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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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Breaking Down the Admission Team: Week 2: Offensive Line

In Fantasy Football, you score with skill positions, like quarterbacks and running backs. But we all know that in order for a player to succeed, he must have a group on the line blocking, working, and grinding every play. They don’t garner the spotlight, the headlines, or the score sheet, but make no mistake, the offensive line is the very heartbeat of the team.

And that is absolutely true of the phenomenal women and men who work in operations around the nation in admission. They don’t stand up on stages and deliver impassioned speeches about the school. They are not usually the ones talking with visitors. Their pictures aren’t prominently displayed on websites or publications. But day in and day out, they are moving the proverbial ball forward.

Back in the Day….

A decade ago or so ago basically all information that came into an admission office was via mail. I distinctly remember mail time. Back then we would literally wait for the truck to pull into the driveway. We’d have letter openers in hand and big tables nearby where we’d open, sort, and file documents for applications. Ultimately, those documents would be placed into folders (think dentist’s offices), and either delivered to counselors’ offices or placed on big sliding shelves in the mail room (think ELF, minus the dancing) for review. When supplementary information would arrive, operations staff would find the file, match the documents, and update the counselor. Besides the physical sorting, there was also a ton of data entry to do, including everything from social security numbers to addresses to test scores.

Fast Forward to Now…

These days schools have converted to reading applications on screens. Applications are submitted online, and transcripts either accompany that submission or come in via another electronic medium. But even now, admission offices are by no means completely paperless. Last year we received about 15,000 hard copy documents, including transcripts, recommendation letters, citizenship documents, school reports and profiles.  We also get a lot of extra information that students (or someone associated with the student) believe will be compelling. These range from projects (think paintings detailing Civil War battles or paper mache volcanoes), to pictures from actors / movie stars / athletes who are recommending students, to attendance records from the 3rd grade, to science reports from middle school.

But the majority of information comes in electronically. Tech works with 14 companies on a regular basis: testing agencies, foreign credit evaluators, application vendors, transcript avenues, etc. Not to mention we had over 6,000 emails last year from students, teachers, and counselors with attachments of documents. So while admission offices nationally may have led to the decline in stock prices for band aids and white out, their work load has not diminished—it’s just the nature of the work and skill sets of these folks has shifted. Big League (too soon?).

What does this mean for you?

I realize we’re getting into the weeds a bit, but this work directly impacts the efficiency and effectiveness in which admission offices operate. Operations folks are the ones who are updating your online checklists, your applications for residency, verifying transcript receipt, and confirming test score accuracy. They spend a lot of time doing quality control—making sure YOUR application contains YOUR grades, recommendations, and test scores, even though each of those may have been sent from a different source. Sound fun? This is what it takes to play on the Offensive Line. I’m telling you, these workers are the epicenter of every admission office in this country.

Any smart quarterback knows that he better take his offensive line out for steaks once a month and buy them some good Christmas gifts or he’s going to end up on the ground a lot more. So here are a few ways you can help yourself as you work with Operations Teams around the country.

Apply First. Test scores are very easy to match to applications. But when students send other things early (whether that be transcripts or immunizations form kindergarten) we don’t really have a mechanism for holding and matching. Think of your application as the cornerstone of a building. Everything is contingent and hooked to that foundation.

One and Done. If your counselor sends a transcript via Naviance or Common App or another electronic company, please don’t also mail, email, fax and carrier pigeon that to us to “be sure we have it.” You are just clogging up the system and adding processing time to your file and others. Schools give processing windows (messages saying it will be 2-3 weeks or 7-10 days before your online checklist will reflect receipt) for a reason. We have not yet found a way to bend the space-time continuum, so trust that timeline, check back, and take action if it’s not been received. We get that you are nervous about deadlines and being complete, but if 30,000 other applicants (and adding in eager parents, make that 90,000 people) are all calling, emailing, and showing up in person, you can understand the inefficiency that creates.

Know Your Name. Be sure you list the same first, last, middle name on your test scores, transcripts, and application. You may not love that your formal name is William, but using that on your application and “Willy B” on your SAT is going to lead to matching nightmares on our end. We find this issue particularly problematic for international students. We will call you whatever you want when you arrive on campus, but let’s keep it formal and official in the application process.

Go Green. Let’s work to save the world one transcript or recommendation letter at a time. If your school or county is not yet sending documents electronically, put pressure on them to rectify that. This is not a vendetta against the US Postal Service but the bottom line is electronic documents are easier to handle, match, upload, process and read.

Shout Out!

One of the very best in the business talking about “all things operations” is David Graves at UGA. Dr. Graves is the Senior Associate Director there and does a phenomenal job talking about things specific to UGA but also applicable info on test scores and tips for working with processing offices within admission. Follow him on Twitter: @drgravesUGA.

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College Admission Essays: I’ve heard that one before…

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes and key messages. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all. My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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College Admission: False Voices and Escape Strategies

Little kids love stories. But if you are going to truly entertain them, you have to really develop the villain. Since I went to UNC, I often base my antagonist in Durham. With the Blue Devils living there, it’s quite easy to build a series of stories around the devious King K plotting in his Gothic towers to corrupt the world through sinister back channels (and occasionally back injuries). In many of these bedtime yarns, K would whisper in the ear of a good guy how he can make him more powerful, or more rich, or more safe, etc., if he/she just joins the Devils. (Note: No dig here on Duke. Great school. It just works well in anecdote… and the architecture does lend itself to the role.)

At times my kids would literally yell to the protagonist, “No! Don’t do it!” or “Can’t you see what he’s trying to do?” And in these stories, it was incredibly obvious: K was playing on their fear, or exaggerating his powers, or trying to manipulate for his own gain. They identify and call this out immediately. And that’s the point. I can make it a fairly quick story and get out of the room. Brilliant!

Identifying Voices in Real Life

But, in real life, as you get older, the tenor, motivation, and transparency of the voices around you are not as easy to discern. Messages become more nuanced, and it’s easy to be confused because many times these sources seem credible. Nobody is literally dressing up in a Devil mascot outfit with a pitchfork trying to convince you to attend a certain school or pay for a particular service.

But “false voices” are in this process, so it’s important that you listen closely. Here are a few things to watch out for as you learn to identify those who speak the truth, and those who may not.

  •  Hyperbolic language: (The quotes in this section are actual phrases that have been used, not hypothetical examples). If someone around you is continually saying things like “disaster,” “panic,” “insane,” “stress,” or “peril,” you should be very cautious. To the best of my knowledge the world hasn’t ended during admission season, even when test scores are delayed, admission applications crash, or recommendation letters fail to load. You want people around you that provide solace, wisdom based upon experience, big picture data, and the power of options. Language of fear has no place in the admission profession, so consider any trace of that a red flag. While you would not do this during bedtime tales, it’s ok to physically run from “storytellers” like that.
  • Excessive Fees: If someone is charging you for their services, you should expect sound, expert, distinguished advice. This is a life lesson. You’d have high standards and a rigorous process for selecting a financial advisor or marriage counselor who is guiding you on your investments financially and relationally, right? The same is true in the admission process. And this is where the nuance occurs, because there are some very talented, experienced professionals in the admission process who will charge a reasonable fee to assist you in college list development, application packaging, scholarship navigation, etc. There are also some parents who just went through the process with their own kid who happened to get into “a good school” and now think they are an expert. If anyone is guaranteeing you admittance to a school, promising receipt of a specific selective scholarship, or implying they have a magic bullet in their “essay crafting,” you need to yell loudly in your own brain, “NO! Don’t do it!”
  • For Profit Schools: If you are considering attending a for profit school, I would urge you to read more about debt loads, graduation rates, recruitment tactics, and scratch well below the surface before enrolling.  Often the language you see in marketing and enrollment strategy from these institutions is highly exaggerated, both in what they deliver and the results of your degree.
  •  Test preparation: There is a wide misconception that because you pay for something it’s better. Absolutely false. Khan Academy has phenomenal free preparation material and ACT is partnering to develop opportunities for free or greatly reduced tutorial options. I encourage you to start with free options before exploring fee-based avenues; particularly those “guaranteeing” certain score increase ranges.  And if you are going to invest in test prep, do your homework. There are a lot of very reasonably priced local options, including community colleges and even private high schools. These typically charge less yet get similar results to the more corporate test prep industry entities.
  • The Media: Journalists are under immense pressure to turn stories around quickly and increase readership. This means that headlines are often dramatic and frequently articles don’t tell the complete story. For instance you’re almost never going to read that only about 100 schools in our nation admit less than 33% of applicants, and that the vast majority our nation’s 2000+ schools admit more than they deny. That story is not going to sell, so the “full story” goes unpublished. Again, some education beat writers are thorough, balanced, and excellent researchers. But if you see something in print/online about a school you are interested in, I implore you to go straight to the institution for clarity and perspective.
    Bonus Tip: You’re young. Save yourself. Don’t read or contribute to the comment section below these pieces, as they quickly devolve into petty, unrelated banter.

You’re 17 or 18 years old, so I am guessing saying things like:  “No! Don’t do it!” Or “Can’t you see what he’s trying to do!” are a bit too simplistic for you. So if someone is whispering drama, fear, and hyperbole in your ear, how about borrowing from one of my favorite songs?

Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley

“Come on now, who do you, who do you, who do you, who do you think you are/

Ha ha ha bless your soul You really think you’re in control/

Well, I think you’re crazy I think you’re crazy I think you’re crazy/

And then make a run for it!

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Key Changes to SAT/ACT– A Disturbance in the Force!

Jedi Manual (002)

Several years ago, more American students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time in our nation’s history. Immediately, on the heels of that, The College Board set out to re-design their test. Ahhh… competition. In its wake, the ACT made concrete adjustments too. A palpable disturbance in the testing force- an interstellar battle of epic proportions.

From the outset these announcements have created consternation in the college admission and counseling field for a few reasons. First, simply change. Anytime you alter something, it’s going to cause some skepticism and unrest. Secondly, the very nature of standardized testing, which inherently brings with it some level of anxiety. But fear not, Young Skywalker, because as with anything new and unfamiliar, information is the best weapon for alleviating concern.

You can read more on The College Board and ACT sites, but here’s your abridged Jedi manual:

  • Test Preparation (a new lightsaber)– One of the best results of the redesigned SAT is The College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy. On this site, you are able to receive free tips, practice questions and tests, as well as strategies for improving your scores in all sections. The test prep industry has become exceedingly overpriced for the results it delivers. Providing this service through Khan Academy not only eliminates cost but allows flexibility in scheduling on your own time and access to expert advice as well. If improving your score is a goal, you should take advantage of this incredible partnership.
  • Mechanics: No penalty for wrong answers– Unlike in the past, on the SAT, students won’t be penalized for wrong answers, which aligns with the ACT’s traditional structure and historically has been student preference. Like Jedi training you’ll benefit from strategy, practice, and a healthy dose of the force. Use deductive reasoning, use process of elimination, or always pick C.  “In my experience there is no such thing as luck.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
  • New Scoring Framework— SAT scores are back to a 1600 total scale (think Darth Vader coming back from the dark side of the force—not that this is about choosing sides). Both the Evidence-based Reading & Writing and Math sections will be scored 200-800. The ACT has also changed the writing score scale to be 2-12. The SAT change is probably most helpful to parents, counselors and administrators who never adjusted to the 2400 scale, but it also emphasizes the uncoupling of the writing section from the other sections. The ACT change makes writing scores more clear for students, as they will reflect ACT’s clearly articulated rubric within the four writing domains.
  • Content and Questions— Both ACT and SAT emphasize that the exam is based on information students have learned in the classroom and contains wonted reading passages and less clandestine vocabulary (see what I did there?). This change will better align the tests to what students have studied in school, hopefully making the SAT more palatable for a broader range of students across The Galactic Empire.
  • Test Optional– Keep in mind that over 850 schools in our nation do not use test scores to make admission decisions. Fair Test keeps a list of these here. These are schools who have determined, based on their institutional priorities, campus culture, and historical data that test scores do not need to be reviewed in order to enroll a qualified, successful class. Either that or they are simply trying to drive up application numbers, as some cynics would argue. Jedi mind trick? You decide.

yodaGeorgia Tech (and any school utilizing a holistic admission process) includes testing as only one part of the admission decision. Traditionally standardized tests have helped to predict freshman GPA, and all universities will now be rebuilding correlative data, regression formulas, and analytics to assess test scores’ predictive quality in the coming years as we enroll students who have tested with the new versions of both tests.

Students should be closely reviewing websites and asking very pointed questions to colleges about how they will be using test scores- particularly in the coming year. At Tech, we will identify the date of the test taken to ensure we understand which test we are evaluating but will continue to look for a student’s highest section score from any test date.

Flipping the script

So, again, due to the changes and “being the first” to go through the admission process with these new scores, many seniors and their parents are understandably nervous. But remember, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them” (Obi-Wan Kenobi)  Instead, consider this: any expert in the testing industry will tell you that there should never be a “cut score” used in the admission process. On the ultra-conservative side, statistics show that there is no predictive variance in student GPA performance on campus within a 50 point band for each SAT section, or a two point spread on the ACT.

Having spent time at conferences this summer with nearly 100 college admission deans and directors from schools using a holistic process, I can say with confidence that they recognize if there were ever a year to de-emphasize test scores and their place in the process, it’s this one.

It all means, what does? (For more Yoda translations go here) Scores matter, sure. But due to testing alterations and lack of data, grades, rigor of curriculum, and your ability to demonstrate how you will improve a college campus and those around you through extra-curricular impact and essay and short answer writing will be even more critical. Bottom line: “Stay on target.” – Gold Five