Course Rigor
Diversity
Georgia Tech
Misconceptions

That’s Not How it Works… Part 3

Okay, so I lied. Or if you’re looking to be more gracious and generous (which doesn’t seem to be the norm these days) I was flat wrong. Back in March 2018 I wrote a two-part series titled “That’s Not How It Works!” (You may remember my lackluster attempt to proliferate #TNHIW, but like Gretchen Wieners with “fetch” in Mean Girls— it really didn’t take.) Regardless, my exact statement was, “There won’t be a three-peat or trilogy for #TNHIW, but if you want to peel back more admission myths and misconceptions, check out this layered Onion piece.”

I should have known this day would come. The truth is there have been many things I said I’d never do—wear buck oxford shoes, get a pedicure (in my defense it was a date with my daughter, but I’d be lying if I did not admit I enjoyed it), and the granddaddy of them all… own a minivan (initially painful but man, the sliding doors and TV are sweet). Professionally, this is also true. “We’re not going to the Common App…” “We’ll always release EA decisions before the Winter Break…” “I’m not a bow tie guy…”

So if you want to know who is going to win the Super Bowl, I’m not your best resource. Or if you hear me say, “I’m definitely not going to start wearing skinny jeans,” it’s understandable if you give me a sideways stare with a raised eyebrow.

Here’s the thing about college admission: it’s cyclical. The original two-part #TNHIW series was written in the spring, when we dealt with topics like the waitlist, depositing, financial aid, and appealing admission decisions. All still valid and helpful information if you want to check it out later, but it’s not as important to you right now.

Since I’ve been on the road presenting and fielding questions from prospective students, as well as talking to students on campus, I thought I’d address a few of the common misconceptions admission officers often hear.

Quotas

“Our son goes to X high school. We’re a big feeder, so I’m concerned it’s going to hurt him because I know you only take a certain number from each high school.”

Well… that’s not how it works.

The truth is colleges do want to diversify their class. They work hard to recruit an applicant pool with qualified students from a wide variety of backgrounds—geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, and so on—in order to insure their entire first-year class is not made up of students from only one county or state or nation. Ironically, what irks people in the admission process (“you don’t take as many as you should from my school”) is ultimately one of the aspects of campus life students (and alumni) love and appreciate (“I met people from all over the state/country/world, and not only learned from them but built a huge network as a result”).

Because there are not quotas, in any applicant pool, colleges can typically point to high schools with a 100% admit rate (granted the n of that varies) and others from whom they did not admit a single student.

Don’t believe me? (Understandable given this blog’s preface.) I point you to the data. Our office frequently gets calls like, “I got transferred by my company and we are buying a house in Atlanta. What’s the best school for my 7-year old to attend if she ultimately wants to go to Tech?”  Since we are not real estate agents, and because it keeps us (okay, me) from asking something like, “I’m sorry, sir, did you say 7 or 17?” we developed and published admission snapshots so families and counselors can see admit rate variance from school to school or state to state.

While not all universities capture or publish this granular data, most of their publications show lists or maps of their applicants and students. They also all have institutional research offices that keep this information  (there are even conferences for research folks, which I’m sure are a real hoot). Go check out some of the tables, records, fact books, and common data sets and you can see a varied admit rate and lack of quotas. Or just go ask your school counselor. Often they track this data or can show you variance in your high school from one year to the next. What you’ll likely see and hear is most colleges admit different numbers and percentages of students from your school each year. “But last year you took seven from our school and this year only five?” Exactly. No quotas… because #TNHIW

AP vs. IB vs. Dual Enrollment (vs. whatever your school calls challenging)

“You like to see AP more than IB, right?”

 “I’ve heard you prefer IB to AP.”

“Just tell me the total number of APs I need to get in.”

“I was thinking about designing my own curriculum. Which sounds better, IP or IA, because you know AI is already taken and I don’t like the idea of having a ‘B’ in there, you know?”

Well…that’s not how it works.

First, if you are applying to or planning to attend a school with a 60%+ admit rate (and remember they make up the majority of colleges in the country), the odds are if you have good grades and take generally challenging courses, slight curriculum differences and course choices are not going to be of great consequence. In fact, many schools openly publish their academic parameters online so there is absolutely no mystery in whether or not you’ll be admitted.

Instead of worry about the type/name of a course- or the exact number of rigorous courses you have taken- here’s what you should be asking: “What’s my goal?” Is it to be as prepared as possible for the pace and depth of the classes you’re going to take in your major or college in general? If so, choose the path that is in line with those goals and aspirations. Look at the kids a grade above you or the seniors who just graduated who wound up at some of the schools you are interested in attending. There are no guarantees your outcomes will be identical, but at least you have some evidence of a viable path. Talk to your counselor now about the colleges you are interested in attending. They can guide you and, hopefully, provide you a bit of solace in your deliberations.

If your ultimate goal is simply to “get in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 3,000+ colleges), then regardless of what the classes are called, you need to take the toughest ones available and do very well in them. Which classes are those? You know better than I do. What does “do very well” mean? Again… you know. Selective colleges are agnostic when it comes to what the course may be called- they just want to know that you have chosen rigor and responded well to it, because when you arrive on their campus, professors will have high expectations of your knowledge, and you’ll be surrounded by peers who are both prepared and eager to be challenged and stretched in the classroom.

Take some time to ask yourself if the reason you want to go take English or Calculus at the college down the road is really because your high school’s teacher is known to be really tough, or if it is because that is actually the best choice to help prepare you when you arrive on a campus full-time. If your school offers both AP and IB and you have a choice of one over the other, no college is going to say one is preferred in all cases. Instead, they’re going to evaluate you in context of your school. Which one attracts the best students in your grade? Ultimately, “ducking rigor” is not going to fly in the admission process at a college that admits one of every three, five, or 10 students.

So is the reason you want to take Spanish because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester? Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford, or those receiving premier merit-based scholarships at our nation’s top schools will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class. I’m not saying that is the way it absolutely should be. I’m just telling you how it works. And while I kind of hate to be the one to say this so bluntly, someone has to.

Ultimately, my advice is to forget the titles. Start by asking yourself why you are taking each course on your schedule. Is it to protect your GPA? Take advantage of state funded dual enrollment programs in order to save money and earn course credit? Provide time and balance for other pursuits inside or outside the classroom? To avoid a certain subject? Be honest about your goals, understand the pros and cons of each decision, and go from there. That’s how it should work.

Now, I’ve said my peace. Other than Rocky, Harry Potter (and arguably Star Wars depending on where you start counting) there is no need for a fourth edition of anything, so while I’ve learned my lesson to “never say never,” don’t expect another #TNHIW. And seriously, I’m drawing the line with skinny jeans.

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Success Isn’t Guaranteed—Try Anyway

This week Georgia Tech’s Director of Special Scholarships, Chaffee Viets, joins us on the blog. Welcome, Chaffee!

Let’s start by admitting that not everyone’s experience growing up in the United States is the same. Rural, urban, and suburban life looks different, and there are certainly other differences when considering family background and other factors. Having acknowledged that, I think it’s fair to say the people of Generation X (to which I belong) grew up with a great deal more freedom to explore the world around them as children than today’s kids and youth. By late elementary school I could explore the neighborhoods around me a mile in any direction.

Talk to my Baby Boomer parents and they’ll tell you that not only were they given even more freedom, but also asked to work harder at an earlier stage of life. My father mowed lawns, drove a tractor, roofed houses, and used hatchets as early as fourth grade. Compare these experiences with today, where I know thriving middle schoolers who aren’t allowed to walk 500 yards to the nearest corner with a traffic light because of concerns about safety.

I don’t share these views to judge parents or children today. After all, today’s world is bigger, especially online. Taking more safety precautions is necessary. Yet coinciding with these observations is a feeling that several colleagues and I share—a feeling supported by frequent recurring experiences. High school and college students today do not experience failure because 1) they’ve been shielded from them when they occur or 2) are steered away from undertaking opportunities that might result in anything but clear success.

Take the Opportunity to Fail

Although versions of this topic have been trending the past few years (and even before that in some circles), I want to provide insight which I hope is new. I want to talk about why students should put themselves in circumstances where success is not guaranteed. When you look at it as an opportunity for success as well as failure, the intention and aim become different. Simply looking for opportunities to fail can be a hollow exercise, but earnestly pursuing a goal that may or may not be reached is an opportunity for a win-win experience, regardless of the final outcome.

I had a student ask me to write a recommendation for them for the Truman Scholarship, a nationally competitive and prestigious scholarship for public service leadership. Some regard it as having the most rigorous application of any of the major national and international graduate scholarships. As you can imagine, the percentage of people awarded from among applicants is quite small. Despite the odds not being in anyone’s favor, the student elected to try. By clarifying purpose, thinking about future goals, losing sleep, and sacrificing comfort all in hopes of a slim chance to leverage the scholarship toward making the world a better place, this student gained tremendous personal insight. This kind of personal insight only comes through testing oneself, working hard, and reaching for something most likely out of reach. Did it yield a scholarship? No.

Undaunted, the student went on to apply for the Marshall and Mitchell scholarships as well. Again, hard work and sacrifice led to self-awareness, goals clarification, personal insight … but no scholarship. Yet on the horizon was the famous Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in another country, which my student ended up receiving.

Seems like three losses and a win, right? I count it as four wins. Each attempt helped my student to grow. Each attempt taught lessons in perseverance, grit, and humility. Even if my student had not won the Fulbright, it wouldn’t change my mind. Four wins, zero losses. I believe that if you asked my student, the response would be the same. The win was in trying to reach for the stars and the growth that resulted.

Pursue Possibility

I’ve been fortunate over the past seven years to travel with my students on outdoor leadership expeditions in some beautiful – and physically challenging – environments around the country and the world. These trips are led by experts in Georgia Tech’s outdoor recreation department. Scholarship programs around the nation often encourage or require their scholars to participate in these types of adventures with similar organizations. There is no defined “win,” only an expectation that you’ll make it from the start to the end, persevering through trying circumstances. Blisters, aching muscles, exhaustion, cold or heat, insects, cuts and scrapes. They are all there. Getting through means relying on your own inner strength and your team.

For a very few, these trips are easy (at least at first). For most others, they will mess up the cooking, go slower than the team, or otherwise “not be great.” Yet when they talk about these trips days, months, and even years later, many speak of how the difficult circumstances on the hike resulted in the ability to handle the rigors of college life better than they would have done otherwise.

One of my favorite illustrations of the points I’ve been making comes from the movie, Meet the Fockers. In it, Jack Byrnes, played by Robert De Niro, notices his son-in-law, Greg Focker, played by Ben Stiller, has a 9th place ribbon displayed at his parent’s house. Not second or third … but ninth. I love that Focker’s parents encouraged him to participate in something that he clearly did not win (and they probably knew he wasn’t going to, either). No matter what the outcome, Greg had to come to terms with the fact that he did not experience success, at least not by traditional measures. Did he learn something from competing, from trying, from watching eight others do better than he did? The movie doesn’t go into this, but I suspect he did.

If you’ve seen the rest of the movie, you know that Greg messes up a good bit, but in the end, how he handles these failures and keeps picking himself up amplifies his fiancé’s love for him and earns him the respect of his future in-laws. All that said, in real life I wish his “award” for competing wasn’t a ribbon but a pat on the back from his parents. Because part of the lesson in trying is not everyone gets a trophy nor deserves one.

If I were to outline a lesson from all this, it would be to challenge everyone to pursue possibilities where the chances for a win are moderate to slim. The challenge must be measured though. The more talented or well-trained an individual, the more they should pursue even more difficult experiences. Whether one is in high school, college, or well beyond, remember that we grow by reaching skywards, not by standing still.

Chaffee Viets has worked in higher education for more than 20 years. He joined Georgia Tech in 2011 where he oversees a team that selects the Institute’s top merit scholars and then develops them along the lines of scholarship, leadership, progress, and service. His experience with various prestigious scholarship programs at four universities drives his passion for selecting and mentoring student scholars.

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You Got In – Now it’s Time to Lean In

Last week I traveled to Scotland on a Tech Trek trip, backpacking with 10 of our incoming freshmen. Prior to the trip, these students only knew each other for a few days. The group was made up of engineers, business majors, designers, scientists, and programmers…. libertarians, democrats, republicans… passionate vegetarians and outspoken carnivores. In terms of gender, ethnicity, family background, worldview, career aspirations, and dancing styles, this group ran the gamut.

While they are all the same age and have chosen the same college, their differences were clear. They came from as far west as Seattle and as far east as Connecticut. They attended elite out-of-state private schools and rural Georgia public schools. Conversations reflected their disparate backgrounds, which made the trip both fascinating and encouraging, even when we inevitably had disagreements or controversy.

Breaking Down Barriers

It would have been easy to allow their differences to create barriers and exacerbate divisions. But over the course of our nine-day trip, through sharing tents, trading food, and splitting bottles of water, they only grew closer. When someone was struggling with a tough day, another student was quick to offer to carry a pack, offer an encouraging word, or attempt a song rendition as a distraction.  Over the course of our 52 mile hike, we gained 17,411 feet in elevation with well over 40 pounds on our backs. Scotland gave us its best and worst. We saw rainbows and sunsets and summits, but also endured furiously driving rain and heavy winds on high, exposed ridges.  Ultimately, the struggles and the victories unified everyone as they built trust, respect, friendship, understanding—and, ironically (despite exhaustion), patience.

By the time we rolled into the last town on our hike, these strangers from a week before were not only sharing toothpaste, but toothbrushes as well.  Sadly, it was there we learned about the tragedy in Charlottesville. A myriad of emotions swirled in my mind when I started reading more and listening to some of the early news reports: sadness, embarrassment, disgust, and a fleeting desire to pursue a longer travel visa. But the image I could not get out of my head were of the people behind shields and masks— combative and closed off.

What does this have to do with college admission and the college experience?

Everything. If you are about to start your freshman year in college, it’s likely you’ve spent the last year focused on “getting in.” I urge you to thoughtfully consider what it means to “lean into college.” Getting into college only puts you at the front gate. Sure, you are there–you have your schedule, your bags, and a room assignment. But being “in” is an inherently solo status. Leaning into college suggests risk and vulnerability. It will put you a bit off balance; it will put you squarely outside your comfort zone, but it’s a forward-facing posture. Leaning in helps you make new friends and connections; it helps you listen and consider a new, different, or opposing point of view; it helps you summit a mountain one step at a time.

Why are you going to college anyway? Have you actually reflected on this question? Have you written down goals for your freshman year or your college experience? If not, I hope you’ll take some time to do that. I’m talking about a pen and a piece paper you can actually pin up on a bed or board. You’ll be surprised to see getting a degree is only one item on a fairly long list. College done well is about expanding your network. It’s about developing critical thinking skills which transcend industries, job changes, cultures, and natural shifts in the market. It is about learning to more completely articulate your point of view by understanding those which are different. Leaning in puts you in classes and conversations at tables and forums where diverse thoughts and backgrounds have the opportunity to be heard and considered.  Leaning in broadens, stretches, advances, and enhances you as a person.

In contrast, a homogeneous network is a limited network and inherently diminishes your potential for opportunities and long-term success. Unfortunately students do this all the time–they join clubs or organizations or teams, even academic colleges or majors, and start putting up barriers, drawing lines, and minimizing their sphere. They begin to point to other groups on campus as “other.” But for every “other” you name and shut out, you simply rob yourself of an opportunity to grow, learn, be challenged, and expand your knowledge and network. Naming “others” puts you figuratively behind a shield and mask and will limit your relationships, decrease your perspective, and directly impact your future potential in the workplace or graduate school.

You have gotten in. Now it’s time to lean in. Share some toothpaste, or even a toothbrush. You’ll be glad you did.

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Fisher vs. Texas… It’s all about the data

I just returned from a 3-day hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest with a couple friends that I’ve known for 30 years. It was an amazing time to catch up and unplug. Before we left we downloaded a GPS app, purchased a topographic map of the area, and checked multiple trail and weather reports. As we gathered our gear at the trail head, we talked to people coming out about the downed trees, river crossings, and overall conditions. We did all of this to try to understand what to expect, how to prepare, and what to bring in order to have a fun and safe trip. We all do this when we buy a car or are thinking about asking someone out on a date, right? We read reviews, we talk to friends, we “shop around.” For any important decision we always want moIMG_1607re information, not less. And so it goes too for the college admission process.

Fisher v. Texas 

If you have been reading or watching the news lately, you know the Supreme Court is adjourning for the summer. In advance of that, they released a bevy of rulings last week, including the Fisher v. Texas decision, in which they ruled 4-3 (with Justice Kagan recusing herself) to uphold the University of Texas at Austin race-conscious admission policy.  For those of utilizing holistic admission processes, this is important because it protects the current precedent (established in Bakke, Grutter, Gratz and Fisher 1), which allows for race to be one of many factors in the admission process.

One of Many Data Elements

In my opinion, however, upholding the ability to utilize race in admission is symbolic of the larger win. To be honest, it’s more about the data. Maybe someone should write a song called, “It’s all about the data, ’bout the data.” Not sure that quite has the same punch as “the bass,” but the concept is absolutely accurate. If you start to take away data points, you begin to deteriorate the effectiveness of a holistic file review process. The entire reason you go beyond a formulaic process (only looking at classes, grades, and test scores) is to get a full picture of each student while reading an application. Take away data elements and you begin eroding the complete picture. It’s like removing critical pixels in a larger graphic. First, you remove race, then gender, then parents’ marital status, and the list goes on.

In fact right now the White House is pushing a “Beyond the Box” initiative and is encouraging schools to sign the Fair Chance Pledge. This calls for “colleges and universities to help remove barriers… that prevent citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education.”  One of the factors that they cite is that students are less apt to apply if these questions are on the form. I’d like to see the research on that because certainly if that is deemed to be prevalent, it’s a reasonable argument. However, in general, I like to see those questions and the responses. Questions we ask in committee are: “What did the student do… and when? What has happened as a result? Is there evidence of grit or lessons learned?  Did they write about that?” Most of the questions we ask are in hopes of finding evidence that the student has grown and will contribute and flourish on campus.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Applications are built to form a picture, to tell a story, and to provide context. This is why we want to know what extra-curricular activities a student has chosen to pursue; it’s why we read the essays; it’s why admission officers or alumni take the time to interview students. We are constantly looking for history, background, and context.

Undeniably, race is a sensitive subject. And the court points to this stating, “it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.” The race/ethnicity of students, however, is only one facet of a much broader diversity goal that schools have—and what’s crucial to remember is why diversity in all of its forms (geographic, gender, extra-curricular, etc.) matters.

When students live and study alongside classmates from a wide variety of backgrounds, their experience is ameliorated. Rich dialogue and enhanced learning stems from differences. And those differences serve to improve classroom discussion and the overall campus ethos. Being respectfully asked “Why are you wearing that? Why do you believe that? Why did you jdiversityust say that?” in a college setting produces graduates who enter the workplace capable of being challenged and excited about being stretched to broaden their perspective. Ultimately, these graduates go on to bolster communities and enrich their workplace, because they are more aware of people’s differences, needs, challenges, and desires. They create better products, better policies, better communities, and a fundamentally better world.

So while many will take a myopic view of the Fisher result as being about race- it’s really about the data—and colleges need that to improve not only the learning environment on campus but, more importantly, our nation and workforce in the future.

Coalition Application

Solace in Uncertainty

Rick Clark
Director of Undergraduate Admission

Recently, as I was en route to visit a high school, the counselor called my office to let me know their AV system was down. She was concerned the malfunction would jeopardize my slide presentation. My assistant assured her, “Don’t worry. He’ll just speak from the heart.” That’s what I’m hoping to do today regarding The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.
If you are skeptical:

Understandably, there has been a good bit of speculation about whether this aspirational new platform will accomplish its goal of helping a more diverse population of students enroll in thriving universities across the nation. At this point, nobody can make that guarantee; however, the effort is noble, well-intentioned, and worth striving for, especially given the need to enhance socio-economic and geographic diversity on campuses and, ultimately, in the workforce.

If you’ve been walking around with one eyebrow raised since this press release, then kudos to you. Skepticism is part of what brings about excellence, innovation, and improvement. The people of St. Louis in the 1870s would not walk over the first steel bridge across the Mississippi until an elephant did.  Still, let’s commit to “benefit of the doubt” support and check back after a year — or better yet after three or four years (given that the platform aims to bring students into the process earlier in their high school experience) to see if participating schools have indeed been able to enroll more Pell-eligible or first-generation students.
I’m excited…

If you are in the college counseling or admission field, you believe in competition. We tell students all the time to compete against the curriculum: to push themselves and try new things, even if they sometimes fail, in order to be stronger, better, faster, smarter, and more successful long term.

So one reason I’m glad to see “The Coalition” option emerge is because it introduces a new mechanism for college search and entry, forcing those of us in the marketplace to respond, review, revise, and ultimately consider how we can make our product, communication, and results better. And who wins in that? Students.
I’m nervous…

Sure, I have some reservations about installing a new application system. What will this mean for staff training and multi-app file review? How can we effectively communicate to high school freshmen and sophomores through this platform and develop logical and distinct messaging based on grade, stage, etc.?

How about practical questions such as: What’s the schedule for application release, review, launch? How will we upload documents and which ones? When will students create accounts and who needs to be involved to help them do that successfully? What will be required for initial set up and maintenance? Even writing all this makes me sweat a little. So, yes, there’s concern on the college side about what this will mean for our processes.

But here’s what I keep coming back to as it pertains to change: Progress in history has always demanded disruption. And for me personally, when fear of a new process trumps the potential to provide access to currently underserved students and enhance institutional diversity, I’ll know it’s time to quit my job.
We’ve seen this before…

A few years ago, Georgia Tech migrated to The Common Application. That announcement was met internally and externally with skepticism, some heavy breathing, and a good bit of caffeine consumption. Many in Georgia and beyond felt the Common App was simply a ploy to increase applications or raise selectivity. Many on our staff accurately foresaw the work this would necessitate from IT, as well as  Institute Communications.Our goal, however, was to diversify geographically, in gender, in ethnicity, in curriculum, etc.

Two years later, those goals have been met — this year’s freshman class boasts the most women and African-American students in Tech history. Our first generation population is up, and our Tech Promise scholars are thriving. And the truth is, the collective and at times herculean effort required to implement the Common App bonded staff in our office and around campus. This is my hope for The Coalition too.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school. Yes, it will create more work, and yes, it will create some confusion. But I believe it will all be worthwhile in our collective effort to serve students, improve the college academic environment, and ultimately serve our nation in producing a diverse workforce for the future.