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

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

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

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

How We Got Here (a little background)

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

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

Times Are Changing…

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

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

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

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

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

Two Heads are Better than One

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

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

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

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

Drivers and Passengers

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

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

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

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

Read part 2 now!

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Three Cheers for the Rankings!

The US News and World Report Rankings came out earlier this week. Last year I wrote “The Rankings, Meh…” This year I’m taking a different approach and cheering! I encourage you to try it out… here are a few examples of ways to use cheers in your conversations about rankings.

1 – Scoreboard! Scoreboard! I love this one. It’s like the “talk to the hand” of cheers. One of my biggest issues with rankings is their heavy reliance on surveys. #what?! Yep. Nearly a quarter of the rankings methodology is comprised of peer reviews of Academic Reputation. “The academic peer assessment survey allows top academics — presidents, provosts, deans of admissions- to account for intangibles at peer institutions, such as faculty dedication to teaching.”

To be honest, you should stop reading at the word “survey.” A survey! Think about it: do you fill out surveys? Exactly. Neither do most people. Two words: human nature. Sure, these people may have a bigger title than you but the behavior does not vary–and that’s why they call them statistics. Typical response rates are in the 20-40% range, so we know these are heavily limited from the outset. And as master delegators, you have to wonder are these presidents, provosts, and deans actually completing them personally (no disrespect to them)? And when they do, are they answering all questions, or only those they’re most familiar with? If they’re not responding, who is? And even when they do respond, how much can they truly know about all of these other places, given how frenetic their schedules are taking care of their own institution? Oh…so many questions.

At best these peer reviews are incomplete and overvalued, and at worst, myopic and nepotistic. Yet they account for 22.5% (the largest factor) of the methodology. So when you’re completing applications this fall and a friend or a parent questions your decision to apply to a school because of its spot in the rankings, simply reply, “Scoreboard!” Or better yet “Surveys!” Talk to the hand, my friend. I am discounting everything you are saying right now.

2 – Overrated! Dah, dah, dadada! 20% of the rankings methodology is based on Faculty Resources. “How do faculty salaries and the number of students in the classroom compare to other universities nationally?” So a school sees they’re penalized on this measure and ultimately determines they can move the dial by increasing their average faculty salary by $2,000 annually ($8/day), and they launch a capital campaign to address this metric. Meanwhile, they address student class size averages by hiring more adjuncts to teach courses. Their rankings rise as a result. But did those dollars actually change the student experience? Did they make the faculty more invested in their teaching or research? Knowing these types of efforts are underway nationwide, would a school being 10 or 20 spots different from another impact your decision to visit or apply? “Overrated! Dah, dah, dadada!”

3 – Not our rival! This is one of my favorites because it’s brilliant in its dismissiveness. It’s like rolling “your momma” “whatever” and “pssht” into a single three word phrase. Student Selectivity makes up 12% of the methodology. Call me a whistle-blower, call me a cynic, but this measure is severely flawed.

First, let’s be clear: not all schools count applications the same. Some schools arguably suppress their application total (and subsequently their admit rate) by only counting fully completed files, while others count glorified inquiries (snap apps or quick apps) in their total, or bolster counts even if a student does not submit all documents or follow up to complete all parts of the application (i.e. supplements, etc.). Some schools even count visitors to campus as applicants (actually, this one is an exaggeration… at least they haven’t been busted for it yet).

Second, we know in order to increase applications many schools are buying names and mailing materials to literally hundreds of thousands of prospects, even when their class goal is less than 1000 and the composition in geography, ethnicity, gender, and curriculum is not changing over time in a significant manner.

So you don’t think I’m simply casting stones, let’s take Georgia Tech as an example. In 2017 our freshman application total was 31,500 and the admit rate was 23%. Two years earlier we received 27,250 applications and admitted 32%, nearly a 10 percentage point difference. It moved us from being among about 100 schools below 35% admit rate to about 50 schools below 25% admit rate. But I can say with certainty this measure is not reflective of the quality of education our students receive. Our student profile is essentially the same. We have not radically changed our faculty, curriculum, study abroad programs, or internship opportunities in those two years. And yet our student selectivity is what some would define as “vastly” different.

If you are reading this blog, I have no doubt this spring you’ll be sitting on multiple offers from colleges. You’re in. You’ve visited. You’ve compared the costs and trolled the deep recesses of their social media outlets. Decision time. Don’t let the admit rate and perceived selectivity be a factor in your choice. You can’t fully trust it, and other than some idle conversation in your first semester it has exactly zero bearing on your actual college experience. “Not our rival!” Or loosely translated, irrelevant.

Keep it in Perspective

We have now accounted for over half of the methodology. I’m happy to poke holes in the rest of the factors, but some of them are too easy.  What? Are you swayed by Alumni Giving? Me neither.

So what am I saying? Burn the magazine. Try Bob Morse before Congress. Both are reasonable. But I’m thinking more about changes in the micro:  I’m asking you to keep it all in perspective. If you are being told you should only apply to schools with an admit rate of 30% or less, I’m telling you to cite the Georgia Tech rule. If a friend is convinced the “Number 25” college is legitimately “better than” a school ranked 10 or even 25 spots below, remember those adjuncts, and remember the applications and admit rates are not always apples to apples. If you get into two schools and one is ranked higher, but the other gives you more aid and is by all counts a better fit for you, remember those surveys and the incredibly low response rates.

Anyone who has played a sport at a reasonably high level knows the other team is going to talk smack. They’re going to yell at you across the line. They’re going to bump and pull and jeer. So inevitably when you are applying or deciding on a college choice, someone is going to invoke the rankings this year. And when they do, you’ll be ready.

Na Na/ Na Na Na Na/ Hey Hey/ Goodbye.

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Own It!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please get to your point…

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

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

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

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

What We Mean by “Fit”

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

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

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

Real Life Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Excuses—Own It!

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

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

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