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Would You Rather…?

Would You Rather…? Yep. This question was a big part of the Olympic viewing experience at our house.

  1.  Would you rather have no training and compete in the Skeleton OR Ski Jump? Personally, I’m going Skeleton all the way here. Sure, it would be moderately terrifying to go that fast, but worst case you roll off (careful for those blades on the dismount) and walk to the finish line. Meanwhile, with Ski Jump, I just see no way I’m walking away with less than two broken bones.
  2.  Would you rather be in Ice Dancing OR Curling? Our kids are split here. Our son is adamant that he’d never wear that costume and dance with a girl. (In this case, I am translating “never” as “check back when I am 16.”) Our daughter adamantly argues that Curling is the most boring thing she’s ever seen. “Is this still on?” “Sweeping is not for fun,” and my personal favorite, “He looks like our neighbor.” Hard to argue.

I didn’t pose this one but it did go through my head (because this is the kind of thing that does): Would you rather participate in a sport that has a score/time to win OR one that is judged? I can see both sides here. You’ve trained for four years (some would argue a lifetime). You’ve risen early, worked, sweated, and bled. You’ve sacrificed your time and sleep and diet and even personal relationships to get to this point.  It makes sense that you might want a very objective, neutral, quantifiable measure to differentiate you from the other competitors. And if you compete in one of those sports, that’s exactly what you get. Granted, it must have been heart-breaking for the US Luge Team not to medal when they finished .57 seconds from Gold and .103 from stepping onto the podium for a Bronze, but they signed up for it.  And clearly the German bobsledders who finished upside down were not concerned about impressing any judges on route to their Gold medal. They were the fastest. Period.

In Freestyle Skiing or Figure Skating it is all about the difficulty of your program, the execution of your routine, and your style (could argue personality) that you exhibit to the judges. Frankly, as a native southerner, I was just impressed when someone made it down the hill, landed a jump, or managed not to fall during a routine.  As I watched some of these events, the eventual medalists were not always the athletes I thought were the best from the outside looking in. Of course, I was not privy to all of the metrics or aspects they were looking for to make those determinations. Still, I could see how after all of those practice sessions and injuries that having a group of judges deduct or reward points based on the slightest angle of a skate or hand position on a snowboard would be maddening. And yet, it’s not like they were racing. They were not expecting their results or medal to come from time or speed. They knew that there would be a level of subjectivity leading to or from the medal stand.

So many lessons to be drawn from Olympians about perseverance, dedication, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. but I am going to stay in my lane and focus on how this applies to college admission.

Let’s start with this.  Most schools make decisions based on quantifiable metrics. Of the four thousand post-secondary options in our country (with over 2000 four-year colleges), the average admit rate is 65% (See page 3). In the vast majority of schools nationally, they have space available for talented students like you, and they are going to use your GPA and test scores to make those decisions.  These are publicly available formulas that are clearly outlined on their sites, in publications, and in presentations. In most cases, these schools have admit rates over 50% and they have determined that if you are performing a certain level in high school, you will be academically successful on their campus. At least one of these schools should be on your list. The good news is that you will absolutely find more than a few where: you will be admitted; you will find a lifelong friend; you will find a professor who will mentor you and set you up for success in graduate school or as you launch into a career; you could take advantage of phenomenal internships, study abroad opportunities; you can afford and may even provide you with scholarships as well.

Like an Olympic athlete competing in a sport that is evaluated by people, here are some things you should know if you are applying to a highly selective college that has very few spaces and yet a pool of incredibly accomplished students.

  • Numbers are not going to be the deciding factor. Yes, we ask for test scores. We look at them and consider them, but at Georgia Tech this year two of every three applicants had a 1400+ SAT/ 30+ ACT. The College Board and ACT research clearly demonstrates that using “cut scores” (i.e. drawing an arbitrary line between say a 1360 and a 1370 is a misuse or abuse of tests). Our own campus specific research verifies this as well. Testing is far less indicative of academic success on our campus than rigor of curriculum and performance in classes. This is why students appealing a denial at a highly selective institution because they have a 1500 SAT has no merit. This is not short track racing. We never said it was going to be about your testing- and our decision only demonstrates that we were transparent here.
  •  Strength of program matters. If you watched any of the Snowboarding or Aerial or Figure Skating, you heard the announcers talking at length about difficulty of program. An athlete who attempts and converts a quadruple salchow or double lutz or a Triple Lindy is rewarded for that accomplishment, skill, and ability at a higher level than a competitor who hedges their difficulty in order to avoid a fall or mistake. In admission committee and file review, we do the same thing. This is why colleges that have a difficult curriculum (not always directly correlative to admit rate or rankings) also value your course choice in high school. The bottom line is that a student from the same high school, i.e. has similar access to courses, who takes AB Calculus and Physics II and does well is a better fit for our Civil Engineering program than a student who has opts instead for Pre-Calculus and AP Psychology.  You don’t see the Olympic judges walking out of the arena questioning their decision to place value on this element, and we do not either. Rigor matters. 

 

 

 

 

  • Paper vs. Practice. “How could you deny my son? He has all A’s.” I understand, sir. However, since his school adds extra points for rigorous courses, an A can range from 90 to well over 100. A 91 and a 103 are not the same… and we are going to differentiate. This year we have a school that sent us nearly 200 applications. Of those 160 had above a 90, i.e. an A average. Now we can go round and round all day about the chicken and the egg here on grade inflation just like we can try to grapple with how Russia’s Alexander Krushelnitsky failed a doping test for Curling, but that seems counterproductive. Highly selective schools, just like Olympic committees, are going to differentiate great from outstanding.
  •  Style matters. Yes, we look at the technical as well as the full program. Review includes essays, interviews, and opportunities for you to tell us what you do outside the classroom. Why? Because you will not just be a student on campus, you will be a contributing citizen. Ultimately, once you enroll and graduate, you will be an ambassador. Judges give style points. Admission committees do as well. We care where you are from. We are listening for your voice. We want to know how you have impacted and influenced your community. We are counting on your counselors and teachers in their recommendations to build context around a GPA or a test score or an IB diploma. And because all of this is plays out in a holistic admission decision, the student with the highest test score or most APs or who sits at the top of a spreadsheet on a sorted GPA column is not necessarily the gold medal winner. Nobody is holding a stopwatch in admissions committee.
  • It cuts both ways. The hard truth of selective college admission is that it is a very human process. The upside? You’re not being sorted out based on GPA or test score alone. We are looking in depth at school curriculum, grade trends, course choice, performance, as well as who you are, who you want to be, how you impact others, and how you will match with our culture and mission. The downside? We are human. Read: judgment calls, conversations in committee, subjective decisions based on institutional priorities. Not gold, silver or bronze… grey.

Ultimately, if you are choosing to apply to a highly-selective university, you have to submit your application with the mentality of an Olympian. The competition will be stiff and there is no guarantee that you “end up on the podium.” Trust your training. You have prepared well. You have worked hard. Watch the closing ceremonies this weekend. Whether an athlete has a medal around their neck or not, they will walk through that stadium with incredible pride in their accomplishments, as well as confidence and hope for the future. If you are a senior this spring, regardless of admission outcomes, this is how you should be walking the halls each day and ultimately across the stage at graduation. Confidence and hope, my friends. Your future is bright.

Change Your Filter

Last week, a friend I grew up with sent me an article ranking Decatur the #1 Place to Live in Georgia with a note: “Come a long way, brother.”

I hear that. When I grew up in Decatur, it was… fine. Great place to get your car fixed, some good burger options, and the standard churches, recreation centers, schools, and city services of most places.

My street was divided– half the houses were in the city limits of Decatur, and half were in the county (DeKalb).  As kids, we did not think much of it other than the city sign made good target practice for an array of launched objects. Adults agreed (not about the sign, but about the six to one, half-dozen the other idea of perceived quality).

When I went to college in North Carolina nobody heard of Decatur, so I would simply say I grew up a few miles east of downtown Atlanta.

Destination: Decatur

Today is a different story. The standard three bedroom, two bath houses that once filled Decatur are largely gone. It is tough to find anything coming on the market for less than $500,000 and new construction can approach seven figures. People petition for annexation and move to town just for the schools and quality of life.

Several of the old gas stations have been converted to gastropubs or boutiques with vintage garage doors. Some of the guys working at these establishments have beards that are just as impressive and hats just as dirty as the guys back in the day, but instead of an oil change and tire rotation, they’re charging $30 for tray of fries (frites, actually) with assorted dipping sauces.

During and after college, when friends would come to visit, we never chose to go out in Decatur. Virginia Highlands, Midtown, and Buckhead had the lion’s share of good dining, shopping, entertainment, and nightlife options. Now when friends visit there is no reason to leave this two-mile radius. And typically they’ve already read a review of a local restaurant, microbrew, or other shop they want to check out.

The bottom line: things have changed dramatically. You cannot apply the same filter you did 20 years ago–or even five years, for that matter. Decatur is a destination now. The schools are highly desirable, the shops and restaurants are well-regarded, and the demand for housing is at an all-time high. Even the city sign is nicer.

Destination: College

If you graduated from college before 2000, the changes in college reputation, brand, selectivity, and culture can be equally dramatic.  So if you are a parent just starting to screen and review college literature in the mail, or if you are planning your first college tour for this spring, here are a few quick takes:

“Number 1 Place to Live”

“The University of X? Where the kids from our school went if they could not get into…?”

“If you drove slowly down Main Street with your window open, they’d throw a diploma in.”

“On Tuesdays people were already tailgating for Saturday’s game.”

Yeah, yeah. I know. I’m telling you, Decatur was a little sketchy. Even as a kid, I remember looking askance at the lollipops the bank was handing out. The University of X? Yep. Because that college town is getting written up in major national magazines as a great place for food, family, culture; they have invested heavily in student support and programs; they had students win international competitions for research and prestigious scholarships and fellowships. Change your filter. X may be the absolute perfect match for your daughter, so don’t dilute her excitement or willingness to consider it with your outdated stereotypes.

“Gas stations turn into gastropubs.”

“He has a 1460. He’ll get in for sure.”

“They gave me a summer provisional admit offer and I was able to stay if I did well.”

“I wrote a two-word essay: “Go” followed by their mascot, which I misspelled, and they still let me in.”

I hear you. 1460 is high. It is impressive and noteworthy and nobody is taking that away from him.  And you are right, 25 years ago there was room for “creative admission” practices at colleges that now admit less than one of every two applicants and carry waitlists well over 1,000 additional students. There was a time when it was all about numbers. Hit a mark, cross a threshold, clear the hurdle. We all appreciate simplicity, and I’m no different. The good news is many colleges are still operating the same way. But check your filter before you make any assumptions. If anywhere in the school’s literature, website, or presentation they use the word “holistic,” 1460 is now part of a sentence and a conversation, rather than an integral part of an equation.  And your two-word essay still makes a good story, but they are reading closely now and will expect true introspection and reflection.

“$30 frites”

Note: First, can we just call them fries please? I appreciate you use a locally-sourced, all-natural, gluten-free, highly-curated, necessarily hyphenated, multi-syllabic adjective laced oil for them, but they’re still fries. I will take an extra dipping sauce though.

“Tuition was less than $1000 per quarter.”

“I paid my next semester’s bill with the money I saved from my internship.”

“I was able to pay off all of my student loans within five years of graduating.”

The truth is you have as much of a chance buying a new house in Decatur for $200 as $200,000 in today’s market. And as you begin to research college costs, you’ll likely have some eye-popping, heart-stopping, head-shaking (hyphens, they’re infectious) moments. Don’t let tuition or overall cost of attendance keep you from visiting a school or encouraging your son or daughter to apply if they’ve determined it is a good match academically, geographically, and culturally.  Do check out their published Net Price Calculator and start reading up on reliable sources about the school’s financial aid packages and program.

“My Hometown” (cue Bruce Springsteen)

“I have been buying football tickets for the last twenty years.”

“There should be spots held for families who have multiple generation connections.”

“Don’t y’all care at all about preserving tradition? We’ve been bringing our kids there since they were in diapers.”

You loved your college experience. You love your kids. You see them both enjoying and benefiting from going to your alma mater, and you see a shared college experience/alma mater as another connection in your relationship. Valid, and reasonable. I don’t hate you for it.

But one of the biggest tragedies I see is the reaction of alumni whose kids do not get in because they view it as a personal affront against their family. I implore you–commit to not letting this be your story. University of Washington, Washington University, George Washington, Mary Washington, Washington and Lee? Maybe you went to a school named after another president, or a state, or direction. Whatever. Wanting your son or daughter to go to your alma mater is not wrong. But it’s also not guaranteed. And the decision certainly won’t be connected to how many games you or your family have attended over the years. In fact, fewer and fewer schools consider legacy in their admission process.

Start with the assumption they will not get in or they will not choose to go there even if they do. Then ask yourself what other schools are solid academically, affordable, and are helping students achieve their goals. You need to fall in love with your son or daughter’s choices (not the breaking curfew ones or even the dating ones necessarily, but the college choices). All of them. Even if it was your alma mater’s biggest rival. Eighteen years > four years. You love your kids. Now fall in love with their other college choices.

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Position vs. Disposition

This week I concluded my term on Georgia Tech’s Staff Council- a group of 20 members elected to represent the nearly 7,000 staff on campus to our President and Executive Leadership Team. We serve as the staff’s official voice to the administration and attempt to advocate for ways to enhance the employee experience and elevate suggestions, insight, and opportunities for improvement.

During my term I served as Council Chair and Past-Chair, giving me the opportunity to go on all-night “ride alongs” with our police force; conduct 6 a.m. town hall meetings for our facilities staff; and attend countless staff meetings in buildings and departments I’d never heard of before. In these three years, I’ve had people stop me on campus or show up at my office door (and even one person flag me down at a local restaurant) to talk about parking rates, maternity leave policies, campus-wide recognition programs, gender neutral bathrooms, uniform improvements for our grounds crew, and even why we run the triple option offense (I’m not making these up, I’m literally going back through my notes).

Serving in this capacity has not always been easy. I’ve seen tears, heard raised voices and accusatory, threatening statements, and endured not only the drafting, but also the revision, and “re-revision” of by-laws. And for all of the effort—for the additional time away from my family–for the early mornings or later evenings–for the lightning rod moments–I did not receive any additional compensation (though I did get a plaque and a paperweight, both of which are  lovely).  As I exit, my title is still the same as when I began this journey three years ago.

Short term vs. Long term

Over the next two weeks a lot of competitive colleges are going to be putting their EA or ED decisions on the streets.  The odds are you, or someone you care deeply for, will be deferred or denied by at least one of these schools. And since Williams or Rice or Notre Dame are not going to call you to walk you through their rationale and how you can move forward, I wanted to give you some insight from this side of the desk.

If you are reading this, I’m guessing you are someone who can relate to pouring time and energy into something. You get the part about sacrificing sleep and relationships to pursue other ventures. You chose a rigorous curriculum and found yourself studying and eating coffee grounds deep into the night. You went to test prep classes or found online options to increase your standardized scores. You played on intense travel teams. You gave copious amounts of time to clubs or volunteer organizations or research projects.

If you are denied or deferred admission, it’s pretty reasonable to ask, “Where did all of that get me?” “Why did I do the full IB Diploma?” “Why did I take my summer to volunteer my time or intern? I could have gotten an actual paying job or just hung out by the pool.” And, to be honest, in the short-term, I get it. You are not crazy—and you’re definitely not alone. Being deferred or denied admission stings. Disappointed may not even be strong enough, it’s ok to be straight mad. I see why you would question how, and why, an admission committee did not value or recognize your hard work, extra effort, and lack of sleep characterizing your high school career.

Similarly, I suppose you could easily argue Staff Council did not “get me anywhere.” But after 14 years on campus, I can earnestly say my involvement with Staff Council has been among the most rewarding and meaningful experiences of my career. Bottom line: this position connected me to people I would never have met otherwise; exposed me to issues I did not know existed; and forced me to relay information in many directions about sensitive subjects in an empathetic, balanced manner. It changed me and shaped me as a person, and has also enhanced how I tell and view the Georgia Tech story.

So all I’m asking you to do is wait a few weeks. Finish this senior fall semester strong with exams or papers you have to write. Enjoy the holidays with your family and friends. Go see a movie, and read a book for fun (not because you have to). Sleep. If three weeks from now, or three months from now, when you’ve been admitted to several other schools (and likely have some scholarship money to a few of those), you still feel like you wasted your time playing on that team; or you’re regretting meeting the people you’d never have met otherwise at your internship or volunteer group; or you believe all the information and study skills you learned in those AP courses have absolutely no long-term benefits for a foundation in college; or you are convinced the trip to South America to expand your language and cross-cultural skills was a complete waste of time, then I’ll give you back your Georgia Tech Admission Blog subscription fee (what, you haven’t paid that yet?).

My Guarantee to You

In the long-term, I guarantee, yes, guarantee, you will be thankful for pushing and stretching yourself academically. I am imminently confident you will look back with fondness on the trips you took with your travel team. I know you will appreciate having stuck with both the orchestra and the band. There are many things in this life I’m unsure of, but I am confident of this—you will not look back as a sophomore in college, or as a 26-year-old graduate student, or as a 48-year-old parent, and bemoan the opportunities you took advantage of, the people you met, or the exposure you received while in high school. In fact, at least in my experience, it’s always the opposite.

So be disappointed. Be straight mad. In a way, there’s a beauty in those feelings. You can’t appreciate the sunshine without the rain. You’re breathing. You’re striving. You have goals and dreams. You put in work and you want to see a return. I would be more worried if you did not feel that way. It would mean you either don’t care or don’t have high expectations for yourself. But slow down and consider why you made the choices you did. I’m guessing it was not all about getting into Haverford or Tufts or Caltech. If it was, I can’t help you. But if you studied, played, worked, and challenged yourself because you enjoy learning, because you see value in the effort, because you take pride in the results, then while you may not have been given a position in said college, you have earned something no admission letter will ever give you—a disposition formed through growth, maturity, and commitment. In other words, all of the traits another university will recognize, and they’ll be phenomenally lucky to have on their campus when you show up in the fall.

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Challenge By Choice

This past August I went backpacking in Scotland with 10 first-year Tech students. Our trip was led by Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT). One of their core tenants is “challenge by choice,” which means most of the activities have modifications based on your comfort level. “Today we are mountain biking. You can do the 23 mile trail with boulders, jumps, rattle snakes, and a few places you could careen off the side of the mountain. OR you can do the eight mile loop around the lake.” The goal is to give the participants options, but also to push them outside their comfort zone and stretch them beyond what they think they can do.

On our trip, however, there were no options. We were going point to point, and the distance was what it was, with one exception: Ben Nevis. At 4,400 feet Nevis is the highest peak in Great Britain. While it may not be Pike’s Peak, I could not see the summit from the trail head and there were lots of switchbacks.

After the first hour of climbing, our group naturally broke in half. The lead pack had more experienced hikers and moved at a pretty aggressive clip. I was not in that group. I was in the back… actually, the way back. After 2.5 hours we stopped for lunch, estimating we were about halfway up. Folks were tired. We had blisters, we had headaches, and we also had real doubts.

As we resumed our hike, the plan was to go 20 more minutes and check in. We’d plod forward, step by step, trying to talk about random subjects to keep our minds off of the hike. For the next hour we went from one logical stopping point to another. “Everyone good?” A few “Yeps,” a few “I think so’s,” and a few closed eyed grunting nods. “Challenge by choice,” one of the ORGT leaders would say. “We can turn around if y’all want, but I think you can at least make it to the next point,” as she pointed toward a large cairn a few hundred feet up the trail.

Ben Nevis taught me five lessons that are applicable to both life and college admission:

We all have more in us.
Admission websites, publications, and presentations often talk about competitive GPAs and rigor of curriculum. But we fail you by not always describing why we care to see you stretch and challenge yourself academically. Very little of our conversation in committee is about your ability to actually do the work. Most applicants to selective colleges have that covered. The truth is that some of the greatest difficulty of the first year is re-establishing yourself and a community around you; or adjusting to living in a completely new part of the country; or figuring out if you should use the warm or cold cycle on the washer. So in the admission process at competitive schools it’s not about the number of difficult courses you take, it’s about a character trait. It’s not about seeing that you packed in more but that you put in more, so that when you arrive on campus you thrive in the classroom and have the capacity to engage, influence, and connect outside the classroom. When we review your application, and particularly your transcript, we are asking if you have chosen challenge, because we want evidence that when you are stretched you respond well. So what is the next level for you? Maybe that is something quantifiable like taking HL instead of SL Spanish, or perhaps it is less tangible and translates simply to working harder or learning more deeply in a particular course you are taking. Set your eyes on the next switch back, and pull your backpack straps a little tighter. This is not about getting in. It’s about preparing and also learning an incredibly valuable lesson that will set you up for success in college and beyond—there is more in you!

Celebrate your wins!
One student, a hard-core swimmer who was recruited by Division I programs, was in the back with me as we neared the top of the mountain. In a pool, she can swim all day (literally).  But the term “fish out of water” has never been so fitting. We saw the crest and she was pumped. But as we drew closer, it became clear it was a false summit. We found a natural stone bench and sat down to have water and a Kind bar. She looked around at the incredible views and vistas, then looked back down the mountain at hikers who appeared like tiny specks at the bottom. “This is beautiful,” she said, then added astutely, “I know a lot of people will never see this.” The vantage point was incredible. And she could not have been more right about the latter piece too. Getting there had taken a ton of work and we’d seen several groups turn around along the way. About 83% of high school students graduate, and only 65% of those go on to college, which means approximately half the students who started the climb are not sitting where you are. So when you get accepted to college, whether it’s your first choice or your fifth, celebrate your win. Consider the work that it’s taken to get there and the people who have been encouraging and supporting you on your climb. Look back at your hard work and stop to appreciate the view. (We celebrated with Skittles. I’ll leave your reward to you. Just promise me you’ll slow down, enjoy, and celebrate.)

There’s more than one summit.
This is your climb and your trek. You know where you’ll flourish. You know where you’ll find a community to challenge and stretch and support and encourage you. And if you are doing this search and application process well, you’ll realize there are many places to find the view and experience you need to realize your dreams. So don’t let a family member or a friend tell you that there is only one school you “need” to go to or “deserve” to go to. If a place is too cold or too homogeneous or too pretentious or too urban for you, it’s false summit for you. You define your summits.

It’s not a race.
Holistic review by definition means schools look at way more than one number (GPA) or a set of numbers (count of AP/IB/Honors, etc.), and certainly more than test scores, which continue to decline in predictive value. The person to the top the fastest does not necessarily win, and admission decisions from highly selective colleges will not be quantifiable. The student hiking in the back of our group had never been on a trail. She was not as fast as some of her peers, but her desire and indefatigable spirit were unrivaled. As we sat at the false summit dividing out red Skittles, I asked, “You good?”  I’ll never forget her response, because when she looked up at me I thought she was going to cry. But instead she replied, “Rick, I didn’t come her for nothing.” Wow! We got up and trudged another 45 minutes to the top. Selective colleges want to admit students like her because they are grinders, workers, strivers. Sometimes these are students whose parents did not attend college, and yet they’ve achieved incredibly inside and outside of school. Sometimes this is the student who was diagnosed with a life-limiting condition in their sophomore year requiring eight surgeries, yet they’ve still managed to make B’s while juggling constant treatments and medical attention. Sometimes this is the student from a school which didn’t offer Differential Equations and courses beyond AP Computer Science, but who sought out online options or dual enrolled at a local community college for a challenge. On a scatterplot, they may come in below a college’s profile, but an X and Y axis can’t capture “I didn’t come here for nothing.”

Hike Well.
You can’t fake number four (see above). You may be the kid in the front group with plenty of exposure to hiking, a high dollar backpack, and Gortex boots. If that is your background, this becomes a matter of how you climb. I wrote last week about controlling what you can. You control how you hike. The admission process is not fair. You will see a student with “lower scores” get admitted to a school where you do not. You will see a recruited blue-chip athlete get into a university that does not admit your best friend who took “better classes.” It will happen—it happened last year, it happened a decade ago, and it will happen this year. Want to know what doing it right looks like? When we reached the top, the first group had been there an hour. It was chilly, it was blustery, and they still had a 2-3 hour climb back down. But they waited. When we rolled in, there were high fives, hugs, and applause. It was one of the most genuine, inspiring moments I’ve been a part of in a long time.

If you are defining your own summits, then seeing someone else get there too is not going to bother you, it’s going to encourage you. That, my friends, is character. And character, for all of us, is a challenge by choice that lasts a lifetime.

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Kitchen Bars and Common Data Sets

The Kitchen Bar

I am sure that there is a moment in every kid’s life when they regret the fact that their parent has a particular profession. Lots of child-sized thought bubbles like, “Oh. Crap. Why is my mom a doctor? Or in sales? Or a personal trainer?” I can imagine them reading in their room after a conversation or walking to school after a lecture telling their buddies, “Man, I wish my dad was not in consulting. You should have heard what he said last night.”

Well, that moment came to the Clark house recently. My son (a second grader) wanted to apply to be part of “Principal’s Council.” This is a group of student representatives who meet periodically to consider ways to improve the school, communicate important messages more effectively, or provide student insight into current topics, issues, etc. Great concept and I fully support it.

So I asked him, “How many will they pick from each grade?”

“Two,” he replied.

“And how many people are going to apply?”

“I don’t know,” (I thought that answer was not supposed to start so frequently until age 14 or so).

So my head immediately goes to his odds. First, you have to believe that they’re going to select a boy and a girl (figuring that was a fair assumption).

“And how are they going to decide who gets picked?”

He showed me the application. A few short answer questions on ideas you have and why you would be a good representative for your class. Thankfully (for him), it noted that handwriting was not a factor for selection.

I knew that there were 60 students in his grade. Then I checked the roster to find, interestingly, that they’re basically dead split on boys and girls. We lined up 30 items on the kitchen bar to represent each boy in the class, which took a while. We used salt and pepper shakers, fruits and vegetables, spice jars, and a few pistachios. I had to keep him from assigning specific people to the lemons or broccoli (which he calls “the vegetable that shall not be named”).

Then I asked him how many of the boys he thought would apply. Same question from earlier but now with props. (Turns out it was effective, so consider that tactic for future reference.) “Well,” he said, “I know Michael is. And Ryan. And Matthew…” He went on to rattle off another four or five more.

“So, do you think it’s fair to say at least 15 boys will apply?” I asked. Ultimately, we agreed on 14. Not sure why he was unwilling to concede that last tomato but for the point of the exercise, I was good with it.

“Okay. So, why should they pick you?” I asked. Told you there was a point in every kid’s life when they wish their mom or dad did something else. And, while he did not say it, I figured we had to be flirting with it here. I came to this conclusion not based on incredible parental intuition but more so on the audible sigh and pseudo-violent backward thrust of his head.

After he recovered (by eating two of his classmates… I mean jelly beans), it was pretty interesting to hear his responses, as well as to hear him acknowledge how great the other kids in his grade are too. Every time he’d say something about being honest or a good listener, he’d often follow it with, “but so is Jonathan” (or another of this classmates).

In the end, I said, “Listen, I think it’s awesome that you want to do this- — and I think if you’re picked that you would do a great job. But you need to understand that the chances of not getting picked are pretty high.”

He took a long, hard look at the other 13 items still on the bar and got out his pencil sharpener to start his application. The next morning, as we were walking up to the school, I told him I was proud of him for applying. I told him even if he did not get picked there would be tons of other opportunities to contribute and make things around him better. Yes, I know, I was laying it on thick.

“Okay. Dad. Got it.” And he ran off with one of the “apples” from the kitchen bar.

Analyzing Common Data Sets (CDS)

When you are applying to schools you are not going to know absolutely everything about their process or priorities. And you’re not going to know exactly who else is in that year’s applicant pool. But you’re not completely in the dark either. You have the ranges a school provides on their profile; you have last year’s admit rate; you have their mission and purpose,; but you also have the ability to look at public historical information that will provide you additional insight, perspective, and trends if you look at multiple years.

Let’s stick with the 7% number or 1/14 applicants selected. At that rate, we’re talking Princeton or Yale. (See selective admit rates here.) Note: It’s possible both are really somewhere in the 6.x range, but no need to split hairs (or vegetables if you’re using your kitchen bar for this exercise). You can quickly find most school’s CDS online (here is Georgia Tech’s) and use it to provide additional context beyond what’s listed in their marketing materials. Here are the ones for Yale and Princeton. Since these are standardized, you can always go right to Section C for information on freshman admission.Common Data Set Initiative

Section C1: Provides applicant breakdown by gender. Is the distribution equal in applicants or admits at the school you’re applying to? Generally, there is some variance. I’d encourage you to look over several years of data to see if there is consistency or a trend. Does the school currently have gender equity in their class? Does it appear from the data or from their messaging or from looking at multiple years that they’re increasing the number of men or women in their class overall?

Section C7:  This section outlines what each school places priority on in their admission and decision making process. You’ll find highly selective schools will incorporate far more factors beyond academics here (extra-curricular involvement, geographic origin, first generation students, etc.) and they also convey the level of importance they place on each factor. So expect schools below 20% in admit rate to check off plenty of additional boxes and assign relative importance. This is a somewhat quantitative illustration of a very nuanced holistic review that schools should be discussing on their websites and presentations. Good news: Yale makes this incredibly easy to find, as they have a site entitled: “What Yale Looks For.” (For the record, I think all schools should standardize that naming convention.)

Section C9:  This section provides test score information by band. Note: admitted averages are typically higher than enrolling averages (which is what the CDS displays). So it’s safe to assume that the representation for admitted students in the higher bands is greater than these tables display. In other words, if 75+% of enrolling students scored above 700 on each section, it’s likely that the admitted pool was some number above that. And therefore a lower percentage in lower bands.

Section C10: Class Rank. So at Princeton 94% of students finished in the top 10% of their class. At Yale that number was 97%. At Tech it was 87%. While many high schools do not rank, this is still a good frame of reference for understanding the quality of a school’s class. And, let’s be honest, the school may not rank per se, and some may not even provide percentile bands, but you still know where you relatively stand in the class in terms of performance- and how you’ll “read” in an application versus a classmate or someone who may have applied from your high school last year.

Feel free to delve deeper into the CDS of any school you plan to apply to. Other sections will give insight on number of students from in and out of state, detailed information on financial aid, size of classes, and faculty degree attainment information. All of these are more data and information that provide context for the admission process, but they also give you a clearer understanding of who is at each institution. But, we’re going to stop with Section C in an effort to keep this blog under 2000 words.

So What?

Unlike my son, you are not going to know 1/3 of the applicants personally. You won’t be able to put their “trustworthiness” or “entrepreneurial acumen” on a Likert Scale. But you can dig a bit deeper than simple ranges or profiles universities often put on home pages. And doing that is critical to help you better understand the competition and review.

  • If 92% of the students enrolling at a school were in the top 10% (and a higher percentage still in their admitted pool) and you are not, what will help make you part of that other 8%?
  • If a school’s CDS, in addition to their site and materials, is saying they don’t put much value or importance on testing and that is your strongest point within your application, you should be factoring that into “your admit rate” vs. the school’s published number.
  • If they report in their CDS that “demonstrated interest” is not part of their process…it’s not. No need to call or email incessantly, or ask others to do so on your behalf.
  • And lastly, if you are a valedictorian with a perfect test score are you guaranteed admission to all schools? NO. These numbers are helpful, but they don’t tell the entire story. The CDS provides data that reinforces what these schools will be saying in information sessions and outlining on their publications and websites– far more than academics are taken into account at our nation’s most elite schools.

Soooooo….What?!

  1. Do your homework. Read and research past the first page of a brochure or website. Read about a school’s mission. Check out their CDS. Ask good questions when you are on campus that really help you get to the answers that you need to make a good decision on where to apply, and ultimately where to attend.
  2. Acknowledge that at highly selective schools the kitchen bar is filled with lots of talent. Lots of far more perfectly ripe vegetables than they can possibly admit. And further, that many factors will be used to make admission decisions, so 100% predictability is impossible.
  3. Diversify your school set. I’m telling you the same thing I told my son. Go for it. Apply where you really want to go. But understand that you need to have schools on your list with a range of admit rates (7%-16% is not “a range”); schools that put priority on your strengths; and schools where their data and your interests align.

Made the sub-2000 word mark, but barely. Thanks for reading about data over the summer. Now go enjoy the pool.

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