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Sneaky Teachings from the Bench Lady

One of the first people I met when I came to Georgia Tech as an admission counselor was Robin Wilburn, or “Ms. Robin” as we all call her. Back then we did not read applications by geographic territory but rather by alphabet. So while I traveled to recruit students in various parts of Georgia and other states, Ms. Robin and I were responsible for ensuring all applicants with last names of A-C were complete, reviewed and ready for a decision. We agreed early on we would be the best team—the most efficient, the most accurate, and the most accessible to families and students with questions.  She took our pact seriously. Depending on the situation, Ms. Robin would call me “Mr. Clark” or “Boo” or just “you,” as in “You better get in here!”

I call Ms. Robin a “sneaky teacher,” because you have to really listen, watch, and wait on her wisdom. I sat down to chat with her this week and reflect as she just completed her 25th year at Tech. In our 30 minute conversation, I was again reminded of how much she has to teach. Outside of admission, many know Ms. Robin as “The Bench Lady.” Whether it be first thing in the morning, while taking a break around lunch, or waiting for her son, Andre, to pick her up in the evening, you can count on seeing her on one of the benches around our building.

So what are you doing while you’re sitting there?

“Mainly praying. Just getting my head together so I can be a blessing. I always say, ‘let your light so shine!’ And I just sit on the bench sometimes to say good morning or ask people about their day.”

I told you she’s special. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, and a few gems for you to learn from as well.

What brought you to Tech and why have you stayed here?

“I began as a Tech Temp. For seven months I basically just filled envelopes. Then I was sent to Tech Tower (the most quintessential building on campus).” (It’s important to note she still has a sense of awe and reverence when she reminisces about this. While Robin grew up less than three miles from Tech, she shared that people in her neighborhood did not feel they belonged. Tech was perceived as elitist, pretentious, and “not for us.” She said the 1996 Olympics changed that perception. Somehow by opening our campus and city to the world, we also opened it to our own city as well.)  “I worked calculating GPAs—200 a day. Most days we’d either skip lunch or work through it. The philosophy was ‘Get ‘er done,’ which you still hear me say today. But I’ve stayed because I love the vision. I love we are reaching more students and diversifying.  Every year we get better, and you know, we never stay still.”

How is the work different today than it was when you started? 

“We gather information faster and there is less human error. But there is less contact with students too because of the technology—and I miss that. I used to see a lot more walk-ins, take more calls from students, and speak with counselors on the phone more often. I love the freshmen. Love seeing them come in young and then grow and learn and get their degree. I just love watching them grow.” (Note: that was three “loves” in three sentences. She’s beaming at this point.) “You know I love the students who work for us. I get to become mama or auntie. Just the pride of seeing them grow up… and plus, they keep me young and lively.”

You’ve seen so many students come as first-years and then graduate. What advice would you give a student about to go to college?

“If you have the drive, you can do it! But you’re going to have to do the work. Our students are always shooting for that A.  But they need a lot of encouraging. They may act like they’ve got it all together but they can really hurt too. I’ve seen it happen. We work here because we love them. But they don’t always tell us how we can help. So we have to really get to know them, to stop and listen, so they trust us.”

What have you most enjoyed about the people you’ve worked with on campus?

“No matter who it’s been, “(and she rattles off about ten folks, including several former VPs and Directors) “they always pushed me to my potential. It’s never been about title here or what degree you have. They entrusted me with important work and exposed me to people around our division and around campus. Basically pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to feel like part of a team. That’s what I love—being part of a team. I love being around people who make me better. And that’s always been what I’ve found here. The top of the top. These people don’t play, Mr. Clark. You know that.”

So how can you take these thoughts and apply them to your journey as a student, and as a person?

“Let your light so shine.”

We lead busy lives. You take tough classes requiring you to study at night and on the weekends. You put significant time in with your team or club or job (or in some cases all three)—in addition to the basics like friends, family, eating, sleeping. You know…life. And I’m here to tell you: it never slows down. It won’t slow down in college or grad school or in your first job or once you have a family. You have to slow it down. It requires being intentional, and being mindful of what makes life full—not what fills your life. Slowing down is so much easier said than done (and for me, so much easier written than lived). Ms. Robin gets it. She sits. She prays. She “gets her head right.” And doing those things allows her to meet new people, to invite them to sit, share and be encouraged. She’s available—and her availability brings joy not only to her life but to the lives of those who know her. The holidays are here. Rather than spinning through them, I hope you’ll sit through them.

“Get er done.”

200 transcripts a day! If you’ve ever tried to locate grades on the variety of transcripts a school like Tech receives, you’ll know that is fast! And besides fast, Ms. Robin has always been incredibly accurate. She takes ineffable pride in her work being excellent, even if it means working through lunch, taking files home, or being the first in the office. It’s how she’s made, and it’s the very nature of who she is. Never, and I mean that literally, has Robin boasted about working harder than anyone else. Being a part of the team, buying into the vision, reaching more students—those goals are what drive her. Not recognition. In fact, it took me a few weeks to get her to agree to be interviewed! Only after her pastor encouraged her did she agree to collaborate on this project. She’s humble, consistent, faithful, and selfless. When you encounter someone who embodies that type of integrity, it’s inspiring and challenging.

I have no doubt you are bound for success. And with your success may come a platform and an amplified voice. When you achieve and excel; when you reach your goals in high school, college, or beyond, I hope you’ll remember our Bench Lady. Quiet confidence, relentless pursuit of excellence, and always the perspective that others helped you get there—you are a small part of something much bigger. I think fundamentally we all find fulfillment and immeasurable satisfaction when we realize these moments in life.

You belong here.

Ms. Robin has always been conscious of not having a college degree. She brought it up in our discussion, and many times through the years she’s expressed some regret and concern about this fact. She said she’s thankful that at Tech the focus has not been on title or pedigree, but consistently, “Can you do the work?” She commented our office has always modeled that title does not matter (which is why, even though I’m the Director now, she’ll still yell down the hallway, “Hey, you. Get in here!”). The imposter syndrome is a real thing on college campuses.

Ironically, the day after I interviewed Ms. Robin I flew to Houston to talk to Computer Science deans and professors from Top 10 programs about enrolling more under-represented students in CS PhD programs. These people not only hold doctorates, they create more doctorates. They are expanding the base human knowledge. Me? I went to public high school and college. I slept on the couch the night before. “Who am I to give them advice?” went through my head multiple times on the plane and even during the talk.

Every year our first-year students say they have a moment in class or in the middle of a conversation when they ask themselves, “Am I good enough, and smart enough to be here?” Our seniors constantly say, “I would not get in if I applied these days.” Inevitably, you’ll have some doubts. Maybe it will be because of where you are from, or what your parents do, or what you know you made on the SAT/ACT. But don’t let these thoughts keep you from applying to a certain college. Don’t let these thoughts diminish your confidence at a college visit, or during orientation, or in your first semester at college.

You were admitted. We did not make a mistake. Character, work ethic, how you treat others, and your determination—these are the traits that helped you stand out in an admission process, and will differentiate you in the future as well.

Ms. Robin got me through my talk. Before I walked in the room, I sat down, took a deep breath, pictured her on the bench and “got my head right.”

“Get ‘er done!”

“Let your light so shine!”

“You belong here.”

Told you she was a sneaky teacher.

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Freshman Application Review – The Nuts and Bolts (part 2 of 2)

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, returns to complete her two-part series. Welcome back, Mary Tipton!

In part two of our file review series, I’ll focus on how we’re preparing for review this year, especially in light of the changes we are making to our approach. To recap from last week, seeking greater accountability, efficiency, norming and prioritization of staff time, we moved to a new model for file review known as Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). In this model, an admission staff member, the driver, will be paired with a seasonal staff member, the passenger, to review applications.

Training for file review every year is a big undertaking, but especially when we are implementing a new model. I am only the encourager and the voice of this implementation in our office, but I can’t take credit for figuring out the schedule for CBE (more on that later) and training staff on the change. I must acknowledge the staff member in our office who has coordinated logistics, worked with seasoned staff members on implementation and ensured all permanent and seasonal staff are trained and ready for reading this week. She has been a superhero in this effort!

Preparing for CBE

To prepare for CBE, we first had to figure out how many teams we could have reading at one time, what schedule worked best for staff, how to cover other office duties (daily visits, phones, emails, visit events, etc.) and where (as in the physical location) we could read. The location piece is more challenging that you may think, given 10 of our staff work in an open, collaborative space we affectionately call the “collabora-dome.” With 12 full-time readers available, we settled on a daily schedule of 8:30a-2:30p in CBE. This schedule ensures we can most effectively utilize our seasonal staff who don’t work a full work day and prevent reader fatigue for everyone. Maintaining this schedule requires knowledge of 42 different calendars and an understanding of each reader’s inherent biases and reading tendencies. In other words, it’s important we pair people who will complement each other and not engage in group think. The result is the color coded spreadsheet you see below!

In two days of “live” CBE and without a full staff (some are still on the road!), we completed over 250 application reviews all the way to a recommended decision stage. That’s compared to less than 200 that had only been first reviewed last year on October 10. These are obviously early returns, but I am beyond pleased with the efficiency gains we are seeing! Once we hit peak reading, we are expecting pairs to read 50 applications in a day for a total of 3,000 per week inclusive of all teams.

Of course, we didn’t just undertake this change for efficiency sake; we wanted to ensure staff felt more confident in their review of a student and their recommended decision because they were discussing the application with a colleague. First, we had to ensure that all staff are normed within a reasonable range of each other (norming means all staff are evaluating the strength of a student’s contribution, fit to Georgia Tech, etc., in the same way). We did this by reading groups of 2017 applications from in- and out-of-state and international. We then discussed their academic and out of class strengths and weaknesses to ensure we were considering items similarly. We got tripped up on a transcript with a strange math class name and a US Citizen in an international high school, but, all in all, we were recognizing and evaluating the nuances necessary to make decisions in a competitive admission environment.

What Does it Mean for You?

Now that you know a little more about how we prepared and implemented CBE, here is what this change means for you. Truthfully, I could stop typing here and say that nothing has changed, but I was told this blog should be no less than 1.5 pages. In all seriousness, let me explain what I mean. There’s been a lot of talk and some consternation about the speed in which applications are read in CBE. As explained last week, the person time on an application has actually increased. Having to only read one portion of an application has allowed us to dive more deeply into school profiles, letters of recommendation and other parts of the application where necessary.

However, there’s a few common sense things I think students and counselors alike should consider, whether the school to which they are applying is utilizing CBE or a traditional application review model.

Fronting Your Application

My biggest piece of advice is to “front” your application (or, for counselors and teachers, the recommendation letter). What do I mean by fronting? It’s a retail term my husband introduced me to from his background working in his dad’s store as a kid. When we first moved in together, I noticed he would go into the cabinets periodically and move all the canned goods and containers to the front of a shelf. I couldn’t understand why he was wasting perfectly good space behind the can of black beans, but he explained to me that it was good merchandising. As I didn’t understand the need to merchandise our cabinets, this was one of the many things we didn’t see eye to eye on when we first moved in together! As an aside, you won’t be surprised to learn that 17 years and a child later, he could care less where the canned goods go in the pantry!

Back to fronting and what it means for you…

Students, front your activities. List your most significant activities first, then put the remainder in descending order of importance to you. It could be descending order of time spent, or significance of impact – you know best what will work for you. We discussed the review of activities in our staff training, emphasizing the importance of looking at both pages of activities in our review, but we all confessed we’d missed significant activities because they were at the end of the list. The same advice goes for the long essay. Just like a book or article, you should work to hook us in the first paragraph. We really do read all essays, but if we aren’t hooked early, we might miss something important in a later paragraph because we are reading quickly.

Counselors, put the most important things we need to know about a student at the beginning of your letter. We don’t need a lead in paragraph—we  need to be directed to the things that are most important for us to understand about a student. More importantly, these should be things the student didn’t tell us, or at least given from a perspective the student does not have about themselves. Many of you are considering using bullet points in your letters. I applaud this move, and it’s really helpful for us to hone in on the information you want to highlight. However, a paragraph with a dot in front of it is not a bullet point! It’s still a narrative. Either format is fine, but put the most significant things early in the letter or at least draw our attention to them with highlighting, italics or the like. The example below is consensus for one of the best formats we’ve seen!

Above all else, know that we are enjoying reading applications again. Admission is a seasonal profession, and that’s something we all love about it. With this change of season and, more importantly, the change in model, I see a re-energized staff enjoying application review. Reading with a colleague is fun, and the whole process seems less daunting than ever before. I’m excited about the year ahead and look forward to reporting more as the year progresses!

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Freshman Application Review – The Nuts and Bolts (part 1 of 2)

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

If you’re reading this blog you’re likely a high school student (or connected to a student!) who is, or soon will be, applying to college. Once you send in your application, you probably wonder what in the world happens between the time you hit “submit” and when you receive your admission decision.

This year we’re changing the way we read freshman applications. This week and next I’ll explain why we made this decision, what we’re doing differently, and, most importantly, what it means for you!

How We Got Here (a little background)

Let me start by explaining how we got where we are now. Institutions across the country have seen large increases in applications over the last decade (not news to most of you!). But the growth in applications is rarely followed by an increase in staffing, leaving admission offices with roughly the same number of admission staffers processing and reading applications as we had a decade ago when we received a lot fewer. You can see how this could impact our review of your application and attention to your needs throughout the admission process. From a leadership perspective, we also have to consider how this volume affects our staff members. Admission offices across the country struggle to retain staff, due in large part to the nights and weekends staff are asked to give up to read applications.

Each full-time reading staff evaluates anywhere from 2000-2600 applications over a roughly twelve-week period from October through March. Our expectation was for our staff to read approximately 50 applications per day, or 250 per week. That accomplishment alone would be daunting, but along with reading, our staff is also expected to give information sessions, answer emails, plan events, work with student recruitment teams, and coordinate other responsibilities in our office. Staff are left wondering how to prioritize file review, customer service and project responsibilities throughout reading season. It was clear we couldn’t continue for fear of mass staff defections!

Times Are Changing…

Last spring we surveyed our (very burned out) staff to find areas for improvement. Several themes emerged for file review, including a desire for more accountability, efficiency, norming and clear office priorities. Let me unpack these:

Accountability – We all remember “that person” on a group project who we didn’t think pulled their weight. The same perception was happening in file review, and, true or not, it’s a hit on office morale. Additionally, from a leadership perspective, there is nothing fun about pressuring/nagging/cajoling staff to read the applications assigned to them.

Efficiency – We had some big technology hurdles and we’re addressing those while implementing our new review system, making it much easier for us to adopt a new model.

Norming – Staff felt the evaluation they gave an application initially carried too much influence throughout the process. In other words, in committee we relied heavily on the notes from the initial reviewer. While there were additional eyes on the application, advisors felt the decision they made without anyone else’s perspective carried too much weight later on.

Office Priorities – When staff were left to read on their own, when and how it was done varied widely and some people managed their time better than others. Not being seen reading at your desk (even if you were reading late into the evening at home) contributed to the accountability issues mentioned above.

Two Heads are Better than One

All of this leads up to our adoption of Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). What is CBE, and how can it address these concerns? First and foremost, we cannot take any credit for the concept. We tip our hat to the ingenious staffers at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the CBE model, and to their leadership for supporting the concept and willingness to share with colleagues around the country. I encourage you to read this article about CBE (or this one) if you want to dig in even more.

The overarching concept: together, two staffers can do better and more efficient work than one alone. To get into the weeds a bit, it means having two staff members spend an individual 8-10 minutes on an application (16-20 total review minutes) is not as efficient as having two people review and discuss one application for 8-10 minutes. The time in which an application is reviewed is the same, but it is accomplished in roughly half the time because two people look at it together.

You may be thinking this is not saving time because you cut the staff to file ratio in half. We’re getting around that in two ways. First, the 18 seasonal review staff we hire each year will make up one half of our CBE pairs. They are invaluable to our file review effort and are here training as I type to prepare for this change in our process. CBE also saves us time by allowing us to take a file to a final decision earlier in the process. If two people have reviewed and discussed an application, we can feel more confident in the decision they recommend than we could with the input of only one person.

The team approach to file review also addresses accountability because staff are assigned a partner and times to read, and must ask permission of their supervisor to be excused. It’s a bit of micromanaging their time, but, as I’ve said to staff, we’re only asking to do this for about 12 weeks out of the year. The benefits outweigh the negatives in our minds and also send a clear signal about prioritization of our office and individual time during file review season.

Drivers and Passengers

It’s also important for you to know who is doing what in the review. Here at Tech, the driver will read the school report/profile, transcript and recommendation letters. The passenger will read the application, including the activities and essays. Both the driver (permanent staff and territory managers) and the passenger (seasonal staff) will open an application and review a summary sheet together.

The driver has inherent knowledge of the school and is expected to provide a summary to the passenger. For example, the driver might say something like, “This is a school in an affluent, suburban part of Atlanta where most students will attend college. They offer a robust AP program, and students admitted to Georgia Tech in the past took an average of six of those courses. Because they are in such a heavy technology corridor, students have lots of opportunities for internships at technology firms.” Our goal is to allow the driver, who has more knowledge of an area and school, to manage this part of the application.

The driver and passenger will read their assigned portion of the application file and discuss an applicant’s strengths and weaknesses and fit to Tech. After CBE is complete an application can move on to an additional committee. So, yes, committee reviews still exist, but we hope to narrow the focus of committee to the applicants needing further discussion the most.

Now that I’ve explained why we adopted CBE and what it will mean for our file review process, tune in next week to learn how we are preparing for file review this year and what our change to the CBE model means for you!

Read part 2 now!

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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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Own It!

My kids (ages nine and six) take FOREVER to get ready in the morning. I’ve tried setting an earlier alarm, flipping the lights on and off, writing step by step instructions on the chalk board, threats, setting timers at breakfast, and even more threats.

But inevitably when I send my daughter outside to put on her shoes, two minutes will go by with no return. Glancing out the window I’ll find her spinning a stick on the porch or throwing rocks into the yard. Even the way she kills time is unproductive—it’s not like she’s reading or practicing Taekwondo.

My son is worse. “Go brush your teeth.” Four minutes later I hear him upstairs playing with a robot or Legos.

Last week I walked in to wake up my daughter only to find her completely buried under two blankets, a few pillows, and a preposterous number of stuffed animals. “Did your alarm go on?” Yes. “Did you turn it off?” Yeah… That’s what you’re supposed to do, right?

Throwing my head back and contemplating leaping out of the second floor window I said (loudly) while leaving the room, “I know. But then you STAY UP!!”

It reached an all-time low a few days ago when my son actually said, while eating his cereal, “Raise your hand if you like staring blankly off into the air.” Dear Lord, please provide me patience.

I see other families at school, church, and soccer where kids are early, combed, fully dressed, and basically singing family songs as they walk hand in hand. I hate those people.

The one day they like is Friday. Embarrassingly, this is largely because I wake them up by playing (and dancing to) Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and feeding them cinnamon rolls. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So if anyone knows Rebecca, see if she can make a Monday song, because The Bangles and Jimmy Buffett aren’t cutting it.

Please get to your point…

Fine. Our family started this week with a new strategy: the kids “own” breakfast. I’ll make lunches and ensure the bags have all homework/folders set, but they need to get their own food. Car leaves at 7:40 a.m. Hungry? Still eating? Bar in hand? Whatever. No excuses. No take-backs. YOU OWN breakfast.

Similarly, we want you to “own” your college application and admission process. I won’t preach about all the lessons to be learned from owning your application/admission process and how it will prepare you for the college experience. Nope. I’ll save those messages for basically every admission rep you hear talk at your high school or on their campus. I’m here to prove it matters.

Look at the Common Application’s essay prompts. Number two, and I’d assert numbers three and five, center on growth through learning (or loosely translated “owning” something); a mistake, a realization, a problem solved—whatever it is, you recognized it and stuck with it. The Coalition Application questions one, and arguably two and three, are all within the same theme.

Writing about owning something requires you first to recognize its significance; to genuinely care, and to give evidence of how you’ve tangibly progressed since the experience. You want to go to a “good school?” Well, good schools (who you’ll be writing essays for) are reading these essays with their institution in mind. That’s right. It’s your essay, but they have their institution in mind.

What We Mean by “Fit”

You often hear the word “fit” thrown around. What does fit actually mean? In the rubrics readers use, as well as the conversations they have about your application in committee, counselors ask questions like:

  • When you come to campus and the academics and professors push and stretch you, how will you respond?
  • When you have a decision to make about how you’ll treat others in the classroom or in your residence hall, what evidence do we have to show your choice will be made with integrity and maturity?
  • When you are given opportunities to represent the college or university as a student or an alum, will we be confident in you?

Responses to those essay prompts are a significant opportunity to demonstrate in a concrete (read: not theoretical or philosophical) way you are someone who has grown already; someone who has been challenged; or someone who has, through either major or sometimes mundane life experiences, recognized a need for change and progress and taken those steps.

Real Life Examples

Pretend for a moment you are an admission reader (cue dream sequence). You are reading the discipline section of an application. Which one shows more maturity and growth? Note: these scenarios are real, yet slightly altered for the protection of the…well, guilty. 

  • “Last year two of my friends and I spray painted the school building and were caught, suspended, and had to do community service. I did not want to participate but they were driving that night and I had no other way home. So, even though I did tell them we should not do it….”
  • “I have been charged with theft of jewelry from my friend’s parents. We were at a party and a few us went into their bedroom. We took bracelets, necklaces, and rings valued in the five-figure range.” (Needless to say, our staff made a phone call about this one. “So why did you do it?” “I wanted those girls to like me.”)

So which one shows more maturity and growth? The answer is neither. Yes, it was a trick question—I’m just keeping you on your toes. I’m not sure about you, but with the first one I’ve got two thoughts running through my head: 1) the student is lying, and 2) even if they’re not, it sounds super weak. Call Uber, walk, tell them to drop you off first. And bonus- actually tell them you’re not going to do it!

I’d call the second example a laptop closing moment. One of those times when you so completely abandon your hope in humanity that it leads you to simply close your laptop, throw your head back, close your eyes and take an immensely deep breath. But I’d love to know what’s going on in your head here.  Hopefully, it isn’t, “Yeah. I get that…” Hopefully you still have your reader hat on. If so, you should be asking, “So what happens when you are on campus and some friends want to hack into a professor’s account?” To be honest, my head goes to some far more nefarious and harmful places beyond hacking, but I’m keeping things relatively clean. Either way, you see my point, right? Own it!

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the Additional Information section:

  • “In my sophomore year, I got mono (side note: we commonly see concussions listed here, as well as a variety of lesser known but highly Google-able ailments). I missed several weeks of school and spent most of the fall semester extremely tired. My AP World History teacher refused to make my assignments available online or provide extensions, which is why I received a C in that class.” (Only problem is you also made C in the spring semester. So what do we do now?)
  • “I had intended to take French 4 last year, however my dad insisted I take Environmental Science. I now regret that I listened to him, not just because I did not do as well as I’d hoped in ES, but also because I really do love French and hope to study International Affairs next year at Tech.”

On number two, I’m getting the distinct image of my daughter out on the back porch throwing rocks and staring at the birds on the neighbor’s roof. Double deduction if your dad writes or calls in to say he should not have put pressure on you. No, padre. Start the car and slowly roll out of the driveway at 7:40 a.m.

The problems here are two-fold. First, these both come off sounding like excuses. Actually, scratch that. They are excuses. Look back at those essay prompts. What are they essentially asking you to show? Growth, right? Maturity, evolution, a recognized misstep which will make you a better college student, peer, friend, roommate, influencer, or simply humble and confident person. The antithesis are statements like: “He made me do it” and claims of “would of/should of/could of.”

Secondly, you are not submitting your application in a bubble. Other students (some we may have read that very same day) are giving strong evidence showing they have progressed. That’s right–you are not the only one who drank and got caught or had to shake a medical situation, divorce, or family death during high school. I realize it may sound callous, but at any school receiving thousands of applications and reading 30-50 essays a day, this is the reality.

No Excuses—Own It!

Colleges want students who come to their campus prepared. Most of the time people are focused on the academic side of the equation (i.e. who is more qualified based on rigor of curriculum or test scores, etc.). But the truth is at selective schools, most applicants “look the same” from an academic standpoint. They are prepared and able to do the work. The bigger questions are: How will they do the work? And who will they be on campus? When they get here, how will they respond when they fail a test, have to balance social pressures, academics, internship, and the family drama happening 500 miles away?

This is why so many of the essay prompts focus on a demonstration of tenacity and perseverance. We are looking for ownership, not excuses. So own it.

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