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Make It A Summer… again!

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

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

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

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

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Ad(mission): It’s not fair.

I suppose I could have gone with “An Admission: It’s not fair!” What can I say, catchy titles are not my thing. Working on it. But at this time of year, “fairness” is a resounding theme.

“How can you waitlist my son? He has 30 points higher and two more APs than your average. And we know someone down the street who got in that….”

“Something is wrong with your process if my daughter who has been through as many medical issues as she has and still has a 3.8 is not getting in. Talk about not being fair….”

“And don’t get me started on financial aid… or lack thereof.”

These are actual quotes from real people. Granted, they’re being used without acknowledgment (I didn’t think asking for permission to use them would be part of the healing process). Undeniably, there is something hardwired in us that longs for right, equal, just, fair, and perfect results. And these are noble aspirations.

Kids are among the most vocal about longing for fairness. Spend the same amount of money on presents? “Well, he got more gifts.” Buy the exact same number of gifts? “That one of her’s is bigger!” “Okay, tell you what, I’m going to take all of these out to the fire pit then and you can play with this cardboard box.” Now they’re both screaming in unison, writhing on the ground and flailing, with great gnashing of teeth. It’s like a scene from Revelation followed by a simultaneous and guttural reaction: “That’s not fair!”

Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was “better” or “more qualified” or “should have gotten in.”

I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted.  But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.

Mission Drives Admission.

Selective colleges publish mid-50% ranges or averages on our freshman profiles to serve as guides, not guarantees. These are the quantifiable factors that provide an overall sense of the admitted or enrolling class. Yes, we look at test scores, rigor of curriculum, course performance, impact on a community, essays, interviews, and so on. But what drives a holistic review process and serves as a guide for admitting students is a school’s mission. Counselors in high schools talk a great deal about “fit.” Where are you going to thrive? Where are you going to create a network or be challenged? Where do you see students that will push and challenge and stretch you to grow as a person and as a learner? These questions come from the fact that they’re savvy and educated not just about our admission processes and stats, but more importantly about our distinct missions. Ultimately, choosing the right school should not just be about “can I get in?” from a statistical or quantifiable standpoint, but “do I align with their mission?” It takes more work to figure that out, but that’s your job as an applicant or prospective student.

If you look at the academic profiles of Caltech and Amherst, they are very similar. But take a look at their missions.

Amherst (abbreviated) “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence… and is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”

Caltech “…to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

The difference in missions is why an individual student sometimes gets in to a higher ranked or more selective school and is denied at another. The student applying to Amherst has the same profile, involvement, writing ability, scores, and grades. but is a totally different fit in their process than for Caltech. This is, at least in part, what counselors are talking about when they say “fit.” It’s fit with mission. You’ll hear schools talk about “institutional priorities.” These are simply components of the macro vision and mission of a university.

A quick look at Georgia Tech

Founded: 1885. Classes begin 1888. One major- Mechanical Engineering. All male. It was a trade school responding to the needs of 19th century and early 20th century Georgia and US South.  The focus was on training and preparation for product creation and being prepared to lead and create the next in an industrializing state, region, and nation. Were there more “qualified” or “smarter” students at the time who had aspirations of becoming ministers or lawyers or physicians? Unquestionably. And had they applied with those intentions, they likely would not have been admitted. It was not our mission to educate students for those roles.

1912: Tech establishes a “School of Commerce” which is essentially a business program. 1952: Tech begins enrolling women. 1961: Georgia Tech becomes the first school in the South to integrate classes without a court order. It’s not hard for me to envision a younger brother in 1954 who is by all counts smarter than his older brother not being admitted to Tech due to this change in mission. Supply and demand drive admit rates. If your supply shrinks due to a shift in your mission, then admission decisions also change based upon factors besides grades, scores, or performance.

The University of North Carolina system is mandated by their legislature to enroll no more than 18% of students from outside of the state. This is why the admit rate for Chapel Hill is more than three times higher for in-state students vs. non-residents.  There are valedictorians from around the country not admitted to UNC (mission here) who get into Ivy League schools. Does this sound controversial or unfair? Not if you understand that mission drives admission.  Schools end academic programs. They add majors. They create new co-curricular programs or add or terminate sports teams. Mission changes and with it admission decisions are impacted to support those goals.

At Tech, our mission is “to define the technological university of the 21st century.” Our motto is “Progress and Service.” Our commitment is to “improve the human condition.” So while we are going to provide stats and averages and profiles like all other schools, these are the conversations in admission committee that contribute to decisions. Fair? No. Perfect? No. Reality? Yes.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a senior (or a parent of a senior) who has been denied or waitlisted: You are most likely just as smart, capable, and talented as other students admitted to that school. Move past the numbers and the comparison. You’re absolutely right: it’s not fair in a comparative sense. But that school has made its decisions in light of advancing their mission. Inevitably, you’ve also been admitted to a school where, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone denied with higher scores or more APs or better grades than you. But you fit their mission. Embrace that!

If you are an underclassmen (or parent of one): Selective schools will say, “We are looking to shape a class.” Counselors will talk to you about “fit.” As you try to digest and comprehend what that really means- or where that comes from- look to the school’s mission. Use the academic ranges they provide as a guide. Check out the profiles and other historical data to see how “students like you” have done in the past. But keep in mind those graphs don’t show the qualitative elements. When you are writing or interviewing at schools, do your homework in advance by researching. The essay you write for Caltech should not be the same one you write for Amherst. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (see what I did there?), is to find a school that aligns your academic ability with your vision of the future. Data is helpful. Stats are important. But fit, ethos, campus community, and your ability to be honest with who you are and want to be– that’s the best way to approach the process.

The other day my son was inconsolable. “She got presents on my birthday, and I never get anything on hers. It’s just not fair!” Finally, I just grabbed him, held him, and kept saying, “I know, son. I know.” So listen, you may not feel any better after reading this blog. Still angry. Still frustrated. I get it. I just wanted to save you that part of any email you send schools or the first part of a phone call. You can go right into other grievances and skip the “it’s not fair” part. We know, we know.

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Breaking Down The Admission Team: Week 4: Wide Receivers and Running Backs

One hot August night during college, a friend of mine (who happened to be the starting center on our football team) and I got pulled over by a cop who immediately started berating us about the speed limit and asking why we were out so late and if we had been drinking (we had not). My friend handed over his license and registration to the officer who grabbed it and headed back to the patrol car.

Through the rearview mirror I saw him stop, turn, and come back to the driver side door. “Listen. Going to let you off without a ticket tonight. But be safe, slow down… and good luck this season.” I was pumped! Win, right? But my friend had a different reaction, “Man. If I were a running back or wide receiver, he would have recognized me right away. #linemanproblems

Yep. That’s how running backs and wide receivers roll. They are the face of the organization. It’s their name and picture on websites and cards. And so it goes for Fantasy Football. Along with the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have the big names, the featured press conferences, and the long interviews– but with better celebration dances, bigger personalities, and generally warmer demeanor.

Well, my friends, I’ve just described admission counselors (though typically with fewer tattoos and less ability to evade speeding tickets, especially in places like Waldo, Florida. Ughh… still bitter). Counselors are the faces of the college. They are the ones who travel around the country and meet thousands of people each year at schools, programs, and coffee shops. If you visit campus, they are the ones who give the presentation or meet with you and your family.

Who are they?

1- Like many of the star running backs and wide receivers in the NFL, most admission reps who are recruiting and doing first/second read on college applications are in their 20s or early 30s.

2- They generally get into admission because they love their alma mater, so they typically start out working there. Others may simply be intrigued by Higher Education or love working in a college environment. Others may be buying time before grad school– and more so lately they are doing both simultaneously.

3- They are affable and generally extroverts who have good public speaking, communication, and relational skills. Those who don’t have those skills get a ton of practice refining and improving all of these within the first six months on the job.

4- Like RBs/WRs who are asked to be versatile and flexible in their routes and game plans, the same is essential for admission counselors. They walk into schools around the country not knowing exactly what to expect. “Today you’ll be speaking with four kids for 10 minutes.” Next school: “We are putting you in the auditorium. Thought you could speak to our 10-12 graders for an hour about college admission and maybe your school for max five of those.” Next: “We don’t have any students for you to see today, but we are short-handed in the cafeteria. How are you with prepping veggies?”

Admission counselors get into this field because they love students. They want to have a positive impact and believe they can in this role. They enjoy meeting new people, and love experiencing new places and opportunities. They are curious, open-minded, positive, genuine, bright, and passionate. They see the best in others. An added bonus is they want to have fun while accomplishing all of that.

counselor-picThere is no shortage of jokes, laughs, dance moves, and big personalities in admission offices around the country. I realize this may be slightly self-serving, but I believe these are some of the very best people you’ll ever meet.

Why Should You Care?

Unfortunately, in recent years, the stress surrounding the admission process has increased. Much of this is due to more students applying to more colleges, but it’s also correlated to financial costs, family pressures, and competitive, achievement-centered high school environments. As a result, “getting into college” has become more transactional and less relational. But that does not have to be your experience. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind when interacting with an admission counselor:

When meeting in person…
When an admission counselor shows up at your school or you meet them on campus, remember that they simply want to talk to you and help you. These are not judgmental folks. They’re not perfect and they don’t expect that from you. So ask your questions and listen, but also relax. Talk about the things you love in school and in life. Share your personality. Allow them to make connections with you and for you by being genuine. You’ll learn a lot more from that than from asking them to quote the library’s book sharing policy or what percentage of kids study abroad. Sure. A running back can answer questions about offensive schemes, but what you remember from interviews are the stories. Ask good questions.

On your application….
An admission counselor is the kind of person you want reading your essays and reviewing your application. Remember what you know about them: they are positive, and they naturally see and are trained to look for upside. On your application, they are listening for your voice. They want to know you and want to be in your corner. I’ve asked high school students to close their eyes and describe who they think is reading their essay. The typical response is a white, middle-aged male who has spectacles, patches on his tweed coat, and snarls as he opens his red pen. Look at a few of the staff websites or office social media accounts of the universities you are interested in (not the actual counselor’s Instagram, mind you— that’s weird). Check out Google images for “admission counselor.” Mean people? Nope. Running Backs and Wide Receivers.

So whether you are working on an application right now or planning a visit to campus soon, keep these admission counselor traits, motivations, and personalities in mind. While this won’t change the low admit rates at UPenn or Pomona or University of Michigan, it hopefully puts in perspective that these folks see themselves as being on your side. And that makes all the difference.

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Breaking Down The Admission Team: Week 3: The Bench

Alright, after a break for the election and Thanksgiving, it’s time to refocus on the important things in life… like Fantasy Football.

If you apply to a selective school (schools that  have an admit rate of less than 33%), they will use a holistic review process. Given that full-time admission staff also needs to travel for recruitment, meet with families, and make presentations on campus, there is simply no way for them to also read every application, front to back, with care and detail.

In Fantasy Football when you’re down a player, you need to have a good bench: skilled, experienced, and readily available to help out when the team is down. And trust me, when thousands of applications pour in on the last two days before the deadline and you are looking at a calendar trying to calculate daily quotas, you can feel down. The weather is getting colder, the sun sets earlier, caffeine doesn’t have its normal effect, the kids get sick and… sorry, where was I? Oh, yeah… the bench. Every good team has to have one, and in admission offices around the country, the bench are the seasonal employees.

 Our Bench: The Seasonals

Back when we received about 17,000 applications at Tech, we had five folks on the “bench.” Now we’ve crossed over the 30,000 mark, and our bench has grown to 15 (for context, plenty of other institutions employ well over 50 seasonal readers). Some schools only hire former admission officers, teachers, or counselors for these roles. We take a more holistic approach, so our bench includes an aerospace engineer, a former TV show producer, consultants from a variety of industries, several GT alums, and yes, some with extensive admission experience. Nationally, more and more of these employees work remotely, but ours mostly come into the office for 20-30 hours each week. They start with a week of training in early October to refresh on our process, learn any new updates, and go through complex application examples. They wrap up their work in mid-February each year.

Our staff loves this group– not just because they lighten their load, but because they bring life, energy, stories, and tons of personality with them each day. We call them “The Seasonals” (but we’re open to new team name suggestions).

Their Job

Seasonals come in specifically to read applications. Exactly which role this group plays varies from one school to the next, but ours are primarily doing first review. They review your transcript, enter your GPA in the system, count the number of AP/IB/ Dual Enrollment courses you’ve taken, note your highest math class, confirm official test scores are in, and verify that your senior schedule is complete. When they’re all reading, AND if our technology (including the Keurig) is working well, AND assuming no fire alarms, AND barring no silly meetings called by the director, they work through roughly 500 applications a day. Think of these folks as dental hygienists: they are poking and prodding around to ensure the file is complete, and clean, before advancing to second read.

Your Job

I’m not going to rename them “The Hygienists,” but to extend the metaphor, you would not intentionally put your tongue in the way of a double bend hook or ask to have your gum pierced by a sickle scaler. That would only lead to a bloody mess and severely slow the work of the hygienist. Similarly, you want to submit an application that’s clean and keeps these folks working smoothly.

1. Follow Directions. Before you start any section of an application, read all directions thoroughly. I know that sounds preachy, but this is a serious pitfall. Most applications specifically tell you not to abbreviate, and that’s for good reason. Sure, we know what Lit and Comp mean. But how about Dis of Hum Geo? Is that math or social science? And some abbreviations lead to all kinds of awkward… for example, Anal. Geometry is uncomfortably common.

2. Run Spellcheck. Senior schedules are basically free form, which can lead otherwise academically talented students to list Psycology, Psychologie, Scicology. Or how about Chemistrie, Cemistry, Chemistree? I’m not making these up, and they’re not one-offs either. The bench has a lot more patience for this kind of thing than I do (they’re good people, I tell you).  But remember that “best foot forward” thing? Yea… it’s a thing.

3. Be Specific. Students often say they’re taking Calculus spring of senior year, when in reality it’s actually Multivariate Calculus or BC Calculus. More information, not less, is the basic principle of holistic review.

4. Send All Transcripts. Have you switched schools in high school? Be sure that you have official transcripts sent from each one. We’ve seen plenty of examples of early grades being misrepresented (and often shortchanged) on the current school’s transcript. Is 9th grade not on your current high school transcript? Get it and send it.

Your School’s Job

1. Quality Check. Some schools (and at least one entire state) send photocopied transcripts (some with test score tapes covering important information). If we can’t read it, it’s pushed to the bottom of the stack until we can get a better copy. Not only does this not help your students and your school, but it also upsets the hygienist!

2. Help Us Help You. On the counselor form of The Common App, there is a place for “student rank.” This is where we should see simple numbers like 2/245 or 11/326. Instead, we will often see 1/119 followed by “Number sharing this rank: 21.” What the…?! 21 valedictorians? NO! Just like there should be limits to the distance off the highway that a restaurant must be in order to advertise on the exit sign, so too should there be limits to number sharing rank.

3. More Information, Not Less. Again, this is Rule 1 of holistic review. Selective colleges are making nuanced decisions. Based on application volume and class size, we are going to differentiate in extremely slight ways. Over the last decade we’ve seen fewer and fewer schools provide rank on profiles and forms. It’s moderately annoying, but borderline understandable. Lately we’ve seen a trend to not provide a GPA. Line crossed. Now we are in a position of making some uncomfortable assumptions about calculations in the absence of critical information.

I’ve heard many reasons from friends on the secondary side for these adjustments. Invariably, the headmaster or board or Grand Poohbah believes that not giving rank, or not giving GPA, or altering a grading scale, or not adding weight, is going to help more kids “get in.” We all have bosses, right? Admission directors can relate to the shoulder shrug, head tilt, eye roll, and knowing glance of “Yep. That’s what I told them.” Just humor me and add that Harvard’s admit rate is not going back above 7% regardless of how you frame your profile… and the bench doesn’t appreciate the extra splinters in the pine either.

Vegas, baby.

Our Seasonals primarily work out of two offices. These are small conference rooms with multiple desks or long tables. One is called “The Bat Cave.” The other is affectionately called “Vegas,” because what is said there stays there.

Don’t let the tips above be like Vegas. Share this, heed this, discuss these points, and put them into practice. We love reading your applications. We want to turn around decisions as fast as possible.

So show some love to the Seasonals as you submit information this winter. Accuracy and the quality of the information you and your school provide dictate their ability to keep the rest of the team moving. So how ’bout a slow clap for the bench?

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Breaking Down the Admission Team: Week 2: Offensive Line

In Fantasy Football, you score with skill positions, like quarterbacks and running backs. But we all know that in order for a player to succeed, he must have a group on the line blocking, working, and grinding every play. They don’t garner the spotlight, the headlines, or the score sheet, but make no mistake, the offensive line is the very heartbeat of the team.

And that is absolutely true of the phenomenal women and men who work in operations around the nation in admission. They don’t stand up on stages and deliver impassioned speeches about the school. They are not usually the ones talking with visitors. Their pictures aren’t prominently displayed on websites or publications. But day in and day out, they are moving the proverbial ball forward.

Back in the Day….

A decade ago or so ago basically all information that came into an admission office was via mail. I distinctly remember mail time. Back then we would literally wait for the truck to pull into the driveway. We’d have letter openers in hand and big tables nearby where we’d open, sort, and file documents for applications. Ultimately, those documents would be placed into folders (think dentist’s offices), and either delivered to counselors’ offices or placed on big sliding shelves in the mail room (think ELF, minus the dancing) for review. When supplementary information would arrive, operations staff would find the file, match the documents, and update the counselor. Besides the physical sorting, there was also a ton of data entry to do, including everything from social security numbers to addresses to test scores.

Fast Forward to Now…

These days schools have converted to reading applications on screens. Applications are submitted online, and transcripts either accompany that submission or come in via another electronic medium. But even now, admission offices are by no means completely paperless. Last year we received about 15,000 hard copy documents, including transcripts, recommendation letters, citizenship documents, school reports and profiles.  We also get a lot of extra information that students (or someone associated with the student) believe will be compelling. These range from projects (think paintings detailing Civil War battles or paper mache volcanoes), to pictures from actors / movie stars / athletes who are recommending students, to attendance records from the 3rd grade, to science reports from middle school.

But the majority of information comes in electronically. Tech works with 14 companies on a regular basis: testing agencies, foreign credit evaluators, application vendors, transcript avenues, etc. Not to mention we had over 6,000 emails last year from students, teachers, and counselors with attachments of documents. So while admission offices nationally may have led to the decline in stock prices for band aids and white out, their work load has not diminished—it’s just the nature of the work and skill sets of these folks has shifted. Big League (too soon?).

What does this mean for you?

I realize we’re getting into the weeds a bit, but this work directly impacts the efficiency and effectiveness in which admission offices operate. Operations folks are the ones who are updating your online checklists, your applications for residency, verifying transcript receipt, and confirming test score accuracy. They spend a lot of time doing quality control—making sure YOUR application contains YOUR grades, recommendations, and test scores, even though each of those may have been sent from a different source. Sound fun? This is what it takes to play on the Offensive Line. I’m telling you, these workers are the epicenter of every admission office in this country.

Any smart quarterback knows that he better take his offensive line out for steaks once a month and buy them some good Christmas gifts or he’s going to end up on the ground a lot more. So here are a few ways you can help yourself as you work with Operations Teams around the country.

Apply First. Test scores are very easy to match to applications. But when students send other things early (whether that be transcripts or immunizations form kindergarten) we don’t really have a mechanism for holding and matching. Think of your application as the cornerstone of a building. Everything is contingent and hooked to that foundation.

One and Done. If your counselor sends a transcript via Naviance or Common App or another electronic company, please don’t also mail, email, fax and carrier pigeon that to us to “be sure we have it.” You are just clogging up the system and adding processing time to your file and others. Schools give processing windows (messages saying it will be 2-3 weeks or 7-10 days before your online checklist will reflect receipt) for a reason. We have not yet found a way to bend the space-time continuum, so trust that timeline, check back, and take action if it’s not been received. We get that you are nervous about deadlines and being complete, but if 30,000 other applicants (and adding in eager parents, make that 90,000 people) are all calling, emailing, and showing up in person, you can understand the inefficiency that creates.

Know Your Name. Be sure you list the same first, last, middle name on your test scores, transcripts, and application. You may not love that your formal name is William, but using that on your application and “Willy B” on your SAT is going to lead to matching nightmares on our end. We find this issue particularly problematic for international students. We will call you whatever you want when you arrive on campus, but let’s keep it formal and official in the application process.

Go Green. Let’s work to save the world one transcript or recommendation letter at a time. If your school or county is not yet sending documents electronically, put pressure on them to rectify that. This is not a vendetta against the US Postal Service but the bottom line is electronic documents are easier to handle, match, upload, process and read.

Shout Out!

One of the very best in the business talking about “all things operations” is David Graves at UGA. Dr. Graves is the Senior Associate Director there and does a phenomenal job talking about things specific to UGA but also applicable info on test scores and tips for working with processing offices within admission. Follow him on Twitter: @drgravesUGA.

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