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Will saying I’m a blueberry get me into college? Supplemental Essays 101

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome back, Katie!

I considered titling this post “Secrets to the Supplemental Essay,” but doing that goes against all I believe in. In my experience, the phrase “Secrets to…” in an admission post is almost always a blatant example of click bait and philosophically, I just don’t buy it.

There is no secret that will guarantee admission in a holistic review process. But there are ways to make your application stronger, so keep reading! You can still make good decisions, dare I say better decisions, as you craft your answers to your short essays, which will be beneficial both to you and to the admission committee.

So that we are all on the same page, I am not talking about the personal statement or main essay many colleges require.  I am speaking to the additional short answer or supplemental essay questions that often ask you to talk about why you are applying to the specific college or to give your thoughts on a prompt (one that is separate from the main, long essay).  Not all colleges or universities have supplemental questions, but if they do, you should take them seriously.

Supplemental essay questions can seem like the red-headed stepchild of the college application.  Seminars, camps, coaches, teachers, counselors, and peers spend A LOT of time talking about the activities section and main essay prompts on the college application.  Very little time is spent speaking about a short answer or supplemental essay response.  This small but mighty paragraph plays a stronger role than you might expect in the holistic admission process. I want to give it the respect and time it deserves—as should you!

See it for what it is—an opportunity to keep talking!

If I asked a group of students to raise their hand if they wanted to have a cup of coffee with me and just talk, all the hands in the room would shoot up.  If I ask the same group if they want to write another essay, most hands would go down.  I might even hear crickets.  I get it.  Seniors are busy and tired.  They are certainly tired of writing college essays.  But a supplemental essay is another way to talk to the admission committee.  Instead of rolling your eyes that, yes, you need to write something else, think about it like this:

  • What have I not had a chance to say?
  • If I don’t write this, what won’t they know about me?
  • Wow, thank goodness I have a few more lines to talk!

Does it really matter what type of fruit I am?

You may get a really out-there supplemental question, and yes, you should still answer it well.  I have seen all sorts of “creative” questions ranging from How are you like a chocolate chip cookie? to What three items would you want on a deserted island? and, the notorious, If you were a fruit, what would you be and why?

If you are tempted to not spend time on the answer or to get a little snarky in your response, don’t.  Remember, this is an opportunity! Someone on the admission committee will read your response, so enjoy creating the answer.  The purpose of this question is to understand how you think and give the committee a glimpse into your personality.  Whether you think you are blueberry, you would die without sunscreen, water bottle and your cat, or–like a cookie in the oven–you turn out well under pressure, the answer itself does not really matter.  At the end of the paragraph, they will know you better, and you don’t want to miss that opportunity.

Sorry to break this to you—you can’t cram for the “Why Our College?” question.

Many of these short answer questions will ask why you want to attend their college. It is understandable. A college doesn’t want to give up a seat in their class without discerning if a student actually wants to be there, or if they are just trying to collect acceptances. Scanning the college website to glean some key words or phrases to include in your answer is not enough.  Any admission counselor worth their salt knows immediately if you are just regurgitating the first paragraph from the “about” section of the website.

To answer this question well, you need to research, and real research starts with curiosity.

  • What intrigues you about this college?
  • What made you search and click and dive deeper?
  • What about this college piqued your interest to begin with and what have you learned that kept this college on your list?
  • What research specialty, unique program or offering makes you want to know more?

Those thoughtful reflections are the “secret” to answering a question focused on the college itself.

Low Hanging Fruit

CHECK THE NAME!  If you use the name of the college, university or institute in the supplemental essay, get the name right.  Will “college” vs. “university” seal your decision fate? No. Will it reflect the time and care you put into your application?  Yes!  I have seen brilliant, perfect-test-scoring, straight-A students not spell or even come close to typing the correct name on a short answer question.

This gives me pause. Again, it doesn’t sink an application because most admission officers are not cruel people. We realize many seniors are worn thin and have many priorities on their plates.  But it does plant the seed of doubt—are they genuinely interested? Since many times, supplemental essays are the last piece of an application reviewed, is that the impression you want to leave with the committee?  Probably not. That being said,  proof this writing piece as thoroughly as your main essay!

Parting Thoughts

I tell every student who will listen, “Write your supplemental essay.  Go to bed.  Read it again the next day.”  Students spend an inordinate amount of time stressing, dissecting and proofing their activities and main essays.  Then at the end of the process, when they are exhausted, they throw something down for the supplementals and hit submit. Give that puppy a once over in the light of day to see if it is well written.

This advice really aligns with my over-arching guidance for all high schoolers—take a beat!  Yes, there is work you must do, but when you can, as frequently as you can, schedule a breather.  I believe student work, and especially college application work, is better if you have a chance to review it with a clear head. So, if completing your college application just involved a Google search for “all the different kinds of fruit”, smile, take a deep breath and enjoy the process.  We can’t wait to read what you have to say!

Katie Mattli has worked in college admission for over 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2014 where she works with underrepresented minority recruitment focusing on female, first generation, African American and Hispanic recruitment efforts. Her previous years at a private liberal arts college for women fueled her love of student leadership and advocacy.

 

 

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Sports Metaphors and College Admission

This week we welcome Senior Associate Director of Admission Mary Tipton Woolley to the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

I’m doing what we tell students not to do in their essay—writing about how sports are a parallel to life. But please indulge me for a minute. In fact, if you want to skip past my life story and get to the point of this blog, feel free to go straight to paragraph number five.

My daughter is seven. Since she was three we’ve joined countless other parents in trying out various local sport leagues. Why? The common refrain among parents is that we want him/her to have the experience of playing on a team. It typically ends with a phrase such as, “just like I did as a kid” (more on that later). First we, er… I mean she… tried soccer. Nothing says ‘team’ like a herd of three year olds running in a pack after the ball with one inevitably picking daisies in the corner of the field. By the time the kids turned 5 and pushing/shoving became more prevalent, mine decided she had enough of others up in her personal space.

Next, she decided to join our neighborhood swim team, and we were introduced to the production that is summer swim team in neighborhoods all over Atlanta. Swim lessons have vexed me her whole life. Unless you believe your child is the next Michael Phelps and want them to swim year round in a club, finding swim lessons that fit the schedule of two working parents is more difficult than getting tickets to Hamilton. Even knowing her swimming skills weren’t great, we dove right in (see what I did there?) to putting her on the team.

Finally, in a truly bold move, she decided to play softball. She didn’t know anyone who had played, none of her friends were doing it, and she would be the youngest in a combined 6U/8U league. In an even more shocking twist, I think she got the idea from me (likely one of the few things in her life she thought was a good idea from mom!). After she got hit in the face during tryouts by an equally inexperienced 6-year old, I thought she was done. But she persevered. We were introduced to a fielder’s mask and off she went!

It’s Not My Journey

So, what have I learned over the last few years? Most importantly, this is my daughter’s journey–not mine. Ugh – that’s a hard lesson that I’m confident I will have to learn over and over. I should confess now that she took two seasons of softball to get a hit, which finally came in the last game this spring (where she got three!). She also started the season as the slowest member of her swim team, and I’m editing this while I watch her swim in our city-wide meet at a real Olympic pool at Georgia Tech (where she finished 45 of 46).

Despite, or due to, this she is having fun, making new friends, listening to her coaches, improving and showing lots of signs of resiliency and bravery! These are all traits I can get behind – even if it isn’t the same path as mine. In fact, I’m working on getting behind them because it isn’t the same path as mine.

While my daughter may not be getting ready for college applications just yet, I do see similarities between this season of parenting and the one I’ll face in 10 years when she’s 17. I’ve worked with a lot of families as they’ve navigated the admission process, and here are a few takeaways for both parents and students as college admission season gets cranked up.

To Parents:

I’m sure you have similar memories of your student’s younger years, whether it’s sports teams, music lessons, or chess club. As parents of children in the midst of their college search, these same lessons apply but are often harder to remember, especially since it feels like more is on the line. It’s okay for your student to seek out different schools than the one you attended – they may even have a list that’s entirely different than yours! Ultimately, that’s a good thing.

This journey belongs to your student, and, just like these early life experiences, it can be humbling for a parent. Instead of focusing on the bumper sticker you want, focus on the experience your student is having in high school and what is really going to be the best fit for them in college.

Sit down and talk to your student about what they are looking for in a college. Questions about size and location are obvious. Some others to consider are:

  • How do you want to be involved on campus?
  • How do you want to remember your time in college?
  • What are you most looking forward to in your college experience?
  • Who do you want to be in college?
  • What kind of life are you expecting after college?

You should also visit campuses together as a family. If you can’t travel to a specific college due to distance, visiting local schools can still be helpful. Sit back and let your student take the lead on those visits – your focus should be on watching their reaction. What’s their body language? Are they smiling? Do they want to stay and see more than the tour covers or are they ready to leave immediately? Answers to these questions can help you as a parent gauge how truly interested, and engaged, your student could be at that particular school.

To Students:

Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell your family what you want out of a college experience. I know, that’s sometimes easier said than done.  But it is going to be your college experience for the next four years.

  • Ask good questions during your campus visit.
  • Consider each college’s mission and think about how it fits with what you’re looking for in your experience.
  • Talk to your parents, and discuss any legitimate constraints for your college search, especially surrounding finances. Having an honest conversation now can save a lot of stress down the road.

Finally, utilize resources you have at your disposal to figure out what you want in a college experience. High school counselors, friends and older students already in college are great resources. I’m always impressed by the clarity college students seem to have about the search process, despite how stressed they may have been when going through the process themselves. Hindsight is 20/20, so don’t be afraid to talk to those around you and learn from their experiences!

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An Inconvenient Opportunity

This week we welcome Communications Manager for Strategy and Enrollment Planning (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley back to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

It was a rainy Mother’s Day in Georgia last week. Still a lovely day, but weather-wise it was dreary with showers that came and went throughout the day. In mid-afternoon my daughters, ages 3 and 7, went outside with our puppy to play outside. Even though it was wet, they needed to get some energy out so I put some old shoes and play clothes on them and told them to go for it.

This picture popped up in my Facebook memories today. Clearly, even years ago, I’ve always been okay with my kids playing in the rain!

While they were outside it started to mist… which turned to a sprinkle… which turned into a light, gentle rain. No wind, no storm, just soft rain falling from the sky. As I watched them (from the dry area underneath the edge of the house), it occurred to me that maybe I should bring them inside. At this point they, and the dog, were soaking wet—there was no turning back. I decided to ride it out. A little rain (and dirt!) is good for kids. And dogs, too, I guess.

The rain was an inconvenience. The wetness of these little people was definitely an inconvenience. But running laps through the house was slowly driving us all crazy (okay, maybe it was just me). It wasn’t what I planned or wanted. In truth, letting the kids play in the rain actually caused more work for all of us, as now I had to wrangle two wet kids (and one wet dog), with wet clothes, and get them from the backdoor to the bathtub without getting mud all over the house.

The easy thing would have been to bring them in immediately when the rain began. To let them stay outside, getting their feet muddy and their hair wet while pretending to fly on the swings, certainly created more work for me. But, it was time they spent together, outside, being free, and not in front of a screen. The inconvenience was absolutely worth it.

Inconvenience, or Opportunity?

Later that night, I had just finished my shower and brushed my teeth. I was pretty excited, as it appeared as though I might actually get to sleep at a decent hour (and on Mother’s Day, no less!). Just as I was wrapping up, my 7-year old walked in to tell us she was having scary thoughts. So I did what most moms would do—I went to her room, laid down with her, and stayed there until she was asleep. Getting to bed early (who am I kidding—on time, even!) wasn’t going to happen. It was an inconvenience.

But again, that inconvenience was an opportunity. An opportunity to be present, to comfort her, and to get some sweet snuggles. I know that as she grows up the opportunities to simply be with her and snuggle her will be fewer and farther between until they eventually disappear. As she gets older she will seek reassurance from someone other than me. So while this incident may have “cost me” a little sleep, it also presented me with a beautiful opportunity.

The month of May, by all counts, is crazy. End of year school parties, field days, art days, awards days… and that’s just elementary school! At the high school level you’re adding prom, end of year ceremonies, AP tests, and a little thing called graduation. You’re either getting ready to go to college, or preparing to apply to college. Let’s be honest: May is crazy. And sometimes, well, inconvenient.

If you’re a graduating senior….

This is your last summer at home. Even if you’re not going far away to school, life will still change in many significant ways. So this summer when your mom asks you to drive your little brother or sister to summer camp, try not to scoff at the inconvenience. Your time with them is limited. Next year you’re going to change a lot, and so will they. Instead of getting upset that this takes time out of your day, try to be present and have a conversation. Appreciate the time you have. Realize that next year when you’re asked to do the same thing, you’ll be spending time with a different person, who has grown and changed in the time that you’ve been gone. And that little brother or sister, while perhaps annoying at times, will miss you greatly when you’re gone. They’ve never known a life without you! So take the opportunity to connect, and make some memories along the way. (Note: you may not have a younger sibling—or you may BE the younger sibling. Replace the sibling in this scenario with a parent, grandparent, neighbor, or other person who may need your help in this season—same theory applies!)

If you’re a rising senior…

You’re moving into what we in the admissions world call “visit season.” Your summer is likely booked up with activities, maybe a job, and oh, a list of colleges to visit in hopes of finding “the one” that you’re looking for. Hitting the road with your family and visiting college after college may start to feel inconvenient at a certain point. Remember: this is an opportunity. An opportunity to set foot on campus and see what it’s really like (not just what we tell you in our glossy brochures and mailers); an opportunity to engage the process with your family and have a voice in the conversation; an opportunity to ask good questions; and an opportunity to visit a new town. The summer college visit road trip will be tiring, but I promise it will be worth it if you keep a positive mindset. If you need some ideas for what you should be doing during these visits (hint: it’s more than going to an information session and tour), check out these tips.

If you’re rising into 9-11 grades…

This may be your first summer with a job, or a research opportunity, or in a leadership position. Likely this summer you will experience some type of “first.” As you get older, the days of freedom with no responsibilities will become harder to come by. You’re going to learn how to juggle more things throughout your day as new tasks are added on to the ones you already have. Being asked to do your chores may be inconvenient. Let’s be honest here—no one wants to unload the dishwasher or fold clothes. (Psst! Not even your mom—trust me!). Before you heavy sigh and/or roll your eyes, take a deep breath and look for the opportunity. It’s in there! Maybe it’s a chance to have a conversation with a parent or friend while you complete the task. Maybe it’s a chance for some much needed quiet in your day. Maybe it’s a chance to let your brain just rest for a bit while you do something mindless.

Welcome the Unexpected

Opportunities often lurk in unexpected places. When we get bogged down in the “I have to” perspective, rather than embracing an “I get to” perspective, we often lose sight of what we could gain from the situation. As you move into the summer and discover wrinkles in your well laid plans, look for the opportunity that is quietly presenting itself. Once you find it and embrace it, you will be amazed at what you gain.

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I Wish I Knew…

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Sparkle Hodge to the blog. Welcome, Sparkle!

Back when I was in high school I remember having lots of questions and no one to answer them but Jeeves. Some of you may be too young to remember Jeeves, but he served as a guru to countless lost souls. Jeeves was my most trusted source. I spent many hours online typing away what felt like one of Homer’s epic poems.

As I grew older, my questions went from trivial to life-changing. I specifically remember how wearisome the college application process was for me.  I’d ask questions like: “What is a FAFSA and why are there so many letters in this acronym?” “What makes the Common App common?” “What is a major and how do I choose one out of the hundred these schools offer?”

While I’m glad I had Jeeves, there is so much that I wish I knew back then. Many of you are probably in that place right now. One of the best ways to find answers is to ask those who have gone through the process before you. If you have questions about navigating the admission process, current college students are a great resource!

In my current role as a Senior Admission Counselor, I manage our student staff who are in charge of handling the daily emails, phone calls, and walk-ins for our office. Each day looks pretty different depending on deadlines, holidays, and all that jazz. However, one thing that remains the same is the fact that we answer questions from students and families every day.

I asked my students what they wish they knew when they were going through the admission process during high school, and I’m here to share their answers with you.

What Current College Students Wish You Knew

Rishav, 2nd-year

I wish I understood the phrase “everything happens for a reason” back in high school. I applied to 11 colleges my senior year in high school and got denied from 10 of them, including my dream school. While all my friends celebrated their acceptances and excitedly thought about their futures, I found myself pondering where I had gone wrong in the process and why, with the same GPA and extracurriculars, I was less qualified for those colleges.

What I didn’t realize is that maybe it was in my best interest that I didn’t get accepted; the colleges that denied me may not have been the right fit for me. Not attending my dream school my freshman year allowed me to solidify my GPA and double the amount of credits I had, so when I transferred I was further ahead than most of my peers. So as you struggle through the college process grind, just know that no matter what decisions you receive, you are still destined for great things.

Shanice, 3rd-Year

In high school, I wish someone had told me it is okay to not have everything planned out. My college experience has definitely forced me to bend and be flexible; whether that be in terms of courses taken in a particular semester or the grades I received. At first I was completely taken aback but I’ve come to see the importance of truly trusting the process. The minor setbacks I’ve encountered have allowed me to slow down and either regain focus or discover a new passion. Sometimes when you have everything planned down to the minute, you forget to schedule time for yourself and the things that you love.

Melissa, 5th-year

Applying to college was a nightmare. Looking back on my college application experience, I spent a multitude of hours stressing about every last word on my application when it really wasn’t needed. These are some helpful hints that I wish I knew about applying to college when I was in high school. First and foremost, the admission counselor is looking to see if you will be a good fit for the school. GPAs and standardized test scores are not the only important factor for college admission. Take the time to describe your activities and how you were a leader and an influencer within that activity. Really put your personality into the essay. Most counselors have read every single essay topic already, so it doesn’t matter what you write about. What matters is how you portray yourself. These are the things that will set you apart from another applicant who has very similar grades and test scores.

Secondly, keep in mind how the school will be a good fit for you. Ask yourself if the program will help you achieve your goals? Do you like the location of the school? Do you want to go to a private or public school? Applying to a school just for the sake of it is just adding more work for yourself.  Find the qualities of your ideal college and figure out which schools reflect those qualities. Remember these two things, and hopefully your application process will be a little less stressful than mine was. Good luck!

Asher, 4th-year

If I could tell my high school self what I know now, I would say remain calm, everything will work out, and trust the process. I applied to ten colleges, and I ended up attending the college that I applied to and was admitted to first. Going through the process of applying to 10 or more schools might seem worth it, however, I would caution you from applying to a school just for the sake of it – especially if you have little to no intention of going there (I am guilty of this)! The best way to stand out when applying to a college is to best describe who you are – not what you think an admission officer wants to hear. Staying true to yourself and writing accurately about your life experiences will allow admission officers to see if the school you apply to is your best fit. It is okay if you get denied admission—I was too! The admission process is there for schools to find the candidates who will succeed, further a school’s mission, and add to the community they have. Being genuine in your application will give you the best chance at finding the right place for you, even if it is not your first choice. Good luck!

Closing Thoughts

Everyone has their “I wish I knew…” moments. We all struggle to ask what we don’t know, then later discover what we didn’t realize all along! Just remember the right answers will come to you at the right time. In the meantime, there are people who are here to help you navigate the process. So, sit back, take a deep breath, and (try to) enjoy the process.

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Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome, Katie!

After reading Samantha’s blog on finding joy in your college search, I realized we were on to a theme. This particular post is not about making your college list, but the same case can be built to reframe how parents and students tackle college admission questions. Maybe it’s because it’s April–the time when countless admission professionals find themselves behind a table at a college fair, standing in the welcome center lobby, or on the phone answering, quite often, some version of the same questions.

Today we’re going to wrestle with this notorious inquiry: “I am (or, my child is) a junior/sophomore/seventh grader/eight years old (I’m not kidding), what extracurriculars should we be doing right now to be competitive?” I answer the same way every time. “To be competitive, you should choose activities that make you happy.” The vast majority of students and parents think I’ve dodged the question. I haven’t. I’ve given the same answer for well over a decade and I’m sticking to it.

Find What Makes You Happy

Maybe that answer is deceptively simple, which is why it’s often dismissed as hedging.  I’m not dodging the question—I’m giving you a framework. Perhaps a “re-framework” as you make big decisions, like should you try out for the travel team, spend the summer in an internship or mission trip, stay a third year in robotics or take that new advanced class offering. Instead, high school students everywhere (and their parents) should ask the same question: does this activity make me happy?

If you are about to dismiss this advice as soft, overly codifying, or unrealistic, wait!  I’m about to let you in on the secret of why admission officers think students who enjoy their activities are more successful in the college application process (and probably life in general).

1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive.

The byproducts of doing something you love (in high school or in your professional life) are surprisingly positive.  You don’t have to believe me because there is science to back that up.  Check out Shawn Achor’s research in his book, the Happiness Advantage (no time to read the book? Check out this quick Ted Talk). What he says about business success is also true in the college application process. Joyful participation in high school endeavors has a ripple effect, leading to things such as increasing a club’s membership, finding ways to lead or innovate on projects, resiliency from year to year, providing access to others—essentially all the attributes that stand out to an admission committee when they are reviewing applications. Look at your resume. What activities make you happy?  Do more of those things! Competitiveness will follow.

2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.

Nothing deflates a conversation more than a student trained to rattle off their 4-10 resume activities and then ask me if they are “good.”  Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ! I saw online that your college has WXY, do you think that’s a good fit?” This engagement translates to the application itself. Applications fall flat when you are checking off boxes, trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.  Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.  Telling your activities story is more authentic and believable. When seen through this framework, your activities list is no longer a bureaucratic hurdle to get to college, but a written conversation retelling the most meaningful parts of your high school career.

3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.

I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.  I don’t mean that everything you do in high school should be easy.  Easy and happy are not the same thing. Some of the hardest situations can result in a new-found strength, a renewed focus, a sense that what you are doing has great value because it came at great cost.  That’s when being happy graduates to the big leagues: joy. I am not advising you to quit all your extracurricular activities because binge watching Netflix makes you happy.  Critically look at how you spend your time and ask yourself some serious questions. I have some thoughts below.

As an ode to the KonMari method, this is a KatMattli approved checklist for whether you should or should not keep an activity:

  • Do you feel excited about going to the meeting/practice/session/class?
  • Do you have moments of inspiration about it (Eureka moments!) before you go to sleep at night?
  • Do you talk about what you could do in this club/team next year?
  • Do you try to get appointments with teachers/coaches/sponsors to talk more about it?
  • Are you plotting ways to lead this group next year?
  • Do you want to teach or coach other people who have had less training than you have?
  • Is this project really difficult/challenging, but you are excited to see the finished product?
  • Would you still want do this activity if you couldn’t list it on your college application?

On the flip side…

  • Do you forget about that meeting each week?
  • Do you feel icky walking down the hallway to this meeting/tournament/locker room/classroom?
  • Does it keep you up at night in a bad way?
  • Are you thinking of other activities while you are there?
  • If you didn’t have to fill out a college application, would this club ever see your face again?

I’m holding fast to my original answer: you want your extracurriculars to be competitive? You need to enjoy the activities on your resume.  Are you a freshman in high school and anxious about what clubs to join (which ones colleges will view as “good”)?  Forget about us.  Go enjoy your game/fan group/club/meeting. We will see you in a few years when you are thriving in something you love. Are you a junior in high school? Double down on the activities that bring you the most enjoyment. You will need that stress relief and balance as you hit tougher classes, and I can’t wait to hear about your journey.

And if you are eight years old?  (Where is that astonishment emoji with the big eyes?) I am not discounting you, as it takes maturity to talk to college representatives at your age. But my answer to you is still the same, maybe even more so: Go enjoy yourself.

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