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Three Cheers for the Rankings!

The US News and World Report Rankings came out earlier this week. Last year I wrote “The Rankings, Meh…” This year I’m taking a different approach and cheering! I encourage you to try it out… here are a few examples of ways to use cheers in your conversations about rankings.

1 – Scoreboard! Scoreboard! I love this one. It’s like the “talk to the hand” of cheers. One of my biggest issues with rankings is their heavy reliance on surveys. #what?! Yep. Nearly a quarter of the rankings methodology is comprised of peer reviews of Academic Reputation. “The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics — presidents, provosts, deans of admissions- to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.”

To be honest, you should stop reading at the word “survey.” A survey! Think about it: do you fill out surveys? Exactly. Neither do most people. Two words: human nature. Sure, these people may have a bigger title than you but the behavior does not vary–and that’s why they call them statistics. Typical response rates are in the 20-40% range, so we know these are heavily limited from the outset. And as master delegators, you have to wonder are these presidents, provosts, and deans actually completing them personally (no disrespect to them)? And when they do, are they answering all questions, or only those they’re most familiar with? If they’re not responding, who is? And even when they do respond, how much can they truly know about all of these other places, given how frenetic their schedules are taking care of their own institution? Oh…so many questions.

At best these peer reviews are incomplete and overvalued, and at worst, myopic and nepotistic. Yet they account for 22.5% (the largest factor) of the methodology. So when you’re completing applications this fall and a friend or a parent questions your decision to apply to a school because of its spot in the rankings, simply reply, “Scoreboard!” Or better yet “Surveys!” Talk to the hand, my friend. I am discounting everything you are saying right now.

2 – Overrated! Dah, dah, dadada! 20% of the rankings methodology is based on Faculty Resources. “How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?” So a school sees they’re penalized on this measure and ultimately determines they can move the dial by increasing their average faculty salary by $2,000 annually ($8/day), and they launch a capital campaign to address this metric. Meanwhile, they address student class size averages by hiring more adjuncts to teach courses. Their rankings rise as a result. But did those dollars actually change the student experience? Did they make the faculty more invested in their teaching or research? Knowing these types of efforts are underway nationwide, would a school being 10 or 20 spots different from another impact your decision to visit or apply? “Overrated! Dah, dah, dadada!”

3 – Not our rival! This is one of my favorites because it’s brilliant in its dismissiveness. It’s like rolling “your momma” “whatever” and “pssht” into a single three word phrase. Student Selectivity makes up 12% of the methodology. Call me a whistle-blower, call me a cynic, but this measure is severely flawed.

First, let’s be clear: not all schools count applications the same. Some schools arguably suppress their application total (and subsequently their admit rate) by only counting fully completed files, while others count glorified inquiries (snap apps or quick apps) in their total, or bolster counts even if a student does not submit all documents or follow up to complete all parts of the application (i.e. supplements, etc.). Some schools even count visitors to campus as applicants (actually, this one is an exaggeration… at least they haven’t been busted for it yet).

Second, we know in order to increase applications many schools are buying names and mailing materials to literally hundreds of thousands of prospects, even when their class goal is less than 1000 and the composition in geography, ethnicity, gender, and curriculum is not changing over time in a significant manner.

So you don’t think I’m simply casting stones, let’s take Georgia Tech as an example. In 2017 our freshman application total was 31,500 and the admit rate was 23%. Two years earlier we received 27,250 applications and admitted 32%, nearly a 10 percentage point difference. It moved us from being among about 100 schools below 35% admit rate to about 50 schools below 25% admit rate. But I can say with certainty this measure is not reflective of the quality of education our students receive. Our student profile is essentially the same. We have not radically changed our faculty, curriculum, study abroad programs, or internship opportunities in those two years. And yet our student selectivity is what some would define as “vastly” different.

If you are reading this blog, I have no doubt this spring you’ll be sitting on multiple offers from colleges. You’re in. You’ve visited. You’ve compared the costs and trolled the deep recesses of their social media outlets. Decision time. Don’t let the admit rate and perceived selectivity be a factor in your choice. You can’t fully trust it, and other than some idle conversation in your first semester it has exactly zero bearing on your actual college experience. “Not our rival!” Or loosely translated, irrelevant.

Keep it in Perspective

We have now accounted for over half of the methodology. I’m happy to poke holes in the rest of the factors, but some of them are too easy.  What? Are you swayed by Alumni Giving? Me neither.

So what am I saying? Burn the magazine. Try Bob Morse before Congress. Both are reasonable. But I’m thinking more about changes in the micro:  I’m asking you to keep it all in perspective. If you are being told you should only apply to schools with an admit rate of 30% or less, I’m telling you to cite the Georgia Tech rule. If a friend is convinced the “Number 25” college is legitimately “better than” a school ranked 10 or even 25 spots below, remember those adjuncts, and remember the applications and admit rates are not always apples to apples. If you get into two schools and one is ranked higher, but the other gives you more aid and is by all counts a better fit for you, remember those surveys and the incredibly low response rates.

Anyone who has played a sport at a reasonably high level knows the other team is going to talk smack. They’re going to yell at you across the line. They’re going to bump and pull and jeer. So inevitably when you are applying or deciding on a college choice, someone is going to invoke the rankings this year. And when they do, you’ll be ready.

Na Na/ Na Na Na Na/ Hey Hey/ Goodbye.

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College Admission: Think Helicopters, not Airplanes

At a conference in Newport, RI in July, I entered my name in a raffle to take a helicopter tour. On the day of the drawing, the organizer announced her 2-year old son selected three lucky winners. I almost stood up because I instantly knew I had one of the spots locked down. Can’t say what it is exactly, but me and 2-year olds… we get each other. And sure enough, my name was the first one called.

The ride was incredible. Partly because Newport is a truly beautiful area by land, sea, and from the air. Hundreds of sailboats, famous mansions along the cliffs, and great views of farms and wineries. But I think one of the coolest and most amazing parts of the ride was simply taking off.  I know it sounds obvious, but you rise up straight off the ground. There is no taxiing, accelerating, or partially up before all wheels are up. Just whoop– up! No effort. No build up. Blades spinning, seat belts buckled, doors closed, headphones on. You’re airborne.

With the Common Application, Coalition Application, and most institutional applications now open, I encourage you to view your senior year, and the admission process, as a helicopter tour rather than a plane ride.

Plane Rides vs. Helicopter Tours

When you board a plane, you are always focused on where you are going. Destination is king. I’ve been on some pretty important plane rides in my life — headed to weddings; attending funerals; going to graduations; traveling to make speeches and presentations. When you board a plane, you have a precise endpoint in mind. Delays are annoying… lack of coffee when they forget to refill the water prior to departure is irritating (thanks, Flight 2225)… turbulence is scary. What you remember if the flight is smooth is… well, nothing. What you remember if it’s not, is the inconvenience.

In contrast, a helicopter tour is going to end up at the exact spot you started. The person who dropped us off just sat in the lobby and waited while we flew around Newport. She knew we were coming right back. The point of the ride was not to get somewhere. The point of the ride was to see, learn, explore, appreciate, and gain perspective. I would assert the same is true of the college admission process and your senior year in general. The admission process is not about the destination. It’s not about one school or one city or one campus. If that’s your perspective, or if it starts to creep into your mind this year, I am earnestly imploring you to consider why you’re cheating yourself of growth.

If you see this experience as a helicopter ride, then it becomes about what you learn about yourself along the way. It’s about understanding when the brochures arrive in the mail (or when you visit a campus, or when an alum or neighbor tries to convince you to apply or choose a certain college) why a school is, or is not, a good fit for you.

How Did You Grow?

Let’s say you apply to Stanford (the country’s most selective institution) and you get in. If it’s a plane ride, all you did was get on board, buckle your seat belt, and arrive in Palo Alto. Congrats, it’s sunny. But how did you grow? What lessons have you actually learned over the last year to help you thrive and navigate in your new community? I’d say few. I’d also say you wasted your senior year. Sure, you made a few fives on some AP exams. You went to prom. Maybe you even won some games, garnered some awards, or made some money. But do you know yourself more deeply after the experience? Do you know why you are there, and not somewhere else? Did you truly choose this college over all others? Or did you simply arrive? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying  you shouldn’t have a solid list of schools, or even one as your first choice. But if “college” is all wrapped up in one place; if success is wrapped up in one place; I’d urge you to think about helicopters, not airplanes.

If this is a helicopter tour, you will see a ton in the year ahead. You will ask probing, personal questions into those headphones at 200 feet–your questions, not questions someone told you to ask. You will look down over the landscape, your choices, from a different perspective. I would assert if your senior year is a helicopter tour, nothing can teach you more about yourself than the college admission process.

Touring Through College Admission

Helicopter tours are meant to be enjoyed and appreciated. “Touring” through college admission, rather than “flying” through it, will teach you more valuable lessons than you’ll ever learn in an AP class or get from an online lecture. If it’s not about the destination, then getting deferred or waitlisted are not reasons to question your intelligence or potential. If it’s not about the destination, you won’t be as frustrated or bitter to see someone else land where you wanted to be, while you get diverted to another airport. Instead, the turbulence, the delays, the re-routes, are simply part of the ride. They don’t shake your confidence. Your blades are still spinning. Your headphones are still operational.

Helicopter tours may land in the same spot, but the passengers get off with an entirely new perspective. If you’re reading this and you’re starting your applications now, I have no doubt in a year from now you’ll be packing your bags for college. The question is your ride between now and then. So fly well.

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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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Waiting Well

Q: “Mommy, what eats a hyena?”

Me: “I don’t know, maybe a lion…?”

Q: “Well, let’s get your phone and I’ll look it up.”

As the mom of small children, I find myself constantly asking my girls one thing: wait. And please, be patient.

Turns out young kids have a hard time with waiting. And who can blame them? Our world is driven by “right now.” If my 6-year old has a question and I don’t know the answer, she simply picks up my phone and Googles it (see conversation above). No waiting, no looking it up in a book. If she wants to watch a TV show she has Netflix (and the Disney Jr. app)… when i was a kid you had one shot at watching cartoons: Saturday morning. If you missed your favorite show, too bad—you had to wait a week to see it.

The art of waiting (or lack thereof) even filters down to the books I read to my 1-year old. Each night we read Llama Llama Red Pajama–a story about a young llama whose mom tucks him into bed then goes downstairs. He then calls for her and, in the midst of waiting, spends the next few minutes growing increasingly worried (and ultimately panicked) wondering what’s taking her so long. Of course in the end she comes in and offers some good ol’ mom wisdom: “llama llama what a tizzy… sometimes mama’s very busy. Please stop all this llama drama, and be patient for your mama!” (And yes, this slight reprimand is followed with a hug, kiss, and reassurance that everything is okay.)

Still waiting (for the point….)

All of us, as young as 1, and as old as, well, 30-something, could do a bit better with waiting. There will always be something to wait for in life. When you’re in preschool, you wait for kindergarten. When you’re in middle school, you wait for high school. When you’re in high school, you wait for college. When you’re in college, you wait to graduate and get a job. When you get a job, you wait to find the right person to marry… house to purchase… you see where I’m going here. The list goes on and on. Regardless of what stage of life you find yourself in, you will always be waiting for… something.

If you’re a rising senior, you’re likely waiting for August 1 when many applications (including the Common App and Coalition App) open up. Once that happens, you’ll find yourself in motion as you work on your application and line up all of the documents you need and so on. Hopefully you’ll find yourself all done with your application long before the actual application deadline (hint, hint). At that point all you have to do is wait… and the question becomes: how do you wait? And moreover—how do you wait well?

Make a list, check it twice 

Once you hit that magical submit button, there’s still tasks to be completed. Your list of action items will likely vary from college to college. Follow up with your school counselor to be sure he or she knows what you need from them (transcripts to be sent, recommendation letters uploaded, etc.). Your job is to follow up and provide what is asked of you (so keep an eye on that applicant portal/checklist where you can monitor your status!). But here’s the key: don’t follow up every. Single. Day. Don’t camp out outside anyone’s office, don’t make phone calls every day, and don’t send emails multiple times a day pushing for a response. Make the request, give it a couple of weeks, and…. wait. If you’re getting close to a deadline and still haven’t gotten a response, of course be sure to check back in. If you’ve done your part and asked for the info, and the other person assures you they’re doing their part and working on it, then the next thing to do is…. Wait.

Stay in motion

This one may seem contradictory after what I just said. But just because you’ve submitted your application and requested all of your additional information doesn’t mean you get to just sit around. While you wait be sure to stay in motion. Sitting around and worrying isn’t going to benefit anyone, especially you! If your recommendation letters are finished, write a thank you note to each person. Lead a project at school, help out a friend, spend time with your family, and of course keep studying and working hard in class. Be active, and grow where you’re planted. Right now, in this moment, actually BE where you are instead of worrying about where you will be. Easier said than done, but trust me, practicing that now will help keep your blood pressure down in the future.

Find Reassurance

In the end, it’s okay to be a little bit like Little Llama. Sometimes it all becomes too much, and the only option left is to jump, pout, and shout. When that time comes, find your safe place and let it all out. That place could be with a parent, a friend, a teacher, or a coach. It may not be a person, but an activity that is your safe place (music, sports, horseback riding, hiking, etc.). Find a way to get all of the angst, anxiety, and worry out of your system, without judgement. Take a deep breath—actually, take a lot of them. It helps more than you might think. Remember that if you’ve followed the two steps above, then you’ve done all you can do. It’s out of your hands now… and that’s okay.

If you’re like most students, you’ve done your share of waiting this summer. As you head into your senior year you’ll move from waiting-mode into action-mode. But after all the hustle, and the busyness, of a new school year passes, you’ll find yourself back in waiting mode. And I encourage you: find your way to wait well.

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Four Letter Words & College Admission

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth,” I said to my six-year-old. “Only four letter words, remember?” Let me back up.

I’ve been on vacation in Vermont the last week. It’s been amazing. Cool weather, sunny skies, incredible views of the lakes and mountains.

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that when you go on vacation and are eating out after a long day of travel,  you better be prepared while  waiting on food. A pack of cards, crayons, books, and worst case, games on the phone. I’d rather exceed the day’s allotment of screen time than verbally lambaste my kid in public. Life (and college admission) are all about decisions, right?

So we are playing hangman as we wait for our pizza and we’d agreed to use four letter words. The only issue is that a kindergartener can’t exactly spell them all correctly, and after a day of travel and a lack of food, I forgot to put on my phonics hat, which is how we arrived at: L-E-R-N.

“That is not a four letter word, Elizabeth. Only four letter words, remember?” which I followed with, “That doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.”

My wife’s calm but firm response, “It makes sense to her.” And a simultaneous eyebrow raise and upward chin flick, which can mean only one thing… yep, the waitress was standing right there. I can’t be sure but I’m fairly confident she spit in my next drink order. And, you know what, deservedly so.

“It makes sense to her.”Image result for lern

I thought about that later in the evening, as I listened to the other three sleep contentedly in our hotel room. Don’t worry. I’m not going to preach on how everyone shouldn’t get a trophy or why “A’s” aren’t that important.

Instead, I’m just going to remind you of something very elementary but somehow easily forgotten about your college search process… it’s YOURS. YOU get to fill in the blanks. Ultimately, it’s YOUR word. YOUR solution. Sure, read the guide books; consider where older peers or club members or teammates have gone; go visit that obscure school your crazy uncle advice keeps mentioning. Listen to the advice and opinions and excitement and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, etc. Remember– the landscape if vast.

But more than anything, as you visit schools this summer and fall, as you apply to schools, and ultimately when you decide where to attend, the most important thing is: What makes sense to YOU?

Spoiler alert: The categories below are very basic. Probably the things you have already heard or read or are already considering. I’m just hoping that you’ll think differently about the same buckets by constantly reminding yourself that they are YOUR blanks to fill in.

LOCATION- Over the last week, I had the chance to visit both University of Vermont and Middlebury College. Separated by only 35 miles, they’re worlds apart in ethos and environment. Burlington is the largest city in Vermont at about 43,000. Middlebury is a quaint town of 8400. I know people who proudly graduated from each and would not trade their experience for anything or anywhere else.

What is important to you? Do you want access to more restaurants and an airport? Do you want to share the town with tourists and business people and conventions and the other things that bigger cities typically bring? Or do you like the idea of a college town where the students are the lifeblood and the faculty live right in the community? Distinct experiences, distinct dynamics, distinct student bodies. What makes sense to YOU?

WEATHER/CLIMATE-  I showed my id to a cashier in a store in Stowe, VT this week. “Georgia, huh?”

Image result for middlebury college

Middlebury College

“Yep. Have you ever been there?”

“Sure. I’m from Tennessee.”

“Ok. Cool.” “What brought you up to Vermont?”

“Well, I’m a junior at Tufts in Boston and just spending the summer here.”

“Interesting. So what would you say to someone from the South who is looking to go to school in the Northeast (I know. I know. I can’t turn it off)?”

“Visit in January…and buy a good coat. It takes a year to adjust but I’m glad I’ve come to experience a different part of the country. It’s made me appreciate the South and I also love New England.” She’s thinking of pharmacy school when she graduates.

Are you ready for a complete change of scenery (and wardrobe)? Florida feels great in February, but you will not see much of a change of season. Cool (no pun intended)? One of the best things about our country is its diversity in higher education options. You are seeing that with all of the brochures that keep showing up in your mailbox (and writing from Vermont I am contractually bound to remind you to recycle). Consider places you’ve never heard of: check out their Instagram feed; take the exit off the highway on your road trip; Google famous alumni. You have to rule places in and out. That’s part of the process. But be open and be honest with yourself. Lots of voices and opinions will continue to swirl and sometimes amplify, but don’t stop listening to your voice, your gut, your dreams and hopes and goals. What makes sense to YOU?

Image result for university of vermont and burlington, vt

University of Vermont at top of hill in Burlington

SIZE OF SCHOOL- Do you want to know most of your classmates by the time you graduate? Or are you someone who relishes some anonymity? Do you appreciate close-knit culture and the loyalty and bonds it brings? Or are you excited by a big alumni base? Do you envision graduating on a lawn or in a stadium? Big schools will talk about how they can feel small. Sometimes small schools talk about how they can provide a big school network and experience. But at the end of the day: What makes sense to YOU?

Final Tip- use your network. This summer talk to seniors who are about to go off to college. Where did they start out looking? Which schools were at the top of their list last year? Where do they wish they’d visited? And why are they excited about where are they ultimately going. No one person’s opinion is gospel truth, which is why you need to ask and seek opinions from as many people and sources as  you can. Use. Your. Network (it’s a life lesson).

YOUR college EXPERIENCE. YOUR college CHOICE. YOUR college VISIT. Now– go “L-E-R-N” what makes sense to YOU!

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