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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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It’s Not About The Application…

If you have not seen “It’s Not about the Nail,” check it out. I saw it recently in a presentation and was reminded of how ridiculous, poignant, hilarious and powerful it is… because under the light comedy are some deep truths:

1- The Immediate: We are distracted by, and overly focused on, the matters right in front of us.

2- Patterns: We fall into hard to break routines in life which fundamentally diminish our attention and capacity for new and valuable lessons, opportunities, and connections.

3- Short term vs. Long term: In our frenzied, achieving lives we focus on doing, fixing, and finishing, rather than considering, empathizing, and committing.

Note: Sincere apologies if I ruined a simple and funny clip. I promise I won’t touch your cat videos or Jimmy Fallon dance-offs.

Unfortunately the college admission process presents all three of these pitfalls. The perverse “gamification” of getting in and the industry that’s grown up around it; the omnipresent “where are you going to college?” conversation; the increased competition based on selectivity; the rising costs of tuition; the increasing student debt averages; and the misappropriated attention focused on uber-selective universities have all culminated into a gigantic Jedi mind trick leading you to focus on the wrong things.

The Immediate: It’s not about the bumper sticker

When you drive around your school’s parking lot, you see a lot of the same bumper stickers on the back of cars. You see the same hoodies and t-shirts at the grocery store, the park, or in the stadiums in your community. When your school publishes its spring newspaper or sends out a newsletter around graduation you’ll typically see the same schools again. There is nothing wrong with any of these places. But the trap you can fall into is automatically assuming they are the right places for you because it’s where your sister went, or where “kids like you” go, or because everyone from your AP Calculus class is applying there.

I urge you to not be so quick to discard the email or brochure or campus program invitation from a college you haven’t heard of before. Listen when your school counselor tells you about a great campus they visited and recommends you should consider. When you sit down with your offers of admission, don’t make your selection based on which was the most selective or will impress your friends or please your parents.

I understand you see the nail. I am not asking you to completely ignore it, but I do ask you to try to look beyond it; to explore; to truly consider yourself as an individual and not as part of a group. I ask you to do something at 17 or 18 that people twice your age still struggle with—to be willing to actually walk down the less trodden path, the less known path, the less famous path, if you know it to be the right one.

Patterns and Routine: It’s not about the Ivy League

Last week I went to a conference in Boston. One afternoon I met with a few friends to catch up and discuss some of the sessions we attended. Several had just come from a presentation by the Dean (and some other alums) of an Ivy League school. “How was it?” I asked. “Not that good. Nothing new. I left after 10 minutes,” replied one friend. Another chuckled and said, “Same, I ducked out the back door.” We started to discuss why there is such focus on the Ivy League. They are all old, private, in the same part of the country, and relatively small (enrolling 14,000 new students a year or less than 0.4% of college students nationally—less than the combined total of Texas A&M and Michigan State), yet they continue to carry great sway.

Part of the reason people pay attention is media coverage. For example, last week most major news outlets covered the “disappointing” 8.1% annual return on Harvard’s endowment. The reason it was news was not because they planned to use the differential to develop a new innovative program or to double in size, but because, well…they’re Harvard. So it’s natural when admission decisions are released each year there are stories featuring the three kids nationally who got into all Ivy League schools, as though it’s an incredible accomplishment that should be emulated and revered.

I’m not hating here, and I’m not questioning if these are “good schools.” I’m not equating the Ivy League to the Kardashians of higher education. While perhaps there was a time these schools represented all of higher education, in today’s economy and marketplace they’re outliers, not signposts, in the college landscape. Schools like Georgia State University and their incredible efforts to increase graduation rates and support students are far more reflective of the direction and priorities of higher education in the 21st century. I hope the next “getting in to all the Ivies” headline is: “Student pays nearly $1,000 in application fees, $10,000 on college visits, and $1,250 in apparel,” but has yet to take a course.

I question the parents, board members, and other adult influencers in school communities who incessantly raise questions like: “Did Sarah get into Brown? How many seniors were admitted to Ivy League schools? When was the last time we had someone go to Penn?” I hope in the future true measurements of school success will not be the matriculation list of the top of the class but rather an assessment of whether or not more students were admitted to their first choice, or how many received grants and scholarships to lessen debt, or if a higher percentage are going to college in this class than last.

Short term vs. Long term: It’s not about the application

I understand the application is what’s in front of you. I know you feel the weight of the deadlines and looming dates on a calendar. I realize you have the pressure of juggling school, work, clubs and sports, and on top of all of that writing college essays, highlighting your extra-curricular activities, and checking in with mom or dad to confirm their work address or what year they graduated from college.

The truth is the application is the “nail” of the college admission process. It can require and be seen only as a significant exertion of energy and a source of stress. But I urge you to flip the script—to look at the application as the first step toward a finish line not about getting in, but about getting ready. Don’t let the application become lines you complete or prompts you respond to (transactional), but instead make it a series of promises you make to yourself and the colleges about who you will be when you arrive on campus (transformational).

An application is singular. It is finite. It is submitted. It’s not about the application. It’s about the admission and college process, which are infinitely larger. It’s a picture you paint about your passions, interests, and the influence you will ultimately live out. Sound overly aspirational or grandiose for a 17-year old? In an increasingly divided culture with a myriad of fractious issues, it’s precisely where we should put our hope, attention, and challenge. We need you to arrive at college ready to live out the application you submitted—ready to be a unifier, an influencer, an encourager, and a contributor with a long-term mindset.

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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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Straight Talk

I don’t love the title either. What can I say?

I was talking to a Tech grad recently who managed a major hedge fund in New York and is now a multi-millionaire living on a golf course in one of Atlanta’s nicest neighborhoods. After we concluded our conversation, I eavesdropped on his next conversation (told you it was a life skill) with a graduating senior majoring in business. It started in a typical fashion about big firms and the importance of graduate school versus practical experience. But then it got really interesting:

Student: “I’m about to start with X firm (big, famous, super competitive) next week.  I’m excited about the salary and my apartment, but I’m worried I’m not going to have any work/life balance.”

Alum: “You’re not. Well, at least not if you want to keep getting promoted. The rest of the guys there are going to be all in. 70 hours is expected and that’s a slow week.”

It was blunt, but it was honest. And while the kid looked a little dazed at first, I think he also appreciated it–or at least he recognized it as true, and ultimately as a decision he’d have to make.

Last week I got back on the recruiting beat for Tech. On Monday, I hit Rome and on Wednesday, Athens (Georgia that is… we also have Cairo and Bethlehem for those scoring at home). Either during or after our presentations, an inevitable question is: “Should I take an AP class or a dual enrollment class at a college in my area?” Another version: “Is it better to take IB or AP?” Or perhaps: “Should I take the fourth year of Spanish or another science course?” The beauty of my job is I can simply respond, “it depends” and then walk away. But I don’t… or at least I haven’t yet.

It Depends…

It’s true though… it does depend. Are you applying to a school with a 50%+ admit rate (and be reminded that would be the vast majority of colleges in the country) where they publish an academic formula for how they make decisions? Well, if that’s the case, then no, it does not really matter. Do what you want to do. You will know before you apply if you’re going to get in or not, because they’ve published their standards online. If you are having problems doing the math of the formula they use to calculate whether you’ll be admitted, i.e. SAT + GPA = X, then I’d suggest you consider donating your application fee to a charity instead.

If you’re asking because you are legitimately concerned about which is the better foundation or preparation for college, then choose the one which most aligns with your intended major or future aspirations.

But if the question is about “getting in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 2000+), then the clear answer is take the tougher class and make an A in it. Which one is harder? You know better than I do. Be honest with yourself about it. Is the reason you want to go take English at the college down the road because your high school’s English teacher is known to be really tough? Well, then you’re ducking rigor–and that’s not going to fly in Yale’s admission process. Is the reason you want to take Spanish really because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester?  Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class.

The competition is real.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want kids to be kids too. I wish we could go back to the 70’s, and not only because of the sweet clothes. It would be great to re-visit a time when students could pay tuition by working a part-time job, and getting into your state’s flagship was merely a matter of graduating from high school. But that’s not where we are.  Application numbers at the most prestigious schools continue to go up. These places are not growing substantially in enrollment, so their admit rates continually decline. The competition is real. You will hear college reps on panels talk about holistic admission and looking at the entire person. We’ve all signed on to the Turning the Tide report. We are not lying. We do want kids on our campuses who will genuinely care about others, positively influence their local community, and play integral roles in their family. But at these places the baseline competitive applicant is so high both academics and outside passions and impact are possible.

The Next Level

Think about something in your community: band, soccer, chess, debate. There are levels of those activities, right? The truly elite young soccer players are committing their time to academies and clubs. They’re playing year round and spending their weekends traveling, doing skills sessions, watching film. If you want to make the team next year, you keep on pushing; you keep on lifting weights or running on your own; you keep on going to camps in the summer. Yes, those are sacrifices. No, there is not a lot of balance. But that’s what being in the top 1-5% of soccer players around the country requires now.

The same is true of highly selective colleges and universities. The applicants getting accepted have chosen rigor. They have piled on academic courses, in addition to all of the other things they’re doing outside the classroom.

Don’t interpret this as my endorsement of overloading academics or any pleasure in exacerbating the situation.  I can poke holes all day in the methodology of the rankings or point fingers at people in certain communities who insist on their kids applying to a very specific subset of schools.  But that is not the question at hand.  Similarly, I don’t think my Tech alumnus friend was saying, “Forget your family and work all the time.” He was saying in that climate, and in that field, and in that city, you’re not going to have work/life balance if you want to be the most successful.

Let me bottom line this for you: the most elite schools are going to continue to admit the students who have pushed and stretched and challenged themselves the most in high school. “But Jerry Rice and Brett Favre came from lesser known schools and were NFL superstars.” “What about the kids in the small remote village who never hears the gospel?” “I read about a kid who got into Harvard who had some Cs and low test scores.” Okay, sure, But we are talking about YOU. If you are “that student” at the session asking an uber-selective college if you should take one course over another, save your query to ask about whether the vegetables are locally sourced.

Still don’t love the title, but it is accurate.

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