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The Definitive College Admission Field Guide

Last week my kids had Fall Break. I’m not going to lie…. I went into it feeling pretty cynical. A: it’s not fall, and B: they really don’t need a break. Six weeks and then a week off. Come on, man. Soft.

But my wife wanted to be sure “we did something fun ‘FOR THEM.'” (She’s crafty like that.) So while I worked at the beginning of the week, I took the latter part off and headed to the lake to meet up with them and some friends. I drove alone late one night and got there in the pitch black dark. The whole way I was thinking about all the things I could be getting done at home. But when I woke up the next morning to the sun shining off the water, a good cup of coffee in my hand, and some built in entertainment for our kids, the switch flipped immediately. Just the latest in a long line of “You were right” moments in my life and marriage.

“You’re hungry? Grab some pretzels. I know it’s 9 a.m. Don’t care. I’m on vacation.” We took the boat out. The boys wake boarded and knee boarded and jumped between dueling tubes. Me? Snacked. Put my hat over my eyes and lounged. Finally, I got on the mega inflatable couch with the two 5-year old girls and then basked in the sun as they sang and danced to “Shut up and Dance with Me!” Didn’t question the lyrics or think about this same pair 10 years from now in bathing suits with boys next to them. Nope. I leaned back… and breathed.

Take a Breath

We all need that, right? Just a good, long, selfish breath. We get into patterns that are necessary but also tiresome: Wake up, head to school, go to practice, study. Rinse and repeat.

And in the admission process you need that breath, too. Same brochures coming each day with taglines only varying by verb tense, school colors, and font. Campus tours like death marches with polo clad, flip flop wearing guides citing the number of volumes in a library or the myriad flavors of ice cream available in the dining hall. College reps at fairs and at your school touting that they’re #23 for number benches on campus. And the beat drones on…

We feel your pain. And in a “lake moment” we decided to create the definitive “Admission Field Guide.” I hope you will find it different. And refreshing.

It’s created to help you navigate this year smoothly: to give you helpful tips for your application, essays, and interactions in the college admission process; to remind you to laugh and breath along the way; and ultimately to enable you to find the college that will help you thrive and achieve your goals.

Even if you don’t click on these links or watch the videos, I earnestly encourage you take breaks this year. Go to the lake (even if it’s figuratively). Dance and sing. Surround yourself with the people who know how to help YOU take care of YOU. At the end of the day I’ll be singing this: “Shut up and breathe with me!”

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The Rankings, meh….

Fall has arrived (well, almost). And with it comes college football. I have a friend who used to pick the best Saturday each year (in terms of match-ups) and invite a bunch of guys to his house. This was proudly coined the “Sit A–athon.” You accrued points by consuming food and drinks, but lost points by getting out of your seat. Points were deducted at higher rates based on the purpose of your absence, as well as the duration. It made for a day filled with cheering, heckling, and creative ways to win, which is appropriate for football itself, right?

I share this with you not to encourage duplication but simply to illustrate that I am a fan. A big fan. Someone who is often surrounded by others who have adamant opinions about which team is the best. And while I don’t always agree 100% with college football rankings from week to week, I do understand the basis for them: points scored, points allowed, home win vs. win on the road, strength of opponent, and obviously what else happens around the country– all basically valid when deciding on top talent and a comparison of talent. By about week five I’m willing to concede that there is a fundamental difference between number 20 and number 10.

College Rankings

Yesterday, US News and World Report released their annual rankings. Feel free to check out the link but the Clark’s Notes are: not much changed. Still have a bunch of Ivies and schools with old brick and stone ranked highly; no school with an undergraduate population above 10,000 until Cornell at #15; no public school until UC-Berkeley at #20.  A complete methodology is here, but quickly here is how it breaks down:

22.5% – Graduation and Retention rates –  How good of a job is the school doing a good job retaining, supporting, and graduating students?

22.5% –  Academic Reputation –  What do academic professionals from other colleges (Presidents, Provosts, Deans, etc.) and counselors on the high school level think about that school?

20.0% –  Faculty Resources –  How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?

12.5% –  Student Selectivity –  What were the school’s admit rate, test score averages, and number coming from the Top 10% out of high school?

10.0% –  Financial Resources –   What is the average per-student spending on instruction, research, student services, etc?

7.5% –  Graduation rate –  Did a school’s graduation rate outperform or underperform as it relates to how the US News would have expected?

5.0% –  Alumni Giving –  At what rate are alumni giving back to their alma mater?

Each year we hear stories from students who say they were not allowed to apply to schools ranked below the Top 25; or thought they could only apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school to which they were admitted.  That being said, I wanted to be sure you know how these rankings are formulated.

If you or someone advising you on the college admission process is pointing to the rankings as a source for differentiation, I encourage you to ask these questions:

  • Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)?
  • Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
  • Do I really think there is a difference in prestige/quality/experience between The (note definite article) University of Virginia and University of Michigan because of the three slot difference putting one inside and the other outside the Top 25?

Here’s Your Job

Your job as a student in the college admission process is to figure out what is most important for YOUR college experience. Admittedly, that job becomes more difficult with every glossy, shiny brochure that shows up essentially saying, “Look. We are all the same. We have happy, smiling students here who bask in the sunshine both on campus and while studying abroad.” So ask this first: why are you going to college? If you start by answering that, you come up with answers like: to explore more deeply inside and outside the classroom, to meet more people passionate about the things I care about, to get a job doing X, to learn more about a certain subject, to have fun, to go to grad school in Y, to spend time in a different part of the country, and so on.  That then leads you to narrow down your list because while School Z is highly ranked and despite the fact that they did send you a very clever email (or 12 perhaps), it is in the Midwest, or doesn’t have your major, or has an overabundance of students who looked frustrated and pale on the tour.

It’s important you keep that in mind too, because pretty soon you will start getting an entirely new round of marketing materials from schools touting their rankings. And your parents will be getting emails with press releases and solicitations to buy books or magazines (or more likely online subscriptions or logins to both) with these lists and seemingly infinite subgroupings. Before you use (or are pressured to use) rankings to make a college list or draw some draconian line, and especially when you are sitting on offers of admission and considering where to attend next year, I implore you to consider:

  1. If a college is perfect in a great location, has a dynamic student body, is a good academic fit, but ranks ten spots below another, should a rank (based on the factors above) matter?
  2. If the school is outside the Top 100 but is offering me a scholarship and has graduates thriving in the field I want to pursue, should I turn it down for a higher ranked but less affordable option?

You want colleges to understand that a test score does not define you. And you would not want 50 points difference to be the reason one student is chosen over another. Similarly, I’d assert that selecting a school on a number is equally myopic.  But most importantly I challenge anyone answering “Yes” to those last questions to debate me in the First Annual Sit Admi–ionsathon.

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On the Road Again…

This week I’ve been on the road traveling to spread the good word about Georgia Tech, or as I say, “Preaching the GT gospel.”

I love this part of my job, even though I don’t get to do it as much as I used to. There are many days when I’m in a meeting with a task force, committee, or commission and people are endlessly using phrases like “at the end of the day” or “synergy.” During those times, I find myself wishing I was waking up to a complimentary hotel breakfast and signing in at a high school to talk to students.

I’ve always thought that high school is one of the most critical times in a person’s life because of the implications it has on where you go, what you do, who you know, and how you ultimately see and experience the world. This is a huge part of why I got into college admission. What can I say? People have to work hard to stay interesting and optimistic as they get older– and most don’t. Conversely, the energy, enthusiasm and hope of teenagers and college students is contagious.

Since lots of college reps are about to come through your doors for visits or college fairs, I wanted to take some time to give you a few tips on how to maximize your time with these counselors.

  1. Do your homework. “What?! School just started and I’m taking 6 APs! You’re telling me I’ve got homework for college admission too?” Yep. Before a college visits your school, check out the programs that interest you about them. What do you want to do outside the classroom? Outdoor recreation, band, etc.? Research these. Then when they ask you what you want to know about, you’ll be ready. (If they’re not asking you that, see Tip 3 below).
  2. Shake their hand and introduce yourself. Pretty basic. You’re not doing this to advantage yourself in the admission process. Most the time they won’t remember your name from your handshake, since they’re also seeing 8 or 20 other students in that session. But it sets you up for questions later in the session and follow up in the future. Remember- this is the college admission PROCESS, and often it starts here.
  3. Interrupt. Yep, I said it. Too many admission counselors basically pull an invisible chain in their back and go into a useless spiel about study abroad, inter-disciplinary curriculum, and statements like “We have 400 clubs and activities. But if we don’t have what you want to do, just grab a friend and a professor and you can start one.” This is when the teacher’s voice from the Charlie Brown starts rattling around in my head. Your job is to throw them off script. They’re only there for 45 minutes. Make it worthwhile. Ask questions like “What are one or two things about your college that only a handful in the nation can also claim?” OR in a different version, “What makes your school unique?” “Why should someone from my city or state pick your school over the many similar in size and culture that are closer, further, less expensive, higher ranked, etc (you insert the appropriate descriptor).”
  4. Stay after or follow up. Sometimes you’ll have to leave immediately following the presentation. If that is the case, send a quick email to the rep thanking them for coming and letting them know if you have plans to visit their campus. Or wait until you apply and then send an email to say, “Hey. I really appreciate you coming to my school in September. Just wanted you to know I am really excited about Charlie Brown U and I have just applied.” (Don’t copy and paste that. I’m far more confident in your writing abilities than mine on this). But if you can stay after, be sure to get your questions in, remind them of your name, and then follow up as described above.
  5. BONUS: These folks are traveling. They’re hitting five schools a day, eating in their car, and trying to follow WAZE while not denting the rental car. Help them out. Give them a tip on a local restaurant for lunch or dinner. Tell them a good place to shop in the area or a park nearby if they want to go for a run. They’re just people. They appreciate that type of stuff. And it breaks both of you out of the normal college admission relationship that too often becomes robotic.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: No one person holds a corner on the market for what a school is really like or really about. You may find the rep hilarious. Doesn’t mean anyone else on that campus is- they may not even be an alum. You may find the rep really cute. That relationship isn’t going anywhere, and it’s definitely not a good way to pick a school. Or, you may find the rep dull and indifferent. Don’t let their personality (or a tour guide’s for that matter) be the reason you rule a school in or out.

Think about it like this: if you are looking at a school of 20,000, it’s basically a small city. Nobody speaks completely for that town. Your job in the process is to get as much info as possible to make a good decision on the best fit school for you. You can start with engaging the representative as we discussed here, but remember, your ultimate goal before you apply or choose any school is to talk to as many people as possible; alumni, current students, professors, and so on.

I hope that you’ll enjoy the college reps that you meet this year. Remember: You can make them better at telling their school’s story if you follow these tips. And ultimately, that is going to help you, your classmates, the other students they visit, as well as them as professionals in the long run too.

25 Reasons YOU SHOULD NOT Apply To Georgia Tech

The admission industry takes a lot of heat for not being forthright. Some claim we only take pictures on sunny days and never show pictures of crying students. We are lambasted for not being transparent and accused of not admitting our weaknesses. Many review our brochures with an eyebrow raised and wonder, “How is it possible that every student has class outside under a tree with a caring professor who is sharing great wisdom yet manages to do so at a distance that connotes ‘caring but not creepy?” We are criticized for telling students who may not be a good academic or ethos fit that they should still apply, “Well…we like to think of our 500 student campus as large… you know. It’s all what you make of it, right?”


Who We Are… and Who We’re Not

But our goal at Georgia Tech is to break open the black box, to lift the veil, and to be as clear as possible about who we are– and who we’re not. I recently read a college essay from a student begging colleges to differentiate themselves. After all of her tours and receiving these glossy, shiny brochures she’s in fact more stressed and concerned by the choices because they all seem to blur together. And when I’m really honest, I realize we send emails like “Why apply to Georgia Tech?” detailing all of our strengths and points of pride. But sometimes you need the converse too, right? Perhaps we’d appreciate our date saying, “Yea. I may look pretty but I snore a lot and my feet stink.” Or “Yes. I am the captain of the tennis team and hold all state records, but I steal about $20/week from my little brother’s top drawer.”

So while normally I write this blog more broadly on admission, rather than specifically about Georgia Tech, today I’m here to give you the other side. Now, for the record, in some form or another I’ve shared these truths about Atlanta and Georgia Tech before, but this is my attempt to consolidate all of those kernels of insight and give you the key reasons NOT TO APPLY to Georgia Tech. Consider this is your “anti-fit” litmus test: a series of if- then statements (admittedly influenced by Jeff Foxworthy’s You might be a redneck) that will help you understand our campus and city– and whether applying is in your best interest.


  1. If you come to Atlanta and don’t get (or even worse don’t enjoy) a Frosted O from The Varsity, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  2. If you think yellow or gold make you look shorter or bigger or washed out or less likely to get lots of likes on Instagram, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  3. If you can’t deal with “The 3 H’s” (heat, hills, and humidity), don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  4. If you find yourself struggling to remember your birthday, name, or address on the application…well, not sure what to tell you here.
  5. If you don’t want to be around students wearing mathematical formulas on their shirts or are annoyed by impassioned debates about theoretical chemistry, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  6. If you think Georgia Tech is really Georgia Tech University or The University of Georgia Tech, rather than The Georgia Institute of Technology, don’t apply to Georgia Tech. Try Massachusetts Tech University.
  7. If “improve the world around you” sounds like a bumper sticker, rather than your earnest desire, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  8. If when visiting colleges you treat either the person on the phone or the person at the front desk poorly, don’t even apply elsewhere. Go apologize to your mom. If she’s the one doing that, consider applying for emancipation.
  9. If you don’t like to be pushed, stretched, and challenged personally and academically by professors, roommates, sorority sisters, and lab partners, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  10. If you don’t believe in George P. Burdell, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  11. If you enjoy making route connections rather than having access to direct flights, and you prefer airports with street side parking, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  12. If you are afraid of bees (and B’s for that matter), particularly large ones that do push-ups after touchdowns, don’t apply to Georgia
  13. If you want a school that has hundreds of majors and makes statements like “we are all things to all people,” don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  14. If your tolerance for traffic is two lights and a railroad crossing, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  15. If you’d rather attend a school that has “an Olympic-sized pool,” rather than The Olympic pool, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  16. If status quo, homogeneity, and easy A’s are your goal, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  17. If you’d rather win a national championship than…wait… not quite willing go there.
  18. If “Ramblin’ Wreck” is how you’d describe your GPA, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  19. If the term “y ‘all” is completely unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and you can’t even see that it’s incredibly efficient, y ‘all should definitely not apply to Georgia Tech.
  20. If you are unwilling to entertain the possibility that drinking Coca-Cola fundamentally makes you a better human being, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  21. If you have severe allergies to tree pollen and are vehemently opposed to shots or meds to combat them, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  22. If whistles give you flashbacks, cold sweats or the “hee bee gee bees,” don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  23. If being part of a place that discovers water on Mars and identifies gravitational waves in the atmosphere within the same year seems uninteresting, don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  24. If you think that the word “DOG” is actually spelled “DAWG,” don’t apply to Georgia Tech.
  25. If references to Jeff Foxworthy seem irrelevant to admission or indicative of pedantic humor that fail to convey great truth, why are you still reading? And definitely don’t apply to Georgia Tech!

If you want to learn more about Georgia Tech, or simply feel bad for me, you can follow @gtadmission or subscribe to this blog above.

Break a Leg!

This week we welcome guest bloggers Andrea Jester and Laila Flores, two admission counselors on our staff. A large part of the Georgia Tech, and Atlanta, experience includes exposure to the arts. Andrea and Laila are here to give you a glimpse into theatre in the city this summer.

“Break a leg!” is what you will probably wish your Drama Tech friends before a show. DramaTech Theatre is completely run by students. We are always uniquely impressed by every one of their shows. Depending on when you visit, they may be premiering a thought-provoking play, a lighthearted musical, or even improv comedy! If you have the theater bug, you can always join them! Everyone from the set designer to the performers to the special effect technicians are all Tech students.

All of Drama Tech’s shows take place in black box called Dean Dull Theater. If you have never been to a black box theater, it’s a very cool and unique experience. The theater presents an intimate setting where you always feel close to the action that happens on stage, and sometimes you are even asked to join the spotlight! During their last production, a performance centering on a group of spelling bee contestants, they recruited four volunteers from the audience. Neat, right? It was! All those volunteers won the favor and heart of the audience, they received rounds of applause over and over! Their next show is Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which runs June 24 through July 2, 2016. We hope to see you there!

If you are looking for theatre off-campus, Atlanta hosts great theater productions at the Fox Theatre (just down the block from GT’s Bobby Dodd Football Stadium) and the Alliance Theatre. For the Shakespeare fans out there we recommend reserving seats at The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. In addition to great acting, you can also dine there. If you just want to buy a drink and a snack, we recommend a round of their spicy peanuts.

Atlanta is also home for the Center for Puppetry Arts, which in addition to an immense collection of puppets from all over the world also houses The Jim Henson Collection. You can see the beloved Kermit and Miss Piggy, and other Sesame Street famous characters. The center also has programming for all ages, we recommend you attend the 2016 National Puppet Slam (held September 2-4, 2016).

We hope that if whether you are an Atlanta local or just visiting, these suggestions help you get your theater fix this summer. Now go break a leg!