walk or run.)

Winter is all about reading applications. Like a farmer caring for and regularly inspecting crops, this season is long and protracted, with intensely critical monitoring and attention required throughout. There are no short cuts: tracking down transcripts, reading applications, ensuring test scores have been reported, reading applications, answering emails, reading applications, eating copious amounts of take-out food, reading applications. I mentioned reading applications, right? At Georgia Tech, we likely will receive more applications than we did last year— let’s conservatively say 38,000. To review these in our holistic process will take about 40 of us reading from mid-October to mid-March.

In the spring, we release admission decisions and immediately turn our attention to hosting admitted families trying to make a final college choice, as well as talking to prospective juniors and sophomores on their spring break barnstorm of college tours.

I relate to the farmer who is constantly gauging and adjusting to supply and demand. Based on applications and class size, our expected admit rate this year is around 20%, meaning we will deny admission to over 30,000 students (three times the number of applicants we had when I started at Tech). It’s not fun, and not why I got into this business. So spring is also about speaking with hundreds of incredibly talented students who are frustrated and deeply disappointed they were not offered admission. Ultimately, if our predictions are right, we will “yield” our crop… I mean class… of 2,900 students by the May 1 National Deposit Deadline.

I’m not that smart, and I’m no fortune teller. But college admission is cyclical, so I know these things are coming. It would be easy to look at the next eight months as time away from home and family in the fall; an over-caffeinated, pizza-fueled hibernation of sorts in the winter; and an oxymoronic persona of happy host/dream killer in this spring. (Anyone want a job?)

I GET to Do This

Immediately after leaving those farms in South Georgia, we heard from the Commissioner of Agriculture. One of the phrases he used was, “I get to do this.” His point was every day, every week, every month, and even every year, we make a choice about how we’ll approach life. Will our mentality be: “I have to do this” or “I need to do this”? Or, instead, “I get to do this.”?

That’s the phrase that went through my head early Saturday morning when I dragged myself from bed, shot Visine into my jet-lagged eyes, made a cup of coffee and headed out to coach a 7-year old girls’ soccer team. I get to do this!

That mindset fundamentally changes my outlook. I get to travel around the country to cities and states many people will never see. I get to read the applications of truly remarkable students who tell stories about innovative ideas, inspiring dreams, ambitious goals, tremendous impact, and amazing  challenges they overcame. I get to spend months working closely with a caring, funny, smart, dedicated staff. I get to constantly meet new people and tell them about a college I love and believe in. I get to articulate the value of higher education and try to bring some levity and solace to the often-anxious college admission experience. While we cannot admit everyone, I get to offer admission to thousands of students. I get to do this. What a privilege! What an honor! What an opportunity!

You GET to Do This

What do you have to do today? What must you do this week or month? What do you need to do this year?

How does your mentality, perspective, attitude, and motivation change when you consider what you get to do today?

If you are reading this, you are one of the incredibly fortunate people who gets to apply to college. You get to go to school— probably one that offers a lot of really good classes, alongside peers who want to excel, and taught by teachers who hope to see you learn, grow, and succeed. You get to work or practice or be with your family. Sadly, these are opportunities too few around our country and world enjoy.

This should not make you feel guilty. However, I hope it’s motivating. I hope it alters your perspective. Admittedly, I hope it results in you giving someone in your house or school a hug, a note, a text, or a sincere, “Thank you!” You get to do this.

You get to spend another year at home. You get to share a room or a car or a meal or clothes with a little sister. You get to listen to your dad’s stories or your mom’s lessons or your neighbor’s jokes a few more times over the upcoming months. What a privilege! What an honor! What an opportunity! EMBRACE IT.

Again, I’m no fortune teller, but here is what I see coming for you in the months ahead:

  • You will likely be denied or waitlisted by a school or three. I did. Most of my friends did. I am guessing if you talk to many friends who are in college now they did too. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, sometimes those closed doors help point you to the right place.
  • You probably won’t get all the scholarships or financial aid you hope to receive. I have a colleague who says, “The students who don’t get in want in. The students who got in want money. The students who got money want more money. And the students who got in and got all the money wanted it from somewhere else.” (What can I say? Some of us admission farmers are a bit cynical.)
  • You’ll see a few people you don’t think are as talented, capable, or deserving as you get into schools you want to attend. College admission is not fair—it’s driven by supply and demand and institutional mission. If you are a carrot and that college needs more squash that year, well…you cannot control those market conditions.

But just as I know the great essays, amazing stories, and community changing ventures are coming, you need to trust and know you will also get some great admission offers. You will to find a college where you will make lifelong friendships and create a lifelong network. How do those long-term results come about? You put a seed in the ground. You change your mentality. And you can do that today!

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Ask Good Questions

In the world of college admission there is always debate about the “best school” in the nation. As quickly as someone holds up Stanford or Harvard, someone else will poke holes in the methodology, or challenge that they may not be tops for  every major, and so on and so forth.  There are so many varying “sources” online these days that almost every school can tout a high-ranking or review in one area or another. “We’re among the nation’s best in ROI, or in STEM fields,” “We are the nation’s Greenest college” or “We have the best ice cream.” There is almost never a consensus or agreement on who really is “the best.” Perhaps that’s the beauty of this field– lots of great options and a desire to be the best in one thing or another, but clearly there is not a unanimous #1.

But in the world of music  a definitive leader is apparent; a band that rises above the rest and leaves no room for debate:  U2. From their lyrics to their history to their longevity, they simply define greatness. Glad we’ve established that.

A lesser known but important U2 song is 11 O’Clock Tick Tock. And in typical fashion, they always bring a lyric that is profound and broadly applicable to life:

“We thought we had the answers. It was the questions we had wrong.”

Asking the right questions, and being persistent in the asking, is a fundamental life lesson. And it’s absolutely vital as you go through the college admission process. So as you head out to college campuses, whether you are a sophomore or junior who is just starting to understand how one school varies from another, or a senior who is trying to figure out the best fit for the next few years, commit to being a relentless questioner. If you leave the question asking to the colleges, you can bet you’re  going to hear the same answers over and over again. “Oh, yes. Our biology program is great.” “Sure. You can double major in English and Sound Design. That’s actually extremely common.”

The emails and the brochures paint the same Pollyanna pictures, mixing appropriate diversity with studious learners closely inspecting a beaker or electrical circuit.. Don’t accept the Charlie Brown speeches. As you talk to people at different colleges, turn off the switch that has them rambling about studying abroad or the number of applications they received and ask them something better.

1) You ask: “What is your faculty: student ratio?” This number may not include faculty who are doing research and teach only one class, or those who are on sabbatical, and so on. For example, Tech’s ratio is 20:1, but that doesn’t mean you and 20 buddies will be sitting around a table in Calculus I your first year. These stats are compiled for publications to be comparative. So while helpful in that regard, they don’t tell the whole story.

You SHOULD ask: “What is your most common class size?” This question gets you right into the classroom. Schools rarely publish average SATs or GPAs but rather bands or ranges. Likewise, you want to look at their ranges and variances within class size. 85 percent of classes at Tech have fewer than 50 students. That type of information will be far more helpful to you in framing expectations and determining what kind of experience you will likely have.

And THEN ask: “How does that vary from first year to fourth year? Is that true for all majors? What does that look like for my major?” I had an intro Econ class at UNC-Chapel Hill that had 500 students in it. But that was not my undergraduate experience. In fact, that was the only course I took all four years that was over 100. Similarly, one of my favorite student workers at Tech was a senior Physics major whose classes had seven, 12, and 16 students in them. But rest assured that during her freshman year she sat in a large lecture hall for Physics I.

Your job is to probe. Your job is to dig and to clarify.

2) You ask: “What’s your graduation rate?” Schools do not answer this the same. Some will give you  their four-year grad rate, some five, and some  six. The variance is not an effort to be misleading or nefarious; they have been trained to respond with an answer that is  most representative of their students’ experience. Most four-year, private, selective liberal arts schools would likely not even think to respond with a five or six-year rate because there is no significant differentiation and their goal is to have all students graduate in four years. That’s how they structure curriculum and it is their culture.

You SHOULD ask: “What is your four and six-year graduation rate? And at those two intervals what  percentage have either a job offer or grad school acceptance letter?” Who cares if you have a high graduation rate if your job placement rate is low?

And THEN ask: “How does grad rate vary by major? What percentage of students who double major or study abroad or have an internship finish in four years?” My opinion is too much emphasis is put on this clock. Unfortunately, much of this is antiquated and driven by US News and World Report rankings (we won’t delve into this too much, but you can read about here). If you are taking advantage of opportunities on a campus like picking up a minor, or participating in a co-op, or working to offset costs, or going abroad to enhance your language skills, and all of those things are translating into lower loan debt and more job or grad school opportunities when you are done, then who cares about the clock?

3) You ask: “What is your retention rate?” Great question.. and an important one. Most put the national average somewhere around the 60% range. But as you can see from that link, it varies by school type and student type. So when a school says their first-year retention rate is 85%, that’s great, right?

You SHOULD ask: “Why are those other 15% leaving? Is it financial? Is it because the football team lost too many games? Is it academic and they’re not prepared for the rigor of the school? Is it because the school is too remote or too urban or too big?” Follow up. Ask them to articulate who is leaving. Tech has a retention rate of 97.3%, which  is among the top 25 schools nationally and top five for publics (these are statistics here, friends, not rankings). But we are constantly looking at who is leaving. Surprisingly, for many alumni and others who know the rigor of Tech, it’s not exclusively academic. It’s a balanced mix that also includes distance from home, seeking a different major, financial reasons, and, increasingly, because students are starting companies or exploring entrepreneurial options.

Some schools have retention rates below the national average, but they’re losing  students who are successfully transferring to state public flagships or into specialized programs in the area. If that’s your goal, then you can be okay with a lower retention rate, right?

Don’t be too shy to ask questions. This is your job… Not your mom’s job…. Not your counselor’s job. Your job. DO YOUR JOB!

And THEN ask: What that’s it? Nope. I have more questions…and so should you.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in February 2017. Links have been updated.

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