College Essay Greatest Hits

I don’t post on Facebook consistently, but since most of my family is on it, it’s become my go-to medium for adding pictures to chronicle our summer travels.

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of Facebook memories from previous trips. Since everything is different this year and we are not really going anywhere, my reaction to these pictures varies based on my mood.

Rick, we care about you and the memories you share here.

Oregon/Washington Summer Trip, 2016

I tilt my head slowly upward, gently close my eyes, breathe in deeply and smile, “Man. That was a great trip!”

The next day: Rick, we care about you and the memories you share here.

I tilt my head slowly upward, gently close my eyes, breathe in deeply… and then slam my clenched fist on the table and scry (scream/cry), “Oh yeah, if you really cared about me, you’d transport me back there, Facebook!”

I’m guessing you can relate. Camps are off, travel is limited, summer jobs probably do not look the way you anticipated, and live concerts and sports are either canceled completely or highly modified. I’m trying to make lemonade out of lemons too, but sugar is tough to come by these days (Metaphorically, of course. It’s not like we are talking about toilet paper. Sheesh! What a weird world we are living in.)

Time to think about that essay…

My point is this: while this summer is different in many ways, the college admission cycle is not. Last year at this time (and the year before that, and the year before that) rising seniors were also considering what they were going to write their essays about or researching the topics and options they’ll have for short answer questions.

In July of 2019, 2018, and so on, the Common Application and Coalition Application had posted their essay and short answer questions online for students to view and work on, and individual colleges were beginning to open their applications for submission. In that sense, this year is no different.

(Insert your name here), we care about you and the essays you write.

So, we dug into the blog archives to give you our best advice about how to use your time, gather your thoughts, provide insight about what colleges are looking for in your writing, and put your best foot forward once you submit your essays and short answer questions.

Cue flashback music…

What: TYP0S, REPEATED WORDS WORDS, AND OTHER SIGNS OF HUMANITY ON YOUR COLLEGE APPLICATION

When: February 2020 (Man, that seems like forever ago. #amirite?!)

Who: The brilliance behind our social media, @gtadmission, Sammy Rose-Sinclair

Why: Because as hard as you work on your essays and short answer questions, they’re never going to be absolutely perfect. Mistakes happen. Or you will submit it and later wish you’d added this or that or said something a bit differently. We get it, and hopefully this will help you reframe and breathe a bit. It is a reminder that, “Admission Officers aren’t cynics looking for that one mistake, a missed point on a final grade, or that one letter that’s out of place in order to cross you off the list and move on. Actually, I don’t mind the occasional light reminder that at its core, this process is human, our applicants are human, and the function that the application serves is often more important than the form it takes.”

What: WILL SAYING I’M A BLUEBERRY GET ME INTO COLLEGE? SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS 101

When: July 2019

Who: The inimitable Katie Mattli

Why: Because in about 1,000 words Katie manages to provide concrete action steps and tangible tips, Zen you with equal parts rationale and philosophy, zoom into the committee room and the mind of admission readers, and yet still work in lines like, “Give that puppy a once over in the light of day to see if it is well written.” Plus, if for no other reason… the title. C’mon on. What? You think I just throw “inimitable” around flippantly?

What: BE BATMAN!

When: October 2017

Who: Rick Clark

Why: Because we were looking for five blogs on this topic and apparently, we did not write much about writing in 2018. And because sometimes we all need to be reminded: “Don’t try to be something or someone you are not. Your power is your identity– not an extra, nothing “super” or foreign or imaginary. Be distinct. Be different. Be yourself. Be Batman!”

What: DON’T PROCRASTINATE…GET STARTED!

When: June 2017

Who: Rick Clark

Why: Because now is the time to get started on your essays and short answer questions. This piece gives you a concrete timeline and measurable steps to get started and to keep moving. Don’t get stuck in the Covid trance where you think days, hours, and calendars mean nothing. Again, the admission cycle has not changed. I understand you may not have been driving or watching R rated movies in 2017, but this advice still holds up. Still not sold? How many admission articles have you read that start with, “Man. It really smells like pee in here!”

What: COLLEGE ADMISSION ESSAYS: I’VE HEARD THAT ONE BEFORE…

When: October 2016

Who: Rick Clark (only one writing back then)

Why: Because as brilliant as your concept is for a topic or a response, there is nothing new under the sun. 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.” This post helps you understand the volume, experience, and perspective of admission readers, and then consider how you can write to distinguish yourself in an applicant pool of 4,000 or 40,000.

That blog ends with this line, “Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!”

Given the unknowns of the year ahead, I’d say unique is an understatement. Still, that advice may actually be more helpful and relevant this summer than it was then. The truth is you cannot control all outcomes– in life or in college admission. So as you work on your essay and write for colleges, my biggest tip is to enjoy the experience. Be sure your words and choices are uniquely yours.

Enough reading. Go write. Go enjoy it!

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Your Voice Matters

Listen to “Episode 14: Your Voice Matters – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

If you have ever heard an admission counselor discuss college application essays, they will inevitably say, “We just want to hear your voice.” Having worked at a number of institutions, I can tell you this is absolutely true. While grammar and style matter, conversations in committee rooms center on what your essays tell us you care about and how you think and operate.

Admission interviews are similar. In fact, “interview” is really a misnomer. Admission reps, alumni, students, faculty, or other university representatives you meet with have a battery of questions to ask, but really they are hoping for a conversation. They are interested in the content of your responses, your tone, your ability to build on ideas, and the tenor of the overall exchange and dialogue.

In other words, when an admission dean tells you they “just want to hear your voice,” they are not only thinking about your application, but also who you will be as a future member of their campus community—and ultimately as a graduate and a global citizen.

Your voice matters in the college admission experience.  How and when will you use it?

Your Voice Matters

As someone who works at the unique intersection between high school and higher education; as an educator charged with building and shaping a class and a community; as the father of two young children, I believe all schools and universities should foster discussion, expose you to new ideas, and surround you with people who think and approach life differently. These communities should serve as laboratories for the mixing and merging of perspectives and the facilitation of open, spirited dialogue. None of that happens without your full engagement and commitment—without your voice.

If you are about to begin your college career, go look at your acceptance letter from the school you plan to attend.

I hope it makes you feel proud. I hope you see it as a vote of confidence, an invitation, and a contract.

An offer of admission is our way of saying…

We trust you.

We believe in you.

We need you.

We are counting on you to show up and contribute. We want you to be challenged and to challenge us. We are offering you an opportunity to learn, transform, and improve. And we are also imploring you to teach, transform, and improve our campus community.

Your voice matters in college. How and when will you use it?

Your Voice Matters Now

These are fractured and tumultuous times. Our world is facing a global pandemic. Our nation is in a divisive and contentious election year. Our cities are experiencing protests and curfews.

Honestly, part of what gives me hope right now is you. On Sunday, my family went to a protest organized by the Beacon Hill Alliance for Human Rights. The first 10 speakers were either high school or college students from the Atlanta area. It further convinced me of what I already know from reading your college applications—your voice is powerful and crucial right now and as we move forward.

Whether you are returning to high school or beginning your college career, I want you to know your voice matters. Your voice can help bring about the change and healing our local communities, campuses, cities, and our country so desperately need.

After the recent killings of Aumaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, there has been no shortage of articles, interviews, speeches, and social media posts suggesting precisely how and when you should use your voice. Ultimately, that decision rests with you.

My hope is you will choose to use it in your school and community to:

  • call out and speak against injustice, inequality, racism, and discrimination.
  • encourage.
  • lift the voice of friends, classmates, or other community members who are marginalized or excluded.
  • inspire.
  • acknowledge what you do not know and commit to listening and learning.
  • forgive.
  • speak truth to power, especially when the reality of an organization or an institution does not mirror its stated values, mission, or vision.
  • challenge.
  • question and protest systems/ status quo that work against progress and equity– and ultimately vote accordingly.
  • engage.
  • call out who is not in the room and work to bring them in as equal partners.
  • love.

I want to be clear. I do not always get this right– far, far from it. The Real Cost of Silence is a story I told several years ago as part of Georgia Tech’s Transformative Narratives project, which demonstrates that fact. But it taught me that my voice matters; transformation comes through experience (often through missteps and failure); our words will never be perfect, but silence in the face of injustice and overt prejudice is patently wrong; we cannot change the past, so we must commit to a different and better today and tomorrow; and perhaps most importantly, not being part of the solution means you are part of the problem.

Your voice matters each and every day. How and when will you use it?

Your Voice Matters, Now More Than Ever

I hope you take this summer to read, listen, watch, learn, reflect, and evaluate.

I hope you will ask yourself big questions about who you are, who you want to be, what you care about, and what you believe. Whether you are applying to college in the year ahead or beginning your college career, those questions are critical.

I hope you consider what you want your future and the future of our nation and world to look like.

Most of all I hope you will be reminded and confident in this—YOUR VOICE MATTERS.

How and when will you use it?

More Georgia Tech Voices 

President Ángel Cabrera’s Statement on George Floyd

A Commitment to Drive Change by Archie W. Ervin, Ph.D.

Dean of Computing, Charles Isbell

Dr. Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs

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The Next Right Thing

Listen to “Episode 12: The Next Right Thing – Becky Tankersley” on Spreaker.

This week we welcome Director of Communications (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

As the mom of two young girls, it isn’t shocking that over the last few weeks we’ve watched Frozen II in our house… A LOT. In full disclosure, I enjoy the movie (I will never be too old for Disney animated films and Pixar movies!), so watching it on repeat isn’t a burden. There’s a lot I love about the film, from the animation to the storytelling to the foreshadowing of what’s to come. I won’t spoil the movie for you, but I do need to give you a few details for the purpose of this post.

The future of the kingdom of Arendelle is uncertain and obscured, and early in the movie one of the characters tells Princess Anna, “When one can see no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” This concept shows up repeatedly throughout the film, ultimately climaxing at a moment when all hope seems lost, and Anna is left alone to ask, “what now?” (in classic Disney heart-wrenching-song fashion, of course).

I’ve known for a few weeks now that I was scheduled to write the blog this week. As the primary editor of the blog, I have the privilege of being very familiar with our previous and upcoming content. Over the last two months, many voices have shared great wisdom for these trying times. As my week approached, I’ve wondered what I could possibly say that would be of any value to you, our readers. COVID-19 has made life uncertain for everyone, and I have a feeling hearing another voice say, “I don’t know” or “wait and see” isn’t helpful to anyone.

So instead of telling you any of those things, I’ll take a cue from Frozen II (and Kristen Bell) and encourage you to do the next right thing.

“But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make…”

If you’re a high school senior….

You’re wondering if you’ll have an actual in-person graduation ceremony. You’re waiting to learn whether or not you really will be moving out of your house and on to a campus in the fall. You left your school building weeks ago and “digital learning” and “remote delivery” have become your new normal (as has doing your work while your parents and siblings are on conference calls just down the table from you).

What is next? What will life look like in a few weeks, months? I don’t have an answer for that, or a crystal ball to look into the future.

But I do know you have an opportunity to do the next right thing. That will look different for each of you. Perhaps the next right thing is to spend part of your summer helping take care of your younger siblings (especially if their summer camps are cancelled). The next right thing may be helping your grandparents out around the house. The next right thing could be going grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor. The next right thing could be calling up a friend to ask how they’re doing. You can make an impact from exactly where you are right now.

If you’re a high school junior…

The way you thought your college applications would look has totally changed. Between cancelled ACT and SAT test dates, distance learning, changes in AP exams, and the cancellation of extracurricular activities, your application will not look the way you had planned. And guess what—we get it (see this blog for proof)!

You also have an opportunity to do the next right thing. This summer you can review the essay prompts for schools to which you’re considering and start drafting your essays. You can research financial aid and scholarship opportunities. You can take virtual tours of campuses, explore social media handles for student organizations, and sign up for webinars to learn about different colleges, their missions, and their application review process.

The next right thing for you involves using your time wisely. Your summer plans may be cancelled, postponed, or just… different. Regardless, you’ll likely have more down time on your hands than usual. Use that time to your benefit, and when the speed of life picks up again, you’re adequately prepared to step up and move forward.

If you’re a parent…

This one is a bit tougher to write. My oldest daughter is 8, so I won’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be in your shoes and be the parent of a high school student. Maybe you’re nervous to send your child to college. Maybe you’re equally nervous to not send them to college, wondering what that could mean in the long term. Perhaps you’re concerned about your child’s lack of in-person social interaction and how it’s been replaced with virtual-everything.

Many of our families have been home, together, for a few weeks now. Some days are easier (or harder) than others. But as parents, as leaders of our families, we can also do the next right thing.

The next right thing could be creating intentional space to be together doing something other than looking at your computers. Take a hike, plan a picnic, plant and tend to a garden, schedule a movie night at home (yes, it’s a screen, but this one is okay!). Find something you can enjoy together, like watching all the Marvel movies in chronological order (what, that’s just me?).

Look for the little opportunities to enjoy time together in a different way. Have honest conversations about life, the world we live in, and how you too sometimes struggle to find and embrace the new normal. Honesty goes a long way.

Just do the next right thing

When we’re caught in the “what do I do now” situations of life, it’s easy, and natural, to become self-focused. Add quarantine and social distancing into the mix, and it becomes even easier. But I encourage each of you to do the next right thing in this moment. The answers we’re waiting for may not come for a few more weeks. No one knows what the “new normal” will look like–we can’t control it, and worry and anxiety won’t change it. But doing the next right thing is something we can control.

“Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing.”

Becky Tankersley has worked in higher education for more than a decade. She joined Georgia Tech in 2012 after working at a small, private college in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Prior to working in higher education, she worked in television news. Her current role blends her skills in communication and college recruitment. Becky is the editor of  the GT Admission Blog, and also serves as a Content Coordinator for the American Association of Collegiate Registrar and Admission Officers.

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Rising to the Occasion

Listen to “Episode 9: Rising to the Occasion – Kathleen Voss” on Spreaker.

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission for the Mid-Atlantic, Kathleen Voss, to the blog. Welcome, Kathleen!

If you have ever been in a serious car accident, you are probably familiar with the feeling. The acrid smoke from the air bags fills your nostrils. You are disoriented, confused and probably hurt. It’s as though you have been hit in the chest with a baseball bat… if you can feel at all.

First, there is the impact which sounds like it is on top of you and miles away at the same time. Then peculiar silence followed by chaos. The sounds of people shouting, sirens screeching, my own cries to my children to answer me and to tell me that they are okay. I couldn’t get out of the car to check on them, in fact, I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t catch my breath and the airbags blocked my exit.

In the noise and the confusion, I hear my daughter’s voice, clear and calm and sure, “It’s okay mom, we are okay. I am calling Dad. You are okay mom.” I am comforted. I relinquish the control that I have had for the past 16 years and hand it over to her. I trust her. She has risen to the occasion.

Relinquishing Control

I know, likening the college admission process to a car accident is extreme. It is not and should not be as dramatic and terrifying. Many of the blogs that you read here have spoken to the reasons why the process has gotten a bit out of hand.

I have worked with young people for more than 25 years, and while this process has absolutely become more stressful and challenging, once the dust settles and the decisions are made and accepted, the vast majority of students find peace in their decisions and success in the aftermath. I have heard from parents whose children were accepted to Tech, as well as those who were not, years later, and they regal me with stories of their son or daughter’s accomplishments.

They all wish that they could go back in time and tell the parent they were then to just relax, take a deep breath, and that somehow, “it will all work out.”

The college search process IS challenging and the added anxiety of what we must deal with now is certainly not helping. There will be disappointments and perhaps crying and shouting. As parents it’s natural for us to want to step in and help, to fix it, to make things better.

It is so much harder to back away and allow our children to rise to the occasion, or, heaven forbid, fail.

Prepare for… Failure

When I ask students at Georgia Tech what is the one piece of advice they would like to give prospective students, the common replies are; “Tell them to be prepared to fail.” “Tell them it’s okay to fail.” “Know who to reach out to when you fail.” No one likes failure but doing it for the first time, 500 miles from home, without any of the tools to deal with said failure, is just cruel.

As parents, we can teach our children how to react to failure. You can use your own experience or highlight that of another. There are hundreds of books about the value of failure and how to cope with failure and turn it to a positive.

It hasn’t been easy, watching my daughter navigate high school. It seems like her impending adulthood approached at lightning speed. There have been many battles of the will. And while my neighbors and parent friends at church and on the swim team have benefited from my decades old experience in college admission, my own child keeps me at arm’s length, preferring to brush off my advice and forge her own way.

I hear my father’s words echoing in my brain, “If you would only listen to what I am saying! Why must you always do the exact opposite of what I suggest?” It was years later, in my late twenties, that I apologized for not listening to what was his brilliant advice. I am sure my daughter will have the same epiphany, though I hope she recognizes my brilliance in less time than it took me.

Rising and Resilient

In the aftermath of that car accident, as I considered the reality of the dreadful possible outcomes, the list did not include my daughter’s GPA, ranking on the swim team, and advice about college preparedness.

Instead, we talked about how grateful we were. How blessed to be okay and together.

I am not perfect and absolutely know in the next few months we will need to focus. Junior year is no easy ride, whether at a distance or in a classroom. I have to accept I may or may not always be heard. Mistakes will be made. Classes will not come easy. There will be (gulp) failure.

I will try to remember the strong girl from the car accident, who took control, aided her sister, calmed her mother, called her father, and spoke to emergency workers with authority.

That girl is resilient. And that girl is going places, with or without my brilliant advice.

Kathleen Voss has worked in college admissions for over 25 years. She came to Georgia Tech in 2013 as the Institute’s first Regional Admission’s Director. Kathleen has worked with students and high schools in the mid-Atlantic since 2003.

Being Seen—This One is For the Juniors

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli to the blog. Welcome back, Katie!

Listen to “Juniors: We See You. Episode 6- Katie Mattli” on Spreaker.

As I was falling asleep last night, my head was buzzing with the conundrum of painting a picture of our campus for students in this new climate.  How do I make connections? How do I share a story without the campus backdrop that tells so much without words? How do I help them see us?

Then in the dark, staring at the ceiling, I remembered: we ask students to do this every year. Every time they begin a college application, they are essentially trying to make colleges see them through their only medium: words.  At my fingertips I have social platforms, pictures, phones, websites, webinars… a whole slew of tools beyond the written word to paint the campus story for prospective and admitted students.  If I only had words, I would have to intentionally craft a careful and thoughtful message.

So, this blog is filled with application tips and thoughts, dedicated to all those soon-to-be seniors who will only be using words to be seen in the admission process.

For those anxious about how to start a college application, I see you. 

This summer or fall you will sit down at your computer and write your college application. I hope not all in one sitting (you can save it and review it later!). During information sessions, I ask students to imagine a scenario with me: Pretend you could have a cup of coffee with me. If we spent 30 minutes together, what would you tell me? Lots of things, right?  You would tell me about what you love in high school, how things are crazy right now, how and why you chose classes and clubs and sports teams and service projects. About who changed your life and why.  What’s good, what’s bad, what matters to you.

Through a college application you are speaking to me too–just on paper and not in person. So, here’s the tip! Pretend we did have a “coffee conversation.” Grab a piece of paper and write all the things you would want me to know, and what you would talk about if we were in a coffee shop chatting. Just make a bulleted list. Now take that piece of paper with you to the computer when you pull up your college application and start marking things off your list. This is a great exercise to whisk some of the stress away and just get started.

When what you need to say just doesn’t fit in a category, I see you.

You had to make a choice in your senior year schedule because 2 AP’s were offered at the same time. You changed schools after 10th grade because one of your parents had a job change.  You had a blip in your grades, and you want to tell me about it. In March of your junior year… things got a little surreal.

I see you. And I carefully read the “Additional Information” section of your application. This small, unassuming section is a blank text box on your application. You can share any little detail that you feel is relevant or helps put your high school career in context. You can write a paragraph or leave bullet points. The format is optional so list what makes sense to you.

There is also a separate response space to tell us about a high school change. It is not required but it is really helpful for admission counselors to hear more about what caused the decision to change schools. It may be personal, and that’s okay if you don’t want to share. But if you feel comfortable, add a few sentences to let someone reviewing your application understand the change.

For those who don’t think they can “stand out,” I see you.

A few years ago, I read an application from a student who loved Chemistry and was captain of her swim team. Neither of these attributes are unique in a sizeable applicant pool.  But her application was so memorable. She broke water down to its elements in her essay and spoke about how it flowed through her life, in her love of chemistry, of her leadership on the swim team, and through a water-centered philanthropy that really mattered to her. It was great! She stood out!

Without knowing it, she followed two rules that I encourage all students to consider before turning in their application:

  1. Does it answer why?
  2. Does it pass the Anonymous Application test?

(Neither of these are actual rules, but I still tell anyone who will listen that they should be.)

First, does it answer why? So many students want to know what they should list on their application to be competitive. I tell them they should instead ask why are they involved in a certain activity, why does it matter to them?  If you can articulate this, you can probably put together a strong application—one that is authentic and genuinely has a good foundation.

Now, the anonymous application test. If you were to print your application (you don’t do this, but follow me here) and you were to drop it in your high school hallway—without your name on it—could anyone read it and return it to just you? That is a strong application. That is an application that has your unique voice that a friend, teacher, or peer would recognize. Just like your thumbprint, you are unique. No application is exactly like another. You can stand out by simply being authentic.

Things I don’t see

Since we are in this theme, I think it is important to mention the things that I don’t see.

  • I don’t see the number of hours you put into a sport or activity unless you tell me. Be sure to take a calculated guess as to the time you spend on your activities.
  • That small typo. I’m not here to red-pen you.  (My colleague says it best, so check out her blog next.
  • The 50-point difference in test scores. I don’t care that your best friend or the guy in your math class got a perfect score. I don’t admit test scores, I admit people. In a holistic process we see test scores, but we see so much more. Don’t distill yourself to one number. I don’t and neither should you.

Lastly, for those who feel their world is upside down right now, I see you.

If your spring sport just got cancelled, if your spring break vacation was spent watching Netflix at home, if your ACT or SAT just got cancelled and you don’t know when you will take it again, if you are now taking virtual classes—with your parents sitting beside you at the kitchen table also working: I see you.

Moments like this make us feel insecure, anxious. They make us feel alone, unseen. But I will tell you a secret: high schoolers are the most resilient creatures on Earth! I mean it. I have seen students rise from situational ashes that would bring most adults crashing down. I have proof. I read your words year after year. You bounce back. You make plans. You attack problems with passion. Your words bring me joy because there are moments in the committee room when I say out loud, “Y’all. This student is going to change the world.”

You don’t have to change the world to be resilient. Being resilient changes the world.  So, take heart in these unprecedented times. Colleges and institutions everywhere send you love and support and we can’t wait to “see” you in your application next year!

Additional Resources:

 

Katie Mattli has worked in college admission for over 10 years. She joined Georgia Tech in 2014 where she works with underrepresented minority recruitment focusing on female, first generation, African American and Hispanic recruitment efforts. Her previous years at a private liberal arts college for women fueled her love of student leadership and advocacy.