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Love… and Admission

I’m not usually too big on celebrating February 14, to be honest with you. I have nothing against chocolate or flowers or cards, but there’s something about this fabricated, highly marketed, contrived “holiday” that feels forced, disingenuous, and insincere. Ironically, Valentine’s Day is everything love is not supposed to be.

But you didn’t come here to listen to my love advice, right? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what you are going to get this week, because guess what–love and college admission have a lot in common. In hopes of setting the mood, our staff, some of their kids and spouses, as well as a few Georgia Tech students put this Valentine’s Playlist together for your listening pleasure. I’m guessing that, like me, you have not heard of some of these. I even question if a couple are actually love songs at all. But these are folks I love and trust–eclectic but thoughtful. If you think about it, your college considerations and visits should be this way too. Just because you have not heard of a song (university), don’t discount it. Just because it’s not your normal genre, region, type does not mean you won’t find a new favorite– with both songs and schools.

1- You Have Lots of Options.  If you are a junior or sophomore you are starting to get some appreciation for this right now thanks to all of those glossy, shiny brochures and letters showing up in the mail. Think about it. They are putting their best foot forward: sunny days; beautiful, sweeping shots of their grand, manicured grounds; picturesque moments under captivating trees as the sun fades warmly in the distance. What are they actually saying? “We think you are great. Come check us out. We’d love you to move in for four or five years.”  Love letters, my friends.

2- Love Yourself First. I never said it wouldn’t get cheesy, but there is enough room on the heart-shaped cracker for some truth too. If you are going to find the right romantic match–and the right college match–you have to look within first. Who are you? How do you best learn? How far away from home will you feel comfortable? What type of people bring out your best? How much can you, and should you, pay for this opportunity? (Parallel may break down a little on that last one). Anyone who has been married more than a few years–and certainly anyone who has been married more than once–will say you have to love yourself, know yourself, and understand yourself before you can possibly love another person. College is no different. You can’t answer “Where you are going to college?” until you first answer “Why are you going?” Same is true for dating. Maybe you should take yourself out for V-Day tonight or later this week. Don’t go to a movie. Don’t go somewhere you know a lot of people. How about a slow, quiet stroll? We all probably spend too little time alone anyway. Don’t get in so much of a hurry with dating or college that you forget to listen to your own dreams, needs, hopes, and goals.

3- Be Realistic. I’m sure you are thinking, “First the cheese and now the dream dies.” Bear with me. Here’s the thing: some people like to flirt—and colleges will too. Your heart may flutter when you get some very flattering letters from schools. You could see pictures of the suitor standing by her Gothic castle, or in some far away land wearing a shirt with an inspiring seal on it compelling you to write a love letter back (aka an application). I’m not trying to kill the romance, but I am urging you to keep one foot on the ground. You want to take a shot at the supermodel? For the low price of $75 and another essay, you can. Time, love, and money are always connected. ALWAYS. I’m just saying if your SAT and GPA are in the school’s bottom quartile (or if both are in their top quartile but the admit rate is less than 20% a year) you better send a few love letters to equally interesting places which do not show up on the cover of every publication in the nation.

4- Say What? Love, and by extension admission, can be confusing. Sometimes you need a friend to translate what a potential boyfriend/girlfriend/ suitor is saying. I’m here for you. “Maybe” (also known as defer or waitlist) does not mean “No.” Keep your head up, man. She just said “hold on.” Of course your feelings are hurt—you wanted an outright “Yes.” Does it sting? Sure. But shake it off and keep the big picture in mind. You professed your love on your application. You said four years together (followed by a lifetime of donation solicitations) sounded magical. Now they want your fall grades and a quick statement about why you are still interested, and you have your arms folded, nose scrunched and back turned. Love hurts. (Apparently, “Admission Hurts” ended up on the cutting room floor.)

If someone else said “Yes” and you are fired up about that relationship, great. You found your match! Awesome. But don’t let your ego get in the way of seeing this through because of a maybe. You won’t learn anything about yourself, or love for that matter, by quitting.

5- No Happens. Denied, rejected, and turned down. Harsh words, for sure. But you can’t view them as anything more than re-directions. The same is true of failed dates, break-ups, or declined promposals. Re-directions. New opportunities are coming. Better days are ahead. Need to cry? Fine. Need to scream out the window at high speeds? Buckle up and watch for mailboxes, but okay. Burn the hoodie, rip off the bumper sticker, shred the poster. You do you. But then get your head up so you can get excited about the other options you have. And don’t look back. A: You shouldn’t give them the satisfaction, B: You owe it to yourself and the one you end up with to be all in.

6- Right for them does not equal right for you. So there was this girl in college… Short story is she was pretty, smart, funny, athletic, and generally a good person. Lots of guys wanted to date her. She had guys buying her meals, walking her home, and constantly asking her out.  She had guys sitting in on classes they weren’t even enrolled in to try to talk to her. Uhhh…well, that’s what I heard anyway. In the end, who did she like? My roommate. And his response? “Not interested. I don’t see it.” I never said he was smart. Just said I knew him. But here’s the point– it’s easy to believe a college is right for you or is a place you should apply or attend because a bunch of your friends, family, and classmates are into it. Have the confidence to make your own decisions.

I realize six points is random but I’m going to stop there because getting into parallels about double depositing or transferring seem dicey. At the end of the day, my best love and college advice is follow your heart and choose wisely. Have a great Valentine’s Day. I hope at least one of our songs brings you a smile or a new artist to follow.

Want to read more on love… and admission? My good friend and colleague, Brennan Barnard, also wrote on this topic earlier this week. Check out his take. 

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Change Your Filter

Last week, a friend I grew up with sent me an article ranking Decatur the #1 Place to Live in Georgia with a note: “Come a long way, brother.”

I hear that. When I grew up in Decatur, it was… fine. Great place to get your car fixed, some good burger options, and the standard churches, recreation centers, schools, and city services of most places.

My street was divided– half the houses were in the city limits of Decatur, and half were in the county (DeKalb).  As kids, we did not think much of it other than the city sign made good target practice for an array of launched objects. Adults agreed (not about the sign, but about the six to one, half-dozen the other idea of perceived quality).

When I went to college in North Carolina nobody heard of Decatur, so I would simply say I grew up a few miles east of downtown Atlanta.

Destination: Decatur

Today is a different story. The standard three bedroom, two bath houses that once filled Decatur are largely gone. It is tough to find anything coming on the market for less than $500,000 and new construction can approach seven figures. People petition for annexation and move to town just for the schools and quality of life.

Several of the old gas stations have been converted to gastropubs or boutiques with vintage garage doors. Some of the guys working at these establishments have beards that are just as impressive and hats just as dirty as the guys back in the day, but instead of an oil change and tire rotation, they’re charging $30 for tray of fries (frites, actually) with assorted dipping sauces.

During and after college, when friends would come to visit, we never chose to go out in Decatur. Virginia Highlands, Midtown, and Buckhead had the lion’s share of good dining, shopping, entertainment, and nightlife options. Now when friends visit there is no reason to leave this two-mile radius. And typically they’ve already read a review of a local restaurant, microbrew, or other shop they want to check out.

The bottom line: things have changed dramatically. You cannot apply the same filter you did 20 years ago–or even five years, for that matter. Decatur is a destination now. The schools are highly desirable, the shops and restaurants are well-regarded, and the demand for housing is at an all-time high. Even the city sign is nicer.

Destination: College

If you graduated from college before 2000, the changes in college reputation, brand, selectivity, and culture can be equally dramatic.  So if you are a parent just starting to screen and review college literature in the mail, or if you are planning your first college tour for this spring, here are a few quick takes:

“Number 1 Place to Live”

“The University of X? Where the kids from our school went if they could not get into…?”

“If you drove slowly down Main Street with your window open, they’d throw a diploma in.”

“On Tuesdays people were already tailgating for Saturday’s game.”

Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m telling you, Decatur was a little sketchy. Even as a kid, I remember looking askance at the lollipops the bank was handing out. The University of X? Yep. Because that college town is getting written up in major national magazines as a great place for food, family, culture; they have invested heavily in student support and programs; they had students win international competitions for research and prestigious scholarships and fellowships. Change your filter. X may be the absolute perfect match for your daughter, so don’t dilute her excitement or willingness to consider it with your outdated stereotypes.

“Gas stations turn into gastropubs.”

“He has a 1460. He’ll get in for sure.”

“They gave me a summer provisional admit offer and I was able to stay if I did well.”

“I wrote a two-word essay: “Go” followed by their mascot, which I misspelled, and they still let me in.”

I hear you. 1460 is high. It is impressive and noteworthy and nobody is taking that away from him.  And you are right, 25 years ago there was room for “creative admission” practices at colleges that now admit less than one of every two applicants and carry waitlists well over 1,000 additional students. There was a time when it was all about numbers. Hit a mark, cross a threshold, clear the hurdle. We all appreciate simplicity, and I’m no different. The good news is many colleges are still operating the same way. But check your filter before you make any assumptions. If anywhere in the school’s literature, website, or presentation they use the word “holistic,” 1460 is now part of a sentence and a conversation, rather than an integral part of an equation.  And your two-word essay still makes a good story, but they are reading closely now and will expect true introspection and reflection.

“$30 frites”

Note: First, can we just call them fries please? I appreciate you use a locally-sourced, all-natural, gluten-free, highly-curated, necessarily hyphenated, multi-syllabic adjective laced oil for them, but they’re still fries. I will take an extra dipping sauce though.

“Tuition was less than $1000 per quarter.”

“I paid my next semester’s bill with the money I saved from my internship.”

“I was able to pay off all of my student loans within five years of graduating.”

The truth is you have as much of a chance buying a new house in Decatur for $200 as $200,000 in today’s market. And as you begin to research college costs, you’ll likely have some eye-popping, heart-stopping, head-shaking (hyphens, they’re infectious) moments. Don’t let tuition or overall cost of attendance keep you from visiting a school or encouraging your son or daughter to apply if they’ve determined it is a good match academically, geographically, and culturally.  Do check out their published Net Price Calculator and start reading up on reliable sources about the school’s financial aid packages and program.

“My Hometown” (cue Bruce Springsteen)

“I have been buying football tickets for the last twenty years.”

“There should be spots held for families who have multiple generation connections.”

“Don’t y’all care at all about preserving tradition? We’ve been bringing our kids there since they were in diapers.”

You loved your college experience. You love your kids. You see them both enjoying and benefiting from going to your alma mater, and you see a shared college experience/alma mater as another connection in your relationship. Valid, and reasonable. I don’t hate you for it.

But one of the biggest tragedies I see is the reaction of alumni whose kids do not get in because they view it as a personal affront against their family. I implore you–commit to not letting this be your story. University of Washington, Washington University, George Washington, Mary Washington, Washington and Lee? Maybe you went to a school named after another president, or a state, or direction. Whatever. Wanting your son or daughter to go to your alma mater is not wrong. But it’s also not guaranteed. And the decision certainly won’t be connected to how many games you or your family have attended over the years. In fact, fewer and fewer schools consider legacy in their admission process.

Start with the assumption they will not get in or they will not choose to go there even if they do. Then ask yourself what other schools are solid academically, affordable, and are helping students achieve their goals. You need to fall in love with your son or daughter’s choices (not the breaking curfew ones or even the dating ones necessarily, but the college choices). All of them. Even if it was your alma mater’s biggest rival. Eighteen years > four years. You love your kids. Now fall in love with their other college choices.

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The Rules They Keep On a-Changin’

I travel a lot. I don’t have TSA Pre or Clear or Global Entry or Jedi mind powers, or any special clearance allowing me to bypass some of the issues I’m about to describe. I’ve had friends literally scoff in my face, and others, including close relatives, utter statements like, “What the @x>~?!” (Valid question, mom.) What can I say? I like being with the people. Maybe I don’t want to pay the fee. And frankly I simply haven’t taken the time to fill out the application and bring my passport to the airport to go through the process. If you know anything from reading this blog it’s that I’ve got some issues.

Atlanta Airport Security: “Remove your belt, shoes, and everything from your pockets, and place them in the bin. Laptops need to be in their own bin.” As I begin undressing in front of my fellow travelers, I hear, “Sir, sir. You do not need to take your iPad out of your bag.” With belt in mouth and one shoe off, I’m simultaneously hopping and fumbling to put my iPad back in my backpack. The TSA officer rolls her eyes. It’s shift change and I hear her replacement say something slightly more R-rated than “Same stuff. Different day.” They both look at me askance with an expression which can only be interpreted as, “Idiot.” And, truthfully, as I’m holding my pants up and chugging water from the bottle I forgot I had in my bag, it’s hard to disagree with them.

But not that hard, really.

Washington D.C. Security: “You do not need to remove your belt, sir. Please keep your belt on.” Eye roll, eye roll. Is this person the Atlanta officer’s cousin? Because I’ve definitely seen that expression recently. I re-buckle and remove my laptop. “Do you have an iPad also, sir?” Yes, I reply. “Well, you need to put it in the bin too.” I comply. “Not in the same bin as your laptop.” Oh. Ok.

“And shoes need to be placed on the belt directly.” 

This command confuses me. I slowly move my shoes toward my mid-section, “I thought you said I didn’t need to take off my belt,” I replied.

“The belt!” And he points at the conveyor belt leading into the security scan. I may not be hopping around like I was in Atlanta, but I still get the “Idiot” glance again. No shift change this time but he has really mastered the look, so it is equally condemning.

In Tampa they insisted I take off my hat. In New York they scolded me for getting out of line to put my hat in the bin. The Vermont officer was clear that you ALWAYS have to take food out of your bag. Umm…. I beg to differ, my friend, because your comrade in Houston was singing a different tune. Of course, it does no good to get into a debate about it. So I pull out the pretzels and Kind bar from my bag. Oh, crap. I realize as I pull them out one was half-opened. Crumbs, crumpling of wrappers. I know its coming and then, yep, there’s that look again.

As you can see, I cannot explain why security measures vary from one city to the next—and sometimes the same city from one week to the next. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It’s moderately disconcerting. Why can’t they all be the same? And if they’re all different, how am I supposed to know the rules?

What the @x>~?!  

The rules they keep on a-changin.’ And if you are junior just starting your college search experience, you probably feel the same way.

At one campus, you’re told how critical teacher recommendations are and all test scores must be officially sent from the testing agency. Two hours south and a quick stop at Wendy’s later you’re informed, “We are test score optional. So we don’t need the score report I see in your hand, but you will need to have an on-campus interview.” Got it. Bathroom break, drool-laden nap against the passenger seat window, two state boarders crossed, espresso shot: “Our College deeply values demonstrated interest. And please don’t send us rec letters, because we are not going to read them.”

And on it goes: We are exclusively Coalition App… We don’t accept the Common Application, but rather have our own school specific app…. We have Early Action, so it’s not binding…. We have Restrictive EA, which means, well, it’s restrictive… We don’t have ED1 but we do have EA and ED2, so consult your doctor if you experience any side effects in the application process…. We’re really thinking about implementing ED 2.1 next year or just skipping right to The X. It is confusing. Undoubtedly part of the anxiety and stress of applying to college arises because it’s not a uniform process from one place to another.

Admission is not Airport Security.  

I can see how the differences may be confusing and potentially frustrating, but unlike TSA, it’s logical for colleges to have different processes and requirements…BECAUSE they’re different. I realize it’s not always clear from our brochures, websites, and emails that are misleadingly and often embarrassingly similar, but it is true. We value and prioritize different things, and ultimately each school is trying to create a distinct class and community.

Over 1000 schools across our nation have determined their best match students do not need to send test scores because they can demonstrate their talents and ability to succeed on campus through different elements of an application. Georgetown University requires interviews, and many colleges highly recommend you interview with an admission representative or an alum. These places are setting aside significant time to get to know you, to let you ask your questions, and sometimes (through alumni interviews) to see a bigger part of their community and network.

Inside Tip: View the requirements of a school as an indicator of their culture. Allow those front facing webpages to lead you to ask questions and do your homework—to dig. I wanted so badly to ask the guy in Miami why I can’t put my business cards in my shoe, or why the laptop and iPad can’t share the same bin. Of course I didn’t ask for fear of ending up in some back room answering questions about that run in with the cops on Halloween of my junior year in high school. But you should ask questions when it comes to college admission. In doing so, you’ll quickly learn the school asking you to write four essays on their application is doing so because their students write a lot in class. Don’t like completing the application? Well… four years somewhere else might be a better choice. Hate interviews or personal exchanges in general? Universities requiring or recommending interviews typically deeply value classroom discussion, debate, and dialogue as a cornerstone of their curriculum and pedagogy. It’s what makes them distinct—not just in the application but in the student experience too.

Advance information. Technically, TSA has a Security Screening site but it does not provide helpful information about expectations upon arrival. This is my favorite line: “…you may notice changes in our procedures from time to time.” Yeah, I have. In contrast, colleges go to great lengths on websites, in publications and in presentations to lay out exactly what they are asking for from applicants. I wrote this on an empty stomach and decided to go with the cheese theme to pick three schools and find their requirements: Colby College, University of Wisconsin, and American University (I got all three links in less than three minutes with a total of 11 clicks).

Inside Tip: Create a spreadsheet with your college choices. Initially include basic information you can build on: school name, admission website, admission contact info, application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, requirements. You may find additional columns or sub-headings to add to this base. Once you apply, each school will give you a way to track your submitted documents, but as you’re searching for schools, and before you apply, a spreadsheet is a great way to keep up with colleges’ nuances.

Bonus: Be sure to add the admission email address to your safe-sender list, and adjust your Junk, Promotions, Updates and other folder settings throughout the process. “I didn’t get that the email” or its cousin “I didn’t see the email” are not going to be valid excuses for missing deadlines or not sending critical information (yes, we’ve seen this happen).

Double Bonus: Kudos if you got the hat-tip to Bob Dylan in the title. His song remains relevant today and even applicable in the admission experience. More on that next week.

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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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Two Truths and a Lie

We’re officially in reading season. Recently I read an essay all about the balance beam written by a high school gymnast. She wrote about conquering her nerves and summoning reliance in her training, and then discussed the skill of tuning out the other routines simultaneously being performed and cheered in the competition. While the essay was for college admission it was not about college admission. However, the parallels (not bars– just similarities) are unquestionable.

Conquer your nerves and rely on your training.

Many of you recently submitted Early Action or Early Decision applications. Initially there is some relief in “being done,” but it’s understandable to experience an underlying feeling of nervousness and anxiety as you realize you no longer have control. There is no essay to read over and edit again; you can’t get one more person to take a look to be sure you haven’t missed something.

Good news: admission dean/director totally understands your pain. Think about it: every spring we admit thousands of students. Not only thousands, but thousands more than we have room for on campus. Last year at Georgia Tech we admitted about 7,500 students for a class goal of 2,850. Crazy, right? We admit more students than we can accommodate because of yield (not everyone says yes to our offer). When we initially finish and release decisions it’s a huge relief. We go home, sleep, eat some good food, sleep, remind our families who we are, and sleep. But inevitably in April a faculty member or alumnus will read an article about our admitted class then call or write me and ask, “Did you mean to admit that many? I thought our first year class was closer to 3,000?”

The “what ifs” start to flood in. What if we did take too many students? What if our predictive models are wrong? What if the housing department rounds up a posse and tries to haul me off in the night? The what ifs will kill you. Breathe, my friends. Breathe. You know what you’re doing (and I know what I’m doing).

Truth #1: You cannot control all outcomes. We believe if we pack the night before, leave two hours early and use Waze we’ll be able to tailgate before the game and be in our seats at kickoff.  But then you get stuck in horrific traffic, the ice in the cooler melts, you barely sit down before halftime, and the team you were favored to beat by 13 stages a fourth quarter comeback to win. We don’t know what’s going to happen, right?! And that’s kind of the beauty of it! Isn’t that why we live this life anyway?

The most likely scenario is you will not get into every school you applied to. You may get in and not be able to afford to go. You may get into your dream school, then your girlfriend breaks up with you and decides to go there, and you end up choosing another college 500 miles in the other direction. Listen, we’ve had years when we did overshoot our goal due to yield. One year we had a class of 3,200. Life!

But what does your training tell you? You’ve worked hard. You’ve applied to a variety of schools based on selectivity where you’d be happy to go. Finish the routine. Enjoy your senior year. If you wobble, correct it. If you fall off, jump back up.  You cannot sneak behind the judges table and alter scores or manipulate outcomes. But you can have a great, memorable senior year you’re proud of. Smile while you’re up on the beam and stick the landing.

Tune out the distractions around you. During your junior and senior year in particular, you are going to see and hear some crazy and loud voices.

  • You might read or hear you need to pay $800 for a test prep class in order to raise your ACT score by two points. Don’t look down. Tune out the distractions and remember the number of free, online options is growing and their results are equal to and outperforming many high-priced (highly marketed) companies in this space. If you or your parents believe you need to pay for something for it to be valuable, also look at local options. Many community colleges and area high schools offer great test prep for a fraction of the costs you’ll see when you simply Google for “SAT/ACT test prep.” (I’d also encourage you to go for a hike to disprove the theory of pay = value, but that’s a blog for another day.)
  • You might hear mom or dad tell Aunt Carol, “We are really trying to get that Calculus grade up,” or “Our first choice is Vanderbilt.” Keep your balance. Eyes straight ahead.
  • You might see a classmate get into your dream school who you think is not as academically talented or generally qualified as you, while you get deferred. Someone clapping and high-fiving them as they come off the floor exercise has no bearing on your beam performance. Take a deep breath. Finish strong.

Truth #2: You can control yourself. This is your routine. You own thisContrary to what some may say or write or tweet, your job is not to get in–your job is to get ready for college. You have a choice on how you get ready as you search for colleges, tour colleges, apply to colleges and ultimately select a college. Want to know if you’re doing it right? When your classmate gets in, you are the first one putting your hand up for a high-five. I came across a Hemingway quote in an essay last week: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Grow, encourage, explore, and improve. That’s a college admission process done well.

One Lie: (Yeah, this is not like the game. I’m just straight telling you the lie. You call it not as fun–I call it transparency–it’s all semantics.) The college admission process is not a balance beam. You are not on your tip toes, placing one foot in front of the other while performing flips, turns and twists. You can, and will, make missteps. You can score a point below your goal on the ACT, make a B+ in a class, score a 3 on an AP exam, or forget to underline a book title in your essay, and still get into your first choice college. You can do all of those things and not end up at your first choice college, and still be phenomenally happy.

How do I know? Because we have plenty of students on campus who will tell you Georgia Tech was not their first choice. They either didn’t get into their first choice school, or they did get in and couldn’t afford it. Similarly, there are students we denied who are now thrilled about being on another college’s campus and would not change it for the world.

The bottom line is there is not only one place for you. There is not one college that will help you get where you think you want to ultimately go in life. The truth is college admission– and college itself for that matter– is not a four-inch wide beam. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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