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That’s Not How it Works… Part 3

Okay, so I lied. Or if you’re looking to be more gracious and generous (which doesn’t seem to be the norm these days) I was flat wrong. Back in March 2018 I wrote a two-part series titled “That’s Not How It Works!” (You may remember my lackluster attempt to proliferate #TNHIW, but like Gretchen Wieners with “fetch” in Mean Girls— it really didn’t take.) Regardless, my exact statement was, “There won’t be a three-peat or trilogy for #TNHIW, but if you want to peel back more admission myths and misconceptions, check out this layered Onion piece.”

I should have known this day would come. The truth is there have been many things I said I’d never do—wear buck oxford shoes, get a pedicure (in my defense it was a date with my daughter, but I’d be lying if I did not admit I enjoyed it), and the granddaddy of them all… own a minivan (initially painful but man, the sliding doors and TV are sweet). Professionally, this is also true. “We’re not going to the Common App…” “We’ll always release EA decisions before the Winter Break…” “I’m not a bow tie guy…”

So if you want to know who is going to win the Super Bowl, I’m not your best resource. Or if you hear me say, “I’m definitely not going to start wearing skinny jeans,” it’s understandable if you give me a sideways stare with a raised eyebrow.

Here’s the thing about college admission: it’s cyclical. The original two-part #TNHIW series was written in the spring, when we dealt with topics like the waitlist, depositing, financial aid, and appealing admission decisions. All still valid and helpful information if you want to check it out later, but it’s not as important to you right now.

Since I’ve been on the road presenting and fielding questions from prospective students, as well as talking to students on campus, I thought I’d address a few of the common misconceptions admission officers often hear.

Quotas

“Our son goes to X high school. We’re a big feeder, so I’m concerned it’s going to hurt him because I know you only take a certain number from each high school.”

Well… that’s not how it works.

The truth is colleges do want to diversify their class. They work hard to recruit an applicant pool with qualified students from a wide variety of backgrounds—geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, and so on—in order to insure their entire first-year class is not made up of students from only one county or state or nation. Ironically, what irks people in the admission process (“you don’t take as many as you should from my school”) is ultimately one of the aspects of campus life students (and alumni) love and appreciate (“I met people from all over the state/country/world, and not only learned from them but built a huge network as a result”).

Because there are not quotas, in any applicant pool, colleges can typically point to high schools with a 100% admit rate (granted the n of that varies) and others from whom they did not admit a single student.

Don’t believe me? (Understandable given this blog’s preface.) I point you to the data. Our office frequently gets calls like, “I got transferred by my company and we are buying a house in Atlanta. What’s the best school for my 7-year old to attend if she ultimately wants to go to Tech?”  Since we are not real estate agents, and because it keeps us (okay, me) from asking something like, “I’m sorry, sir, did you say 7 or 17?” we developed and published admission snapshots so families and counselors can see admit rate variance from school to school or state to state.

While not all universities capture or publish this granular data, most of their publications show lists or maps of their applicants and students. They also all have institutional research offices that keep this information  (there are even conferences for research folks, which I’m sure are a real hoot). Go check out some of the tables, records, fact books, and common data sets and you can see a varied admit rate and lack of quotas. Or just go ask your school counselor. Often they track this data or can show you variance in your high school from one year to the next. What you’ll likely see and hear is most colleges admit different numbers and percentages of students from your school each year. “But last year you took seven from our school and this year only five?” Exactly. No quotas… because #TNHIW

AP vs. IB vs. Dual Enrollment (vs. whatever your school calls challenging)

“You like to see AP more than IB, right?”

 “I’ve heard you prefer IB to AP.”

“Just tell me the total number of APs I need to get in.”

“I was thinking about designing my own curriculum. Which sounds better, IP or IA, because you know AI is already taken and I don’t like the idea of having a ‘B’ in there, you know?”

Well…that’s not how it works.

First, if you are applying to or planning to attend a school with a 60%+ admit rate (and remember they make up the majority of colleges in the country), the odds are if you have good grades and take generally challenging courses, slight curriculum differences and course choices are not going to be of great consequence. In fact, many schools openly publish their academic parameters online so there is absolutely no mystery in whether or not you’ll be admitted.

Instead of worry about the type/name of a course- or the exact number of rigorous courses you have taken- here’s what you should be asking: “What’s my goal?” Is it to be as prepared as possible for the pace and depth of the classes you’re going to take in your major or college in general? If so, choose the path that is in line with those goals and aspirations. Look at the kids a grade above you or the seniors who just graduated who wound up at some of the schools you are interested in attending. There are no guarantees your outcomes will be identical, but at least you have some evidence of a viable path. Talk to your counselor now about the colleges you are interested in attending. They can guide you and, hopefully, provide you a bit of solace in your deliberations.

If your ultimate goal is simply to “get 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 3,000+ colleges), then regardless of what the classes are called, you need to take the toughest ones available and do very well in them. Which classes are those? You know better than I do. What does “do very well” mean? Again… you know. Selective colleges are agnostic when it comes to what the course may be called- they just want to know that you have chosen rigor and responded well to it, because when you arrive on their campus, professors will have high expectations of your knowledge, and you’ll be surrounded by peers who are both prepared and eager to be challenged and stretched in the classroom.

Take some time to ask yourself if the reason you want to go take English or Calculus at the college down the road is really because your high school’s teacher is known to be really tough, or if it is because that is actually the best choice to help prepare you when you arrive on a campus full-time. If your school offers both AP and IB and you have a choice of one over the other, no college is going to say one is preferred in all cases. Instead, they’re going to evaluate you in context of your school. Which one attracts the best students in your grade? Ultimately, “ducking rigor” is not going to fly in the admission process at a college that admits one of every three, five, or 10 students.

So is the reason you want to take Spanish 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, or those receiving premier merit-based scholarships at our nation’s top schools will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class. I’m not saying that is the way it absolutely should be. I’m just telling you how it works. And while I kind of hate to be the one to say this so bluntly, someone has to.

Ultimately, my advice is to forget the titles. Start by asking yourself why you are taking each course on your schedule. Is it to protect your GPA? Take advantage of state funded dual enrollment programs in order to save money and earn course credit? Provide time and balance for other pursuits inside or outside the classroom? To avoid a certain subject? Be honest about your goals, understand the pros and cons of each decision, and go from there. That’s how it should work.

Now, I’ve said my peace. Other than Rocky, Harry Potter (and arguably Star Wars depending on where you start counting) there is no need for a fourth edition of anything, so while I’ve learned my lesson to “never say never,” don’t expect another #TNHIW. And seriously, I’m drawing the line with skinny jeans.

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The Power of “We”

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome, Sammy!

My best friend loves soccer, so naturally we join the sea of Atlanta United fans at Mercedes Benz Stadium every time she comes to town. If you’re not familiar, allow me to introduce you: United is Atlanta’s Major League Soccer team. In their first few seasons they soared to the top of the league, broke almost every MLS attendance record on the books, and won the national championship. Today, they’re still one of the hottest tickets in town. The games are incredible, and the crowd of 70,000+ is electric. I’m proud of our team, and I feel like I’m a part of something when I’m chanting in the stadium. Sha-laaaaa-la-laaaaaaaaaaa!

We took to the field. It was game time. I went wild as Justin Meram made his first ever goal for Atlanta United. We let one slide in our goal shortly after that, but no big deal. Meram hit the back of the net AGAIN with just over seven minutes left. WE WON! Hugs with my best friend, high fives with strangers all around, Vamos A-T-L!

The next morning I dropped off my friend at the airport, refreshed the email on my phone and scanned new messages. Spam… 50% off takeout promo (save that) … Email from parent of prospective student. Click.

“I’m hoping to set up a meeting with you…. Georgia Tech is our first choice… we took the SAT in March…”

Woah. Ref shows a yellow.

I love when people refer to their sports teams as “we.” It comes from a feeling of belonging and years of dedication, commitment, and support. I understand that when parents use “we” with admission, it comes from the same well-intended sense of pride and love. There’s nothing more important than a strong network supporting students as they go through the admissions process, and parents, or those who act as parents, are the glue to that network. Parents are a critical piece of the support system. However, you’re supporting them through their journey, their game.

They’re the player, you’re the coach. As a team, you’ll have questions about applications, how to set up visits, and along the way you’ll want to learn about each college.

Now, forgive me if I side-step the sports metaphor for a little while (don’t you worry, we’ll come back to it), but what happens when your student doesn’t feel ready to ask those questions for themselves?

When They’re Anxious

I didn’t make my own dentist appointment until I was in college. And back when you had to actually, you know… call the restaurant and talk to someone to order pizza, I refused to do that too. I was terrified. The way I looked at it, there was one way those calls could go right, and a hundred ways they could go wrong. High stakes for pizza, I realize that now.

I completely understand when students feel that tension. In their eyes, admission staffers are the judge and jury, and a phone call might feel like part of the judgement (for the record, it’s not!). If your student is like me and feels nervous to dial or press ‘send,’ consider doing it with them instead of for them. Sit next to them as they send us an email. And do it sooner rather than later—you can’t sit next to them in the college library when they need to email their professor in a few years (at least you shouldn’t, though I do hear the occasional story…).

It’s also okay to prep for a phone call or conversation! To this day, I type out a script for my voicemail message in Word before recording it (I still never get it right on the first try, but I’d argue that anyone who does is superhuman). Same thing can apply for a live phone call, or an in person conversation. Calling an admission office may be a departure from a student’s comfort with text messaging. Communicating about themselves and their questions in the admission process may be an even bigger departure from anything they’ve ever done. So, when they’re about to call, or we’re about to meet at a college fair, it’s okay to write notes down. It’s okay to help them practice. Speak with them, not for them, and they’ll grow.

When They’re Unengaged

I distinctly remember wandering the gym floor during a college fair at my school and grabbing a few obligatory pamphlets in colors I liked, but not talking to a soul—an ironic twist of fate for someone who now stands on the other side of the table! I wasn’t nervous, and I wanted to go to college, I just had no idea what I was doing so I checked out.

If you’re speaking on behalf of your student because they seem unengaged, it might be worth a pause to find out why. It may not be because of lack of interest. Are they unnerved by the application or at the prospect of rejection? Maybe they’re overwhelmed or frustrated by it all.

Again, it might seem easier to take over, but the we’s enable a student to check out of the process. After all, we’ve got it handled, right? Sure, your email or phone message is intended for the college admission recipient, but the choice of pronoun also communicates a lot to your student.

Consider bringing them into the mix and encourage manageable conversations with current students and peers who may seem more approachable and can raise their confidence.  An appointment with their college counselor can demystify the process, or a quiet self-guided visit to a local college can help them see the big picture without becoming overwhelmed.

When They’re Busy

Students are busy. Period, end. Last year our supplemental essay asked students to share their typical day, and many leave home long before the sun rises and return long after the sun sets. In other words, their availability is the exact opposite of admission offices across the country. And understandably, sometimes an email or phone call just can’t wait until the next time you sit down together between 6am robotics and 7pm ravioli.

If this sounds familiar, consider CC’ing your student on the next email you send to a college. It’ll help keep them in the loop so they can jump back in when things slow down, and it enables me as an admission counselor to address both of you in my response.

When there’s a little more flexibility in their schedule, consider making a small reoccurring admission appointment on your weekly calendars. You can honor that appointment as distraction-free time to sit down, work on applications, answer questions, and communicate together. Scheduling a regular time to talk ensures the college “to-dos” won’t get lost or overpower the countless other “to-dos” going on that week.

We.

United has been privileged to have excellent coaches. They’re involved, and they’ve given their players the best shot at success without actually stepping out onto the field. As a parent, you’ll be involved too—the admission process is a family process, and there will be a lot of “’we’s.”  But plainly put, we can’t admit you, the parent.

To be clear: there is no problem with parents contacting admission offices. In fact, it’s very normal! My hope is simply that, overall, we all be mindful not to exclude a student from their journey and to engage them if they struggle to do so on their own. Recognize and celebrate your student’s achievements as such (she got X on the SAT vs we got X, he was admitted vs we were admitted… you get the point). Include them, trust them, and empower them as an adult with your language, and they’ll mature as an adult through their actions. And when you step back and let your child lead, you may be surprised to learn what they truly want, discover the complexities of who they’ve grown to be, and, fingers crossed, you just might grow a whole lot closer as a team. Admissions, United.

Sammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for four years. A newly-minted southerner, she moved to Atlanta and joined Georgia Tech two years ago as a senior admission counselor on the first-year admission team. She now uses her millennial-ness and love of working with students, families, and counselors to interact with the GT Admission community through our social media channels. If you’ve gotten this far, send her questions about admission or Netflix recommendations on twitter or Instagram- @gtadmission.

 

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You Wanna Bet?

Warning 1- This blog acknowledges (neither endorsing nor condemning) the existence of gambling/wagering money- often the loss of it.

Warning 2- This blog uses analogies that are imperfect.

Warning 3- Our editor is on vacation, which means decreased quality of format and increased use of ellipses and parenthetical statements.

Warning 4- Actually, that’s it. Here we go.

I’m not a big fan of large, indoor spaces, especially those without windows. This has never been formally diagnosed and in Google searches I can’t seem to find an exact match of symptoms or causation, so I refer to it as “Clagora”– an odd combination of Claustrophobia and Agoraphobia. In general this aversion has served me well, as it severely limits my time in malls, conference halls, and casinos.

But a few weeks before my wedding, I was in New Orleans with some good friends. I told them I wanted to do one thing- place $50 on black in roulette. No food or drinks. No sitting down. This was a get in and get out mission. One spin of the wheel. So we headed to Harrah’s Casino in the French Quarter.

As we approached the table, one of my friends (none of whom were married at the time themselves) grabbed my shoulder. “We were talking and have an option for you. We can all get you some crappy, forgettable wedding gift like a toaster or some candlesticks…or we can each give you $50 right now. One bet. All in.”

I paused and considered for… about three seconds (OK. Two.)… “Give me the money.”

“$400 cash on the table,” I heard the dealer say calmly. He deftly put the shiny, silver ball onto the roulette wheel and sent it spinning.

Students- Know Your Odds

The odds of hitting black on a single roll in roulette are 47.4%. Now, this may blow your mind but that means the odds of not hitting black are 52.6%. Put differently that’s less than ½ or more likely you’ll lose than win. Need more examples? Sometimes flipping statistics and changing your perspective in general can be helpful. Walk a route you normally drive. Take a helicopter tour of your town. Consider that while you “only have to put down 20%,” you still owe 80%.

Listen, I’m not saying that admission is roulette (see Warning 2). Applying to college is not a game. Admission decisions are not arbitrary. But it is helpful to “consider your odds” as you are building a list of schools to apply to.

A number of years ago, I suggested the Common App insert an acknowledgement button on the application of any university with an admit rate below 25%: “I understand this is not a fair process. Being of sound mind I agree not to assign self-worth to admission decisions. Further, I agree to apply to at least two additional schools with admit rates above 50%.” I never got a reply.

Well, I’m working on another petition now to US News and World Report and several other publications who commonly list schools by admit rates (typically starting with lowest as an implied metric of quality/value).  The ask—publish deny rates instead.

How would it change the make-up of your list of colleges if you thought about your odds or percentage chances in reverse? How would it alter the way you feel when you receive an admission decision, if you had looked at your odds differently from the start?

Applying to Stanford and Harvard is essentially like putting a chip between the 0/00 on the roulette table (95%~ chance of not hitting). I could see placing one bet like that, if you are a truly outstanding student. But more than that? High school counselors are always advising students to create a “balanced list” of colleges to consider. This is why.

So the next time you are listening to a college admission presentation or looking at admit rate information online, reverse their numbers. As an example, Georgia Tech’s deny rate for international students last year was nearly 90%, 82% for US non-residents, and 55% for Georgia applicants. Do the math and know your odds. It may help you spread your chips/apps in a more strategic and logical manner.

Parents- Consider All The Angles

$50 on black. In and out. Nobody gets hurt. That was the plan.

But the game changed. The stakes went up. The emotions of the moment were palpable and it was not “just me” involved anymore. All of a sudden the dollars multiplied eight fold. The “offer” of cash for wedding gifts now involved my wife and our future (Again, see Warning 2).

It is still July. Before your son or daughter starts filling in their name and asking you about employment history or your driver’s license number, you need to talk money. I wrote more extensively about this in March, but my strong recommendation is you establish and discuss three key elements of paying for college and finances: limitations, conditions, and expectations.

Limitations

How much are you willing to invest in your son or daughter’s college education? Particularly in states with strong public university systems, we often hear parents say, “I am willing to pay for any of our state schools or the equivalent price, if my daughter chooses to go to an out-of-state public or private school.”  Consider and honestly discuss what limitations you want to establish. These should not necessarily keep your student from applying to a particular school that looks like it will cost more than your determined threshold, but setting clear limitations early changes the dynamics, frames the emotions, and helps prevent feeling “gut punched” in the spring when financial aid packages arrive.

Conditions 

“We will not pay for a school south of Virginia,” or “No child of mine is looking at schools west of Colorado,” or “We will pay for $40,000 a year for College X, but we are simply not paying that for Y University.”

What are your financial conditions- and why? College is an investment. Your family’s goal is to be confident in the dollars you spend. If you talk about why you are putting conditions in place, they will not come across as irrational or arbitrary, but rather instructive and rooted in love.

Expectations

What role will/should your student have in paying for their own college education? Is there a flat amount or percentage you expect them to contribute? Setting clear expectations before applying to college allows them to consider if they need to work and save money during and high school, consider a gap year, or what questions they ask colleges about opportunities for on-campus jobs, the prospects for (and salaries associated with) internships or co-ops, etc. Instead of being divisive, setting expectations can unify your family because “the problem” of paying for college becomes a joint effort—one to solve together.

If there is one common thread that connects all parents in the college admission experience, it’s this—you love your kids. You want the best for them. You want them to be happy. You want to provide for them and say yes. As a parent of two, I totally get that.

However, here’s what I can tell you about the seductive roulette wheel of admission (for issues with that wording see Warnings 1-3)—it gets emotional. The offers start coming in, the dollar figures start going up, and it’s not just you at the table. You love your kids. Consider all the angles now because when that ball lands there will be some cheers, some disappointments, and often a crazy mix of both.

Back at the casino

The ball spun, slowed, and started bouncing. Red, black, red, black. Finally, it landed. Red 28.

Slowly, I let my head fall backward. I felt my friend’s hand on my shoulder again. “Well, at least we won’t be giving you some crappy hand towels or doilies from Target.”

Know your odds and consider all the angles. I’m betting that takes you a long way in your college admission experience.

Formal end of blog

——————————–

Feeling lucky?

A few years ago, there was a school in our state who had a relatively new head football coach, a lot of swagger, and fans that probably love roulette for the colors alone. Mid-season I told a friend that if they made the national championship, I’d donate $100 to his university’s need-based scholarship fund.

Well…I’m $100 dollars lighter now but at least I know my money went to helping some kid offset costs. When I unsubscribed from the Foundation solicitations, I chose “Other” as the reason and inserted this: “I LOST A BET. I’m the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. Congratulations on coming within inches of winning the national championship. Now, please, never email me again!” I actually got a response saying it was the “best opt-out they’ve ever received.”

So before you bet a friend $20 or $50 or dinner on a game this fall, consider instead wagering a donation to the need based financial aid fund of the winner’s alma mater.  Can’t fathom “ever contributing one dime to that school?” No problem. Donate to the NACAC Imagine Fund and help high school counselors who send kids to many different amazing colleges.

 

Will saying I’m a blueberry get me into college? Supplemental Essays 101

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome back, Katie!

I considered titling this post “Secrets to the Supplemental Essay,” but doing that goes against all I believe in. In my experience, the phrase “Secrets to…” in an admission post is almost always a blatant example of click bait and philosophically, I just don’t buy it.

There is no secret that will guarantee admission in a holistic review process. But there are ways to make your application stronger, so keep reading! You can still make good decisions, dare I say better decisions, as you craft your answers to your short essays, which will be beneficial both to you and to the admission committee.

So that we are all on the same page, I am not talking about the personal statement or main essay many colleges require.  I am speaking to the additional short answer or supplemental essay questions that often ask you to talk about why you are applying to the specific college or to give your thoughts on a prompt (one that is separate from the main, long essay).  Not all colleges or universities have supplemental questions, but if they do, you should take them seriously.

Supplemental essay questions can seem like the red-headed stepchild of the college application.  Seminars, camps, coaches, teachers, counselors, and peers spend A LOT of time talking about the activities section and main essay prompts on the college application.  Very little time is spent speaking about a short answer or supplemental essay response.  This small but mighty paragraph plays a stronger role than you might expect in the holistic admission process. I want to give it the respect and time it deserves—as should you!

See it for what it is—an opportunity to keep talking!

If I asked a group of students to raise their hand if they wanted to have a cup of coffee with me and just talk, all the hands in the room would shoot up.  If I ask the same group if they want to write another essay, most hands would go down.  I might even hear crickets.  I get it.  Seniors are busy and tired.  They are certainly tired of writing college essays.  But a supplemental essay is another way to talk to the admission committee.  Instead of rolling your eyes that, yes, you need to write something else, think about it like this:

  • What have I not had a chance to say?
  • If I don’t write this, what won’t they know about me?
  • Wow, thank goodness I have a few more lines to talk!

Does it really matter what type of fruit I am?

You may get a really out-there supplemental question, and yes, you should still answer it well.  I have seen all sorts of “creative” questions ranging from How are you like a chocolate chip cookie? to What three items would you want on a deserted island? and, the notorious, If you were a fruit, what would you be and why?

If you are tempted to not spend time on the answer or to get a little snarky in your response, don’t.  Remember, this is an opportunity! Someone on the admission committee will read your response, so enjoy creating the answer.  The purpose of this question is to understand how you think and give the committee a glimpse into your personality.  Whether you think you are blueberry, you would die without sunscreen, water bottle and your cat, or–like a cookie in the oven–you turn out well under pressure, the answer itself does not really matter.  At the end of the paragraph, they will know you better, and you don’t want to miss that opportunity.

Sorry to break this to you—you can’t cram for the “Why Our College?” question.

Many of these short answer questions will ask why you want to attend their college. It is understandable. A college doesn’t want to give up a seat in their class without discerning if a student actually wants to be there, or if they are just trying to collect acceptances. Scanning the college website to glean some key words or phrases to include in your answer is not enough.  Any admission counselor worth their salt knows immediately if you are just regurgitating the first paragraph from the “about” section of the website.

To answer this question well, you need to research, and real research starts with curiosity.

  • What intrigues you about this college?
  • What made you search and click and dive deeper?
  • What about this college piqued your interest to begin with and what have you learned that kept this college on your list?
  • What research specialty, unique program or offering makes you want to know more?

Those thoughtful reflections are the “secret” to answering a question focused on the college itself.

Low Hanging Fruit

CHECK THE NAME!  If you use the name of the college, university or institute in the supplemental essay, get the name right.  Will “college” vs. “university” seal your decision fate? No. Will it reflect the time and care you put into your application?  Yes!  I have seen brilliant, perfect-test-scoring, straight-A students not spell or even come close to typing the correct name on a short answer question.

This gives me pause. Again, it doesn’t sink an application because most admission officers are not cruel people. We realize many seniors are worn thin and have many priorities on their plates.  But it does plant the seed of doubt—are they genuinely interested? Since many times, supplemental essays are the last piece of an application reviewed, is that the impression you want to leave with the committee?  Probably not. That being said,  proof this writing piece as thoroughly as your main essay!

Parting Thoughts

I tell every student who will listen, “Write your supplemental essay.  Go to bed.  Read it again the next day.”  Students spend an inordinate amount of time stressing, dissecting and proofing their activities and main essays.  Then at the end of the process, when they are exhausted, they throw something down for the supplementals and hit submit. Give that puppy a once over in the light of day to see if it is well written.

This advice really aligns with my over-arching guidance for all high schoolers—take a beat!  Yes, there is work you must do, but when you can, as frequently as you can, schedule a breather.  I believe student work, and especially college application work, is better if you have a chance to review it with a clear head. So, if completing your college application just involved a Google search for “all the different kinds of fruit”, smile, take a deep breath and enjoy the process.  We can’t wait to read what you have to say!

Katie Mattli has worked in college admission for over 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2014 where she works with underrepresented minority recruitment focusing on female, first generation, African American and Hispanic recruitment efforts. Her previous years at a private liberal arts college for women fueled her love of student leadership and advocacy.

 

 

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(A College) Search of Greatness

A few weeks ago I watched In Search of Greatness, a documentary featuring some of history’s best known and most accomplished athletes, including Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Pele. It covers their backgrounds, motivations, challenges, unconventional styles, and inimitable spirit.

I’ve engaged in some vehement debates with friends about who was the “greatest of the greats,” but we all agreed on one thing: seeing true greatness in action is a rare privilege. Over the course of the last decade, that’s exactly the position I have been in serving under our now outgoing president, G.P. “Bud” Peterson.

Anyone who saw MJ at the height of his game or watched Pele play loves to tell stories about “that day” or “that game” because indelible moments leave lasting impressions. As Peterson prepares to retire from Georgia Tech, here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned from his leadership.

Engage Fully

Move-in day in August is one of my favorites of the year. It’s gratifying (and frankly relieving) to see students arrive on campus. When numbers on spreadsheets and essays on applications manifest themselves in actual people with cars filled with boxes of shoes, bedding, and neatly packed toiletries, I may say, “Welcome to campus!” but I’m really thinking, “Phew. Thank God. I get to do this for at least one more year.”

The incoming class in 2009 was the first I brought in as director and happened to be Peterson’s first fall on campus as well. I was invited to join a group of administrators who were helping students unload cars at the residence halls.

Along with student volunteers, we greeted cars as they pulled up on the street outside residence halls and helped them unload from the curb. Doors would open, trunks would lift, and a swarm of movers would descend upon the wide-eyed family’s vehicle. It was hot and there was a steady stream of cars.

Many leaders would see move-in day merely as a photo opp. Grab a shoe box or some hanging clothes, shake a few hands, and wait for the article to be written up. But invariably, President Peterson would grab the mini fridge in the back of the car or the largest and heaviest box he could find and bound through the doors of the dorm and up two flights of stairs before the student’s younger brother even got out of the car.  Peterson has never been about appearance. He approached that minor activity the same way he consistently operates—fully engaged and invested.

Your Takeaway

The admission process will Jedi-mind trick you with dates, deadlines, applications, decisions, seemingly dry or mechanical components, and an endless deluge of emails and brochures in your mailbox. It’s easy and understandable to look at the 16th  college tour of the summer or another supplemental essay you have to write merely as a task to be done or an inconvenience in the midst of your busy life.

Peterson’s was formally recognized last week in the form of a $17 million endowment in his honor to help students with financial need.

My hope is you will follow Peterson’s lead and fully engage. Approach this not as a process, but rather as an experience—an opportunity to grow and learn. Instead of simply listing and describing what you’ve done on the extra-curricular section of applications, give real thought as to why you participated and what you learned. What did you get out of being on the swim team? Why did you join the Spanish club? How did it shape and change you? And do you want to broaden, deepen, or discontinue that involvement in college?

Don’t just ask teachers for recommendations. Take the opportunity to thank them for their time and effort. Share what you learned in the course and how it’s helped or impacted you. College applications should not be treated only as a vehicle for delivering information to schools. If you fully engage, they actually have the potential to be an exercise in reflecting on your high school career and assessing how your experience directs you in the future, regardless of where you end up going to college.  Engage Fully!

Ask Simple Questions

While there are many anecdotes I could recount, one of the most poignant occurred when President Peterson learned I was considering a position at another university. The title was higher, the portfolio was bigger, and the salary was larger.

He invited me to sit down and discuss the opportunity. After he shared a similar story from his career he said, “Really, there is just one thing to consider.” I waited expectantly, convinced this would be my answer, and he had the pearl of wisdom I needed to make a decision. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Do I want that job?’” He did not try to convince me one way or another. He did not encourage me to build a big spreadsheet of pros and cons or attempt to strategically analyze how this may impact my long-term career. Instead, he asked me to consider the perfect question—one that triggered a series of others I needed to reflect upon: Is this a fit? Where will I thrive? His question helped me tune out external pressures, opinions, and perceived factors and to be honest about what I really wanted…and why.

Your take-away

Too many students follow the crowd in the admission process. They apply to the same schools their siblings or friends applied to. They only consider local options or the most popular colleges in their region. They want to please their parents or feel like they must go to the most selective or highly ranked school to which they are admitted.

In the past we’ve written about asking better questions and even asking the same questions again and again. I stand by that advice, but to take a page out of Peterson’s book, my hope is throughout your admission experience you will continually ask the most important question: “Is this for me?”

When you are on a college campus listening to an admission officer or tour guide or academic advisor, ask, “Is this for me?” When you put together the list of colleges to apply to, ask, “Am I applying here for someone else or is this for me?”  When you are selecting a major or deciding what topic to choose for your essay or making a final college choice, ask, “What are the outside pressures I am feeling? Is this being pushed on me, or is this really for me?”

Around November of the first year (sometimes earlier) many students begin to question their college choice. They spend consecutive nights endlessly scrolling Instagram or visiting friends at other schools and returning to a dark dorm room believing they made a mistake. Sometimes this happens because they limited their admission experience to a process and simply went through the motions. They “ended up” somewhere rather than choosing it. Outside factors and pressures corrupted an honest, intentional, introspective experience. I hope you’ll have both the courage and confidence to ask, “Is this for me?”  Ask Simple Questions!

Family First

President Peterson has four (now adult) children of his own. He and his wife, Val, have fostered nine others. If you are around him long enough, you’ll hear him recount stories about conversations with President Obama, Fortune 100 CEO’s, and some of our nation’s highest-ranking military officials. He will passionately discuss thermodynamics or complex engineering concepts. But I’ve seen his greatest joy come as he’s shared simple stories about his kids and their families.

One day, early in Peterson’s tenure at Tech, we were informed of an admitted student who died in an automobile accident while driving his sister to school. We learned these were the only two children in this particular family. He invited me to his office to learn more and discuss the situation, as this was an admitted, not an enrolled or current, student.

I explained that traditionally I took care of writing to families during the admitted stage. He leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath, then slightly shook his head and said, “You know, Rick. I’ve had a lot of titles in my life: professor, dean, provost, Chancellor, but by far the one I cherish the most is ‘father.’ I simply cannot imagine how these parents are feeling tonight.”

He wrote the letter that day. I went home, hugged my wife, and slept on the floor next to our son’s crib.

Your take-away

After sitting at the intersection between high school and college for the last 20 years, I’m convinced that at its core the admission experience is fundamentally about family. Admission officers rattle off factors and stats and dates that appear quantifiable.  Students and parents focus on elements like grades and test scores and decisions and money and other elements that appear to be sterile. The truth is the admission experience is not defined numbers but is instead deeply relational. It is rooted in both individual and collective hopes and dreams.

Visiting and applying to colleges, handling decisions, weighing options, and ultimately arriving on a campus provides an opportunity to connect rather than divide; to trust each other rather than be paranoid and skeptical about how decisions will turn out; to control what you can control—how you treat and love one another. Family First!

In Search of Greatness

Georgia Tech’s motto is “Progress and Service.” I like to modify it when talking to students and our team to “Progress (not perfection) and Service.” If you watch the documentary, you’ll notice each of the stars talks at length about losses, setbacks, challenges and difficult moments. Clearly, the refusal to accept the status quo and the desire to continually refine and improve is a commonality among the greats.

I hope you’ll take a similar approach to your next year of high school and keep that mentality as you enter college. Nobody expects perfection from you, even though at times it may feel that way. They simply see your greatness and want you to strive for it. Similarly, I cannot offer you a perfect way to go through your college experience, because it’s your experience. I can only encourage you to Engage Fully, Ask Simple Questions, and keep Family First.

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