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Be Batman! 

This picture of my son came up earlier this week as a Facebook memory from a few years ago. You might think given the timing it was because he was getting ready for Halloween. Nope. For about a two year period, no matter where we went, he dressed like a superhero. Perhaps we should have tried harder to curb the habit, but in parenting like in life, you have to pick your battles. And this was not a hill I was going to die on.

Want to dress like Spider-Man for our ride to North Carolina? Fine. Going to wear the firefighter helmet and a cape to church? Whatever. So this picture from our local Waffle House was not a one-off occurrence. It was a pattern (and in hindsight an incredibly beautiful one). But the regularity of our visits to WaHo became apparent when a few of the servers started making requests on his next costume. “Bring back Green Lantern!” and “We want The Flash!”

I distinctly remember taking this picture because I was actually wearing a Captain America costume (long story) and because of something one of the cooks asked him over the counter: “Where is Batman?”  Without fail, when he’d wear his Robin costume this was the prevalent question. Interestingly, however, nobody ever asked about the Boy Wonder when he was dressed as the Dark Knight.

If you’re a senior reading this just ahead of the looming November 1 deadlines lots of colleges around the country have, I am going to assume it’s because you’re hoping for some pearl of wisdom, rather than merely procrastinating (if it’s the latter, I recommend this instead). In either case you’re most likely finalizing your admission essay or supplemental questions, and since we’ve been reading a lot of these lately, I have a few tips for you.

But First, an Exercise…

Close your eyes. Wait. Hold on. First, I want you to think of the kids in your school who have similar grades and classes to you. Maybe not exactly the same but essentially equivalent difficulty and a comparable GPA. Got a few? Okay. Now, consider those classmates who also have scored relatively the same on their ACT/SAT (those you expect to be within 100 points on the SAT or 2-3 points on the ACT, i.e. statistically insignificant). Now think about those students outside the classroom—keep in mind only those who may not be involved with the exact same sports, clubs, work, etc., but basically have had similar impact and influence outside the classroom (aka extra-curricular activities). My guess is all of you still have 3-4 people you could name— maybe more. Still with me? Good. Close your eyes and think about a college’s applicant pool. 10,000? 20,000? Maybe 30,000 applying? (By the way, you can open your eyes now).  For colleges with admit rates under 50% most of the applicants have “good” grades, “good” classes, and are involved outside the classroom too.

On paper you are the same. But you are not the same.

1 – You. Are. Batman!  You have a unique story to tell, and we want to hear it in your writing. When an admission counselor reads your essay or short answer responses, they already have a sense of where you are from, your academic background, and even what you’ve chosen to do with your time because they’ve already looked at the rest of your application. But they have not heard you yet. They have a caricature; they have a black and white sketch; they have a shadow; they have Bruce Wayne. Your writing adds color, dimension, and completes the picture. Your essay brings out Batman. Don’t waste it by walking back through what we already know or telling us what makes you the same as so many other applicants.

2 –  Batman does not have superpowers. What’s cool about Batman is, unlike most superheroes, he does not have any actual superpowers. Instead he relies on his intelligence, strength, agility, and other skills (plus some super cool gadgets) to fight the forces of evil. I’ve talked to so many students who say they don’t know what to write about because nothing amazing has happened to them. The truth is some of the best essays are about mundane topics or experiences. You don’t have to write about the most dramatic or tragic or exciting event to have a great essay. Your voice, your story, your fit for a school, in fact, comes more from your character than external events.  We don’t expect you to be perfect. Often the sanitized, squeaky-clean is boring, safe, and insipid. We want to hear your passions and quirks and different perspectives or dreams. Most memorable essays, like superheroes, balance abilities and skills with humility and vision (X-ray or not).

3 – Be Batman! Remember how I asked you to think of all of those other applicants? Well, now forget them. And definitely don’t worry about who is reading your essay. You stand on your own. You are not defined by or associated with anyone else. You are the caped crusader. All due respect to Robin, you are Batman. Don’t try to be something or someone you are not. Your power is your identity– not an extra, nothing “super” or foreign or imaginary. Be distinct. Be different. Be yourself. Be Batman!

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

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, returns to complete her two-part series. Welcome back, Mary Tipton!

In part two of our file review series, I’ll focus on how we’re preparing for review this year, especially in light of the changes we are making to our approach. To recap from last week, seeking greater accountability, efficiency, norming and prioritization of staff time, we moved to a new model for file review known as Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). In this model, an admission staff member, the driver, will be paired with a seasonal staff member, the passenger, to review applications.

Training for file review every year is a big undertaking, but especially when we are implementing a new model. I am only the encourager and the voice of this implementation in our office, but I can’t take credit for figuring out the schedule for CBE (more on that later) and training staff on the change. I must acknowledge the staff member in our office who has coordinated logistics, worked with seasoned staff members on implementation and ensured all permanent and seasonal staff are trained and ready for reading this week. She has been a superhero in this effort!

Preparing for CBE

To prepare for CBE, we first had to figure out how many teams we could have reading at one time, what schedule worked best for staff, how to cover other office duties (daily visits, phones, emails, visit events, etc.) and where (as in the physical location) we could read. The location piece is more challenging that you may think, given 10 of our staff work in an open, collaborative space we affectionately call the “collabora-dome.” With 12 full-time readers available, we settled on a daily schedule of 8:30a-2:30p in CBE. This schedule ensures we can most effectively utilize our seasonal staff who don’t work a full work day and prevent reader fatigue for everyone. Maintaining this schedule requires knowledge of 42 different calendars and an understanding of each reader’s inherent biases and reading tendencies. In other words, it’s important we pair people who will complement each other and not engage in group think. The result is the color coded spreadsheet you see below!

In two days of “live” CBE and without a full staff (some are still on the road!), we completed over 250 application reviews all the way to a recommended decision stage. That’s compared to less than 200 that had only been first reviewed last year on October 10. These are obviously early returns, but I am beyond pleased with the efficiency gains we are seeing! Once we hit peak reading, we are expecting pairs to read 50 applications in a day for a total of 3,000 per week inclusive of all teams.

Of course, we didn’t just undertake this change for efficiency sake; we wanted to ensure staff felt more confident in their review of a student and their recommended decision because they were discussing the application with a colleague. First, we had to ensure that all staff are normed within a reasonable range of each other (norming means all staff are evaluating the strength of a student’s contribution, fit to Georgia Tech, etc., in the same way). We did this by reading groups of 2017 applications from in- and out-of-state and international. We then discussed their academic and out of class strengths and weaknesses to ensure we were considering items similarly. We got tripped up on a transcript with a strange math class name and a US Citizen in an international high school, but, all in all, we were recognizing and evaluating the nuances necessary to make decisions in a competitive admission environment.

What Does it Mean for You?

Now that you know a little more about how we prepared and implemented CBE, here is what this change means for you. Truthfully, I could stop typing here and say that nothing has changed, but I was told this blog should be no less than 1.5 pages. In all seriousness, let me explain what I mean. There’s been a lot of talk and some consternation about the speed in which applications are read in CBE. As explained last week, the person time on an application has actually increased. Having to only read one portion of an application has allowed us to dive more deeply into school profiles, letters of recommendation and other parts of the application where necessary.

However, there’s a few common sense things I think students and counselors alike should consider, whether the school to which they are applying is utilizing CBE or a traditional application review model.

Fronting Your Application

My biggest piece of advice is to “front” your application (or, for counselors and teachers, the recommendation letter). What do I mean by fronting? It’s a retail term my husband introduced me to from his background working in his dad’s store as a kid. When we first moved in together, I noticed he would go into the cabinets periodically and move all the canned goods and containers to the front of a shelf. I couldn’t understand why he was wasting perfectly good space behind the can of black beans, but he explained to me that it was good merchandising. As I didn’t understand the need to merchandise our cabinets, this was one of the many things we didn’t see eye to eye on when we first moved in together! As an aside, you won’t be surprised to learn that 17 years and a child later, he could care less where the canned goods go in the pantry!

Back to fronting and what it means for you…

Students, front your activities. List your most significant activities first, then put the remainder in descending order of importance to you. It could be descending order of time spent, or significance of impact – you know best what will work for you. We discussed the review of activities in our staff training, emphasizing the importance of looking at both pages of activities in our review, but we all confessed we’d missed significant activities because they were at the end of the list. The same advice goes for the long essay. Just like a book or article, you should work to hook us in the first paragraph. We really do read all essays, but if we aren’t hooked early, we might miss something important in a later paragraph because we are reading quickly.

Counselors, put the most important things we need to know about a student at the beginning of your letter. We don’t need a lead in paragraph—we  need to be directed to the things that are most important for us to understand about a student. More importantly, these should be things the student didn’t tell us, or at least given from a perspective the student does not have about themselves. Many of you are considering using bullet points in your letters. I applaud this move, and it’s really helpful for us to hone in on the information you want to highlight. However, a paragraph with a dot in front of it is not a bullet point! It’s still a narrative. Either format is fine, but put the most significant things early in the letter or at least draw our attention to them with highlighting, italics or the like. The example below is consensus for one of the best formats we’ve seen!

Above all else, know that we are enjoying reading applications again. Admission is a seasonal profession, and that’s something we all love about it. With this change of season and, more importantly, the change in model, I see a re-energized staff enjoying application review. Reading with a colleague is fun, and the whole process seems less daunting than ever before. I’m excited about the year ahead and look forward to reporting more as the year progresses!

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It’s Not About The Application…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immediate: It’s not about the bumper sticker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waiting Well

Q: “Mommy, what eats a hyena?”

Me: “I don’t know, maybe a lion…?”

Q: “Well, let’s get your phone and I’ll look it up.”

As the mom of small children, I find myself constantly asking my girls one thing: wait. And please, be patient.

Turns out young kids have a hard time with waiting. And who can blame them? Our world is driven by “right now.” If my 6-year old has a question and I don’t know the answer, she simply picks up my phone and Googles it (see conversation above). No waiting, no looking it up in a book. If she wants to watch a TV show she has Netflix (and the Disney Jr. app)… when i was a kid you had one shot at watching cartoons: Saturday morning. If you missed your favorite show, too bad—you had to wait a week to see it.

The art of waiting (or lack thereof) even filters down to the books I read to my 1-year old. Each night we read Llama Llama Red Pajama–a story about a young llama whose mom tucks him into bed then goes downstairs. He then calls for her and, in the midst of waiting, spends the next few minutes growing increasingly worried (and ultimately panicked) wondering what’s taking her so long. Of course in the end she comes in and offers some good ol’ mom wisdom: “llama llama what a tizzy… sometimes mama’s very busy. Please stop all this llama drama, and be patient for your mama!” (And yes, this slight reprimand is followed with a hug, kiss, and reassurance that everything is okay.)

Still waiting (for the point….)

All of us, as young as 1, and as old as, well, 30-something, could do a bit better with waiting. There will always be something to wait for in life. When you’re in preschool, you wait for kindergarten. When you’re in middle school, you wait for high school. When you’re in high school, you wait for college. When you’re in college, you wait to graduate and get a job. When you get a job, you wait to find the right person to marry… house to purchase… you see where I’m going here. The list goes on and on. Regardless of what stage of life you find yourself in, you will always be waiting for… something.

If you’re a rising senior, you’re likely waiting for August 1 when many applications (including the Common App and Coalition App) open up. Once that happens, you’ll find yourself in motion as you work on your application and line up all of the documents you need and so on. Hopefully you’ll find yourself all done with your application long before the actual application deadline (hint, hint). At that point all you have to do is wait… and the question becomes: how do you wait? And moreover—how do you wait well?

Make a list, check it twice 

Once you hit that magical submit button, there’s still tasks to be completed. Your list of action items will likely vary from college to college. Follow up with your school counselor to be sure he or she knows what you need from them (transcripts to be sent, recommendation letters uploaded, etc.). Your job is to follow up and provide what is asked of you (so keep an eye on that applicant portal/checklist where you can monitor your status!). But here’s the key: don’t follow up every. Single. Day. Don’t camp out outside anyone’s office, don’t make phone calls every day, and don’t send emails multiple times a day pushing for a response. Make the request, give it a couple of weeks, and…. wait. If you’re getting close to a deadline and still haven’t gotten a response, of course be sure to check back in. If you’ve done your part and asked for the info, and the other person assures you they’re doing their part and working on it, then the next thing to do is…. Wait.

Stay in motion

This one may seem contradictory after what I just said. But just because you’ve submitted your application and requested all of your additional information doesn’t mean you get to just sit around. While you wait be sure to stay in motion. Sitting around and worrying isn’t going to benefit anyone, especially you! If your recommendation letters are finished, write a thank you note to each person. Lead a project at school, help out a friend, spend time with your family, and of course keep studying and working hard in class. Be active, and grow where you’re planted. Right now, in this moment, actually BE where you are instead of worrying about where you will be. Easier said than done, but trust me, practicing that now will help keep your blood pressure down in the future.

Find Reassurance

In the end, it’s okay to be a little bit like Little Llama. Sometimes it all becomes too much, and the only option left is to jump, pout, and shout. When that time comes, find your safe place and let it all out. That place could be with a parent, a friend, a teacher, or a coach. It may not be a person, but an activity that is your safe place (music, sports, horseback riding, hiking, etc.). Find a way to get all of the angst, anxiety, and worry out of your system, without judgement. Take a deep breath—actually, take a lot of them. It helps more than you might think. Remember that if you’ve followed the two steps above, then you’ve done all you can do. It’s out of your hands now… and that’s okay.

If you’re like most students, you’ve done your share of waiting this summer. As you head into your senior year you’ll move from waiting-mode into action-mode. But after all the hustle, and the busyness, of a new school year passes, you’ll find yourself back in waiting mode. And I encourage you: find your way to wait well.

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Don’t Procrastinate… Get Started!

“Man. It really smells like pee in here!” I said scrunching my nose, cocking my head downward and to the left, and painfully closing my eyes. My son, who at the time was five, looked up from playing with his Transformers with a look of absolute bemusement.

“AJ, any idea why?” He shrugged his shoulders and quickly went back to insuring that Megatron (not Calvin Johnson… he loves him!) and his cronies were defeated by the Autobots. I proceeded to look through every sheet, drawer, and cubby in his room. Nothing. No soiled item or area. No article of clothing stuffed into a pillow case or sheet crammed in a corner. So I did the only logical thing… I opened a window, hastily sprayed Febreze and left shaking my head.

Image result for TRANSFORMERS AND TOYS AND OPTIMUS PRIME

Three days later, while I was out of town, my wife had a similar experience. This time our son watched with the rapt interest one has while viewing an African watering hole at midnight. “Who else is coming? What might happen next?” After rifling thoroughly through his room and strewn belongings, she asked him lovingly but repeatedly why it smelled distinctly of urine.

After the third time, it apparently dawned on him. “Hmmm…wait. I know why, mommy. I think it’s because I have been peeing in my floor vent.” Silence. Stunned silence.

And then, and only because of her incredible patience and God-given restraint, she laughed and asked calmly, “You what?!”

Yep. Come to find out that for an unknown (but likely multi-week/month) period of time, my man had been using the floor vent as a urinal. I actually Googled it. It’s more common than you’d think.

Why? You might ask– and with good reason. Quite simply, “You know how when you’re playing, and you don’t want to stop, and the bathroom seems so far away…that’s when.”

Several hundred dollars and a new duct system later. Let’s put it this way– it’s a good thing she discovered it and I was out of town or we might also have had a broken window or door to put back on its hinges.

Get Started!

Why do I share this with you?  Well, if the increasing temperatures, slower schedule, and nightly baseball games were not a hint, it’s summer! A few weeks ago, we posted another blog on this: “Make it a Summer!”

In that blog, we talked about using your time to write college essays, visit schools, talk to graduated seniors or friends returning home from their first year of college, etc. But we looked at the analytics on that blog and realized that perhaps the clicks on the piece on writing  was not as high as we’d hoped.  And so I wanted to come singularly back to that part.

If you are a rising senior, I’m imploring you to use July to write your college essays and supplemental questions. You have an entire month.

Here’s how you can get started:

Week One (July 1-8): Read the prompts from Common Application and Coalition Application. Consider what you might write about. Think about them when you’re at the pool or the gym or driving (but mainly think about driving). Jot down some ideas. Who knows, you may be inspired by fireworks on July 4, so consider voice recording on your phone. That is how I start my drafts and get ideas out and recorded. Whatever works for you.

It does not have to be formal or sequential. During this week also write one supplemental essay for a school you know you are going to apply to. Georgia Tech’s are here.  Generally speaking these are shorter and most schools only require 1-3 additional short answer/supplemental writing samples. And many schools simply ask you to submit something you have already written, so consider your options if you find that to be the case for a school you’re interested in.

Week Two (July 9-16): Get your first draft done. Chip away. One paragraph at a time. One page at a time. A little bit of time each day. If you know you are applying to a school that does not accept the Common Application or Coalition Application, then you may need to write two essays this week. Not a problem. Allocate an hour a day for that entire week. You got this! Use this week to write another supplemental essay for the same college or a different one this week.

Week Three (July 17-23): Get this to an editor (not a co-author). Hint: You should ask them if they’re up for it during week two and tell them they’ll have it on July 16. Check in with them on July 20. “How’s it going?” Have you taken a look yet? Can I clear anything up for you?” Plan to meet with them or Skype/FaceTime with them by July 23. Write another supplemental essay this week.

Week Four (July 23-30): Second draft. Take the edits and make your improvements and enhancements. Consider how you can add description or make your essay more unique, personalized, authentic. Write your fourth supplemental essay this week.

July 31. Treat yourself. Ice cream, a new shirt, a movie or show. You do you, because at this point you have a long essay and four supplemental essays done. Your editor should be up for reading a few supplemental essays this week, especially if you brought them along for the double scoop or enticed them with an Amazon card.

Now use the same method in August for any additional supplementals or long essays. This way as your fall ramps up with sports, school activities, and normal homework and other papers, tests, etc., you’ll be good to go for making October or November EA/ED deadlines.

Why Do I Care?  

Last year, of our 31,500 applications, 1/3 were submitted on a deadline day or the two days prior. Now, I’m guessing that when these applications open on August 1, you are not stumped by some of the initial questions, ie. Name, Date of Birth, Address. (If you are, please call me, and we’ll discuss if college is right for you.)

So what takes so long to submit? Why is meeting an October 15 or November 1 deadline tough when you have 10-12 weeks post August 1? I’ll tell you why… “You know how when you’re playing, and you don’t want to stop, and the deadlines seem so far away…”

Trust me. Get started! You don’t want admission readers looking for Febreze after reading your essays.

We moved last year. I really like our new house. One of the features the real estate agent did not point out but I most appreciate is that the vents are in the ceiling.

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