ACT
Coalition Application
College Admission
Early Action
Essay
Georgia Tech
Parents
SAT

College Admission Essays: I’ve heard that one before…

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes and key messages. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all. My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

College Admission: Same as it Ever Was?

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission, Mid-Atlantic, Kathleen Voss to the blog!

In the college admission world, I am considered a dinosaur – which is a polite way of saying I am a fossil.  To put things into perspective, the summer after college, the president walked into my office and said, “We’re implementing a revolutionary new platform called EMAIL.”  When I started on this journey, way back in nineteen hundred and ninety-three, I was 5 years older than most of the high school students that I was working with!  

I remember talking to the kids and completely relating to them.  After those students enrolled, they became like my younger sisters and friends.  We had much in common, I listened to the same music they did, watched Days of Our Lives in the dining hall during the lunch hour, and understood their struggles with school work and social pressures.

These days, I tend to relate more to the parents, many of them graduates of the class of 1993. We commiserate about our kids and share our worries.  I am still musically savvy and can tell the difference between the Justins (Timberlake and Bieber) but I no longer have the time or brainpower for Days of Our Lives, and the memories of youthful struggles are fleeting.

Sometimes, while standing behind my table at a college fair (over 500 of them in my career!), I look around at all of those young faces, and I hear that Talking Heads song… “And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?”

While I am not sure where time has gone, here is what I DO know after 23 years of working with high school kids.

They Are Socially and Culturally Aware.
By the nature of their generation they have been developing skills since early childhood that have aided them in better understanding and “acknowledging the importance of harmonious social interaction.”  Today’s young people are more open to diversity than we were 20 years ago. I like that kids today have more sensitivity to people who are different, and more confidence in sharing those differences.  There is no doubt in my mind that young people are evolving by being exposed to all types of diversity.

They Work REALLY HARD!
According to Business Insider, kids today are taking 27.2 credits, compared to the 23.6 that high school kids took in 1990. At Georgia Tech, the average number of AP/IB courses our admitted students have taken is 10, and that’s on top of logging hours of service learning outside of the classroom. We see first-hand the volume and personal benefit of service learning. These hours, in addition to sports, work, and all of those other activities found in high school, make for very busy teenagers!

Often I am asked, “Should Johnny take AP Chemistry or stay in band?  His schedule won’t allow for both.”  My response is, “What does Johnny love?”  I tell my own children, “too much of anything isn’t good for you,” and that includes AP’s.  For many kids, they need the freedom that band, art or sports provide to help recharge their brains for those higher level courses.

They Face Pressures That Would Have Given Me Nightmares.
YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat.  Your entire life captured for the world to see! That Facebook meme that says something about being glad that there was no Facebook when you were in high school… it’s the truth!

Many of the young people I meet are burned out. They suffer from chronic stress.  While I do meet kids who thrive on the pressure, I have to be honest folks, if my parents were like some of the parents I’ve met out there, I would be stressed out too!  Asking about the college profile for your 1st grader because you want to make sure they are in the “right” classes, calling the admissions office to tattle about the disciplinary infractions of your child’s classmates, writing your daughter’s application essay because “I can just do it better,” berating guidance counselors when your child doesn’t get into the school that only accepts 5% of its applicants… where does it end?

One of my colleagues at an exclusive private school in the Washington DC area begins his college night presentation for parents with the following statement; “think about your alma mater…. over 50% of you would be denied admission if you applied there today… can you give your kid a break?”

They Are Going to Be Okay.
I have answered the same questions for 23 years: “What is your average GPA? SAT? ACT? How hard is it to get in? My friend said you don’t accept grades under a B, is that true? My counselor said that I don’t have enough safety schools on my list, what do you think? ”  I’ve seen some kids come in on fire and burn out in a semester… others needed a few months to acclimate and then take off. But in the end, most made the right college decision, especially if they were true to themselves.  In his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni does a great job explaining why it’s what the student does in college, not where they go, that determines success.

I’ve told parents and students at all of those college fairs and visits to high schools is that it IS going to be okay.  A year from now you will have landed, and if you stay true to yourself, it will be enough.

Finally, there really will come a time when all of this will be a blip on the radar. Your college journey will be a story that you tell your own kids when you, too, are a dinosaur.

“Same as it ever was… Same as it ever was…”

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page or enter your email address. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

The Definitive College Admission Field Guide

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

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

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

Take a Breath

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

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

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

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

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

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page or enter your email address. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

The Rankings, meh….

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

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

College Rankings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Your Job

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

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

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

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

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page or enter your email address. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

The Welcome Manual: Part 1 of 3

I woke up to the sound of rain on the windows and roof. Not a completely uncommon noise but somehow this seemed different. Then the water started hitting my arm and face and I forced my eyes open.

I was sleeping on a porch at the beach. My family took a vacation last week to Cape Cod, MA. Beautiful area and great to escape the Georgia heat at this time of year. But after a long night of stories by the fire, I had decided to sleep on a porch bed to enjoy the cool evening.  Looking around me at the wet sill and blanket it was clear that it had been raining a while. I went back into the house and began closing the windows in my wife and kids’ rooms. Then I went into the bathroom. Oddly, it was here that it felt like rain was falling directly on my head… and it was.

I looked up and realized there was an open sunroof that I had not noticed during the beautiful, clear days before.  Not wanting to turn on the light or wake anyone else up I stared up at the skylight. Rain was coming directly into my face at this point.

This house was built in 1920. The ceiling was a good 12 feet high and there was a precariously archaic looking crank to close this hatch. I searched the wall hoping perhaps it has been modernized and one of the switches would control it. Flip, lights. Flip, fan. Flip, not sure what that does but it does not control the sunroof.

Finding The Solution

Do I put down towels and go back to sleep? Appealing but irresponsible. Do I wake my wife up and ask for help? No. It’s 3 a.m. and she was buried under 2 pillows and taking up the entire bed at this point. Plus, she’d much prefer a wet bathroom than being woken up with questions I should be able to answer.

So… the only solution: climb. I’m not saying I’m Spiderman or anything, but having young kids has renewed my playground acumen, which as this point was looking to prove necessary. I step up onto to toilet. Put a foot into the wall and my hand on the window sill and pulled myself onto that and the top of the door frame.  I was 6-7 feet off the ground and could reach to 11 or so. Almost there. I stretched further and could almost touch the crank now. But it was slick and rain was picking up. I jammed my back into wall and reluctantly reached to the crank and closed the sunroof. At this point I was dripping from both sweat and rain.  I eased back down to the top of the toilet careful not to make the final step the one that sent me to the Cape Cod hospital. And that’s when I saw it. Sitting in the corner, right next to the plunger was a 2 foot silver rod.  I picked it up. What the…?!  Expanding it out to a good 6 feet like a tent pole, there was a perfect aperture for the crank.

That would have been good to know! I’m so glad the welcome manual for the house included directions to the beach and restaurant recommendations, instead of helpful nuggets like this one. Yelp and Google Maps have got me covered in 2016, but so far there is no “crank” app that I’m aware of.

The Admission Welcome Manual

Part of what creates anxiety in the admission process is what brings about stress in all of life: uncertainty.  When we don’t feel like we have all of the details or good information on something, it shakes us. And then questions start swirling: Should I apply or is this school too far out of reach? Will they like my essay and find it compelling? Have I done enough outside the classroom to complement my good grades? How much will they look at test scores, and will that be the only factor they care about? Will the fact that 10 other students are applying from my high school hurt my chances?

As we head toward August and the opening of applications around the country, it’s clear we need to go back to the basics. Today, we’ll cover the first step in our three-part series, the“welcome manual” to college admission.

Step 1 – Separate yourself

The other day I was talking with a student who just finished his freshman year at Tech. Crazy talented when it comes to film and media. He’s going to have a very successful career, and he’s majoring in business to complement his creative skills. We started talking about the admission process, and I fired off a few questions I love to ask: where else did you apply? Why did you choose Tech? What would you tell a high school student now that you wish you would have known?

And his answer to that surprised me– he said he did not highlight his passion for film because he thought Tech admissions would question if he were a good fit. He didn’t want to “look too different from others I knew were applying.” He actually wrote different supplemental essays for Tech than he did for University of Chicago and Stanford. At this point, my mouth was agape. “What?! Wait… what?!”   I know we talk about “voice” in every presentation. We write about “conveying individualism” in blogs and in publications. We have made videos speaking to this very point. It’s one of those moments that makes me want to throw up my hands.

The entire purpose of the supplemental essay is to separate you from other applicants. This is your interview. This is the one time in the app that you get to convey your voice. That voice is precious to us because it does not come out in test scores, course choice or performance, or even in the activities you choose to participate in. We need your authentic, passionate, individual voice and content there. His desire to combine business and film is PRECISELY what makes him an attractive candidate for us. We saw that he had his own film company when reading his activities and noted he had worked in that capacity within school and the community.

Like many applicants, we Googled him and checked out some of his work during file review. We want to know these things you care about. Shaping and building a class means finding many distinct pieces and combining them to create a beautiful puzzle.

So repeat after me, “Step 1: Write to separate yourself.”  When we read essays and make comments, we use a rubric. On our scale the mid-range is “dime a dozen” or “not a separator.” Basically this means that the essay does not hurt but does not help. It’s neutral. It’s effectively mediocre. Reaching the higher end of the rubric is achieved by augmenting your application with writing that helps us hear you, helps us remember you, understand you. Think about going out on a first date. You want your answers and conversation to be interesting, elaborative, insightful, creative. One word answers that you give your parents about where you went, who you were with, and how your day was are mediocre. (Try stepping that up too– they love you.) You know the difference. Now show us that!

We’ll hit Step 2 next week. In the meantime, don’t go climbing up wet walls in the night groping for a rusty crank.