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“Cracking” The College Admission Code

“Cracking” The College Admission Code

Much of the media, gossip, and general conversation surrounding the college admission process includes words like “dates, deadlines, decisions,” or perhaps “stress” and “anxiety.” It does not have to be that way. The admission experience can be just that: an adventure- an opportunity to grow and a time to explore and discover. You just have to be willing to travel, twist, and trust.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to China. In the period of 10 days, we covered a few thousand miles and seven different cities.  On my last day in Shanghai, before boarding a 14-hour flight home, a friend who lives 60 miles outside the city invited me to come for the day promising, “Good food, good conversation, and the best massage in China.” Sure. It would have been easier to stay in Shanghai, but I was intrigued, so I followed his directions through the busy train stations and met him in Suzhou (Go check out the incredible gardens there, if you ever have the chance).

He delivered on his promise. Great food, a low key day touring the city, an opportunity to meet his wife and mother-in-law, and to cap it off a 90- minute massage that cost a grand total of $20. After sipping tea (literally- not the term), soaking our feet, and enjoying/enduring some much needed work on my neck and lower back, he looked over at me on the table and said, “Do you trust me?” In my stupor, and with a masseuse’s elbow squarely in my shoulder blade, I managed to nod and almost inaudibly reply, “Yes.” (Leaving my lips it sounded more like a question than an answer.)

He said something in Mandarin and within the minute two extremely muscular guys walked into the room. Understanding the international hand motion for “sit up,” I complied. Before I knew it, one of them had my hands interlaced behind my head and my arms up in a butterfly position. Quickly and expertly he grabbed and twisted my elbows. Every vertebrate in my spine cracked. I gulped hard. Instantly, he raised my arms again, repositioned me, and twisted the other direction. I threw my head back, simultaneously opened my eyes and mouth wide, and borderline yelled, “Whao! Holy cow! (Possibly the PG-13 version),” which caused my friend and the other masseuse to erupt in laughter. Once I realized I was not paralyzed, it felt amazing– refreshed, rejuvenated, and relaxed all at the same time. I would never have signed up for that in the States. In fact, if he’d explained all of this to me in English ahead of time, I’d have passed on it for sure.

I’m not sending professional “back crackers” to your house or school (although that would be both weird and kind of awesome if I could), but I am hoping your admission experience will be like my day in Suzhou.

Travel– Go visit as many schools as you can. If you have not already read this on our blog or heard it from a school counselor, consider yourself told (or “done told”). These don’t have to be 12 day blitzkriegs where you see 37 different places. Pull off the highway when you see a college’s sign or tag on an extra day or two to a trip this summer. The college admission experience offers you the opportunity to see new places, experience new cities or states, and consider who you really are and what you want from college and beyond.

Don’t just stick to the “Shanghais.” In other words, don’t limit the colleges you visit only to the big or popular or best known schools in your state or region. Don’t let someone else’s list or ranking dictate your decisions or thought process.

Go to Suzhou. When you are driving between the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky, swing over to see Centre College. When you are on your way to U Penn stop by Muhlenberg College (Insert your regionally appropriate example here).

Be willing to “go there” figuratively as well. If the list of schools you’ve visited or are researching doesn’t have one or two “surprises” on it, I’d argue you’re limiting yourself and the potential for discovery, adventure, and growth. Look beyond the colleges you constantly see around you on t-shirts and window decals, or playing sports on TV. If you will do that, it’s fine to end up at your state’s flagship or a university that has a Shanghai-like brand or name. But don’t throw away brochures that arrive in your mailbox or inbox just because you’ve never heard of them. Be confident enough to think through what you want and need from a college experience (and how those two differ), and then honestly match those to individual school cultures.

I could not tell you what I did last Wednesday. Probably took the train to work, wrote some emails, and washed dishes. But I can tell you in detail about my day in Suzhou- and I expect I’ll be able to years from now as well. Take some detours. Inconvenience yourself. Be willing to take the path less traveled. Don’t shortchange yourself in this unique time and experience. Travel!

Twist– When you apply to college, you’re definitely putting yourself out there. It’s kind of like sitting up on a massage table and allowing a man three times your size to crack your back. I hope you’ll keep that image in your mind as you apply to college and receive admission decisions and financial aid packages. Well… maybe not that image exactly, but the concept. There can be moments of pain or discomfort but that is not necessarily a bad thing, if you commit to keeping a long- term, big picture perspective.

As an example, this year we pulled over 300 students into our class from the waitlist. Many of those kids applied in October, were deferred in January, and then were waitlisted in March, before ultimately getting an offer in May. Is that a bit painful? Absolutely. Just typing that makes me wince a little. But I’ve met some of those students over the last week, since our summer term began. I’m seeing a lot of smiles (and good posture).

Still not convinced? This fall we are enrolling 600 transfer students. Well over half of those students applied for first year admission. Some were denied initially and went elsewhere. Others were admitted and could not afford to attend, but are now coming after attending a more affordable option for the first year or two.

I hope you will be willing to raise your arms, interlace your fingers behind your head, and endure some proverbial back cracking. Twisting is not breaking. The truth is that too many students get their feelings hurt when they are deferred admission or waitlisted. Too many families become angry or insulted when they don’t get that invitation to the honors program or other perceived merit- based option at a particular school. Getting denied admission or “passed over” for a scholarship is not a dead end, it’s just rerouting you to a different adventure. Twist!

Trust- A few years ago I was helping students move into residence halls. As I entered the building I saw a father out of the corner of my eye who I had met before. I remembered him clearly because a few years earlier he had been in the office yelling at me for denying his son’s admission (you seem not to forget those types of interactions).

I put the box down in the room of the student I was helping, wished her a good year, and then wiped the sweat from my brow. While the box was heavy and I had just basically sprinted up two flights of stairs, the perspiration was from that memory. Heading back out the front door (side door was locked) I scanned the lawn. Whew! He was gone.

Then… a hand on my shoulder. “Oh… Hi. How are you?” I managed to say in feigned surprise. After talking for a few minutes, his wife came up with their two sons. Unbeknownst to me, the younger brother had been admitted to Tech and was starting his first year. The older son explained he had chosen a smaller school and was now a rising senior majoring in business.

“Could not have been a better choice,” the father added, and then went on to proudly describe his son’s summer internship and added he already had a job offer waiting upon graduation.”

It’s understandable to be a little nervous or anxious about this whole college thing. You’re not crazy and there is nothing I can say, write or sing to make you totally trust me. Plus, I’ve learned folks don’t like hearing, “this is all going to work out.” But it’s kind of like standing in line for a big roller coaster. If you only see the drops and hear the screams, it’s natural to be scared. But watch the people coming off the ride. They’re “high-fiveing” and talking about how great it was. Trust them. Go to your high school’s graduation. Talk to graduates at the pool or a game this summer. Did their admission experience go exactly as they’d expected? Are they going to the school they thought they would be a year or two ago? Occasionally, perhaps. But I’d assert the most confident and excited traveled and twisted a bit along the way. Trust!