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Change the Question, Turn the Table.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in October 2015.

“We thought we had all the answers/It was the questions we had wrong”
U2, 11 O’clock Tick Tock

My 4-year old daughter is very shy, but quite cute. I know I’m biased but honestly, she’s pretty darn cute. When we go out to eat or play on the playground, people always ask how she’s doing or say they like her dress. She hates it. She buries her face in my thigh and won’t turn around until they leave.

I keep telling her to simply answer quickly, and then ask the same question in return. If they ask how her day is going, just ask that right back. Turn the table. When she’s done that, it’s worked well—and frankly we’ve learned a lot and heard some interesting responses to “Where did you get that dress,” or “what did you have for breakfast?”

How does this relate to college admission? Because fundamentally we learn through curiosity and listening, thus my advice to you is to keep asking questions. Just be sure they’re the right ones.

Those Six Little Words….

If you are a junior or a senior in high school, the six words you likely dread hearing are: “Where are you going to college?” (I’m sure “I am breaking up with you” is unwelcome as well, but let’s stick with college advice for today.) The simple question of “where are you going” brings up anxiety and uncertainty around where to apply and what you really want to study. Not to mention the concern of not getting into a particular school. Fielding these questions from friends is tolerable, but when you’re asked the same question by extended family at every holiday dinner, it can become….well… annoying.

So instead of creating a prerecorded response on your phone or faking a coughing fit to leave the room when asked “where,” I suggest you start by first asking yourself, “why am I going to college?” Unfortunately, too few students ask and answer this question. And if you go to a college preparatory school or are in a college prep curriculum, it’s rarely asked, because going to college is a foregone conclusion. But I believe answering “why” first is critical because it forces you to answer other questions: Why should I bother spending the time and money? What do I want the experience to look like? What do I hope to happen after I graduate?

Why Leads to Where

Why will then lead you to where. “I’m looking at this university because they offer this major, or because I can build a strong network there, or the setting makes it easy for me to do xyz while on campus.” Listen, I don’t mean to say that by answering “why” you won’t still be annoyed when crazy Uncle Tony asks “where” four times during Thanksgiving dinner, but answering with your “why” provides a way for you to change and improve the conversation.

So when he asks you “where,” give him your “why” and then lead into your thoughtful “wheres.” Then, as I tell my daughter, turn the table. Ask him where he went and why. And looking back if he’d make the same choice now knowing what he does at this point. Then you can go back to eating your dinner and just listen and learn.

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Drifting Through the Transfer Process

This week we welcome Senior Assistant Director for transfer admission, Chad Bryant, to the blog for National Transfer Student Week. Welcome, Chad!

A couple of weeks ago I had a 3 ½ hour flight back home from a conference and decided to pass the time by watching a movie. As I was skimming through the Delta movie directory, I stumbled upon the movie Adrift. The movie is based on a true story and the description was interesting so I decided to watch.

SPOILER Alert: If you have not seen the movie, you may want to watch it then read this blog.

The movie centers on a couple’s shared love of adventure and sailing.  Midway through the movie, they accept an incredible opportunity to sail 4,000 miles to deliver a sailboat. I am not a sailor but do love the water and understand their attraction to the open seas and infinite horizons. As you can guess by the movie title, their trip did not go smoothly and they ultimately encounter one of the worst storms in history. It is a tragic yet true story of hope, perseverance, and strength.

As I was watching this movie, I thought about the college admission process, specifically students who choose to transfer from one college to another. While not a long distance sailing trip, the transfer process is an adventure many students pursue each year. Nearly half of all undergraduate students start at a community college with many pursuing a “vertical” transfer to a four-year institution. Other students discover their first choice institution may not be the right fit and pursue a “lateral” transfer path to another four-year institution.

No matter the reason, the transfer process can be daunting and requires hope, perseverance, and strength on the part of each student. Whether you are a high school student or college student exploring the transfer option, here are three tips to consider on your transfer adventure.

HOPE for the best, but have a backup plan.

You may have plotted the perfect course for your college experience, but you might have to change direction if those plans do not work out. I recommend students always ask colleges about their transfer options, especially if their ultimate goal is to enroll at a highly selective institution.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) 81% of colleges have at least one admission officer who works exclusively with prospective transfer students. Many have more than one and place considerable importance on transfer. Asking these four questions can give you a sense of how important transfer students are to an institution:

  • How many transfer students do you admit each year?
  • Do you offer a transfer information session?
  • Do you participate in any guaranteed admission programs or articulation agreements with other colleges?
  • Do you reserve dedicated financial aid for transfer students?

College admission is as unpredictable as the weather and there are several factors (and models) institutions use prior to making their decisions. Not receiving admission to a first choice institution can seem like a disaster, but hope is never lost. Preparing a backup plan and including transfer as an option is a positive approach you can control, rather than fixating on one single outcome which lies outside of your control.

PERSIST, even when you feel adrift.

It’s easy to feel lost or confused when exploring the transfer admission process. Transfer applications and credit requirements vary by institution. You may ask the questions above and not like the answers, but don’t give up. You have a right to know your responsibility in the process and how credits transfer. The responsibility of evaluating transfer credit may rest on the admission office, the registrar’s office, and/or within academic colleges and faculty. At the very least, each institution should have a clearly stated transfer credit policy within their course catalog and be able to answer these transfer questions for you:

  • What is the process for evaluating transfer coursework?
  • What credit will not be accepted, and why?
  • Do you accept credit by exam given by another institution?
  • Do you have a transfer equivalency table available for students to use?

Persistence can pay off, and time exploring transfer options can help you understand how policies reflect the mission and goals of an institution. These policies also serve as effective recruitment and retention tools by preparing students, limiting credit loss and prioritizing degree completion.

BELIEVE in yourself above all else.

Above all, a college education is an investment in yourself. Before transferring, there are a couple of items you should expect from an institution before paying an enrollment deposit:

  • A good faith credit evaluation report, and
  • A financial aid award letter (as long as you have submitted all requested documents).

According to NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, if an institution is unable to provide these items, you can request an enrollment deposit extension or refund.

No model can fully predict the weather, much less the type of college experience you will have. I’ve worked in higher education for 17 years and the best predictors of college success I’ve seen are sheer strength and determination. You may have to navigate through the rough waters of heartbreak, credit loss, or survival of another math course, but exploring transfer admission is a journey worth the risk and reward.

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Is it okay if I…?

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission (West Coast) Ashley Brookshire to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

I love fall travel season. It’s an opportunity to spend time face-to-face with students and share the excitement I have for Georgia Tech. This interaction also provides an opportunity for students to ask questions they are often hesitant to formally put in an email or address over a brief phone conversation. Last summer’s most popular question was “what do colleges prefer?” This year, at nearly every visit, college fair, or presentation, I hear the question, “Is it okay if I…?”

The ending varies from student to student: have one main focus? Don’t have one main focus? Do a lot of things outside the classroom related to my major? Have varied interests that aren’t related to my major? Moved in high school? Can’t work in the summer? Haven’t been able to do research yet?

The answer is, “Yes.” Yes, it’s okay if you made decisions that reflect your interests. Yes, it’s okay to choose certain routes if they make the most sense for your goals (and current limitations). Yes, it’s okay if you haven’t crammed a full collegiate experience into your high school years.

Any admission office’s goal is to bring a well-rounded first-year class into their university. Our goal is not, however, to ensure that mix by making sure each and every incoming student is equally well-rounded. We want a class with students who value who we are and what we do, but is also comprised of students who bring their own perspectives, experiences, and aspirations into our community.

At my Institute we have more than 500 active student organizations. Some of our students will work whole-heartedly in just one club, while others spend their time with multiple organizations. Just like you’ve seen students engage at your high school in different ways, we also see this variance in our college communities.

My biggest concern with this question is the tone with which it is asked. It’s with trepidation – concern that a student has misstepped and fallen off the path of “acceptable choices” they made throughout high school.

Break the Mold

I encourage you to reverse this idea – apply to the colleges that model YOUR interests and values, rather than molding yourself to fit a school. Sure, you can make it through your high school experience by choosing certain courses and becoming involved in certain areas because you want a college to admit you. But what happens if you’re admitted and actually enroll at that school? If you’ve only been participating in activities because a certain college values them, you’ll find yourself on a campus surrounded by students who weren’t faking it–students who genuinely enjoy those activities, share the same values, and earnestly look to engage with all the university has to offer.

Your college applications should reflect your accomplishments; you should not be molding yourself because you think that’s what a college wants. Your application is how you can showcase your skills, interests, decisions, and aspirations to a potential community.  You should not operate on a daily basis chasing activities you think colleges “like more” than something else. Instead, you should choose colleges that will nurture, challenge, and support your unique self.

If you asked me five years ago what it would take to be competitive for admission to Georgia Tech today, I probably would have given you an unintentionally inaccurate answer. Things change a lot from year to year, much less over the course of a few years. Even those of us who make admission decisions are unable to prescribe a track or plan that will guarantee a student’s admission in the future.

Rather than working to fit a mold for the sake of attending a college, work to enhance who you are becoming as a person. Know that, whatever you choose to pursue, there are colleges out there which reflect your interests and will support your development.

So “is it okay if I….?” Yes. Yes to however you finish the question, because it is, and will be, okay! You can and should invest your time and energy in the things that feel most beneficial for your personal development and growth, regardless of which college you end up attending.

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College Admission Essays: I’ve Heard that One Before…

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in October 2016.

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes, key messages, and mission statements. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: 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.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all!

My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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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!

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