Archives for September 2018

The Scholar Ship

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us for a piece about preparing a scholarship application. Chaffee has been administering prestigious scholarship programs for the past 20 years, and is also a past president of the Undergraduate Scholars Program Administrators Association. Welcome, Chaffee!

I met an old sea captain while travelling through Croatia about five years ago. While we chatted, he told me his criteria for assembling a crew. Each member had to fundamentally understand that when you are at sea, the ship comes first, the crew comes second, and the sailor comes last. Those who didn’t understand and embrace the concept in action weren’t fit for his ship.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Titanic, but I suspect neither the ship nor the crew were the captain’s primary concern. The wealthy passengers’ interests, or perhaps the company’s that owned the ship. Maybe it was the fancy white hat? Need I say more?

One of the sea captain’s stories focused on how to best prepare for a typical six month trip at sea. When it came to provisions, all the food had to be packed very carefully in a tight room in his small vessel. The items set to expire early in the journey needed to be near the door and other items at the back – which literally could not be accessed until months into the journey. Such packing couldn’t be left until the last minute. Careful planning and execution prior to setting sail was essential. What weighed too much and had to be left behind? What food didn’t have enough calories to sustain the crew? What was frivolous?

There are lessons to be learned in pondering this story which relate to scholarship (and admission) applications. So I invite you now to board a different vessel, the “Scholar Ship,” and take a guided tour with me. While this isn’t the first time someone has used this metaphor (nor will it be the last), it will help you visualize your own scholarship journey.

Captain’s Lesson #1: The Ship and the Crew Come Before You

This one is pretty simple, but is often overlooked. When you are working through a scholarship application (and/or admissions application if that is used for scholarship consideration), focus on what you can bring to the institution, not initially what you will get out of the deal. How will your presence will ostensibly improve the college community if you are given a scholarship? Focus on those elements in your application and subsequent interviews if applicable. It not only shows you want to give back, but also shows humility and a contributor mindset. These days, universities want to give scholarships to people who will make a difference, not just those looking for a cash prize.

Captain’s Lesson #2: Pack Only the Necessary Items in the Right Order for the Journey

When you are boarding the Scholar Ship, you’ve got to pack only the most important items. This means when you list your extracurricular activities, awards, work or volunteer experience, and honors on your application, or deciding on elements of your essay, focus on the ones that are the most significant to you and provide you with the most excitement, joy, and impact (this is especially if you are limited in what you can share). Case in point: many professionals have a 1-2 page resume. Compare this with my experience hearing from a few high school students and their parents that only an 8-pager will capture all they’ve accomplished. See the irony here? If a seasoned professional with years of experience can fit their biggest accomplishments on a 1-2 page document, so can you!

The order is also important. You don’t put cookies on the ship before potable water. List your activities and ideas by importance to you. Put down your accomplishments before you list your hobbies. Note also that written communication typically precedes verbal, so focus on your application before preparing for a potential interview. Most universities’ top scholarships are given to intellectually curious students who think critically, communicate effectively in writing and voice, and make an impact in some fashion, whether in leadership, service, or some other emphasized arena.

Captain’s Lesson #3: The Sailor (that’s you!) Does in Fact Matter

Colleges and scholarship programs also want to know why you are interested in them. Why is what they offer compelling to you? How you will make the world a better place by taking advantage of those offerings and produce a return on their investment? Imagine for a second that you tell the old sea captain, “I’m a good fit because I know you will stop on this particular island where I can find a resource that will lead to cures for diseases back on the mainland. I am really interested in being able to go to that island.” Even more simply, it’s fine to say, “I really want a strong degree, great job or graduate school offer, and the rich college experience your school offers.” Be sure to articulate your “why,” because that’s important! Colleges want scholars who will make an impact, but they also want to see you enjoy yourself simultaneously on campus. Most will even try to ensure it!

Captain’s Lesson #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Jump Ship

Well, honestly, the old sea captain never told me this one. It’s just one I think he might have shared had he had the opportunity. While you may have a destination in mind on the Scholar Ship you board, you are likely to find that some of the places you visit along the way – like a backup school or the more obscure one that offered you a great scholarship complete with both financial and developmental incentives – is really where you want to disembark. Such a school might end up being a better endpoint to your journey than you originally intended. If the final destination is what you want, that’s wonderful—go there and finish the voyage. If not, and something else feels like a better option, throw out your anchor and row to shore!

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

What The…?!

Listen to the audio version here!

Young kids are like productivity’s kryptonite. A good day is two steps forward, one step back. I’m not saying they aren’t cute. I’m not warning you not to have them in the future. I am saying any adult who manages to keep these young beings alive, while also accomplishing more than the most mundane, perfunctory tasks, deserves to be praised, exalted, and cheered in the city square.

Just when you think you’ve washed all the dishes, you turn around to see an abandoned half glass of milk and two casually nibbled carrots on the counter top. And what is this in your periphery vision? Why it’s a lone striped sock, discarded by someone next to the fireplace. Mowing the lawn now involves an extra 30 minutes of post-cut clean up because of the 23 Nerf bullets shredded into hundreds of tiny pink, green, and orange pieces and sprayed all over the walkway and bushes.

If I’m being honest, in these moments I really have to watch my temper, tone, and tongue (a different three T’s than discussed a few weeks ago). Typically, I exhale deeply, close my eyes, and slowly bow and shake my head. Sometimes the sage words of Jimmy Buffett assuage my frustration, “If we couldn’t laugh, we’d all go insane.” But in most cases, amidst a swirling combination of confusion, exasperation, and uncertainty, all I can utter is, “What the…?!”

Here are a few recent examples:

I admit this could be called progress after the peeing in the vent story from a few years ago. That, however was more like no steps forward and $1200 back.

Yesterday, I received this Facebook memory of my kids. Looks innocent enough, right? Creating a work of art out of old cereal boxes on the surface may look like a commitment to sustainability and artistic expression. No. This was a mandated “project” that resulted after finding bins of wrappers, boxes, cartons and other trash our son had been hoarding in his room for months. Bins—plural! What the…?!

Just before bed one night last week, my wife asked me, “What is that goo on the floor in the kitchen? It’s an odd green color and seems to be spreading.”

I don’t know. Where? You didn’t smell it or try to clean it up?

“I wasn’t touching that. Could not tell what it was.”

Stumbling downstairs, I saw the substance in question. It was a brownish-green puddle a few inches in diameter. Food? Human discharge of some kind? Melted Play-Doh? A combination of all three? What the…?!

And today, I went to the refrigerator in the morning for some yogurt only to find a few mechanical candles randomly placed on the shelves. Not destructive, but again, “What the…?!”

On The Road

It’s recruitment season, and while traveling to high schools recently I have had a disproportionate number of questions about the open-ended section of the application called “Additional Information” or “Special Circumstances.”

“Is it going to hurt me if I don’t answer that question?”

“Can I include one of the essays I could not fit anywhere else here?”

“I’m a poet and was thinking about including…”

“Would you call filling this section out demonstrated interest?”

I get it. Most of the college application is straightforward. Name: check. Address: got it. School information: no problem. Activities, Essays… all of it makes sense.

Then there’s this: “Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application?” If you select yes, you have a free form box that allows up to 650 words. No additional instructions. No examples. No guidance.

Most applicants neither use nor need this section. In other words, unlike the unidentifiable goo on the floor, you can just leave it be. For those that do complete it, these are the three big bucket reasons:

Significant life events.

You had mono as a junior and missed the first two months of school. Your parents’ divorce was finalized in the summer before senior year but the end of eleventh grade was filled with turmoil. You moved three times during high school due to a parent’s job transfer, promotion, or loss. These are just some of the examples we see in this section. Readers appreciate the perspective you can provide and they will make notes or highlight pertinent pieces they believe are relevant to their review and admissions decision, especially as it relates to overcoming challenges, persevering, or demonstrating tenacity/grit. In some cases, this information may lead them to add to or revise their notes from prior sections.

Academic Context.

Readers want to know if your schedule choices were impacted during high school. Are some courses only offered at certain times? Was a class you had hoped to take canceled due to low enrollment? If you moved multiple times during high school, readers will see that on your transcript, but you also have an opportunity to tell them what impact that may have had. If your move precluded you from being able to take a certain course or begin on a particular curricular track upon arriving at your new school, feel free to elaborate in this space.

Additional Activities.

There are times when the activity section is too limited in space for you to demonstrate the extent to which you contributed. Often this surrounds a business you started, a fundraiser you need to provide more details about, or additional levels of achievement from an activity you listed earlier in the application. Remember, this is “additional” for you– and to an extent it is additional for admission committees. HINT: Put your strongest, most compelling information FIRST in the activity section. Do not intentionally bleed over into additional information unless it is absolutely essential to convey the depth of your work or time.

Still unsure?

Ask your school counselor for their advice. See what their experience has been in the past with students who have used this section. You can also simply call or email the school you are applying to and ask them for their advice.

This is a section about necessary whys or what else– not the place for another essay. Instead, readers evaluate this section looking for pieces of information that provide valuable context (inside or outside the classroom) that you cannot convey elsewhere. Do not over think it! If you believe you have something noteworthy to add, then use this section. Readers will incorporate what they deem helpful and dismiss what they do not. It is as simple as that. It will not hurt you if you do not complete this section (again, most students do not), or if you include something that is deemed irrelevant.

It is called “extra” or “special” because it is not standard. Readers will not combine those two words in their head and assume any applicant completing this section is “extra special.”

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

Advocacy is the New Application

This week we welcome Admission Counselor Mikala Bush to the blog. Welcome, Mikala!

School counselors and teachers, this blog’s for you!

Over the summer our staff prepared for the upcoming recruitment and application cycle. While we were certainly busy, we also had time to have fun, share ideas, and enjoy being together. We had a huge list of must-see movies and TV shows on our whiteboard to check off before summer ended. A few of my personal favorites include Ladybird (which should have won every Oscar!), Waiting for Superman, and Precious Knowledge (especially if you’re into educational documentaries), and most importantly the phenomenon known as O.I.T.N.B.

I’ve joined the millions of binge watchers who are currently hibernating with the newest season of Orange is the New Black, an Emmy-award winning show. In its sixth season, the theme is all about advocacy. The characters are advocating for themselves, for each other, and for better conditions while serving their time.

Are you in(mate)?

Advocacy, in most situations, is giving voice to those who do not have one or expanding/amplifying someone else’s story. In college admission, students certainly have the opportunity to advocate for themselves (in their essays and supplemental questions), but they also rely heavily on school counselors and teachers to do this for them through recommendations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Advocacy is the New Application (see what I did there?).

Before starting in admission at Georgia Tech, I was a college adviser at an amazing public high school here in Atlanta. In that time, I often wondered how best to advocate for applicants.

As admission counselors, our advocacy looks a bit different but we still fight hard for your students. We highlight their self-awareness, passion, grit, perseverance, and we defend the setbacks that are out of their control. We ask where did this student start in the race and how have are they finishing? Each student is given full analysis with respect to their high school – be it the culture, policies, or the community that surrounds it.

Now that I’m on the inside (get it) I’m here to help you highlight important elements of a student’s story in your letters of recommendation.

What are you in for?

Letters of recommendation can be extremely helpful in the review process when they provide insight into a student’s story. Unfortunately, the majority of letters sound like this:

Johnny is a caring, charismatic, courageous student. He has a 4.0 GPA and a 34 on the ACT. He is involved in X, Y. AND Z activities. He would make a great addition to your campus.

While all of these characteristics may be true, admission readers have seen this information elsewhere in the application. A recommendation letter should highlight something new. If you are a teacher, highlighting a project that a student completed, how they interact with others in class, how they react to challenges, or the insightful questions that they bring to the discussion can really help tell a more complete story. Your voice is invaluable to us because it represents an on the ground angle that we simply do not hear anywhere else in the application.

If you are a counselor, ask yourself: How is this student different from others in the class, grade, school, etc.? How is this student perceived by peers and faculty? What might this student undersell or not see in themselves that I can highlight? Addressing these questions will ultimately lead to a better letter that shines a new, broader light.

Your past crimes don’t define you.

One of the subtle points students, and recommenders, forget is that we, as admission counselors, are human! We don’t expect perfection. When I worked as a school counselor, I once hosted a college visit in which I noticed there were more students in the session than had registered for the event. I then realized five students skipped class to meet with this particular college. I made a stern announcement about visit protocol and how to participate with the approval of teachers. Of the five, only one came up to me after and said “Ms. Bush, I was one of those students who did not get permission to come today. I am sorry and promise it will never happen again.”

This student showed courage to admit her mistake, apologized, and corrected it rather than slipping off quietly like her peers. The situation spoke to her character, which I was happy to later write about and advocate for in her recommendation letters.

Give yourself permission to write about students as humans – beautiful, flawed, and improving over time. I realize vulnerability and imperfection may seem contradictory to a process that is supposed to be about putting the best foot forward, but providing somewhat sensitive, yet unquestionably authentic information in your recommendation letters allows you to highlight growth and potential—and to both celebrate the student’s past and advocate for their future!

Are you a supporting witness?

Teachers, before you agree to be a recommender, help them answer these questions: Does this person know me well? Can they speak to my personality and character inside, and ideally also outside, the classroom? Have I spent quality time with them? Will they be an enthusiastic advocate? Remind them that often the teacher who can write with the most clarity and excitement is not necessarily the person in the academic area they plan to pursue in college.  That’s right–sometimes the best recommendation for a future physics major is the drama teacher!

My One Free Call…

Finally, I want to take a moment to say, as a former school counselor, to simply say, “THANK YOU!” Thank you for service to students. Thank you for your time, concern, and sacrifices. Thank you for writing and counseling these kids. Thank you for your advocacy!

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.