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Ask Better 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 this spring, whether you are a sophomore or junior who is just starting to understand how one school varies from another, or an admitted 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 18:1, but that doesn’t mean you and 17 buddies will be sitting around a table in Calculus I your freshman 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. Our most common class size is between 26-33, and around 7% of our courses have over 100 students in them. 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 freshman year to senior 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 in the 60-65% 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. We’ll continue this next week because I have more questions…and so should you.

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You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

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The Great Kindness Challenge

I arrived home from work Monday to my kids asking to do a “funny, crazy dance” for me.  So I sat down and watched as they flailed around, sang, and fell down a few times. Honestly, it looked like most of their everyday antics. But when they were done, they went over to a sheet of paper and checked something off.

Apparently, doing a crazy dance for someone qualifies as being kind. In case you didn’t know, this week is The Great Kindness Challenge. I apologize for sending this out towards the end of the week, but there is good news: you can actually be kind anytime you want.

Throughout this week, they’ve progressively checked things off the list. “Say Good Morning to 15 people” led us to scare the crap out of a few runners and dog walkers on the way to school. “Thank a crossing guard” brought up a conversation about how people appreciate being called by their actual name. “Good morning, Crossing Guard! Dad, where is my checklist?”

Being Kind and the Admission Process

Why does this matter to you? One thing I’ve observed in the college admission process is that  students can, unintentionally and progressively, become very myopic and self-absorbed. Some of that is necessary and not entirely wrong. Naturally, you need to be selfish with your time when you are writing essays or preparing for an interview. But the unhealthy side is that you can also stop celebrating the wins of others or truly demonstrating empathy in their disappointment, because the immediate thought is either comparison or “what does this mean for me?”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the admission process (Good thing, right? … since that’s my job). When process is a noun it becomes something you encounter or that you endure. My hope is that you will begin to flip the script to processing. When the admission “process” becomes a verb, you change because you challenge yourself to think and grow. There are many ways you can do this along the way. But for now I hope you will ask yourself a few basic questions about who helped you get to where you are today, and consider taking time to thank them, encourage them, or check in on how they’re doing. You know… be kind. Look beyond your world, your problems, your current concerns, or your celebrations.

Your Kindness Checklist

While The Great Kindness Challenge may be coming to a close, your admission process (and processing) has not. I encourage you to consider a few of these people and acts.

1- Thank a teacher or counselor who wrote a letter of recommendation for you or provided you with some good advice and insight during the admission process. Some of these folks write hundreds of rec letters. As a reader of those, I can tell you that their effort, passion, and advocacy for you is inspiring. So think about dropping off a note or swinging by their classroom/office and give them a high-five, hug, or fist bump.

2- Give mom, dad, sibling, or another family member a call, hug, or text with earnest emojis. Family does not always get it right. Sometimes they annoy you, pester you, or give unsolicited feedback. Do you know why? THEY LOVE YOU. I get it–sometimes expressed love does not look like we want it to, and sometimes it’s covertly disguised in questions or reminders. But that is what it is. So give it back in a way you know they’ll appreciate it.

3- Go back to your elementary school or middle school. (Sounds like a penalty on K-12 monopoly). I don’t talk much in this blog about my own college experience, mostly because it’s not that interesting and I think you’d find it outdated. But one thing I did do right in my senior year was go back to my elementary school with a classmate. We went one day at the end of school and talked to a second grade class. After the bell rang, we just walked the halls and said hi and thanks to the teachers who taught us. Not only was this a reminder of how far we’d come (highlighted by the incredibly low set urinals in the bathroom), but it also meant a lot to the teachers. We told them a bit about what we were up, to but I remember distinctly talking to several almost like friends about their class, the school, and their memories. Good stuff all around. Costs you nothing but time. Do it.

4- Check in on a friend or classmate. Nothing in the conversation about you. How are they doing? How are they feeling about college, graduating, getting in or not getting in? Best done over a meal or coffee that you pay for, but a walk, run, or long drive also works.

5- The Kindness Checklist ends with “Create Your Own Deed,” so I’ll leave the creativity up to you. But consider who in your life has helped you. When you think about how you are “processing admission,” who comes to mind as an influencer or someone you trust? Answer that and you are halfway there.

February 17 is officially “National Random Acts of Kindness Day.” Frankly, I somewhat take issue with the word “random” if you’ve been planning on it and marking it on a calendar, but who am I to stand in the way of goodwill?

Lastly, if you just want to smile, check out #greatkindnesschallenge.

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Do Something New

Keeping it simple. Sort of…

My wife and I had a one-present Christmas, as in, one gift only to exchange. “Let’s keep it simple.” But while one present should be easy, it also adds some pressure. Do you go functional? Something she’s asked for to show I am listening? Or is that predictable and boring? Should I give her an experience (show tickets or a night away)?

In the end, I gave her a jacket. On the surface, that may sound lame. But this is not just any jacket. It’s the Patagonia Houdini, the best low weight, versatile jacket on the market. I’ll not delve into all of the virtues and attributes of the jacket, but message me if you want more testimony.

On Christmas Day, after our kids ripped through their gifts like small, wild animals, I looked for her gift in anticipation. What would she choose? And what would that say about our relationship? This was particularly intriguing because rather than a big box or a new bike in the driveway (shoot!), there was a small envelope. “Tell me this is not a gift card!” was all that was going through my head. I know she’s got more creativity than that. I mean, gift cards are an uncle’s gift, c’mon.

I opened the envelope and read curiously. I was definitely surprised. Does this mean she loves me or hates me?  It was in fact a gift card… from her Yoga studio, a class called “Yoga for the stiff guy.” Six weeks to cover the basics of positions, poses, props, etc.

A Humbling Experience

I’m not going to lie to you. The first class was humbling. I think the instructor was pretty easy on us. I hung in there overall, but just when I started feeling more confident, she’d say something I could not even reconcile, like “Now, move your belly towards your thigh.” Wait, what? Balance, breathing, Bhakti. I was just trying to comprehend the language and instructions. At times I could sense her eyes scanning the room, and inevitably they’d land on me.  I’ve learned that “You may want to modify that”  is Yoga-speak for “you’re not ready for this.” And even when I thought I had mastered some poses, I’d hear “Oh no. Much, much wider.” Okay. Watch your much’s–one will do.

I was challenged.  I was humbled. But it has also helped me think more about my posture, my breathing, my core strength, and a general awareness of my body. I still don’t know how to bring my belly to my thigh, but I figure that comes in the latter part of the six weeks.

Incredibly Different

So as we launch into 2017, I’ve decided she gave me the perfect gift, because it’s such a divergence. So incredibly different. A nudge to grow and stretch (literally in this case).  Here are three reasons I hope you’ll also get out there and do something different in 2017.

1- You will see new places.

No matter where you live, your community focuses on a few colleges or universities. As a culture we get very myopic, especially among the most academically talented students, and focus on an incredibly small set of schools. I want to challenge you to at least visit, apply, and strongly consider attending a college nobody in your family went to, or a place nobody in last year’s senior class decided to attend. Not saying you need to actually attend, but do go see it. I guarantee you will learn, grow, and benefit from the experience.  The courage to explore…the desire to try something completely new and different, will lead you to places you’d otherwise never experience.

2- You will need to process. 

At some point in the college admission process, you will likely be deferred, denied, waitlisted, or receive a financial aid package that makes it impractical for you to attend a certain school. You will likely see someone “get in” or even get a scholarship when you do not believe it is right or fair.  This is called a “process.” But you need to remember it’s a verb too. Process things. Grow from your thoughts and your experiences. To do that you will need to clear your head and get perspective. Do something different. New music, new road trip, different type of podcast or book or movie. If you do this, you will grow. You will change. You will be preparing yourself in ways no AP or IB course ever could for what it means to really be ready for college.

3- You will challenge and ultimately make others around you better. Do you know someone who is always picking up a new hobby or listening to a new artist or reading something you’ve never heard of? If you don’t, go find someone like that. I have a friend who is a DJ, a Taekwondo master, and an airplane pilot. Another friend is a pediatrician who in the last few years has built box gardens, picked up the guitar, BMX racing, and is emerging as an accomplished storyteller in Portland. When I listen to these guys talk about their curiosity, lessons learned, and the people they meet and know, it’s inspiring. It makes me want to expand my knowledge, my skills, and my worldview.

Push, Stretch, and Be Challenged

At the end of the day, that’s what college should be about, right? To be surrounded by people who will push you, stretch you, and challenge you to be better, to be smarter, to explore and experiment and consider things that you have not to this point. It’s easy to list school size or location or cost or other highly quantifiable traits. But as you pick schools to visit, apply to, and ultimately attend, these are the types of communities that you should be listening for in talking to students, faculty, and alumni.

I’m currently reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. It’s the story of a 66-year old mother of 11 and grandmother to 23 who in 1955 left her Ohio farm with a pair of Keds and a hand-sewn bag to become the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It’s remarkable because after a lifetime of intensely hard work, a marriage riddled with physical and mental abuse, and years of pouring her life into raising a family, she walks into the woods. Her experiences inspired our nation. And many say her reports from the trail “saved the Appalachian Trail.” We all need those outlets that give us vision beyond the immediate. I’m urging you to try something new and different this spring. Namaste.

By the Way…

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Breaking Down The Admission Team. Week 5: Quarterbacks

This year we moved our Regular Decision Deadline from January 10 to January 1. When we initially made the call to change the date, one of my boss’s biggest concerns was that “we would ruin New Year’s Eve” by “making them” stay in to apply to Tech.

My counter was two-fold. First, the application opens on August 1, so we’ve “given” them five months to apply. How long do you need to write a few paragraphs and ask mom and dad some questions about their jobs, degrees, and residency?

Second, let’s not forget about January 1. Even if they stay out to celebrate NYE, they still have ALL DAY January 1. And, predictably, 3,500 students did wait to apply for 2017 in 2017.

I can relate. I started this series on The Admission Team in early November and committed to finishing before we went back to work January 3, and here I am writing this on January 2 (with all the time in the world to meet that deadline). Takes one to know one.

QB1

We’ve worked through The Communications Team (Defense), The Operations Team (Offensive Line), The Initial Review (The Bench), and The Recruitment and Holistic Review Team, (WRs and RBs). And that leaves us with just one position left to cover: The Director/Dean/AVP (or some other fancy title) of Admission. You can basically throw in folks with titles like Associate and Senior Associate to this group as well.

These are the Quarterbacks of the team. They call the plays, scan the entire field, read defenses, and align their team’s talent in the right positions to be successful. They make strategy and personnel adjustments as the game progresses in order to lead their team to victory.  Consequently, they are typically the names on recruitment and decision letters, the spokespeople providing quotes to journalists, and they’re also the ones who take the heat when goals are not met.

Signal Callers

These folks are part demographer, part pitch-man, part cheerleader, part bridge-builder, and of course, part soup maker. 

Directors and Deans are over-“meetinged.” They spend time looking at historical trends of applications by state or major or some other category; they are concerned about demographic shifts; they are constantly refining predictive models in order to be sure they bring in the right class size and make-up.  They field way too many calls from vendors wanting to sell them services. They meet with and listen to alumni, presidents, provosts, deans, donors, board members, legislators, and other key constituents, and attempt to translate sweeping five-part mission statements and aspirational future casting about the university into succinct, engaging messages that can be easily understood and attractive to students and parents.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always get this right. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of glossy, shiny brochures with phrases like “Invent your future” or “Be Bold” or “Find it here.” Trite? Cheesy? Sure. But next time you scoff at one of these short verb-led challenges on a mailing, imagine if instead it read “Engaging students in co-curricular and inspiring world-class education in order to create global citizens committed to endeavoring into passionate, meaningful dialogue for life-long learning and the cultivation of future impact.” (The reason you know I made that up is there are nearly ten mono-syllabic words).

These folks are multi-taskers (and often caffeine junkies) who have become masters of slipping out of meetings with influential alumni in order to quickly welcome a group of visiting sophomores to campus.

Quarter Backgrounds (see what I did there?)

If you look at quarterbacks around the NFL, you’ll find their backgrounds and personalities vary widely. Eli Manning comes from a family that’s basically football royalty. He attended a prestigious private school in New Orleans, and played big time college ball at Ole Miss in the nation’s biggest powerhouse conference. Joe Flacco went to the University of Delaware (Go Blue Hens!) out of the Colonial Conference– far more known for basketball than football– and attended  public high school in New Jersey. Cam Newton has a gregarious and sometimes flamboyant personality. Drew Brees… not so much.

And so it goes with admission directors and deans. There is no template or mold. Accountants have CPAs. Lawyers have JDs. Look at some of these biographies online. Music majors, MBAs, PhDs in History and Fine Arts. Some have parents who were long time deans with a deep lineage in higher education, while others are converts from corporate America or have migrated from other parts of academia.

But there is one trait I’ve found applies to all of the folks: they are extremely genuine. They deeply want to see young people thrive and succeed. They believe in and love the school they represent.

What’s it to you? 

Like quarterbacks in football, these are typically very goal oriented, driven people. They spend a great deal of time analyzing, tweaking, refining. They like to win, they like to compete, and they want their team to be the best. But they are also committed collaborators. They share ideas and best practices, even with direct competitors, because they want to see others become better. They are humble people who know that even with all the skill in the world, there’s no way that they can individually recruit or enroll a great class. They need the full investment of their campus community, alumni community, and the team around them. No quarterback throws a pass to himself. And without support from the team, they’d be on their back every play.

So What?

Knowing this about the people who are recruiting you or reviewing your application is not going to give you any kind of edge when it comes to “getting in.” The truth is that most applicants never meet the dean or director of the colleges to which they apply or ultimately attend. But it is important to know what type of person is behind the emails, or the marketing materials, or the counselors and other admission representatives that you do meet. Their values and personality and priorities drive and transcend a great deal of what you see and experience.  These are people who  strive to create access to higher education for all students, and are fully committed to enrolling thoughtful, dynamic, diverse classes.

Post-Game Press Conference

If you have taken away nothing else from the parallels between positions on a team and the roles people play in the admission office at universities around the country, please remember this: the work of recruiting students and making admission decisions is deeply human. Unfortunately the vocabulary of this field (application, process, deadline) dilutes that very important truth. But it is critical that you know this, because ultimately you’re not applying to an institution. An institution does not teach nor inspire; a community does these things.

Now that you know the people of college admission, make your experience about the people. Don’t let the list of schools you apply to or ultimately choose be about where they are ranked, or what that name might look like on a bumper sticker. Don’t let the claim that you “got in” dictate your decision. Instead, make it about finding a distinct community where your talents, your goals, your skills, your vision, and your aspirations align with that team.

Tune in next week when we’ll be talking about something other than football.

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