Mindset and Approach- A Rising Senior’s Guide to College Admission

Last year I wrote this blog criticizing February, and man did the Feb fans have some words. Wow. Well, now I’m taking the other side of that coin to say that I’m a big fan of May.

First, the weather. Now, maybe you live somewhere I’m not thinking of or unfamiliar with and you have some terrible May situation, but in the South, the pollen is gone, the flowers are out, the bugs and humidity haven’t arrived, and most mornings and evenings are cool.

Also, it’s graduation month (though from this seemingly comprehensive list that is not official). Admittedly, between working at a college, speaking at graduations, and having a disproportionate number of friends and neighbors with graduating students, I have attended my fair share of these. I love the experience because graduations bring together family, present an opportunity for shared celebration of accomplishments, up our nation’s smile: frown ratio, and simultaneously facilitate both healthy reflection and warranted optimism about the future. Generally good times despite uncomfortable garb and predictably unmemorable speeches. Yep, I love a good tassel turn.

Graduation also means the seniors are done. Before you dismiss that one as “sentences that need never to have been written,” hang on. When those caps get picked up and the last selfie has been taken, the juniors take on a unique and important transient identity—RISING SENIORS.

If that’s you—this one’s for you.

Rising connotes you are not there yet. You are in transition. You have left the on-deck circle and are walking to the plate. Basically, this is your walk-up song summer (or playlist). And while your teachers may have already sent you things to do (summer assignments/reading list), when it comes to college admission, I want to focus on your mindset and approach.

RISING INTO COLLEGE ADMISSION

True Success

The longer I do this work and the more students and families I talk to, the more convinced I am that the real goal of college admission is not getting into a particular school. Instead, it is having choices and options. As a rising senior, you inevitably saw this play out with the graduating class. The students most satisfied with their college admission experience are those who felt like they had agency. Ultimately, they picked a college. Does that mean all doors were open? Of course not. But in the end, they got to select a college from several they were excited about. THAT is my hope for you—and not only for college but life well beyond. Freedom is having options. As you rise this summer, spend time thinking about what (not where) you want in a college– and why! Build a list of schools where you would be excited to go. Practice recognizing the difference between “a good school” and a good school for you.

Your walk-up song is playing. Phrases like “dream school,” “top choice,” limit your view of success/happiness and foster zero sum thinking. Keep your head up and your gaze is broad.

Mindset and approach are a choice.

Expect the Unexpected

College Admission is not Fair. Yikes. How’s that for orange juice right after brushing your teeth. Fair is a place they sell cotton candy, cobble together super rickety rides, and judge pigs. (h/t Tim Fields, Emory University). This ain’t that. In the year ahead, you are going to see admission decisions come out that will not make sense to you. Students in your high school will get into colleges you don’t think “they should have.” Worse still- you may see people get into a college you really wanted to go to or get selected for a scholarship you were hoping to receive, while you are dealing with the disappointment of being deferred or denied or waitlisted.

Rising Senior, I’m challenging you in those moments to actually show up for your friends, classmates, and teammates. Celebrating others is a life skill.  Don’t let someone else’s outcomes impact your outlook.

Mindset and approach are a choice.

THE admit rate is not YOUR admit rate.

The published admit rate for a school you are considering is 33%. So one of every three applicants is offered admission, and two of three are either denied, waitlisted (and never pulled into the class), or those who fall out of the process along the way (incomplete, cancel application, etc.) As a smart rising senior, you likely did not need me to translate a percentage into multiple sentences, but hey, it’s a blog. It’s what I do.

ANYHOO, it would be easy/reasonable/and normal math to stop there. You’re thinking- I’m cool with a 1/3 shot.  Sorry, friends. This isn’t the column or dozen groupings of a roulette wheel in Vegas. This is college admission. This is the willing suspension of regular math.

If you’re applying to a public university, question one is where are you from? Resident and non-resident admission review are completely different committee and consideration conversations. As an example, the University of Florida’s overall admit rate in 2023 was 23%. However, Sunshine State residents were admitted at nearly 60%, while Gator nation admitted Cloudy State residents at less than 20%.

Colleges will provide this data on their sites, but another good reference point is the Common Data Sets, primarily in Section C (Search: College Name and Common Data Site). Alternatively, you can check out this blog, which delves into both the CDS and CFD (Clark Family Dynamics).

Does every in-state resident, have the same chance of being admitted to their state’s flagship, even with the same grades, course rigor, or scores?  If your answer starts with an N, keep reading. Otherwise, go back to the beginning. (And by beginning I meant the entire blog, circa 2015. Now you do have some summer reading assignments.)

Ultimately, mission drives admission. Or in wonky admission speak decisions come down to Institutional Priorities– and that leads us far beyond your zip code or state’s initials. As you’ll quickly see in Section C of the CDS, when you apply matters for many schools, particularly for those with Early Decision plans. The “same student” could apply two months earlier and have radically different odds for admission. Major, gender, first-generation status, and other factors will also play in. They will effectively “weight” the roulette ball. Translation: the rural North Dakotan (repetitive?) valedictorian who aces BC Calculus and applies for a Philosophy degree is going to read differently than you. Pack your bags and buy some thermals as you feel compelled.

Knowledge is power. Expectations matter. Mindset and approach are a choice.

Control What You Can Control

Journalists and social media over indexes on the Ivy League and can lead you to believe getting into college is extremely challenging for a talented and motivated rising senior. The truth is that colleges with admit rates under 15% are outposts not signposts in the real landscape of admission world. So contrary to the click bait headlines and hack coverage that dominates college admission beat writing, you are the one in control. *Note in a spirit of May optimism this blog is presuming next year the Fubar FAFSA debacle is behind us.

Where you apply. There are nearly 4000 colleges and universities in the United States alone. Many of them are already courting you, soliciting you, marketing to you, but ultimately it is your choice to apply or not. In other words, you decide the five, seven, eleven (please don’t go much higher than that) colleges you are interested in attending. Where you apply is totally in your control. Think about it this way- YOU are eliminating 99+% of possible colleges. Talk about highly selective!

Who offers you admission. So… this would be the part that you DO NOT control. If you or your parents are trying to manipulate or game exactly where you are admitted or how much financial aid you receive, please go watch The College Admission Scandal.

Which college you select to attend. If you do your research, apply to a balanced list of schools (academically, financially, and selectivity), and remain open to several “top choices,” you are going to have great options. The ball will be back in your court in the spring of your senior year, and you will get to choosesee True Success above.

How you show up. A little over a year from now you won’t be focused on your approach to college admission, but to the college where you are planning to attend. This is about showing up on Day 1 with a mentality of being all in. In my opinion, is the most important part. You don’t have to look far to find examples of students who ended up miserable at their “dream school.” Conversely, there are countless students who didn’t get in to their “top choice” and wound up tour guides elsewhere, i.e. not only drinking the Kool-Aid but selling it.

Mindset and approach are a choice (as a rising senior, senior, college applicant, college student, and in life well beyond).

Love and Admission

Rising Senior means you are not a kid- not a child. It means you are getting seriously close to leaving home. It means you are going to be away from home way more than you are at home. Many students read those lines and smile. Many parents read those lines…and cry. Then students don’t understand the tears. Parents are conflicted about the smiles. Round and round we go.

Bottom line is college admission is not all about applications or test scores or college decision letters. It’s also about a new chapter in your family’s life. And at 17 or 18, the emotion, gravity, and uncertainty wrapped up in that page flip is impossible to fully grasp. I’m asking you to try.

Listen, I don’t have all the answers, but I know this: most of the crazy stuff parents do and say is really just love in disguise. It sounds like nagging. It sounds like they don’t trust you or are not listening. They know. Right now they’re a little freaked out about the term “rising senior.” To them your high school career has been a blink of the eye. So even when you’re tired, even when it’s the fourth time, even when you have somewhere to be or someone to meet, I’m asking you to be a rising senior, rather than a child. And that means patience, kindness, grace.

Mindset and approach are a choice. Hugging your mama is not. May may be the month we observe Mother’s Day, but every day is a good one to hug your mama!

The summer is here. Your walk-up music is playing. In fact, like you, it is RISING. So Rise!

Tackling Tuition: Exploring How to Pay for College  

This week we welcome Enrollment Management’s Communications Officer, Amanda Budd, to the blog. Welcome, Amanda!

When I was an undergraduate student, pursuing degrees in journalism and ecology (my journey from ecology to working with college admission is a different story for another day), my ecology degree program had a Family Day to talk about career prospects. They invited our parents for tours of labs, presentations, and lunch, with the goal of affirming to both students and parents that they would get a return on their investment in an ecological education. 

Some parents had questions and doubts about the value of an ecology degree, given that it’s not a field known for large paychecks. Most of these parents had, after all, put some amount of money into their student’s education. What if they got nothing in return? 

In admission and in enrollment management, we talk a lot about this concept of return on investment (ROI), or what you can expect to receive in exchange for spending money on a college education. ROI is a useful concept because we know that paying for college is an investment of time, energy, and money. We want students to see how they can be successful with a degree from our institution.  

But what does ‘successful’ look like, and how do we measure it? Beyond ROI, how can students and families prepare to make the investment in a college education?  

ROI is in the Eye of the Beholder 

Typically, you’ll see universities talk about ROI in terms of mean or median annual income of recent graduates. However, I like to caution that ROI means different things for different people. Going back to Rick’s blog from early February, don’t let rankings or metrics drive you. Not everyone can (or should) pursue the highest paying major or starting salary. 

Among my graduating class you’ll find a wide range of salaries. I have friends spread across the entire United States – Idaho, Maine, Washington D.C., a remote island off the coast of Georgia (only accessible by a tiny boat), and beyond, even Costa Rica! Many of them work seasonal jobs that last 4-6 months, pay a stipend, and provide housing with a handful of other benefits.  

Is that everyone’s version of success? Maybe not. But they’re traveling to new places for free or cheap and spend most of their days outside working with endangered sea turtles, grizzly bears, or some other cool organism while they get experience for graduate school or a full-time career in those fields. In most cases, it’s exactly the return they wanted when they invested in a college education. 

Decide what you truly want from your investment in college. If that looks like maximizing your salary, then average starting salary is likely a good ROI metric for you. If it’s more qualitative, research what a college’s graduates are doing, or look at job placement rates. 

Balancing the Return with the Investment – Let’s Talk Loans 

Now that we’ve talked about the ‘R’ part of ROI, let’s talk about the ‘I.’ While everyone hopes for scholarships (and Georgia students usually get the HOPE or Zell Miller Scholarship), ultimately you may be faced with taking out some loans to finance your education. 

I know how pervasive the fear of loans is as someone who graduated a mere 11 months ago – thoughts of loan repayments follow most college students around like a kind of bogeyman. It is a big choice to make, but I encourage others to recognize that loans are commonplace for adulthood — car loans, loans to buy a house, etc. For an education that will guide you for the rest of your life, consider that a loan is worth the investment. 

Recently, I spoke to six students about their experience paying for college. For those with loans, paying them off wasn’t something they saw as a considerable challenge in the context of the value of their degree and the opportunity to pursue their passion. 

“When you look at the starting salary of most Tech students after they graduate, usually any debt is something they can pay off very quickly,” one student told me. 

The average debt for a Tech graduate is also much lower than the national average — $21,672 versus $45,300 nationally. Combined with an average starting salary of $89,942, it’s a great ROI by that metric. 

However, a good ROI doesn’t mean you don’t need a plan for investing in college – like with loans at all points in your life, they should be taken seriously. Know your options for paying them back and don’t borrow more than what you need. How do you know what you need? 

Make a Plan. 

The number one piece of advice from the current students I spoke to was to make a plan – whether that be three months, three days, or three years before starting college. 

One student sat down with her parents when she was admitted to outline the next four years and how much and when her parents and herself could contribute. Another has been splitting his checks – half to savings and half can be spent now – since early high school. Yet another made a college-dedicated savings account where all his scholarship funds are held.  

From there, checking their emails for scholarship opportunities once they arrived proved critical. That, and networking for internships and co-op positions (which should be something everyone does, regardless) play key roles in funding their investment. 

Think Ahead 

There’s no right or wrong way to pay for college, but planning for it early, and keeping that momentum throughout time in college is essential. It’s not the same task it was 20 or 30 years ago, so knowing what you’re dealing with is the first step.  

Whether you’re drawn to the prospect of maximizing your salary or prioritizing qualitative experiences, it’s crucial to define what success means to you and how a college degree helps you get there.  

By embracing the opportunities and challenges that come your way, and by planning thoughtfully for the future, you’ll not only make the most of your college experience but also pave the way for a fulfilling and rewarding future beyond graduation. 

Three Messages about College Admissions for Juniors

Warning: The subtitle of this blog is “That you may not like to hear.” And unlike most of my intros, we’re not going to waste time or words on analogies, personal anecdotes, or admittedly stretched parallels. Instead, after watching this cycle repeat itself, here are the three direct messages/ primary hopes I have for juniors entering the college admission experience.

Don’t apply to a college you would not actually attend. Seniors did this. I know, right? They basically walked into a store looking for jeans and went to the section three sizes up from theirs and were like- “Yea, I’ll put those in my cart just to have a few extra.” Does that sound dumb? It is. Think about it this way- there are 2000+ four-year colleges in America, not to mention the thousands of other post-secondary options around our country and abroad. I’m guessing if someone lined up that many pairs of jeans you could easily find 7 or 9 or 11 that you could afford, fit well, and you would be excited about/proud to wear. Many application fees are $50 or more. Need suggestions for better uses of that money? Donate to a local non-profit, take your mom out to lunch, Venmo me, basically do anything with it except what the seniors just did. Want more details and insight? Check out this podcast with Rachelle Hernandez, vice provost for student affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Not a podcast listener? Ok. Then hear this: Don’t apply to a college you would not actually attend!

The “College Search” is internal. See, the seniors heard “search” and they went looking like a Survivor contestant scouring the island for immunity idols. This ain’t that. How do you know what to plug into a Google search if you haven’t taken time to reflect on what you value, or your hopes and goals for college and life beyond? So, yea. I’m going to be that guy and tell you to get off your phone. Worse still- I’m telling you to go somewhere quiet on your own and really listen to yourself…more than once. And to really go overboard here, maybe even bring a pen and paper and write stuff down about what you really need and want. Again, the subtitle is, “that you may not like to hear.” Promise made- promise kept.

Look. As a talented student and a relatively good person, an annoyingly large number of people are going to have opinions about where and why you should visit, apply, or attend certain schools. Oh… and they’re going to tell you whether you like it or not. At the end of the day, we live in a noisy, busy world. My hope is that you will consistently pull away for a few hours to listen and be honest with yourself. The truth is that these decisions just keep getting bigger- where to apply becomes where to attend. Where to attend becomes what to major in. What to major in becomes job, city, community, family. Oh, yea. I can draw a throughline from today to one far in the distant future based on how you approach this. But hey- you are a junior and we are just on #2, so let’s start with and commit to this. Don’t do what they seniors did! Don’t begin by searching Google with criteria someone else told them was important. Don’t start by looking at rankings or lists of colleges that a marketer developed to sell ads and peddle clicks. The college admission search is internal.

Nothing happens to you in college admission. Read that carefully. I did not say “nothing happens.” Just that nothing happens to you. Now, to be fair to the seniors, this has been a tumultuous and unprecedented year, particularly in light of the FUBAR FAFSA situation, the first cycle following a landmark SCOTUS case, and noise and variance in testing policies around the country.

Still, there was way too much why did this happen to me mentality and not enough why did this happen for me? inquiry. Here’s the truth- next year there will also be change, unexpected events, personal and macro challenges, and general unpredictability. This spring, as admission and scholarship information has come out, a lot of seniors (and their parents) have effectively said: “What did I do wrong?” or “What else could I have done?” or (directly or indirectly) “This whole thing is broken and unfair.” Well, in the spirit of “messages you might not like to hear,” that’s college admission, that’s college, and really that’s life.

As a junior, however, you have a choice. When things don’t go exactly as you hope/plan, i.e. you get deferred, denied, waitlisted, or you don’t receive the amount of money you need to attend a particular school, you can cry/wallow/point fingers/ take your ball and go home OR you can re-frame from why is this happening to me? to why is this happening for me?

Ok. I got deferred. “Why is this happening for me?” Now, I get to decide if I’m still really interested in this school. If so, I get to send my fall grades and submit updated information.

I didn’t get admitted. Or I didn’t get into the honors program. Or that scholarship amount is just not enough to make it affordable… why is this happening for me? Now, I get to pivot. I get to figure out another way or explore a different option. I get to show up somewhere else committed to succeeding, building a network, maximizing my opportunities. Nothing happens to you in college admission.

What messages do we like to hear? I can help you control this. I can make this easier for you. You are special and amazing and it’s all going to work out. I get it. I’m human. That all sounds good to me too. But it is not true (well, you’re kind of special and amazing). And you best believe you can find (often for $$) lots of people who will guarantee you things in college admission. If you see an ad online or have someone approach you claiming to have the magic formula, the secret sauce (or some other noun preceded by a descriptor), RUN!

So, I will not make any guarantees, but I will make you a promise. If you will only apply to places you really want to go and would be excited to attend; if you will begin with asking yourself big and tough questions; and if you will adopt the mindset that the year ahead, while absolutely not predictable or fully in your control, will be one of formation, transformation, growth, discovery, and opportunity; then on the Ides of April 2025, you will have been truly successful in your college admission experience.

Talking Transfer: Carving Your Own Path! 

 

This week we welcome Transfer Program Manager, LaSean Price, to the blog. Welcome, LaSean!

Most journeys in life are not linear.  Although linear is the most direct path from one point to the next, life is full of twists, turns and roundabouts.  If you don’t get into your first choice college, don’t be discouraged — there’s more than one way to a destination!   

Venturing into the transfer admission process can feel daunting, and is a significant choice that requires careful consideration.  With over 15 years of experience working with and supporting transfer students, I’d like to offer some guidance and advice while you contemplate navigating this journey. 

Change your lens! 

Do not let fear or judgement hold you back.  Ultimately, the decision to transfer colleges is a deeply personal one that only you can make.  This is your life, and your path will not be identical to family or friends.  Comparisons can be deceptive.  Staying focused on your individual journey will allow you to carve your own path in life. 

Many college and university presidents are actively thinking of ways to recruit you to their campus.   That’s the very reason some colleges and universities have staff dedicated to transfer students.  Institutions with dedicated transfer staff place considerable importance on transfer students. 

Transferring from one college to another is more common than you may think.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2022, over one million degree-seeking undergraduate students were enrolled as transfer students.  Many states even offer statewide resources for transfer students such as California’s ASSIST system or Georgia’s Georgia Transfer site. 

Research is key! 

Carefully consider the pros and cons of pursing transfer opportunities.  Researching and exploring academic programs, campus cultures, locations, financial aid options and co-curricular activities should play an important role in your decision making.   You will have to dedicate time to ensure a smooth transfer process while balancing your current schoolwork and other priorities.  Requirements and timelines vary from college to college, so pay close attention to these factors so you can stay on track.  

Do not be afraid to reach out to institutions of interest.  Attend a Transfer Information Session to learn more about the institution and application requirements and get valuable insight into their review process.  Many times counselors will highlight beneficial tools like accessing the school’s transfer equivalency tool and opportunities to connect with faculty and current students in your desired major. 

Before committing to transferring schools, it’s crucial to understand how your credits will transfer to a new institution.  Research the transfer credit policies of the colleges you are interested in to determine how the credits you have already taken, or future credit will apply towards your degree program.  Take the time to weigh these pros and cons and consider how they align with your future aspirations. 

Help us help you!  Identify yourself by signing up to receive information from colleges of interest.  That allows us to send you information from application deadlines to opportunities to connect with current students from the institution.  

Take advantage of what’s available to you. 

Every time I’m on a transfer panel and get to hear from other institutions, I’m always amazed at the variety of resources being offered at each school.  While you are considering a transfer option, maximize your time at your current institution.  Take advantage of building new community by joining clubs and organizations, exploring leadership opportunities, and/or pursuing co-curricular learning opportunities.  

These activities will expose you to other students with similar or different interests than your own, create networking opportunities, and can even improve your academic performance.  These experiences will help you prepare to take advantage of similar opportunities when you transition to another institution.  Also, many competitive transfer programs will assess your application to learn about your passion and leadership ability.  Having these experiences in both high school and college can help you develop a strong application (wink, wink). 

Don’t take this road trip alone!  Seek support from family members, mentors, and college advisors.  They can offer valuable insight, guidance, and encouragement as you pursue this option.  Transfer student organization or clubs are another great resource that can provide perspective and reassurance about the transfer experience. 

You’ve got options!

If you didn’t know, let me be the first to tell you: you’ve got options!  Deciding to transfer is a significant decision that requires reflection, research, and consideration.  Successfully executing a plan to transfer will take a series of micro-decisions that gradually shift your mindset and build upon the previous ones, moving you closer to your goal.  These small but important decisions will set you up for success.  Trust yourself, embrace the journey and seize the opportunity to carve your own path!  

LaSean Price has supported transfer students in many roles throughout her time in higher education.  She joined Georgia Tech in 2019 and currently coordinates Tech’s Transfer Pathway Programs and leads admission staff in file review of transfer applicants.  Having experienced the transfer process firsthand, she demonstrates a strong commitment to advocating for, supporting, and collaborating with transfer champions across campus.

College Admission SOS

Thursday, February 22 

Atlanta, GA : 5 a.m. 

My vibrating watch alarm went off. After 20 years of marriage, I’ve learned the hard way not to set an audible alarm before 6 a.m. (actually, that only took me about two weeks). Groggily, I drug myself downstairs and fed the cat — which is better than feeding myself and drugging the cat, I suppose. (My daughter wanted to name her using a feline pun and my son wanted a “tough sounding” name. Ultimately, we arrived at Pawly. Technically, it is Muhammad “Pawly” Clark.)  

As I’m putting on my running shoes, Pawly rolled over to be petted. Immediately, recognizing my disinterested and half-hearted effort, she looked at me in disgust (yes, cats can absolutely do that), and walked away slowly, as if to say, “Loser.”  

After a few head-clearing miles, I jumped in the shower, grabbed a banana and a cup of coffee, and headed to the airport. Because I make this drive regularly, I did not need or use WAZE or Google Maps.  

Atlanta Airport: 7 a.m. 

I pulled up my boarding pass from the Delta App and noticed that my phone was showing a “SOS message” in the top right corner. (Note: SOS is an international distress signal: the ship is going down; we are in imminent danger; send help immediately.) 

At this point, I’m convinced it’s a “me problem.” I turned the phone off and back on again. No dice. Still SOS. A flurry of explanations went through my head: 

  1. Maybe Tech’s not paying for this phone any longer in my new role.
  2. Maybe the lint in my pocket finally won.  
  3. My daughter. I mean…you never know. 

Once I boarded the plane, however, I heard other passengers talking about the various phone carriers who were experiencing national outages. While it was moderately relieving, it did not fix the problem.  

Richmond, VA: 10:15 a.m.  

I rent a car and pull up to the exit booth.  

“Ummm…. do you have a map?” 

“No, Sweetie. Where are you going?” 

“Charlottesville.”  

“Ok. Go to the third light, take a left, and follow signs for 64W.” 

Got it.  

My realization that I had no idea how to find my hotel increased as the distance to Charlottesville decreased, but with the names of both the street and hotel, I figured I might get lucky and see one or the other on a highway sign.  

Nope.   

So, I randomly picked one of the four Charlottesville exits. I figured I’d give it five minutes and if I didn’t stumble on them, I’d stop and ask for help. Call it divine intervention or dumb luck, but at the second light I saw my hotel. Boom! 

Charlottesville, VA: 11:45 a.m. 

Grabbing my bag from the trunk I began wondering how someone who had never lived in an Alexa-less, GPS-less, wireless world would have dealt with navigating the journey I’d just made.  

Well, friends, I found out upon entering the lobby, because in an absolute puddle on the coach was a 20-ish-year-old (lots of hyphens there, I know) girl crying hysterically. 

“Can I borrow your phone?” she stammered. 

“Ummm…well, unfortunately, I don’t have any service right now– why don’t you ask at the front desk?” 

Apparently, she had not considered that option, so we went up together.  

I watched her search her contacts and call her mom from the lobby land line.  

Still crying softly, “Mom. I’m trying to get home…”  

She grabbed a pen and scribbled down directions. In the end, she lived about 5 miles away (How do I know? Oh, I was totally looking over her shoulder– I may not pet cats at 5 a.m., but I match their curiosity 24-7). 

My head: Noon 

So many questions and thoughts. 

  1. Was this really an emergency?  
  2. Who is responsible? (You know- because nothing solves problems like pointing fingers.)  
  3. What is the path forward? 
  4. How does this translate to college and college admission? (Naturally)

Admissions SOS 

Over the years, I have asked audiences from Atlanta to Argentina (actually, now in all hemispheres) to give me the first word they think of when they hear: “College Admission.” The number one answer on the board, and the response you’ll get most audibly and consistently, is “stress.” SOS!  

I’ve gotten many other interesting ones too: Hunger Games, black box, and most recently—divorce. Wow! Dark thoughts, people. Seriously, seriously dark. Sounds like the ship is going down and we need help immediately!  

And while I had no tangible solutions to remedy the AT&T outage on February 22– other than asking if someone had tried turning it off and back on again—I do have some thoughts and insight to share about alleviating stress in college admission.  For a more exhaustive exploratory, feel free to buy my book or check out our 8 years archived blogs. For the Executive Summary—read on. 

Question #1: Is this really an emergency?  

Answer: No. (Well, that was easy.)  

As my friend and colleague Katie Mattli says, “Nobody died in college admission today.” SOS is way overstated. Hunger Games? Really? And I don’t even know what to say about the divorce answer. 

Question #2 and #3: Who is responsible? What is the path forward? I’m going to knock those out together here by offering three solutions for both users (students and parents) and providers (colleges).  

Students 

  1. Your list doesn’t have to be balanced. What?!! You’ll hear a lot of people say you should apply to a “balanced list of schools.” What they mean is to identify a few schools you will likely be admitted to, a few where it is less predictable, and at least one that is highly unpredictable.

No, you don’t. The average admit rate for four-year colleges is around 65%. If the places you are excited about and make sense for you each have admit rates above that– well… you are above average. Who said schools with lower admit rates are better, or should be more desirable for you? Conversely, if you apply to 10 schools that each have a 10% admit rate, it does not give you a 100% chance of getting in. Admission math does not always work the same way regular math does— but in this case… yea. Commit to not applying anywhere you would not actually go AND be sure several (or all) are “predictable” in their admission and affordability outcome. Are we getting reception back yet? 

2. How > Where. I heard a Georgia Tech graduate give a keynote speech last night. In it she said, “No college can make you great. You are already great. Pick a place where you will be surrounded by classmates, professors, and opportunities that will bring that out in you.” Spoiler Alert: There are hundreds (not 25 or 50) of schools in America where that can and will happen for you. Your success, happiness, and fulfillment are far more connected to how you show up in college, rather than where. Until you believe that, it won’t matter how many times you turn your phone off and on — the SOS won’t go away.

3. Do Your Own Homework. The girl in the lobby in Charlottesville had clearly just been following Google Maps her entire life without looking around, paying attention, or thinking for herself. Too many smart high school students approach their college search this way. And then stress comes when they “do everything right” and it still doesn’t work out the way they thought was promised. Re-routes, speed bumps, and delays are inevitable. Expect divergences and you won’t end up crying on the couch—ohhh… and that applies not just to college admission but life well beyond.   

Parents  

  1. Parents of high school students should talk to fewer parents of other high school students about college admission, and more parents of current college students or recent college grads. Why? Because parents of other high school students lie. They do. They exaggerate and fabricate. Suddenly, their daughter’s 1340 magically becomes a 1430.  

“Did you hear nobody from our high school got in to X College last year?! (Beware the interrobang) And I heard that four kids from (the school down the road) got admitted with scholarships.”  

Ever wonder why it’s always easier to get in from “the school down the road?” Again, because people make stuff up to fit their narrative, aka THEY LIE. They drive up the stress by speculating, pulling threads of truth and portions of stories and re-telling them inaccurately. 

You know what parents of current college students or recent college grads never say in reflecting back on their experience: “I wish we’d stressed more. Yea, if I had it to over again, I’d definitely bite my nails more, drink excessively, and lose sleep worrying. Now that would have helped and made things better.” 

2. Money Talks. The biggest gift you can give your student is not an open checkbook—it is an open and early conversation (10th and 11th grades) about what you can afford or are willing to pay when it comes to college. This is going to require going into detail on your rationale and allowing your student to ask questions. The bottom line is we don’t give our kids enough credit when it comes to these kinds of discussions. Wait until senior year or after your student has applied or been admitted to talk about money and you’ll only have yourself to blame for the SOS communication blackout that follows.   

3. Success Lists > College Lists. Once your family begins talking about college in earnest (typically junior year), I suggest you write down 5- 10 schools you hope they’ll consider, visit, or potentially apply to—and then next to each school name write 2-3 sentences explaining why. (Note: Because I wish I’d gone there and am vicariously living through you… red flag).  

Then have them do the same and have a “curiosity conversation”—a discussion centered on trying to better understand everyone’s goals, hopes/fears, interests– and how that connect with reality.

But the more important Top 10 list you can create is one of your family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors who have taken a variety of paths to success and happiness. Ultimately, our job as parents is to instill confidence in our kids, so that no matter where they end up, they are prepared and ready to capitalize on that opportunity (unlike the confidence and preparation displayed in the lobby in Charlottesville). We are coaches in perspective! Don’t get sucked into the tunnel vision, paranoia, and zero sum thinking that breeds anxiety. True success for our kids is making sure they have options and choices. Don’t get it twisted. 

Bonus: If you read an article or social media post that features a college(s) with a first-year class size smaller than your local public high school or place of worship, it is not a trend but an outlier. Journalists know that clicks and eyeballs pop when they cite certain schools, which are frequently diminutive outposts, rather than large signposts for the direction or state of enrollment or higher education. Consider contacting the reporter and asking them to change their title to “lower education reporter.”  

Note: I was going to try to work in something about a drinking game with Ivy League school mentions but thought broaching cirrhosis may detract from my larger points. 

Now that we have talked about how the “users” can tamp down stress. How about “the providers?” 

Colleges and colleagues.   

  1. Data disaggregation and transparency.

Colleges should make it clear and easy to find admit rates based on each application plan; Early Action (EA), Early Decision (ED), Regular Decision (RD), and any other iterations, derivations, or acronyms. How do these vary by residency if it is a public school? What has this looked like in recent years, i.e. trends and patterns? Stress often comes from an absence of clarity.

If the college is test optional school, what is the admit rate for submitters vs. non-submitters? What raw number and percentage of students who applied with and without testing? Are there other academic ranges you can provide, i.e. GPA, number of AP/IB/Dual Enrollment courses for each cohort in isolation and comparison?  

Then break that down for the enrolling class and the admitted class. 

2. Eliminate weekend and holiday application deadlines. I mean…do I really need to explain why this would reduce anxiety and stress? C’mon, people. Do the right thing here. This one is easy.

3. Provide multiple mediums for conveying voice.

Ask most admission counselors what they are looking for in an application essay and you will get some version of: “We just want to hear the student’s voice.” Well, let’s solve for that. The truth is that many of these essays are already overly sanitized, AI generated, professionally tailored or tampered with, or a combination of all of the above. And it is the part of the application most students cite as the most stress-inducing. 

Allowing for voice-recorded responses, or short video clips, is the student’s voice, and it is a comfortable medium that could add value and diminish anxiety. Changing the medium of delivery to audio or video – or at least providing either as an option – gives a much better sense of how a student would engage in the classroom or on campus than does the essay. Importantly, if these were limited to a minute or so, it would not add time to review for colleges – and could be a welcome reprieve for the tired eyes of admission readers. Companies such as Initial View are offering this for students, and it is time for the  the Common application and Coalition application to modernize their platforms and integrate technology that allows us to more directly hear and/or see students, and the adults who support them. 

I am way, way over our normal 1000-word blog goal, so if you are still with me—Congratulations!  

At the end of the day, the way we tamp down stress in college admission is by keeping the end in mind: College admission leads to college. And college is about fun, friends, discovery, learning, testing assumptions, growing, and finding your own path to happiness, fulfillment, and your unique future.  

Again, I’d quote our keynote speaker from Tech—you are great! You are going to be great! And you do not need cell reception or a certain bumper sticker to confirm that, because it is already in you. Surround yourself with friends, classmates, and adults who keep helping you bring that greatness out. You got this!