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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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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Class of 2020: Great Minds Think Differently

Listen to “Great Minds Think Differently. Episode 7- Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Each year after we release admission decisions in March, I spend time cleaning up my office. After weeks of committee, reviewing predictive models, and hosting ad nauseum meetings, the room is typically littered with Coke cans, candy wrappers, errant scratch paper with quick calculations or idle doodlings, and a month of unopened mail littering my desk.

In a particularly thorough round of purging and organizing, this year I came across a trove of old marketing materials from Georgia Tech and other colleges around the country (I use an alias to receive these) that I have been collecting for the last decade. As a high school senior, I’m guessing you may have a few of these laying around your house or room right now too.

Invariably, the brochures prominently feature a 3-4 word verb-led challenge like Change the World, Dream Big, Live Bigger, Lead the Way, or Create the Future.

Having been in the room when these taglines are created, I can tell you that countless sticky notes, multiple whiteboards, copious amounts of catered turkey wrap sandwiches, and well-dressed, bespectacled consultants are involved in their formation. Some are cheesy, some fall flat, but occasionally you get it right. And as I leafed through the stack and tossed most into the recycling bin, I came across the one I always thought was our best: Great Minds Think Differently.

I texted a picture of the cover to a friend who was also involved in developing the piece and put the brochure in my bag. That was March 17th–the last day I was on campus this spring.

Since then our world has shifted dramatically. The majority of news, stories, and data are disconcerting, and inevitably many people around you are expressing concern and anxiety about what the short- and long-term future may hold.

I’m not saying this is easy, but as you finish high school, make a final college choice, and prepare to leave home in the coming months, I want to challenge you to think differently.    

In Your Actions

Last week I talked to a friend whose daughter is graduating from high school this spring. “She already knows where she’s going to college and her school just announced pass/fail grades for this spring, so she’s basically checked out. Just prepping for AP tests, but even those are not going to cover the full amount of material.” 

Great Minds Think Differently

I get it. If you are a senior, so much of what you were looking forward to is off. Games, prom, graduation, tradition, and last after last. That sucks. Really, really sucks. I’m not going to sugar coat this, because that’s not the world we’re living in right now. Instead, I am going the exact opposite direction. I ask you not to quit on you.

Wise words thought differently from my friend and colleague, Adrienne Oddi, at Trinity College.

Much of life is lived when no one else is looking. This is a good time to consider why you took that class or spend time preparing for exams. Is it just for a letter or a grade? Are you hoping to just get through it?

Now your test will not cover certain material… so you could basically stop here without any short-term consequences. But scenarios like this are not isolated to the current impact we’re all feeling from COVID-19… scenarios like this occur all through your life.

Right now you have a precious opportunity to pause and ask yourself questions far too few high school students (and too few people in general) ever do: what drives and motivates me? Why am I doing this?

If you are checking out on Chemistry or Biology because the information is not going to be covered on a test, should you really pursue pre-med in college (despite how many people around you may have suggested you become a doctor)?

If you are “done” with Calculus or Physics and not planning to keep pushing and learning in these weeks ahead, then do not pursue engineering in college. I, for one, do not want you building the bridges or planes that might carry my kids in the future.

The truth is we know what really drives someone by the things they make time for and commit to. What are you curious about? What do you care about? When you found out you just got back a ton of time, where did your head go? Those are your real passions. Be honest with yourself and then let your responses guide you as you enter college, select your courses, or pick a major and a career path.

Thinking differently impacts your actions.  

Your Decisions

In webinars, emails, and interviews lately I’ve been asked numerous times: “How should a senior make their final college decision if they cannot visit campus?”

Dr. Beth Cabrera not only with a message of encouragement but also thinking differently about her own situation.

I’ll be honest. I truly hate that you cannot visit college campuses this spring. Anyone in college admission loves showing admitted families around and introducing you to faculty and students. The weather is amazing, students are excited—there is no better place in the world than a college campus in April.

But I will tell you the Covid-19 crisis has pushed colleges to significantly up their game and provide quality online content through live and recorded webinars, student and faculty videos, and helpful and creative information on social media. You should take advantage of all of these new resources.

You should intentionally check out the social media accounts of the student groups or clubs that interest you, and compare them between colleges. If you are thinking about participating in music or club soccer or robotics, go to the Instagram or SnapChat pages of those clubs and organizations. Why? Because they are not intentionally talking to you for recruitment purposes. Read the comments and see who is involved. That will provide you invaluably organic and authentic insight. They’re not trying to “sell” you on attending–they don’t even know you are there.

You should read the online school newspaper and alumni magazine from the universities you’re considering. Using sources that are intended to “talk to each other” is going to help you glean true culture. Do these conversations resonate with you? Are these your people? Do they make you excited to be part of that community?

You should reach out to advisors, faculty and current students. They are remarkably available right now. Ask them your specific and personal questions so you are able to make the best final college choice.

If your family’s financial situation has changed since you were admitted or received your financial aid package, you should contact those institutions to submit new information or ask whether they are able to alter your aid package. You should do this respectfully and with the understanding that many schools may not have additional funding to extend because of the current climate, the flexibility of their funds, the size of their endowment, and the fact that many other families are in similar situations.

Great Minds Think Differently so let’s spin the question: “What can you be doing now?”

The truth is none of those shoulds will matter if you are not honest with yourself about who you really are, what you want, and what type of people, setting, and community bring out your best both inside and outside the classroom.

You can see this time as a rare opportunity to separate yourself from the voices that typically surround and influence you–and actually listen to your own voice.

You can consider Steve Jobs’ comments in his Stanford commencement address, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

You can recognize that whether it be this fall or some months after that, you will be leaving home. You can forgive and ask for forgiveness. You can go out of your way to spend time with your mom doing whatever she really enjoys. If you do nothing else this week, hug your mama!

Thinking differently will impact your decisions.

Your Words

Right now much of the news we see and hear is bleak. Unemployment is at a record high, hospital beds are filling or spilling over in major US cities, and the majority of people at the grocery store are wearing masks and gloves.  You cannot go online, watch TV, or listen to a podcast without hearing phrases like “everything has changed” or “the world has stopped” or “this is crazy.” One thing is abundantly clear right now in every facet of society: we do not have all the answers, but we do have a choice.

Great Minds Think Differently!

A recent GT Admission staff meeting (crazy hat theme). Highly entertaining…and productive.

Find creative ways to encourage your friends, serve your family, and be a source of energy and strength online. Send a positive text message to a teacher, organize a Zoom call to sing happy birthday to a friend, or offer to mow a neighbor’s yard.

If you have not seen John Krasinksi’s “Some Good News” Network on YouTube, stop reading this immediately and click here.

Need more ideas? Check out @goodnews_movement on Instagram. Find reasons to laugh and spread the love, my friends. Or this incredibly uplifting video from our creative and encouraging friends Jeff and Andre Shinabarger of Plywood People.

Thinking differently will impact your words (and your words can go places you never will).

This time is a gift. Consider looking at it that way. Use it to think differently about your actions, your decisions, and your words. In doing that, you’ll finish high school well, make a college choice that is truly yours, and bring signs of light, life, and hope to a world that desperately needs it right now.

Great Minds Think Differently. Thanks for being one of those!

What is taking so long?

Listen to “How Are College Admission Applications Reviewed? Episode 3: Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.
Every parent develops their own strategy for how to fend off the inevitable question kids ask on road trips: “When will we get there?”

Early on, I decided the best way to help a toddler understand distance was to use the rear view mirror.

“Okay, if this is our house,” I’d say while pointing to the far-left corner of the mirror, “and this is grandma’s house,” moving my hand to the far-right side of the glass, “then we are here.” Inevitably, “here” was about an inch away from where we had started- and that was being generous.

Last week my kids had Winter Break. On Tuesday, we headed to North Carolina to see my wife’s family. Inevitably, about an hour into the drive, Elizabeth (9) asks, “Where are we, dad?”

I started to explain the county we were in and what it was known for. She was uninterested and interrupted me to ask more clearly, “No, I mean on the mirror.” Wow. What started as an age- appropriate tactic seems to have turned into a barrier to gaining knowledge about geography and state history. Since I had worked all day and did not have it in me to protest, I simply pointed about quarter of the way down the mirror.

“That’s it? What is taking so long?!” About 40 responses went through my head in under three seconds, including trucks, construction, idiotic drivers, Atlanta rush hour traffic, and a number of expletive-laden opinions about population growth, city planning, urban sprawl, and more. Rather than utter these, I simply took a deep breath, shook my head quickly back and forth, and turned up the music. My wife was unimpressed.

I’m not sure what Elizabeth did after that, because I left the music up for the next half hour. But I started to think about her question: “What is taking so long?” Our culture has created an expectation of immediacy. We order a coffee, pay, slide down the counter and pick it up. Drive thru lanes are optimized, pictures can be printed at home or are ready for pick up immediately. We expect same day pick up for car repair, dry cleaning, or prescription refills. Actually, all of that requires actual effort. How about 1-click online Amazon orders that appear at our door often within hours?

A Road Trip Through the Admission Process   

When you apply to college, especially one that receives far more applications than they have seats available and uses a holistic and layered admission review, waiting is inevitable. If I were you, I’d definitely be asking, “What is taking so long?!” Don’t worry. I’m not just going to sigh and tune you out. Read on.

The application leaves home:

You hit submit. Now what?

Merging lanes:

At this point, the college matches supporting documents to your application in their database. Supporting documents includes everything from transcripts to letters of recommendation to test scores. The take home message is they’re ensuring your file is complete so they can begin their review.

If it is incomplete, your admission portal will show exactly what you are missing and you will start getting emails/texts/calls/owls about that. (By the way, if you are a senior reading this blog and not checking your email, stop reading this blog and go check your email!)

Carpool:

At this point, it depends on the system or style of application review a school has decided to use, but generally speaking the person who visits your school or is in charge of recruiting your city or state will be the one initially responsible for reading your application. At many colleges, file review begins once it’s complete, while others wait until all applications for that round have been received. Seeing all applications from a particular high school allows counselors to understand how your grades, rigor, trends compare to your peers in the applicant pool.

For example, one student receives a 91 in AP World History. That school adds 7 points of “weight” to all AP grades. While an admission officer would already know the A range extends from 90-107 based on the school profile and transcript, reading all applicants from a particular high school in the same day allows them to also see applicants who may have 102s or 104s. What does this mean for you?

  • Holistic review is both individual and comparative, rather than simply formulaic.
  • In a weighted system, two students can both have “4.0s” that look very different (in this example, 17 points).
  • This does not mean the student with the 104 is automatically getting in. Again, holistic means holistic. The entire goal of these processes is to gain and keep perspective, rather than to draw hard lines or apply a purely academic formula.

In some cases, initial review is conducted by a single individual. That counselor reads your application in its entirety, makes an admission decision recommendation and passes it along to another team member (often one slightly more experienced/senior on the team). Think about this as checks and balances. Schools want to be sure multiple people read your file and have a chance to offer their opinion on your candidacy for admission.

In other cases, schools employ Committee Based Evaluation or Team Based Review. The concept here is a simultaneous and synchronous review. Two team members read your application at the same time. One will evaluate you from a purely academic standpoint by reviewing transcripts, testing, and teacher and counselor recommendations. They take a deep dive into your course choice, grade trends, and how you have performed within your school’s context. The second reader tries to understand how you’ve used your time outside the classroom, as well as the impact and influence you’ve had on others through working, clubs, sports, or other pursuits. That staffer also reads your essays, short answer responses, and, depending on the college, may also read recommendations.  Each staff member makes individual recommendations based on their evaluation. They could both agree to admit or deny, or there could be a split decision.

Traffic Jam:

“Are we there yet?”

No! We are still only mid-mirror.

“But the driver and passenger both agree to head a certain direction.”

True. However, there are other cars on the highway, so now most files sit for a while.

“What does a while mean?”

You know how your Waze App has varying levels of red for traffic? Yea. Kind of like that. Sometimes it’s a dark pink, and often the time just keeps adding up.

“Why?”

Because admission decisions at selective institutions (those invariably using holistic review) are both individual and collective. Students are evaluated based not only on their performance in their school setting, and the other students in their high school (see example above), but also in comparison to the entire applicant pool.

Now counselors move on to that work. They begin reading other applications from schools, cities, or states they are responsible for, and they also help the rest of the team complete their first round of review.

As an example, if a college receives 20,000 applications in their Regular Decision round and has on average 10 pairs of people reading 50 applications a day, five days a week, it would take eight weeks to complete the first round of review. But you know life (and road trips) are never going to be that simple. There are holidays, sick days (for staff or their own children), as well as other recruitment responsibilities. Throw in some technology challenges, a fire alarm triggered by someone microwaving fish in tinfoil, and a good old snow day or two and you’re easily pushing 10 weeks.

“Why don’t you just hire more staff?”

Please call me on a secure line.

Recalculating….recalculating….

Next, schools move into “committee review,” or “cohort review,” or “class shaping.” Deans, directors, and VPs provide additional direction about institutional priorities and empower larger groups of staff to review applications on both an individual and comparative basis. Typically, in this phase discussions are informed by specific targets. Do we have enough admits from certain counties, states, or nations? How are particular majors doing in terms of their specific enrollment targets? Geography, academic major, ROTC, special talents, first generation, financial need, demonstrated interest may all come into play. Some or all of these student attributes, and potentially many more, are discussed as applications move through the committee review stage.  If faculty engage in the admission process, this is a logical time frame in which they’ll be consulted or asked to weigh in on student fit to their programs or the institution overall.

At some colleges, all files are reviewed again in committee, while at others only those who had a split decision in the first round enter this phase of review. Many colleges make admission offers to applicants about starting their academic career on a different campus, abroad, or in an earlier or later semester than the one for which they initially applied, which means committees are also attempting to hit targets for those institutional needs.

How long does this take? Well, that depends on the number of applications, the number of staff, and how bad flu is that year, but it usually takes several weeks. These are often tough and complex decisions that involve more people in the room weighing a series of macro factors and goals.

Re-routing:

We are almost to the far-right side of the mirror. Decision release day is approaching. Your calendar is marked and so is ours. Everyone is nervous. At this point, deans and directors are consulting with their data analysts to gauge their mathematical models for “yield” (the number of admitted students who actually choose to enroll).

Let’s say a college has a yield rate of 34% (this is actually quite common nationally). The dean knows her president, board, and faculty are counting on a class of 1,400. The current number of admits after committee is 5,000, which would result in a class of 1,700 students. The dean knows about 100 of the students who deposit do not ultimately enroll (this is known as “melt”). With residence halls and dining halls built for 1,400 new students, she is over by 200.

Accounting for yield and melt, a small group of senior-level admission folks take on the unenviable task of further reducing the number of admits (in our example by about 600+ students). This pushes previously slated admits to the waitlist, and as a result has a cascading effect on both the number and percentage of students who end up with that particular decision.

Owner’s Manual:

Every road trip and car system varies. I’ve tried to provide a general overview of how colleges review applications. If you want the full details of the operating system from a school you’re considering, check their website or consult one of their admission counselors. As an example, Georgia Tech made a video to illustrate our process.

Buckle Up! Inspirational picture describing the open road

I’m sorry this process takes so long (I’m also sorry this blog is so long). I don’t like to wait either. In fact, I don’t think I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know what I really love… waiting.”

If you are a junior just entering the college admission experience, I hope this gives you some insight and questions to ask as you consider specific colleges. When you visit or talk to one of their representatives, listen for their explanation of the process. Speak up and ask questions if it is not clear. You are going to put a lot of time and effort into applying. It is your right and responsibility to understand how they make decisions, as well as a clear timeline in which they do that.

If you are an applicant still waiting for the car to pull into the driveway, I hope you will take a holistic approach to waiting. Like admission officers, your goal is to keep perspective. You only have one senior year. Enjoy it. Go to games, hang out with friends, take trips, and have fun! Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish I stressed out more and wished away the spring of my senior year in high school.” (Kind of like nobody says, “I want to marry someone mean,” or “I prefer to overpay for my meals.”)

Look around you this week in school.  I am asking you to fight the temptation to look to far ahead. Slow down. Remember this–  most of the folks you see every day now will not be around (in person) at this time next year. Give them a hug. Grab a meal together. Go see a concert. Just enjoy being together.

Ultimately, it is the things we have to wait for in life are the ones that shape us the most. You will come to the end of the mirror soon enough. Take in the sights. Share the road. Enjoy the ride!

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