The Committees and Decisions of College Admission… And College Football

This weekend Florida State beat Louisville in the ACC Championship and capped off an undefeated football season at 13-0.

Translation for non-sports fans: they beat everyone they played. They practiced and prepared for each game, and despite some hardships– including losing both their first- and second-string quarterbacks to injury, achieved at the highest level within the context of their schedule.

In other words, they demonstrated not just competency but excellence. And they did so in the face of real adversity and challenge.

Ultimately, however, they were left out of the four team college football playoff, which will include two teams (Texas and Alabama), who each lost a game this year. If you want varying opinions on how this should/could have gone, feel free to go down an internet rabbit hole  or delve into the vitriolic threads of social media. (FYI- apparently, there is also some barking going on in Athens, GA about lack of fairness and committee bias.) 2023 College Football Playoff bowl games: Michigan, Washington, Texas, Alabama fill four-team field -

But if you want facts, here are a few.

  1. A committee of imperfect humans made this decision.

This group gathered in a room, presumably with veggie and fruit trays, plenty of gluten, and hopefully at least one recycling bin. They looked at team and conference strength of schedule, home/away wins, timing of games played, and a variety of other factors. At the end of the day, they made their decision given the quantitative information they had, as well as the goals they were trying to accomplish.

  1. Stats do not guarantee slots.

On that note, their goal in this holistic review was not to “admit” or provide slots to the undefeated, i.e. numerically perfect teams. Otherwise, FSU is in and would not have been nervous about it leading into Sunday’s reveal.

  1. Supply and Demand is an issue.

When this group assembled to watch games this weekend and debate quality and merit, they knew their primary challenge was “too many good teams for the number (4) of slots available.” They knew no matter what decision they made it would be contested, debated, ridiculed, and challenged.  I can’t tell you how many folks in that room were wearing quarter-zips or On Cloud shoes, but I can tell you what they were thinking, “Why couldn’t we have expanded to 12 teams this year vs. next?!”

  1. Geography matters.

Is Washington better than FSU? Perhaps. We really don’t know. Could U(sic)GA beat Alabama in a rematch? Maybe. But one “problem” the committee had was two SEC teams and one ACC champion with tons of talent and big cases to be made for their spot in the playoff.

Three teams from the South? Is that really a National Playoff?

Conversely, we can pull in one from the southeast, one from the southwest (or what some would simply call the Republic of Texas), one from the Midwest, and one from the Pacific Northwest. Now that does sound intriguing. That sounds “National.”

  1. Money matters.

And let’s be honest, these four teams have big fan bases and impact major TV markets. Michigan gets you Chicagoland and Midwest markets, plus any absolutely enormous global fanbase. Throw in a little (ok, a lot of coaching and sign-stealing controversy) and Meechagan means eyes, engagement, and bucks. Alabama is clearly a perennial powerhouse with a big national following, and they check the box for key markets in the South. Washington brings you Seattle and portions of the country the others don’t extend to as naturally. And Texas… Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and more. We are talking about big, big, big money. Yes, friends that is three “bigs.”

Admission Translation

Ok. Test time: Which of these principles apply to college admission decisions? What Is the Law of Supply and Demand? | The Motley Fool

  • People make decisions.
  • Numbers are only part of the equation.
  • Supply and Demand is the primary driver.
  • Geography Matters.
  • Money Matters.

Admission committees are congregating all over the country just like the NCAA playoff committee right now (with fewer flat screens and personal jets) to debate these same issues.

How many spots do we have available?

What is our mission?

Which students will help us shape a class?

Will this class help us grow our brand and build national interest?

Does the bottom-line work financially?

So, yea. The answer to the test is “all of the above.”

What does this mean for you?

  1. It means in the college admission experience many things will be outside of your control. You will not be able to influence or control who is making these decisions. You will not know all of the machinations and factors that they take into consideration. You won’t be able to control how strong the other applicants are that year, or from your state/region, or in your major.
  2. It means that despite having great numbers, maximizing what was available to you, and showing tons of preparation, fortitude, character, and potential, you may not get into some highly selective colleges.
  3. It means that it’s not you… it’s them. If you get deferred or denied or waitlisted this month or this year, it does not mean you are not talented or bound for amazing things in college and beyond.

Over the years, I’ve continually quoted my friend Pam Ambler who says, “The way college admission decisions are made is not how they feel.” Boom. Spot on. A defer or deny does not mean you are not smart or amazing. It just means you’ll go on to demonstrate all of that elsewhere. What can FSU do now? They can sit home and cry. Sure. But ultimately they will need to pick themselves up and go win their bowl game. Life lesson: Succeed where you get opportunity!

I could keep drawing parallels all day, but I’ve made a commitment to keep this blog under 1000 words, and I’m at limit.

Happy Holidays, friends.

5th Annual College Admissions Preparation Day

Re-upping this blog based on a few recent conversations with college and neighborhood friends who have kids in the admission process right now. Instead of texting or calling individually, I’ll just be forwarding this. You may call it impersonal– I call it efficient. Po-tay-toe, Po-taa-toe! 

Regardless, if you are a senior, or you are currently supporting one, I hope you will READ ON!

Text: “My daughter was deferred. We were SHOCKED! What does that really mean?” (FYI this was another school’s decision. If you are waiting on EA decisions from Tech, you have not missed anything.)

My first thought was, “Really? You were shocked? You know their profile and admit rate.” My second thought was, “I’ll deal with this on Monday,” and I put my phone on do not disturb (because that’s the kind of friend I am).

About 30 minutes later I was talking to another friend. He has one kid in college and two still in high school. He told me that after watching his older son go through the admission process he has been telling his current high school senior who is applying to colleges to be prepared to hear “no.” The dichotomy between these two approaches was both striking and instructive. More importantly, it made me realize we need to add another key date to the admission calendar.

August 1- Many colleges open their application.

October 1- FAFSA opens.

November 1- EA/ED Deadlines at lots of colleges and universities.

May 1- National Deposit Deadline.

PreparationSo, by the power vested in me (which is none, by the way) I pronounce December 1 as National Preparation Day!

By or on this day, henceforth, any high school senior applying Early Action or Early Decision to a college with an admit rate of less than 50 percent must put their hand on a large, preferably leather-bound book of some kind and take this pledge:

“I, (state your name), being of sound (though overly caffeinated) mind and (sleep-deprived) body, do hereby swear that I will not presume anything in the admission process. Upon advice of my wizened counselor sages, I acknowledge that I will not look at middle 50 percent ranges and expect that my scores, though in the top quartile, guarantee my admittance.

I will not look at middle 50 percent ranges of hitherto admitted classes and expect my scores, though in the bottom quartile, will be overlooked based on my amazing essay, parents’ connections, pictures of me in a onesie from that college, or the 12 letters of recommendation that have been sent on my behalf.

I understand the heretofore explicated concept of holistic admission is neither fair nor perfect, wherein I will likely not agree with, nor be capable of predicting all results, despite the complex algorithms I employ or the kingdom fortune tellers I visit.

Furthermore, I agree that I will not view an admission decision as an indictment of my character, a judgment on my hitherto demonstrated preparation, nor a prediction of my future success.”

Note: Slightly misused Olde English conjunctions does not negate the spirit nor effectiveness of this pledge.

So What Does Defer Mean?

Back to my friend who’s daughter was deferred… what does defer actually mean, and what do you do with that decision?

It means you have some work to do.

You need to send in your fall grades. You may need to write an additional essay or tell the admission committee more about your senior year extracurricular activities. Defer is a “hold on.” It is a “maybe.” Don’t like those characterizations? Fine—call it “tell us more.” They will be looking at how you’ve done in a challenging senior schedule, or if your upward grade trend will continue, or if you can juggle more responsibility outside the classroom with your course load. Bottom line is you have work to do. Are you going to get admitted in the next round? No promises. But if getting deferred is what helps keep you focused and motivated, you should look at their decision as a good thing. Finish well.

It means you may need to submit another application or two. 

If you’ve already got this covered, that’s great. You were ahead of Preparation Day. If not, then good news—many great schools have deadlines in January. The bottom line is you need applications in at a few schools with higher admit rates and lower academic profiles than the one that deferred you.

It means holistic review is a real thing.

If your scores and grades are above their profile and they defer you, they only proved what they said in their publications and presentations—admission is about more than numbers. At Georgia Tech we are knee-deep in application review. We have not released decisions, but day in and day out we are slating students for defer who have ACT scores of 35 or 36 and great grades. Is that “shocking?” It shouldn’t be. Institutional priorities, shaping a class, and supply and demand drive admission decisions. Similarly, if your scores are in the middle or below their profile, a defer also proves decisions are made using more than just numbers.

It means you need to check your ego and wait.

Does that sound harsh? Sorry—but sometimes, life is harsh. This is why you should take the pledge. It’s why have formally added Preparation Day to the admission calendar. Take the Pledge(Someone update the NACAC website!) If you are prepared for “no,” then a defer will not rock you as bad. Admission decisions feel personal. How could they not? Nobody loves spending a few more months in limbo. But this is not about you. This is about schools who are hedging their bets and wanting to evaluate you in context of their overall pool. Kind of sucks. I get it. But too many students do not send in fall grades, complete the deferred form, or send other information schools ask for because they’ve never heard of a “maybe” ( perhaps the first they’ve ever heard). Think of the admission experience as your first foray into your college years and start looking at maybes as good things. If you liked a school enough to apply, finish the drill. Give them reasons to admit you in the next round. It is called an admission process. There are rounds for a reason. Don’t go halfway and stop.

It means you need to look forward, not backward.

I was not going to text my friend back and say defer means to “put off or delay,” but technically that is the definition. For you it means to look forward to something in the future. DO NOT look back! DO NOT second guess whether you should have taken AP Geography in the ninth grade instead of band, or blame Mr. Thompson for giving you an 89 instead of a 93 that would have bumped your GPA by .00083. This is your MARTA bus moment.

It means control what you can control. 

People want so desperately to predict and analyze admission decisions that are influenced by macro institutional goals and made in rooms they will never enter. Defer means stay focused on the micro. This is your one and only senior year.  Do well—but more importantly do good. Don’t worry about those rooms hundreds of miles away, but rather the ones you walk into every day. Be a good friend. Be a good sibling. Be a good teammate. Go thank a teacher that wrote a recommendation for you. Hug your mama.

December 1 is here. Preparation Day. Take the pledge.

Listen to Preparation Day on the College Admission Brief podcast!: Spreaker | Spotify | Apple Podcasts

College Admissions- Middle 50%, Test Optional (… and Country Music?)

In the last week, I’ve made two 5-hour drives. One from Baltimore, MD to Durham, NC. And then a few days later from Charleston, SC to middle Georgia. On these treks, I was thinking about how infrequently I get long stretches of time alone.

Early on in my time at Tech, however, that was the norm. I traveled regularly from Atlanta to South Georgia, and had countless Friday afternoon returns of 3, 4, or even 5 hours to listen to audiobooks, sports radio, call friends, or just to think. I’m also a country music fan, and frankly it just sounds better to me driving alone on open stretches of road.

Literally, as I was thinking this, Tim McGraw’s song, “Back When” came on. If you are not familiar with these lyrics, here are a few:

We got too complicated
It’s all way over-rated
I like the old and out-dated
Way of life

Back when a hoe was a hoe
Coke was a coke
And crack’s what you were doing
When you were cracking jokes
Back when a screw was a screw
The wind was all that blew
And when you said I’m down with that
Well it meant you had the flu
I miss back when

Feel free to @ me if you are not a country fan; unimpressed with Tim McGraw’s acting skills; or offended by the lyrics. Just keep reading.

My point is that when it comes to college admission, many of the words we used to use, and many of the metrics that seemed helpful or instructive, have shifted dramatically. Let’s look at a few examples and figure out what the changes mean for you.

Back When

Middle 50% ranges- There was a time when publishing the middle 50% GPA and SAT/ACT range of admitted students was extremely helpful. GPAs were more uniform and test scores were required of all applicants. If a student had both a GPA and a test score that fell in the bottom quartile, it was not necessarily a NO for admission, but it was a very instructive reality check on likelihood. Similarly, if a student was scoring in the top quartile of the admitted range, while it was not a guarantee of admission for the most highly selective schools, for the vast majority of colleges, it was a great guidance point.

Over time, however, as high schools created more and more GPA ranges, i.e. 4.0, 5.0, 13.0, weighted, unweighted, paragraphs vs. numbers, etc., colleges became less capable of publishing middle 50% GPA ranges. At Tech, we gave up on these pre-pandemic, and simply started saying “Admitted students are generally earning top grades in the most difficult courses in their high school.” Even for schools who have continued to create middle 50’s on grades, you need an old-school cereal box decoder to figure out how they re-calculate, which courses they include, and how that number translates to your high school context.

This is exacerbated for test scores due to the test optional trend. At this point, approximately 80% of four-year colleges in America are test optional. Because not all students submit scores, and disproportionately students with higher scores submit, middle 50s are inflated and less indicative of the academic profile for admitted students.

In an ideal world, colleges would all publish the number and percentage of their applicants who submit scores, the admit rates for students who submit vs. don’t submit, the academic profile of those who submit vs. those who do not, and all of that again for their actual enrolling class. Spoiler alert: This is not an ideal world.

What does this mean for you?  

If you are a junior searching for colleges, keep an eyebrow raised when colleges throw out averages and numerical ranges of any kind.

Someone tells you their middle 50% is between a 1340-1420, you should be asking where that number comes from. Is that applicants, admitted, enrolling? Were those the scores received and used during the decision process, or is that cumulative of all admits who ultimately sent scores?

The same holds true when they tell you their faculty: ratio, their graduation rates, retention rates, number of benches or deer or squirrels on campus. How are you arriving at those numbers? What is really included and where are the nuances?

Back When

Prior to the pandemic, the colleges who were test optional had arrived at that decision based on their mission, their data, and their intentionally chosen policy. They legitimately wanted to give students the option to send scores or apply absent of that component. In other words, optional really means optional.

Since the pandemic, the number of colleges who have gone test optional has escalated rapidly. As a high school counselor friend of mine put it recently, “many of these schools made the decision to go optional under duress.”

What does this mean for you?  

If you are applying to a college that is test-optional, I encourage you to do your homework on that college. I’ve heard it said many times in the last few years that “Optional means optional.” But the truth is that it’s not that simple. As Tim McGraw sings, “We got too complicated/ It’s all way over-rated.”

Some schools “prefer” you send scores, even if they are optional publicly. Some schools hinge money to test scores, or expect scores from certain communities or in certain majors.

I am not anti-test optional. I am just pro transparency. Colleges need to publish better data in this space and be very clear about how they arrived at their policies.

Until that happens, TALK to your school counselor about what trends they are seeing from college to college. If your school is using Scoir, Naviance, Maia Learning, or another data aggregating system, have them help you translate patterns.

ASK the schools you are applying to for an answer to the optional question beyond “optional means optional.” What does it mean for your major? What does it mean for students from your school, city, state? Is their data broken down by TSO vs. Non-TSO by EA, ED, RD, in-state vs. out of state, etc.

At the end of the day, as a college applicant, your job is to act like a college student. Good college students ask questions. Good college students do their research.  Good college students do their homework. You’re headed to college, so act like a college student. While many words, numbers, and policies have changed, that has not.

College Admission is about Celebration!

On three giant Post- It notes on the wall outside my office we have the words: CELEBRATE YOUR WINS. 

This is our tangible reminder to pause, reflect, and acknowledge when you accomplish a goal or see success. 

College admission is often described as a “cycle,” and for those who do this work, it is an endless one. You work to recruit a class, review applications, make decisions, convince students to choose your school, and it can easily spin and blur together.   

At Georgia Tech, we try to find logical points to stop and celebrate; to consider what it has taken to achieve goals; and to high five or fist bump in recognition of our collective wins. 

If you are a senior in high school (or an adult supporting one), I’m encouraging you to do the same. As I’ve said many times, the college admission search, application, and selection is not a “process” as journalists or others would have you believe. Instead, it is an experience. It should be a time of exploration, growth, challenge, and yes… CELEBRATION!   

Celebrate Submission

After each application you submit, I hope you will take a deep breath, a big drink of water, allow yourself to smile, and appreciate what you have accomplished.  

Think about everything you included on that application- four years of classes and grades, testing, extensive involvement outside the classroom, and your essays and supplemental responses. Man- that is a lot! Now is not the time to question if you’ve done enough or worry about how it will be received on the other side. Instead, THIS is a time to CELEBRATE!  

What makes you really smile? What brings you joy? Whatever that is, do that now. A meal, a movie, a new jacket, a run, or a hike? You do you! But DO NOT just move on. Do not just go back to class or head to the next practice without intentionally celebrating.   

Parents and supporting adults always ask, “What should be our role in college admission?” or “How can I best support my student?”  This is it, people. Now is not the time to secretly wish their essay had been on a different topic or that they hadn’t applied to your alma mater’s biggest rival. Now is the time for full support and celebration. You know them best, so make it happen.  

Celebrate Submission!  

Celebrate Admission 

I hear too many students get into a college and say, “Yea. But it is just the University of X.” C’mon, man. You applied there. You worked hard to assemble an application– and you paid to send it in. Now you’ve been offered a spot. AMAZING!

That school wants you. That community could be a great home for you. This is an invitation and an opportunity. Trust me- there are thousands of kids who wish they could go there.  

And look- the entire goal here is to have choices and options. YOU just got another one. That is awesome. I’m proud of you and you should be proud of yourself too. Don’t let a school’s ranking or admit rate diminish your excitement. When you get into any college, whether it was your “first choice” or not, you celebrate. Honestly, I can’t believe I even have to write this. Who doesn’t want a chance to get excited about something?!  

Celebrate Admission! 

Celebrate Foundation (best I could come up with, but here’s a list of “ion” words, if you find something better). 

Every time you hit submit and send in an app or get into a college, be reminded that you did not get there alone. Somebody drove you to school and practice. Somebody taught and coached you. Somebody paid for stuff and made sacrifices along the way on your behalf. You are great, YES. But you have been made great by a collective effort and consistent investment. The support that enabled your admission needs to be recognized and valued. 

Take time to look around and say thank you. Perhaps that is a teacher, a coach, a parent, a relative, a boss… or all of the above. This is not text time, friends. I’m going to challenge you to step it up here. Think about writing an actual note or making a phone call to these people. Can you imagine the surprise of your 4th grade teacher when you show up and tell her that you’ve realized she’s a big reason for the opportunities you have now? 

Celebrate Foundation!  

College admission is not something you have to do. You get to do this! CELEBRATE. YOUR. WINS!!  

College Admission: 3 Messages You Need to Hear

Recently, our family has been watching the TV Show “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test.” Not sure what it says about us that this is the one program we can all agree on, but that’s not what this blog is about.  

In the show, former athletes, reality TV “stars,” actors, and other famous to moderately well-known contestants go through a battery of grueling physical and mental tests to see if they have the attributes necessary to be in an elite military unit.  

In most cases, the answer is NO. And the Directing Staff (DS), who are all former special force operators, are quick to tell them. When the DS questions participants, comments on performance, or instructs during  exercises, it can sound harsh because it is so direct. But their goal is to push recruits to help them achieve their maximum potential and to see things clearly and honestly.  

Well, that is where we find ourselves today. As a grizzled veteran, I am in a DS mood, people. So here are three messages students need to hear about college admission, to help you understand the reality. 

  1. Admission Math. It’s the same as regular math. Applying to 5 schools with a 20% admit rate does not give you a 100% chance of being admitted. That’s just not how math works. Do I think you are smart? Absolutely! After all, you are reading this blog. 😊 But at Georgia Tech (admit rate: 16%) we deny thousands of smart students every year. In fact, last year our denied SAT average was over 1400–the top 5% of global test takers.  Most those students had also taken calculus and are doing important things outside the classroom too.

So when someone tells you that your chances of being admitted to an Ivy League (it’s an athletic conference in the Northeast that nobody really cares about when it comes to realignment/NIL), are higher if you apply ED, they’re kind of right in that the admit rates for those schools are above those of Regular Decision. BUT your chances are still not very good. Most of those schools have ED admit rates in the teens. Since that’s where Georgia Tech is overall, I can tell you that you cannot have a high level of assurance of being admitted, regardless of your academic or extracurricular background.  (If you prefer less direct and more snarky, check this out.)

2. Adulting is hard at times. I was standing outside the door of one of Tech’s “DS” the other day and heard her tell a student, “Adulting is hard.” Honest. Direct. Not what he wanted to hear as a prospective transfer student who did not have a competitive GPA and was really too far down the road at his current institution to make transferring to Tech a viable option. The truth is we all need to make tough decisions based on reality rather than on hope.  

This is particularly true when it comes to paying for college. In our recently published book, we wrote an entire chapter about how to have honest and healthy conversations about this, because it is challenging but critical. While parents or supporting adults should be the ones to initiate discussions around how much they can pay or are willing to pay, often that does not happen, OR it happens too late, I.e., after admission decisions have come back.  

If you are a junior or a senior and you have not had these conversations with your family, NOW is the time! Are there conditions, limitations, and expectations you need to know about before you apply or as you wait for financial packages to come back? How does your family feel about loans, working during college, or other practical and likely “adulting” that will come into play? In the spirit of brevity and channeling my DS, I’m not going to delve deep into this right now, but instead leave it on you to do more work here. Check out these blogs or this podcast on facilitating necessary conversations about money and paying for college. 

3. Admission is not fair. People complain that college admission is not clear or transparent. I disagree. Admission decisions are incredibly easy to explain and understand. They come down to two fundamental driving principles: supply and demand and institutional mission.

Most colleges in the U.S. admit most students who apply. In fact, currently the average admit rate for four-year colleges is well over 60%. In the years ahead, due to the declining number of domestic students graduating from high school, as well as the international competition in higher education, it will be easier rather than harder to get in. Those are the facts.

At many colleges nationally, they make formulaic decisions where an equation determines admission—this could be test scores + GPA, or just grades. Even in those cases, admission is not fair. We all know that standardized tests have bias. We know that access to tutoring and preparation is not equitable. We know you can pay to improve your score. We know that grades get inflated more at certain schools than others. We know that it is easier at some schools versus others to get higher grades, even if you are learning less. All of that is fact. So even formulaic admission is not fair.

But what really pisses people off is that schools that say they use holistic admission… actually ARE. They say all along that they are not making decisions based solely on your grades or test scores. They say they do not put kids on an excel sheet and draw a line. BUT just like in Special Forces, people don’t like to hear that. They don’t like to hear that because you are from a certain state (or you are not); because of your major; because of the combination of both of those and other institutional priorities/mission, (in combination with supply and demand) you were not admitted.  

If you are applying to a number of schools with admit rates of 1 out of 3 or less, expect unpredictability. Don’t get mad about it. You chose that. More here. 

If you are applying to a number of schools with admit rates of 1 out of 4 or less, expect turbulence along the way, including deferral and waitlist decision. Don’t get frustrated. You chose that. 

If you are applying to a number of schools with admit rates of 1 out of 5 or less, go back and read #1. A balanced list does not mean you have 12 schools on your list that each have a different admit rate, but they’re all under 2o%.    

College admission, like the show Special Forces, has the potential to teach invaluable lessons. Both can help you clarify who you are, what you want, and how you deal with challenge and disappointment. This “process” IS an opportunity to grow, discover, and learn lessons that you can apply well beyond this experience. BUT none of that is possible if you are not honest with yourself or realistic about basic facts: admission math is the same as regular math; adulting is hard; and admission is not fair.