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Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

This week we welcome Associate Director for Guest Experience, Andrew Cohen, to the blog. Welcome, Andrew!

Over the summer I made a very big life change – I moved almost 900 miles away from the place I call home.  I was born and raised in Central New Jersey, attended college in upstate New York, and have lived in New York City ever since.  In June, I accepted a position with Georgia Tech and started planning my move to Atlanta.  Of course I was excited about this life change, but it was also a bit terrifying.  I’ve never lived more than a four hour drive away from home, and now I’m a 13 hour drive away from where I grew up.

On the other hand, many aspects of the move were very exciting.  I was excited for a fresh start in a new city with so much to explore.  I was also excited about all of the new opportunities coming along with my new job, not to mention the big life decisions that came with the move, like buying my first car (I always used public transportation in New York City).

The more I think about how my life has changed over the past few months, I am reminded of the many conversations I’ve had with high school students and parents about the location of the colleges they are considering.  Many times families set a limit on the driving radius from their home, whether it’s in miles or hours.  While I understand the comfort of being close to home, it is important to recognize there are opportunities you may be excluding with this kind of limitation.

When I was considering leaving New York City, I took into consideration things like job responsibilities and future opportunities, location, and even the weather.  That’s why I recommend thinking about the following items when you’re building your college list.

Opportunities for Growth

For me, position and career opportunities were very important. Here at Tech, I manage the campus visits team and customer service for our office.  The opportunity was different than what I was used to and that excited me.  Tech has a very unique story to share with its approximately 40,000 visitors annually.  I attended a smaller private college, then worked at a similar type of school for a few years, so working at a larger public institution was a big change.  Professionally, it was a great opportunity.

Just like I considered these opportunities, you as a student should think about the programs offered at each institution on your college list.  Besides thinking about your major, what opportunities are offered outside of the classroom?  What kinds of internships or co-ops are students participating in? If you’re not sure what you want to major in, then look at the variety of majors offered. What kind of support is available to help you choose a major?

For me, new opportunities were the biggest driving factor in making the choice to move to Atlanta.  As a high school student, new opportunities should also be a driving force selecting a college.

Location, Location, Location!

The next thing that I considered was location.  After living in NYC for many years, I knew I still wanted to be close to or in a large city.  I was not ready to make the jump to living in a more rural location.  I like access to the hustle and bustle of a city, so Atlanta was perfect.  While Atlanta is a large city, there is a balance of quieter suburbs and outdoor activities all around (even when I’m on campus I forget I am in the heart of Midtown Atlanta!).

As a student, don’t think of location as a mile/hour distance, but rather the type of place you want to live for four years.  Are you interested in being in a college town, a large city, or a more rural area?

Weather

The last of considerations for me was a bit more minor, but something that should not be overlooked – the weather.  As a native northeasterner, snow and freezing temperatures do not bother me.  Moving to the south was an opportunity to try something different.  I can happily say I survived Atlanta’s heat and humidity in August, and I’ve been loving the warmer fall temperatures.

As a student, weather should certainly be a consideration for you too–but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.  Is it worth giving up an amazing opportunity just because of a few cold winter months?  In the long run, college is only a few years. Looking back, I see how surviving a cold winter can build character (and make you appreciate warm weather!).  If you are thinking of going to school in a place with very different weather than you are accustomed to, be sure to visit the campus during that season.

After being in the south for only a few months, I am constantly reminded of the great decision I made.  It has been an adventure exploring the city and I have quickly adjusted to my new job.  If I was not willing to step out of my comfort zone and look past the 4-hour driving radius around the New York City area, I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity.  Even with being so much farther away from my family, I still have been able to see them quite frequently (thanks to Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport!).

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The Coach’s Guide to College Admission

Listen to the audio version here!

A few months ago I wrote about no longer coaching my son’s soccer team. This fall I have moved on from that 9 year-old boys’ team to my daughter’s 7 year-old squad. Let’s just say it’s been… a transition. The 9 year-olds, especially in those last few seasons, had really developed their skills and understanding of the game. We had progressed to using phrases like “check,” “square,” and “drop.” When they came to practice, they would (generally) listen, execute the drills, and understand what I was instructing them to do.

It did not take me long to remember what it’s like coaching 7 year-olds. In the first practice, one girl literally fell to the ground when I said, “drop” (I’m not sure what she would have “checked”  had I used that term). When I asked them to stand five yards apart and work on two-touch passing, I got a few blank stares combined with distances that left me wondering if it was their understanding of  “five” or “yards” we  needed to work on.

And then we had our first game. It felt like trying to verbally control Foosball players. I found myself calling out from the sideline, “Now you kick it to her, then you kick it to her, and…” Yeah. It didn’t work. On the ride home I realized I needed to re-think my approach and expectations. I decided on three simple priorities for the season: stay “jump rope” distance apart; dribble—don’t kick; and encourage each other.

If you are a parent (or “coach”) in the college admission “season,” I think these goals (pun intended) apply to you as well.

Jump Rope Distance

Clearly, the kids needed to see what five yards looks like, so I brought a jump rope to our next practice and had them take turns stretching it out and holding it. We talked about that being an appropriate separation to keep while you are on the field. At that distance, you can pass to each other and help each other defend. Maintaining that length keeps you from bumping into each other or knocking each other over while trying to get the ball.

As a parent in this process, you are a coach—not a player. You are a parent—not an applicant. Sometimes you may need to go for a walk or drive to re-examine your game plan and check-in: have you recently said something like, “We are taking the SAT next weekend,” or “Our first choice is Purdue”? We have all winced while watching through the slits in our fingers as a coach forgets their role and runs out onto the field, attempting to play for the team. Don’t be that coach! This means asking questions about college essays and making helpful edits or suggestions—not re-writing them with words like “lugubrious” or “obsequious.” This means backing away when you are at a college visit and letting your son or daughter ask their questions of a tour guide or an admission counselor. In a short year or two, they will be on a college campus. They will need to be able to advocate and navigate for themselves. Are you coaching them to be ready for that?

In a recent Washington Post article, Scott Lutostanski discusses executive function skills, which include organization, time management, and planning. He asserts parents need to be disciplined and cognizant of taking opportunities to empower their kids to grow and develop in these areas. Searching for, applying to, getting in, getting disappointed, and ultimately deciding upon a college are all opportunities to help your student enhance these invaluable skills. Don’t steal the ball. Remember: Jump rope distance.

Dribble—don’t kick.  

In practice, I let them simply kick and run after the ball. When they did that, the ball often went out-of-bounds or a defensive player quickly took it away. They realized they were out of control and ineffective. Since then we’ve been focused on dribbling—keeping the ball close so they can cut or change direction when necessary. As a parent/coach, that’s your job too. The college admission process is not Foosball where you simply turn the rod and control the players or the game. You cannot control admission decisions. You cannot control merit scholarships or financial aid packages. You cannot control the competition in any given applicant pool. Slow the game down. Keep perspective. One play at a time. One game at a time. Dribbling allows your team to keep things close and make choices, adjustments, and intentional decisions when the unexpected or uncontrollable happens. Dribble—don’t kick.

Encourage Each Other!

Most of the girls on our team have yet to score a goal. We have made it clear that success is not about scoring. Winning looks different for each one of our players. For some it is making a good pass, while for others it is performing a new dribbling move, or using their non-dominant foot to trap the ball. One of the most gratifying parts of the season has been listening to the players on the bench cheering for their teammates. Some of the loudest celebrations have come after a teammate makes a “jump rope” pass. The entire bench starts chanting “jump rope, jump rope!”

What is winning for your daughter or son in their college experience? Not where, coach (and not what you want!). What do they want to study? What kind of faculty and students do they want to be around? What part of your state, region, or country are they excited about spending their colleges years in? Keep asking them these questions.

I hope you will not make winning about getting in to a particular college. Coach so your son or daughter doesn’t feel like your expectation, love, and approval is tied up in getting in (read: scoring), but rather that your joy is in seeing them find multiple colleges that match their goals. Winning is finding affordable financial options everyone is excited about. Winning is staying connected and supporting your son or daughter—holding them up and celebrating them, rather than achieving a particular outcome.

Game Plan

In documentaries or press conferences, players do not talk about how the coach got them to something (titles, awards, etc.) but how they got them as a person—they built trust, believed in them, and encouraged them relentlessly. Similarly, in retirement speeches, coaches rarely mention championships or trophies, but rather define success by their bond with players.  It’s going to be a great season. Go get ‘em, coach!

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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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