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The Scholar Ship

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us for a piece about preparing a scholarship application. Chaffee has been administering prestigious scholarship programs for the past 20 years, and is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

I met an old sea captain while travelling through Croatia about five years ago. While we chatted, he told me his criteria for assembling a crew. Each member had to fundamentally understand that when you are at sea, the ship comes first, the crew comes second, and the sailor comes last. Those who didn’t understand and embrace the concept in action weren’t fit for his ship.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Titanic, but I suspect neither the ship nor the crew were the captain’s primary concern. The wealthy passengers’ interests, or perhaps the company’s that owned the ship. Maybe it was the fancy white hat? Need I say more?

One of the sea captain’s stories focused on how to best prepare for a typical six month trip at sea. When it came to provisions, all the food had to be packed very carefully in a tight room in his small vessel. The items set to expire early in the journey needed to be near the door and other items at the back – which literally could not be accessed until months into the journey. Such packing couldn’t be left until the last minute. Careful planning and execution prior to setting sail was essential. What weighed too much and had to be left behind? What food didn’t have enough calories to sustain the crew? What was frivolous?

There are lessons to be learned in pondering this story which relate to scholarship (and admission) applications. So I invite you now to board a different vessel, the “Scholar Ship,” and take a guided tour with me. While this isn’t the first time someone has used this metaphor (nor will it be the last), it will help you visualize your own scholarship journey.

Captain’s Lesson #1: The Ship and the Crew Come Before You

This one is pretty simple, but is often overlooked. When you are working through a scholarship application (and/or admissions application if that is used for scholarship consideration), focus on what you can bring to the institution, not initially what you will get out of the deal. How will your presence will ostensibly improve the college community if you are given a scholarship? Focus on those elements in your application and subsequent interviews if applicable. It not only shows you want to give back, but also shows humility and a contributor mindset. These days, universities want to give scholarships to people who will make a difference, not just those looking for a cash prize.

Captain’s Lesson #2: Pack Only the Necessary Items in the Right Order for the Journey

When you are boarding the Scholar Ship, you’ve got to pack only the most important items. This means when you list your extracurricular activities, awards, work or volunteer experience, and honors on your application, or deciding on elements of your essay, focus on the ones that are the most significant to you and provide you with the most excitement, joy, and impact (this is especially if you are limited in what you can share). Case in point: many professionals have a 1-2 page resume. Compare this with my experience hearing from a few high school students and their parents that only an 8-pager will capture all they’ve accomplished. See the irony here? If a seasoned professional with years of experience can fit their biggest accomplishments on a 1-2 page document, so can you!

The order is also important. You don’t put cookies on the ship before potable water. List your activities and ideas by importance to you. Put down your accomplishments before you list your hobbies. Note also that written communication typically precedes verbal, so focus on your application before preparing for a potential interview. Most universities’ top scholarships are given to intellectually curious students who think critically, communicate effectively in writing and voice, and make an impact in some fashion, whether in leadership, service, or some other emphasized arena.

Captain’s Lesson #3: The Sailor (that’s you!) Does in Fact Matter

Colleges and scholarship programs also want to know why you are interested in them. Why is what they offer compelling to you? How you will make the world a better place by taking advantage of those offerings and produce a return on their investment? Imagine for a second that you tell the old sea captain, “I’m a good fit because I know you will stop on this particular island where I can find a resource that will lead to cures for diseases back on the mainland. I am really interested in being able to go to that island.” Even more simply, it’s fine to say, “I really want a strong degree, great job or graduate school offer, and the rich college experience your school offers.” Be sure to articulate your “why,” because that’s important! Colleges want scholars who will make an impact, but they also want to see you enjoy yourself simultaneously on campus. Most will even try to ensure it!

Captain’s Lesson #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Jump Ship

Well, honestly, the old sea captain never told me this one. It’s just one I think he might have shared had he had the opportunity. While you may have a destination in mind on the Scholar Ship you board, you are likely to find that some of the places you visit along the way – like a backup school or the more obscure one that offered you a great scholarship complete with both financial and developmental incentives – is really where you want to disembark. Such a school might end up being a better endpoint to your journey than you originally intended. If the final destination is what you want, that’s wonderful—go there and finish the voyage. If not, and something else feels like a better option, throw out your anchor and row to shore!

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Advocacy is the New Application

This week we welcome Admission Counselor Mikala Bush to the blog. Welcome, Mikala!

School counselors and teachers, this blog’s for you!

Over the summer our staff prepared for the upcoming recruitment and application cycle. While we were certainly busy, we also had time to have fun, share ideas, and enjoy being together. We had a huge list of must-see movies and TV shows on our whiteboard to check off before summer ended. A few of my personal favorites include Ladybird (which should have won every Oscar!), Waiting for Superman, and Precious Knowledge (especially if you’re into educational documentaries), and most importantly the phenomenon known as O.I.T.N.B.

I’ve joined the millions of binge watchers who are currently hibernating with the newest season of Orange is the New Black, an Emmy-award winning show. In its sixth season, the theme is all about advocacy. The characters are advocating for themselves, for each other, and for better conditions while serving their time.

Are you in(mate)?

Advocacy, in most situations, is giving voice to those who do not have one or expanding/amplifying someone else’s story. In college admission, students certainly have the opportunity to advocate for themselves (in their essays and supplemental questions), but they also rely heavily on school counselors and teachers to do this for them through recommendations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Advocacy is the New Application (see what I did there?).

Before starting in admission at Georgia Tech, I was a college adviser at an amazing public high school here in Atlanta. In that time, I often wondered how best to advocate for applicants.

As admission counselors, our advocacy looks a bit different but we still fight hard for your students. We highlight their self-awareness, passion, grit, perseverance, and we defend the setbacks that are out of their control. We ask where did this student start in the race and how have are they finishing? Each student is given full analysis with respect to their high school – be it the culture, policies, or the community that surrounds it.

Now that I’m on the inside (get it) I’m here to help you highlight important elements of a student’s story in your letters of recommendation.

What are you in for?

Letters of recommendation can be extremely helpful in the review process when they provide insight into a student’s story. Unfortunately, the majority of letters sound like this:

Johnny is a caring, charismatic, courageous student. He has a 4.0 GPA and a 34 on the ACT. He is involved in X, Y. AND Z activities. He would make a great addition to your campus.

While all of these characteristics may be true, admission readers have seen this information elsewhere in the application. A recommendation letter should highlight something new. If you are a teacher, highlighting a project that a student completed, how they interact with others in class, how they react to challenges, or the insightful questions that they bring to the discussion can really help tell a more complete story. Your voice is invaluable to us because it represents an on the ground angle that we simply do not hear anywhere else in the application.

If you are a counselor, ask yourself: How is this student different from others in the class, grade, school, etc.? How is this student perceived by peers and faculty? What might this student undersell or not see in themselves that I can highlight? Addressing these questions will ultimately lead to a better letter that shines a new, broader light.

Your past crimes don’t define you.

One of the subtle points students, and recommenders, forget is that we, as admission counselors, are human! We don’t expect perfection. When I worked as a school counselor, I once hosted a college visit in which I noticed there were more students in the session than had registered for the event. I then realized five students skipped class to meet with this particular college. I made a stern announcement about visit protocol and how to participate with the approval of teachers. Of the five, only one came up to me after and said “Ms. Bush, I was one of those students who did not get permission to come today. I am sorry and promise it will never happen again.”

This student showed courage to admit her mistake, apologized, and corrected it rather than slipping off quietly like her peers. The situation spoke to her character, which I was happy to later write about and advocate for in her recommendation letters.

Give yourself permission to write about students as humans – beautiful, flawed, and improving over time. I realize vulnerability and imperfection may seem contradictory to a process that is supposed to be about putting the best foot forward, but providing somewhat sensitive, yet unquestionably authentic information in your recommendation letters allows you to highlight growth and potential—and to both celebrate the student’s past and advocate for their future!

Are you a supporting witness?

Teachers, before you agree to be a recommender, help them answer these questions: Does this person know me well? Can they speak to my personality and character inside, and ideally also outside, the classroom? Have I spent quality time with them? Will they be an enthusiastic advocate? Remind them that often the teacher who can write with the most clarity and excitement is not necessarily the person in the academic area they plan to pursue in college.  That’s right–sometimes the best recommendation for a future physics major is the drama teacher!

My One Free Call…

Finally, I want to take a moment to say, as a former school counselor, to simply say, “THANK YOU!” Thank you for service to students. Thank you for your time, concern, and sacrifices. Thank you for writing and counseling these kids. Thank you for your advocacy!

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Breathing Room

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission (West Coast) Ashley Brookshire to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

Have you ever watched a presenter on a raised surface, or a singer on a stage? Think about the space they leave between themselves and the end of the stage. Now, imagine that person chooses to pace on the very edge of the stage, rather than a safe distance back. I don’t know about you, but I would be much more concerned about that person walking themselves right off the edge of the stage than focused on their presentation. Because the speaker has positioned themselves in a place without margin, stress has now entered the situation for both them and the audience.

Margin is an essential part of our lives. Without margin we run right up to the edge. Once on the edge, our focus turns to simply staying upright, rather than paying attention to the quality and intentionality with which we operate. Breathing room is absolutely necessary in the college admission process! But if you don’t plan for it, you likely won’t have any.

For those of you who are high school seniors, the college application process has already begun. Here are a couple of tips to help you  set limits and expectations for the ride ahead—tips that will allow you to preserve margin around your college search process and decision.

Dead Line

Did you know that the origin of the word deadline comes from the American Civil War? It referred to a line within prison walls beyond which inmates were shot. What a terrifying origin for a word that is now a part of our everyday language! As you can imagine, during the era when this term was making its debut prisoners probably left plenty of margin between themselves and the deadline.

Fast forward about 150 years… these days we’re not very good at leaving margin between ourselves and deadlines. As the west coast representative for an east coast school, I’m often asked if our application deadline refers to 11:59pm ET or PT. If the answer to that question makes a difference in your plan to complete your application, then you are cutting things too close!

Last year at Georgia Tech more than 60 percent of our early action first-year applications were received within three days of our application deadline (that’s over 11,000 applications!). As more applications come in, the number of phone calls, emails, and walk-in visitors who have important, time sensitive questions increases. Needless to say, despite additional staffing, our response time during these few days of the year is slower than nearly any other time in our office.

If you’re treating the deadline as THE DAY on which you plan to apply then you find yourself with a last-minute question, you’re welcoming unnecessary stress into your life as you anxiously await a response. The solution is simple: build in breathing room! When you see a deadline, give yourself a goal of applying one week in advance. Then if something unexpected happens, such as illness, inclement weather, or the internet breaks (true story—it’s happened in the past!), you still have margin between yourself and the actual deadline.

Quiet Hours

Back when my husband and I were engaged, we realized very early on we could not talk about wedding planning every waking moment. There was plenty to discuss, and each day we could spend hours talking about song lists, seating charts, and minute details. But the obsession of planning was exhausting. If we wanted to actually enjoy our engagement, and plan for a future far beyond our wedding day, we had to set limits on when we discussed wedding plans.

I strongly encourage you and your family to do the same for your college search process. If you set no limits to college talks, then you all will inevitably burn out. A time of discovery and maturity will be marred with talking about details that are subject to constant change. You’ll find yourselves rehashing the same conversation over and over and over again, but with different levels of emotion and stress.  There are important things for you and your family to discuss, and you certainly need to have dialogue around the college process. Just don’t make it part of every conversation you have during your senior year.

Find the best time for you all to sit down each week and talk (sound familiar? It should!). Maybe you agree not to talk about college on the weekends… or before school… or maybe you only talk about it on a designated day. Do whatever makes the most sense for you, but make sure you’re setting a framework around when these important, but exhausting, conversations take place. Leave margin in your day and your conversations so college talk doesn’t permeate all aspects of your life.

Just Breathe….

Breathing room is valuable in many aspects of life, but in the frenzy and significance of the college process, we often lose sight of it. Keeping margin in the picture can substantially reduce the amount of stress you carry during this season as you keep your head above the chaos. Take a deep breath, make a plan, and use this unique time to determine what things matter most to you.

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Ask Good Questions

In the world of college admission there is always debate about the “best school” in the nation. As quickly as someone holds up Stanford or Harvard, someone else will poke holes in the methodology, or challenge that they may not be tops for  every major, and so on and so forth.  There are so many varying “sources” online these days that almost every school can tout a high-ranking or review in one area or another. “We’re among the nation’s best in ROI, or in STEM fields,” “We are the nation’s Greenest college” or “We have the best ice cream.” There is almost never a consensus or agreement on who really is “the best.” Perhaps that’s the beauty of this field– lots of great options and a desire to be the best in one thing or another, but clearly there is not a unanimous #1.

But in the world of music  a definitive leader is apparent; a band that rises above the rest and leaves no room for debate:  U2. From their lyrics to their history to their longevity, they simply define greatness. Glad we’ve established that.

A lesser known but important U2 song is 11 O’Clock Tick Tock. And in typical fashion, they always bring a lyric that is profound and broadly applicable to life:

“We thought we had the answers. It was the questions we had wrong.”

Asking the right questions, and being persistent in the asking, is a fundamental life lesson. And it’s absolutely vital as you go through the college admission process. So as you head out to college campuses, whether you are a sophomore or junior who is just starting to understand how one school varies from another, or a senior who is trying to figure out the best fit for the next few years, commit to being a relentless questioner. If you leave the question asking to the colleges, you can bet you’re  going to hear the same answers over and over again. “Oh, yes. Our biology program is great.” “Sure. You can double major in English and Sound Design. That’s actually extremely common.”

The emails and the brochures paint the same Pollyanna pictures, mixing appropriate diversity with studious learners closely inspecting a beaker or electrical circuit.. Don’t accept the Charlie Brown speeches. As you talk to people at different colleges, turn off the switch that has them rambling about studying abroad or the number of applications they received and ask them something better.

1) You ask: “What is your faculty: student ratio?” This number may not include faculty who are doing research and teach only one class, or those who are on sabbatical, and so on. For example, Tech’s ratio is 20:1, but that doesn’t mean you and 20 buddies will be sitting around a table in Calculus I your first year. These stats are compiled for publications to be comparative. So while helpful in that regard, they don’t tell the whole story.

You SHOULD ask: “What is your most common class size?” This question gets you right into the classroom. Schools rarely publish average SATs or GPAs but rather bands or ranges. Likewise, you want to look at their ranges and variances within class size. 85 percent of classes at Tech have fewer than 50 students. That type of information will be far more helpful to you in framing expectations and determining what kind of experience you will likely have.

And THEN ask: “How does that vary from first year to fourth year? Is that true for all majors? What does that look like for my major?” I had an intro Econ class at UNC-Chapel Hill that had 500 students in it. But that was not my undergraduate experience. In fact, that was the only course I took all four years that was over 100. Similarly, one of my favorite student workers at Tech was a senior Physics major whose classes had seven, 12, and 16 students in them. But rest assured that during her freshman year she sat in a large lecture hall for Physics I.

Your job is to probe. Your job is to dig and to clarify.

2) You ask: “What’s your graduation rate?” Schools do not answer this the same. Some will give you  their four-year grad rate, some five, and some  six. The variance is not an effort to be misleading or nefarious; they have been trained to respond with an answer that is  most representative of their students’ experience. Most four-year, private, selective liberal arts schools would likely not even think to respond with a five or six-year rate because there is no significant differentiation and their goal is to have all students graduate in four years. That’s how they structure curriculum and it is their culture.

You SHOULD ask: “What is your four and six-year graduation rate? And at those two intervals what  percentage have either a job offer or grad school acceptance letter?” Who cares if you have a high graduation rate if your job placement rate is low?

And THEN ask: “How does grad rate vary by major? What percentage of students who double major or study abroad or have an internship finish in four years?” My opinion is too much emphasis is put on this clock. Unfortunately, much of this is antiquated and driven by US News and World Report rankings (we won’t delve into this too much, but you can read about here). If you are taking advantage of opportunities on a campus like picking up a minor, or participating in a co-op, or working to offset costs, or going abroad to enhance your language skills, and all of those things are translating into lower loan debt and more job or grad school opportunities when you are done, then who cares about the clock?

3) You ask: “What is your retention rate?” Great question.. and an important one. Most put the national average somewhere around the 60% range. But as you can see from that link, it varies by school type and student type. So when a school says their first-year retention rate is 85%, that’s great, right?

You SHOULD ask: “Why are those other 15% leaving? Is it financial? Is it because the football team lost too many games? Is it academic and they’re not prepared for the rigor of the school? Is it because the school is too remote or too urban or too big?” Follow up. Ask them to articulate who is leaving. Tech has a retention rate of 97.3%, which  is among the top 25 schools nationally and top five for publics (these are statistics here, friends, not rankings). But we are constantly looking at who is leaving. Surprisingly, for many alumni and others who know the rigor of Tech, it’s not exclusively academic. It’s a balanced mix that also includes distance from home, seeking a different major, financial reasons, and, increasingly, because students are starting companies or exploring entrepreneurial options.

Some schools have retention rates below the national average, but they’re losing  students who are successfully transferring to state public flagships or into specialized programs in the area. If that’s your goal, then you can be okay with a lower retention rate, right?

Don’t be too shy to ask questions. This is your job… Not your mom’s job…. Not your counselor’s job. Your job. DO YOUR JOB!

And THEN ask: What that’s it? Nope. I have more questions…and so should you.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in February 2017. Links have been updated.

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The Long Game

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

I like quirky historical novelties and the Livermore Light Bulb, or known to its friends as the Centennial Bulb, is one of my favorites.  Never heard of it?  Let me explain.  Yes, there is indeed a light bulb in Livermore, California so famous it has a name and actual caretakers.  Why? Because the Livermore Light Bulb has been softly glowing in the Pleasanton Fire Department for 117 years! In fact, it just had a birthday in June. The Centennial Bulb has a website, a festival, a children’s book, and –this is my favorite part – its own Bulb Cam. You can literally watch a light bulb glow in real-time, which I find humorously whimsical.

What does a light bulb have to do with college admission?  A few things actually.

Don’t second guess your interests. 

I mean it.  Live them loud and proud.  I’m writing about a light bulb I like and you are still here, so that proves authenticity is interesting.  The applicants who get my attention in the admission process are those who, for lack of a better phrase, really like stuff.  All kinds of stuff.  They hear about a cause, read about a historical event, or learn about a theory and they dive in for the pure pleasure of learning more about it.  You can sense joy in their application—joy in sharing something that really engages them. Students always ask, “How can I make my application stand out?” Follow your true-North passions and your application will naturally have a strong voice in the crowd.

Care Instructions

The Centennial has been glowing for so long because no one remembered to turn it off – for a long time. It turns out that switching lights on and off all the time actually reduces their shelf life.  It makes me wonder how often we, students and adults alike, take stock of what is healthy for us. We don’t have care instructions attached to our lives, but if asked we could probably name the basics.  We are the opposite of lightbulbs.  We can, and should, turn off to recharge. You should sleep.  You should eat.  You should spend time with friends.  Do you live by your calendar? Then put your self-care appointments on the docket with reminders such as “lunch,” “snack,” “aspirational bedtime,” and “breathing room/free time.”  A healthy student will thrive in high school and in college. I haven’t made any clichéd references to lightbulbs and burn out here, but you get the picture. Don’t get so caught up in the everyday noise that you forget to be healthy.

Who is on your maintenance team?

The Centennial Lightbulb has three different organizations devoted to keeping that little four-watt light bulb softly glowing.  Before you start the college admission process, take stock of who is in your corner.  Who are the folks in your inner circle?  Choose carefully.  Do they see your value? Do they give you honest feedback?  Do they encourage you? Do they keep you anchored? The vast majority of students headed to college had help along the way.  Family members are not the only people who hopefully have your back. Don’t forget you can create a supportive network staring with a favorite teacher, a retired neighbor, a high school guidance counselor, your coach, a friend who graduated last year.  Reach out, ask for some time, make an appointment, start a conversation. It takes a village.

Keep your eye on the long game.

Physicists have studied the Centennial and have discovered its filament is thicker than today’s commercial lightbulbs.  It is made of sterner stuff. The college admission process can rattle high school students. I think students believe they are focusing on their future (hence the anxiety), but I think they have lost sight of the long game.  After years of watching students and their families navigate applying to college, here are my thoughts on the admission long game and students who are made of “sterner stuff”:

  • Finding a good fit is the ultimate goal.  Your best-fit school may not be your best friend’s best-fit school.  Get comfortable with that. Put institutions on your list where you will thrive. That is the long game.
  • Ignore the myth of “the one.” A college will not be the making of you but your decisions in college will. That is the long game.
  • Be happy for others.  Time will prove to you that what feels like competition now dissipates with age.  If your buddy gets that coveted acceptance or the Val or Sal spot, cheer for them. It shows character and you will be happier for it. That is the long game.
  • Enjoy senior year.  This is your last homecoming, last high school debate competition, last playoff, senior night… Enjoy them!  That is the long game.

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