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The Welcome Manual: Part 1 of 3

I woke up to the sound of rain on the windows and roof. Not a completely uncommon noise but somehow this seemed different. Then the water started hitting my arm and face and I forced my eyes open.

I was sleeping on a porch at the beach. My family took a vacation last week to Cape Cod, MA. Beautiful area and great to escape the Georgia heat at this time of year. But after a long night of stories by the fire, I had decided to sleep on a porch bed to enjoy the cool evening.  Looking around me at the wet sill and blanket it was clear that it had been raining a while. I went back into the house and began closing the windows in my wife and kids’ rooms. Then I went into the bathroom. Oddly, it was here that it felt like rain was falling directly on my head… and it was.

I looked up and realized there was an open sunroof that I had not noticed during the beautiful, clear days before.  Not wanting to turn on the light or wake anyone else up I stared up at the skylight. Rain was coming directly into my face at this point.

This house was built in 1920. The ceiling was a good 12 feet high and there was a precariously archaic looking crank to close this hatch. I searched the wall hoping perhaps it has been modernized and one of the switches would control it. Flip, lights. Flip, fan. Flip, not sure what that does but it does not control the sunroof.

Finding The Solution

Do I put down towels and go back to sleep? Appealing but irresponsible. Do I wake my wife up and ask for help? No. It’s 3 a.m. and she was buried under 2 pillows and taking up the entire bed at this point. Plus, she’d much prefer a wet bathroom than being woken up with questions I should be able to answer.

So… the only solution: climb. I’m not saying I’m Spiderman or anything, but having young kids has renewed my playground acumen, which as this point was looking to prove necessary. I step up onto to toilet. Put a foot into the wall and my hand on the window sill and pulled myself onto that and the top of the door frame.  I was 6-7 feet off the ground and could reach to 11 or so. Almost there. I stretched further and could almost touch the crank now. But it was slick and rain was picking up. I jammed my back into wall and reluctantly reached to the crank and closed the sunroof. At this point I was dripping from both sweat and rain.  I eased back down to the top of the toilet careful not to make the final step the one that sent me to the Cape Cod hospital. And that’s when I saw it. Sitting in the corner, right next to the plunger was a 2 foot silver rod.  I picked it up. What the…?!  Expanding it out to a good 6 feet like a tent pole, there was a perfect aperture for the crank.

That would have been good to know! I’m so glad the welcome manual for the house included directions to the beach and restaurant recommendations, instead of helpful nuggets like this one. Yelp and Google Maps have got me covered in 2016, but so far there is no “crank” app that I’m aware of.

The Admission Welcome Manual

Part of what creates anxiety in the admission process is what brings about stress in all of life: uncertainty.  When we don’t feel like we have all of the details or good information on something, it shakes us. And then questions start swirling: Should I apply or is this school too far out of reach? Will they like my essay and find it compelling? Have I done enough outside the classroom to complement my good grades? How much will they look at test scores, and will that be the only factor they care about? Will the fact that 10 other students are applying from my high school hurt my chances?

As we head toward August and the opening of applications around the country, it’s clear we need to go back to the basics. Today, we’ll cover the first step in our three-part series, the“welcome manual” to college admission.

Step 1 – Separate yourself

The other day I was talking with a student who just finished his freshman year at Tech. Crazy talented when it comes to film and media. He’s going to have a very successful career, and he’s majoring in business to complement his creative skills. We started talking about the admission process, and I fired off a few questions I love to ask: where else did you apply? Why did you choose Tech? What would you tell a high school student now that you wish you would have known?

And his answer to that surprised me– he said he did not highlight his passion for film because he thought Tech admissions would question if he were a good fit. He didn’t want to “look too different from others I knew were applying.” He actually wrote different supplemental essays for Tech than he did for University of Chicago and Stanford. At this point, my mouth was agape. “What?! Wait… what?!”   I know we talk about “voice” in every presentation. We write about “conveying individualism” in blogs and in publications. We have made videos speaking to this very point. It’s one of those moments that makes me want to throw up my hands.

The entire purpose of the supplemental essay is to separate you from other applicants. This is your interview. This is the one time in the app that you get to convey your voice. That voice is precious to us because it does not come out in test scores, course choice or performance, or even in the activities you choose to participate in. We need your authentic, passionate, individual voice and content there. His desire to combine business and film is PRECISELY what makes him an attractive candidate for us. We saw that he had his own film company when reading his activities and noted he had worked in that capacity within school and the community.

Like many applicants, we Googled him and checked out some of his work during file review. We want to know these things you care about. Shaping and building a class means finding many distinct pieces and combining them to create a beautiful puzzle.

So repeat after me, “Step 1: Write to separate yourself.”  When we read essays and make comments, we use a rubric. On our scale the mid-range is “dime a dozen” or “not a separator.” Basically this means that the essay does not hurt but does not help. It’s neutral. It’s effectively mediocre. Reaching the higher end of the rubric is achieved by augmenting your application with writing that helps us hear you, helps us remember you, understand you. Think about going out on a first date. You want your answers and conversation to be interesting, elaborative, insightful, creative. One word answers that you give your parents about where you went, who you were with, and how your day was are mediocre. (Try stepping that up too– they love you.) You know the difference. Now show us that!

We’ll hit Step 2 next week. In the meantime, don’t go climbing up wet walls in the night groping for a rusty crank.

Fisher vs. Texas… It’s all about the data

I just returned from a 3-day hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest with a couple friends that I’ve known for 30 years. It was an amazing time to catch up and unplug. Before we left we downloaded a GPS app, purchased a topographic map of the area, and checked multiple trail and weather reports. As we gathered our gear at the trail head, we talked to people coming out about the downed trees, river crossings, and overall conditions. We did all of this to try to understand what to expect, how to prepare, and what to bring in order to have a fun and safe trip. We all do this when we buy a car or are thinking about asking someone out on a date, right? We read reviews, we talk to friends, we “shop around.” For any important decision we always want moIMG_1607re information, not less. And so it goes too for the college admission process.

Fisher v. Texas 

If you have been reading or watching the news lately, you know the Supreme Court is adjourning for the summer. In advance of that, they released a bevy of rulings last week, including the Fisher v. Texas decision, in which they ruled 4-3 (with Justice Kagan recusing herself) to uphold the University of Texas at Austin race-conscious admission policy.  For those of utilizing holistic admission processes, this is important because it protects the current precedent (established in Bakke, Grutter, Gratz and Fisher 1), which allows for race to be one of many factors in the admission process.

One of Many Data Elements

In my opinion, however, upholding the ability to utilize race in admission is symbolic of the larger win. To be honest, it’s more about the data. Maybe someone should write a song called, “It’s all about the data, ’bout the data.” Not sure that quite has the same punch as “the bass,” but the concept is absolutely accurate. If you start to take away data points, you begin to deteriorate the effectiveness of a holistic file review process. The entire reason you go beyond a formulaic process (only looking at classes, grades, and test scores) is to get a full picture of each student while reading an application. Take away data elements and you begin eroding the complete picture. It’s like removing critical pixels in a larger graphic. First, you remove race, then gender, then parents’ marital status, and the list goes on.

In fact right now the White House is pushing a “Beyond the Box” initiative and is encouraging schools to sign the Fair Chance Pledge. This calls for “colleges and universities to help remove barriers… that prevent citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education.”  One of the factors that they cite is that students are less apt to apply if these questions are on the form. I’d like to see the research on that because certainly if that is deemed to be prevalent, it’s a reasonable argument. However, in general, I like to see those questions and the responses. Questions we ask in committee are: “What did the student do… and when? What has happened as a result? Is there evidence of grit or lessons learned?  Did they write about that?” Most of the questions we ask are in hopes of finding evidence that the student has grown and will contribute and flourish on campus.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Applications are built to form a picture, to tell a story, and to provide context. This is why we want to know what extra-curricular activities a student has chosen to pursue; it’s why we read the essays; it’s why admission officers or alumni take the time to interview students. We are constantly looking for history, background, and context.

Undeniably, race is a sensitive subject. And the court points to this stating, “it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.” The race/ethnicity of students, however, is only one facet of a much broader diversity goal that schools have—and what’s crucial to remember is why diversity in all of its forms (geographic, gender, extra-curricular, etc.) matters.

When students live and study alongside classmates from a wide variety of backgrounds, their experience is ameliorated. Rich dialogue and enhanced learning stems from differences. And those differences serve to improve classroom discussion and the overall campus ethos. Being respectfully asked “Why are you wearing that? Why do you believe that? Why did you jdiversityust say that?” in a college setting produces graduates who enter the workplace capable of being challenged and excited about being stretched to broaden their perspective. Ultimately, these graduates go on to bolster communities and enrich their workplace, because they are more aware of people’s differences, needs, challenges, and desires. They create better products, better policies, better communities, and a fundamentally better world.

So while many will take a myopic view of the Fisher result as being about race- it’s really about the data—and colleges need that to improve not only the learning environment on campus but, more importantly, our nation and workforce in the future.

Break a Leg!

This week we welcome guest bloggers Andrea Jester and Laila Flores, two admission counselors on our staff. A large part of the Georgia Tech, and Atlanta, experience includes exposure to the arts. Andrea and Laila are here to give you a glimpse into theatre in the city this summer.

“Break a leg!” is what you will probably wish your Drama Tech friends before a show. DramaTech Theatre is completely run by students. We are always uniquely impressed by every one of their shows. Depending on when you visit, they may be premiering a thought-provoking play, a lighthearted musical, or even improv comedy! If you have the theater bug, you can always join them! Everyone from the set designer to the performers to the special effect technicians are all Tech students.

All of Drama Tech’s shows take place in black box called Dean Dull Theater. If you have never been to a black box theater, it’s a very cool and unique experience. The theater presents an intimate setting where you always feel close to the action that happens on stage, and sometimes you are even asked to join the spotlight! During their last production, a performance centering on a group of spelling bee contestants, they recruited four volunteers from the audience. Neat, right? It was! All those volunteers won the favor and heart of the audience, they received rounds of applause over and over! Their next show is Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which runs June 24 through July 2, 2016. We hope to see you there!

If you are looking for theatre off-campus, Atlanta hosts great theater productions at the Fox Theatre (just down the block from GT’s Bobby Dodd Football Stadium) and the Alliance Theatre. For the Shakespeare fans out there we recommend reserving seats at The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. In addition to great acting, you can also dine there. If you just want to buy a drink and a snack, we recommend a round of their spicy peanuts.

Atlanta is also home for the Center for Puppetry Arts, which in addition to an immense collection of puppets from all over the world also houses The Jim Henson Collection. You can see the beloved Kermit and Miss Piggy, and other Sesame Street famous characters. The center also has programming for all ages, we recommend you attend the 2016 National Puppet Slam (held September 2-4, 2016).

We hope that if whether you are an Atlanta local or just visiting, these suggestions help you get your theater fix this summer. Now go break a leg!

The Logical Connections Between College Admissions & Lasting Friendships

This summer I am moderating two conference panels for enrollment/admission leaders to share their career advice and insight. We are all concerned, no matter what our profession, with succession planning, i.d. identifying the “next generation” of talent. Maybe it’s just because its graduation season and I’ve been reading or listening to a lot of speakers lately, or maybe it’s because I’m just a little cheesy, but as I’ve been preparing my questions I realized that my tips for the  profession sound pretty similar to generally being a good friend.

Warning: If you are looking for ways to boost your SAT score or craft a perfect essay, you won’t get it in this blog entry. 

Go To Them

A former Tech football coach told me he thinks admission and coaching are very similar. “Everyone thinks they can do it better, and they are more than happy to tell you exactly how. You’ve got to get comfortable with plenty of second guessing and ‘Monday morning quarterbacking.’” It’s true. Each year hundreds, if not thousands of talented students are “left out” and thus upset about being denied admission. Internally, a campus department feels like admission did not bring them enough students, and another believes they have too many. Unlike Goldilocks you never seem to hear from anyone saying it’s “just right.” Those I think are phrased, “we don’t like the ones we have.” At the end of the day, sometimes it seems you not only can’t please anyone, but in fact you have pissed off everyone. I see our coach’s point… bowl game, 10 win season, but where is the national championship? What I have come to realize, and what I tell younger professionals, is that in those moments you cannot stay in your office and solve problems or mend relationships. Get up. Get out. Go to the people who are upset. Numerous times I’ve walked into a professor’s office when his son or daughter has been denied admission knowing it will be uncomfortable. But being in their office, looking at their pictures, and taking my time to show up is an indication that I value the relationship. It’s not always possible, but for some tough conversations with alumni or students in the metro Atlanta area, I have gone to the high school or met at a Starbucks in their community.

I think we’ve all found ourselves in a spot of feeling like we’ve pleased nobody and disappointed or pissed off lots of close friends or family members. Somehow this experience seems almost inevitable in high school– and I’d love to tell you it’s a one and done deal—but that is rarely the case. Whether this is a “mass make-up” or simply repairing the relationship with one person, I want to urge you to “go to them.” We have way too many mediums for communication: text, social media, stuff a note in their bag, send a message through a friend. It’s hard to say you’re sorry looking directly at someone. It’s uncomfortable to admit you were wrong when you see your damage in their eyes—and sometimes even worse to tell someone else that they were wrong and you are hurt. But true relationships, and ultimately lasting friendships, are mended and preserved through humility and a willingness to proactively heal the fissures.

Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.” Dicky Fox in Jerry McGuire.

Build a Strong Core Team

If you, your team, and your university are going to have the highest level of success, you have to be ok with being surrounded by people who are better at some things than you are. There is no way you can know everything, do everything, or accomplish everything that’s being asked on your own. I learned this the hard way. In April of 2008 I became Interim Director at Georgia Tech. At the time, I was serving as Associate Director. In this role I managed our recruitment efforts, communication efforts, and our athletic and alumni liaison work. Stepping into the Interim position and maintaining those duties was daunting and exhausting. A month later, my wife and I had our first baby. That summer I dropped 10 pounds and slept about the same amount of hours in total. It was brutal. There were days I forgot to wear socks and days I drank eight Cokes. I was putting everything I had into work and home, but I was ultimately marginal in all roles. It showed me in a painfully poignant way how critical it is to build a strong team, particularly the other leaders on staff. There are still some moments when I question if I should be doing some of the work I’ve delegated, or am almost embarrassed by how much more informed on a topic or issue a team member is than I, but it does not take long to remember the summer of 2008—and I’m instantly thankful for being surrounded by people who make me better and our team more successful due to their complementary talent and knowledge.

Last night I was sitting at the pool watching my kids play. A group of high school girls were talking next to me. I pulled my hat lower and put my sunglasses back on (I know tip 1 was “go to them” but poolside is not the time for being recognized as an admission director). Ultimately, one of them left, and the three others started criticizing her as she walked away. You could easily just chalk this up to being petty and immature, but ultimately it’s a sign of insecurity. I did not hear all of their comments (splash contest to judge), but clearly something about this girl was threatening to them. Maybe she was smarter, maybe a better athlete, or funnier or smarter or who knows. Check out this video from Tech’s “Wreckless,” a group committed to encouraging fellow students. Now contrast that to Donald Trump’s comments earlier this spring.  We challenge students on this all of the time. “If you don’t like being around people who are smarter than you, or who speak more languages, or who have traveled places you could not identify on a map, don’t come here.” Improving as a learner, living a more full, rich, and worthwhile life, comes from being around people who stretch and challenge you– and yes, even humble you.  (This is not political commentary. I just patently disagree with The Donald on this point.)

Be direct.

Our profession demands an ability to say “No” with grace and respect, but also with firmness. We constantly are asked, “What’s one more?” This kid has perfect SATs… this kid would really contribute to our club robotics team… he’s a state champion chess player… or she’s a nationally ranked equestrian. The recommendations of one more email, phone call, letter, walk- in visitor could easily become 200 more students in a class, if you don’t learn to say “No” with grace and respect, but also with firmness. I’ve found that while it can be uncomfortable and tense at the outset, it is possible to salvage relationships through honesty, empathy, but clear and direct communication.

And so too with friendship. I’ll never forget being on an airplane with a friend on the way to Boston. I could tell he was not happy with me, and so I asked him what was bothering him. “You are ALWAYS late. You were late today meeting me. You were late for dinner the other night. It’s disrespectful. Do you think your time is more valuable than mine?!” He was right. And even though it was painful to hear, I deeply value that conversation because it was honest but emanated from a place of love. He wanted to preserve and improve our friendship. Sure, it would have been easier to not say anything or simply “throw shade” (really wrote this entire blog just to use that newly acquired term), but that would not have deepened our friendship, which he did by being direct and real.

As promised there have been no tangible tips here to help you in AP US History. But as you go through the admission process, or enter college, or continue on in life no matter what your age, I’d assert that being proactive in relationships, surrounding yourself with talented and caring people, and dealing with friends and family directly and honestly, will mean a whole lot more.

 

5 Essential Ingredients When Calling an Admission Office

At Tech we love formulas, and while not everything can fit into the magic of math and flow charts, I’ll let you in on a secret: there is a correct formula when you call the admission office. See, I’m the inside man. I work in the Communication Center, and generally speaking, I love talking to parents and students about Tech and helping solve the problems that come with going to college. I also train student workers. We work together every day and share insights about how to better communicate with our audience. Several months ago, I started to notice some emerging patterns and correlations – I am a Tech grad after all – regarding those frustrating or unproductive conversations, versus those where the caller left better equipped, and I or my students felt satisfied with our work.

So what is the formula? What pattern results in a positive experience with the Admission Office? Here are five essential ingredients to having the best experience:

Preparation

What you do before the call is as important as what you do during. In the most successful interactions, the caller has 1) called the right department 2) asked the right question 3) has the explanations and identification to help the process along.

  • When folks have called us erroneously (we were once asked if we could help sell a mink coat…) I wonder if they Googled it first. This is everything from the mink coat lady, to asking about programs we don’t offer or contacting us instead of Alumni, Athletics, Financial Aid, etc. It’s part of our job to help redirect calls, but we don’t love bouncing people around, or feeling like we can’t help at all.
  • Why does it matter if you call with a question versus a scenario? Our job involves problem solving, but when I don’t know what the problem is I don’t know what details I’m looking for in the story. The question first helps us know what to look for, and it helps us be more efficient if we have to redirect your call or have the answer on hand. For example, in January, a lot of applicants were having trouble submitting a document. Call volume was really high, and we knew about the problem. Applicants were under the impression they were the only one with the issue, and they would begin with a story instead of the question. Most of time, I could clarify one or two things and get an answer to them quickly and clearly without needing the longer explanation. They had a quick answer, and I could help the next person in line.
  • Sometimes explanations and stories are necessary. Ask your question first thing, but be prepared when we have to ask you clarifying questions. This means the context of why you are asking and having the proper background and identification information (like your GTID).

Be Nice

You’ve done all the prep work – now it’s time to call. I cannot emphasize enough – be nice. In Kindergarten, we were taught that when you are mad or anxious, take a deep breath (count to 10). When you engage us, you can let know your emotional status, but know we want to help you, even if the answer is an infuriating “no”.

This really is very helpful for the caller. The minute a call comes in, we are there to help you, but the more abrasive the person on the other line is, that desire to help starts draining, and I or my students just want the call to end. The reality of being nice is that it will take you further.

Call

Sometimes when people are asking questions, it’s too late to be asking questions. Once there was an applicant who had a discrepancy in his application. He called a couple weeks after decision release – which was too late for us to edit anything. Calling a month or two earlier would have ironed out the issue, and avoided a frustrating scenario. If you see a problem – and you can’t find the solution online, count to 10 and give us a call.

Communicate with the Applicant

If the student can call themselves, do that. If not, communicate with them before calling. I have had scenarios where I talked to mom, dad, mom, applicant, dad, and then the applicant again. I felt like I had entered a Days of Our Lives season finale, but I couldn’t drag everyone in a room and fanatically cry for everyone to tell the truth to each other. Students – talk to you parents. Parents – talk to your kids. Students – do as much as you can on your own. Parents – let them.

Email

Anyone – send an email. We get through most of the emails every day. Bad phone connection? Email. Expensive to call? Email. Mad? Email (then don’t send it). The only thing we ask is to please include your name on the emails, and past correspondence.

Conclusion

It should be said, formulas have variables, and one you can’t help is the human factor. For example, you do everything right, but my stomach is playing games with my temperament, and I get short with answers. So instead I promise you this, whatever capricious version you get on the phone, my students and I are working in this office because we love Tech, we value higher education and we care about students finding the right university to attend.