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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Better

At home I have a firm “one in = two out” policy—for every one item that enters the house, two others have to go. My kids don’t always appreciate this approach because it can come off as a bit abrupt, especially on birthdays. “Oh, that’s a pretty sweater, sweetheart. What are you getting rid of?” or “Oh man. Look at all these great presents. You are so lucky. While you fill a bin with old things you no longer use, I’ll get the truck and we can head to Goodwill.” Marie Condo sparks joy. I burn it to the ground.

Coronavirus quarantine (and perhaps a few threats from my wife) has made me realize I can’t be quite so draconian on a daily basis with things like clearing and cleaning up dishes, picking up idly strewn clothes, or hanging up towels or bags. Do I deny threatening to “take everything left downstairs at the end of the night and torch it all in the fire pit?” No. But, in general, I’ve taken a more progressive and repetitive approach.

In fact, for a solid week I just had one word written on our kitchen chalkboard: Better. I told them my challenge is to leave every room better than they found it. Three months into Covid cloistering, I have to say… they’re not doing terrible. I’m seeing progress. I’m seeing better.

Better – As an applicant

I have written about this before but I sincerely hope you will ask, “Why do I want to go to college?” as often as you ask, “Where do I want to go to college?” Write your answers down or record them on a phone or iPad. While you are working on your application (and definitely before you pay and hit submit), honestly assess whether or not that school truly aligns with your why.

Too often students are admitted and later say, “Yeah, but I can’t really see going there.” Or “I only applied to College X because (insert adult name here) told me to.” Worse, they actually choose to attend a college based on pressure or expectations of others, or because they are trying to fit an image.

This pandemic may have robbed you of many experiences and a sense of normalcy but it has also afforded you the rare opportunity to really reflect and be honest with yourself in a way most students unfortunately are not. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we should be genuinely excited about what we actually “get to do.”

Because of your hard work in high school; because of your family’s support and commitment to your education; because of coaches and teachers and other community members who have built into your life, you get to go to college. Better means having the courage, self-awareness, and confidence to honor that investment in how and where you apply.

Challenge: Before you “leave the room” and hit submit on an application, be sure that school aligns with your why. Better is knowing and embracing your goals, hopes, dreams, aspirations, and motivations. Better means every college you apply to is your first choice.

Better – As a family member and community member

Let’s be honest, no one knows what the next few months or year are going to look like. From daily news stories to your neighbor’s sidewalk musings, the level of uncertainty is absurdly high. Making it through 10 minutes of a conversation or a meeting without hearing at least one “if,” “we’ll see,” or “assuming that” is as likely as finding the toilet paper aisle fully stocked or people creating human pyramids in your local park. Between major macro concerns (unemployment, protests, and elections), as well as micro consternations (haircuts, pool restrictions, limited professional sports) people are stressed. Now is the time for better.

Whether they are saying it or not, your parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors are carrying more anxiety than normal. They are wrestling with their fears, doubts, and unsettled moments. In the weeks and months ahead, I hope you will bring better into your house, your relationships, your job, your clubs, teams, and your group of friends.

Challenge: Before you “leave the room” and head to bed each night make sure you’ve taken some time that day to send a text, make a call, give a hug, or offer up a virtual or a socially distanced high-five to someone in your life. Will this help you get into college? No. Will this help you be a much better friend and community member? Absolutely.

Tell your family “Thank you” and “I love you” every day. Don’t be fooled by the Coronavirus trance. You are not going to be at home forever. Hug your mama every day.

Better – As a high school student and future college student

In her recent Chronicle article, Sarah Brown describes the compacts and pledges students will be asked to sign on many campuses this fall in order to comply with health guidance and safety protocols. Many of the current college students and faculty she interviews are skeptical about their campus community upholding those agreements. In other words, they are expecting student conduct to make things worse rather than better.

My hope is you will run as hard as you can in the opposite direction. As you return to high school this year (in person or virtually), I hope you will constantly ask: How can I improve and contribute to this class, discussion, campus, community, and school? Who can I lift up? How can I invest my time and unique talents to improve the people and place around me?   

Challenge: Before you “leave the room” and graduate, be sure you have made someone or something in your high school irrefutably better. Students love to ask admission officers, “What are you looking for?” They expect to get a GPA average or a specific number of AP classes.

What are we looking for? We are looking for students who will be deeply missed when they graduate from high school. We are looking for students who are unmistakably and unabashedly committed to better.

Better

A few weeks ago, our family went to see the Space X shuttle launch. As we were leaving the beach, I sent my kids to throw away the remains of our lunch and snacks. While I was collecting our blanket and chairs, my wife tapped me on the back and nodded toward the trashcan. My daughter was picking up the garbage that someone else had left. Sand must have blown just then because my eyes legitimately started welling up.

Better is possible. Better is inspiring. Better is in you. Bring it into every room you enter this year, and you will be sure to leave it when you go.

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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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Hang Your Picture

Listen to “Episode 13: Hang Your Picture – Ashley Brookshire” on Spreaker.

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

At the risk of making myself vulnerable in front of our applicant pool (which, in my experience, is filled with ambitious, intrinsically motivated, mindful, and steadfast students), I want to confess something: I continuously put off doing the things I want to do. The things I should do. The things that are in my best interest to do.

I’m reminded of it every time I walk through my office and stare at the six panels of wall organizers propped up against the wall. They’ve been there for weeks. Every time I walk past them, I’m reminded that I haven’t taken the time to cross this “to-do” off my list. It also reminds me of other “unhung” pictures in my world right now. The habits I’ve wanted to form, but haven’t. The things I’ve wanted to learn, but put off.

At some point, I have to stop telling myself I’d do these things if only “I had more time.” Since my state’s stay-at-home order was issued in mid-March, I’ve been gifted more spare time than I ever wanted.

Don’t get me wrong, the whirlwind of my day is just as busy as ever. Juggling my roles as a spouse, mother, and employee, while managing a house that’s more lived-in than ever, occupies my day exceptionally well. But in the evening hours when I stop trying to spin plates, I have more time than I’ve had in a while. There are no dinners with friends to attend, trips to prepare for, or date nights to go on.

I don’t want to confuse busyness for progress. And as I look at spending my time more intentionally in the upcoming weeks, I first have to stop and assess the hurdles that have kept me stuck-in-place. Hopefully these will give you some questions to ask yourself as you look for ways to hang your own pictures.

Why wait?

There always seemed to be a good (or at least, not bad) excuse for pushing the task to another day. I’d have to find all of the tools that I need. Do I really want to commit to this space? There’s no harm in waiting another day…

For me, the hardest step has always been the first. I’ve found myself asking, “if not now, then when?” In the absence of a valid argument for “not now,” it’s time to get started.

Time to find a friend?

Hanging a group of pictures correctly can be a feat. You have to hold against them against the wall AND step back to gauge spacing. You’ll need to move pieces around WHILE keep everything level. You can’t do this by yourself unless you have an incredible wingspan. You need help. Not to get started, but to do it well and do it right. So why not bring someone along?

I’ve tried (more than once) to regain the Spanish skills I’ve lost in the years since being in a classroom. Duolingo has been my companion (and, at times, nemesis) in this endeavor. The app’s friendly, gentle reminders help me to stay on pace as I progress through the curriculum. When I miss a day, it’s quick to remind me. When I miss several days, it gets snarky (“These reminders don’t seem to be working…”). But still, I’m thankful Duolingo tries to keep me accountable. After all, not all assistance needs to come from human friends – just ask Jill Watson.

Maybe you need help. Maybe you need to be held accountable. Maybe things are just more fun to do together. Create a system for success by including others – human or otherwise – in your plans for moving forward.

What happens if you don’t?

When I fall short of the goals I set for myself, I’m the main victim. Others aren’t impacted when I push a nagging task to another day, hold off on learning about a new topic, or delay creating a habit. But I certainly have constant reminders that I haven’t taken action. My increasingly mobile child lets me know the wall organizers are on the ground are ready to be destroyed every time she crawls into the room.

One of the biggest losses is the positive impact I could have had if I moved forward. The skills I could share. The people I could help. The clutter and chaos I could remove from my family’s home.

Be kind to yourself, especially given the new-normal we’re all still adjusting to. But sometimes (and more often than sometimes, in my case), being kind includes giving yourself a kick in the rear to get going. Make a move. Use your new found time in this different reality to develop a skill. Dive into a new topic. And hang your picture.

Ashley Brookshire is an Atlanta native and Georgia Tech alumnae who has worked in college admission for nearly a decade. Ashley serves as Georgia Tech’s Regional Director of Admission for the West Coast, making her home in Southern California. She’s been a California resident for more than 5 years and is a member of the Regional Admission Counselors of California.

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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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