What do colleges want?

My wife has celiac disease. While many people do not know exactly what that is, they have at least heard of “gluten” and are familiar with the GF or grain symbol on food labels in the grocery store or at restaurants. 20 years ago, however, when she was first diagnosed, that was definitely not the case. In fact, going out to eat was an incredible hassle. “Can you tell me if this is gluten free?” inevitably resulted in a bemused and moderately annoyed manager emerging from the back. Most of the time, despite our best efforts to provide examples, there was more head scratching (disturbing around food) and eyebrow furrowing than recognition or appreciation of the issue. In many cases, to be safe, Amy would just order a salad- sometimes bringing her own dressing to be sure.

One Saturday a month we went to a “Gluten-sensitive support group,” aka GSSG, which was 20 miles from our house in Atlanta. In a city of several million people, there was only one group- giving you an idea of how little known the issue was at that time. During those meetings, people shared advice on which doctors to see, where they had been able to find gluten free products in health food stores (never regular grocery stores), and also exchanged recipes. At the end of each meeting, people shared their latest baked good product or casserole. I looked forward to those meetings the way you look forward to taking an SAT- that is to say- not at all. At best the food tasted like salty cardboard and at worst… well, let’s just say twice in my recollection I had to quickly walk to the bathroom sink to spit out whatever half masticated delicacy I’d partially ingested.

Bottom line is if you had celiac disease, or a significant gluten allergy at that time, there were extremely few choices and options. Even as a spouse, it felt limiting.

Choice and Options

Along with my staff, we have written extensively in the past about “what colleges are looking for.” We’ve covered GPA, rigor of curriculum, activities and involvement, essays, more about essays, plenty of ink spilled and callouses grown writing about writing, teacher recs, interviews, etc. And all of that is accurate, helpful, and worth checking out. But what do colleges really want? Regardless of their size, geographic location, or athletic conference, they want the same thing– Choices and Options. They don’t want to have to “just have a salad” and bring their own dressing. They want a full menu. And their desire- or hunger as it were (really just wrote this entire blog to use that phrase)- for choices and options explains a lot about your college admission experience.

College Search (mail, email, etc.) – If you are a sophomore or junior, you have started to receive more and more email, postcards, and other glossy, shiny solicitations from colleges. Maybe this sounds familiar:

“Dear <<insert name here>>” check out our campus.” Notice all these kids of different ethnicities hanging out together snacking while studying on our super green grass. It just so happens when we took this picture that there were three benches in the background occupied by students engrossed in important discussions about today’s issues.

They say they want you to visit, check out their website, fill out this card, or ultimately apply for admission. Does this mean you will get in? Absolutely not. Does it mean you are competitive for admission at their school? No. So why did they buy your name, spend money on bulk rate postage, or invest copious time debating whether to include a picture of the kid studying abroad in Spain or the one of the students looking closely at a colored liquid in a campus laboratory? Two words (ok, technically three): Choices and Options.

Colleges cast a very wide net to encourage students to check out their school, but they have limited information about you when doing that. Perhaps they have your test score or a sense of what classes you have taken. Maybe they are trying to attract more students from your state or city, or they saw you (or your mom) indicated an interest in Chemistry on a survey or test registration form (hence the lab pic).

Post- Covid (I’m just going to keep saying that ‘til it’s truly a thing) it is tougher to visit high schools during the school day. Traveling is also time intensive and expensive. Sending hundreds of thousands of emails and mailing broadly prospective students- what schools refer to as “student search”- is a big part of their enrollment strategy. Build a big funnel of students, see who is really interested, see who applies, admit those they want, and voila- a class.

What does this mean for you? The good news is contact from a variety of schools helps you see a bigger picture. At times, we all have a tendency to be too narrowly focused. Receiving information from places you have never heard of challenges you to ask bigger questions about what you really want or need- not just default to what you recognize.  On the flipside, too many students believe that the number of times a college contacts them correlates to their odds of being admitted. Nope. Just because a school sends you pithy emails or a lovely fold out poster of their gothic campus nestled just south of the city does not mean the wind is ultimately going to blow you into the admit pool. Take these mailings with a big grain of salt (or a sodium laced circa 2003 gluten-free experiment).

Admission DecisionsIf you are a senior, unless you applied to a college who explicitly stated they are using a formula to make admission decisions, they are not using a formula to make admission decisions. Holistic admission means they draw circles more than lines. When you hear admission reps say, “We are looking for a well-rounded class…” they mean they want choices and options. It’s not just going to be about your test score or number of AP classes. This means a few things.

First, it means you are likely to see a student with lower grades or fewer activities get into a school that denies you. Their decisions are based on goals and mission. They want choices and options. They are trying to “build a class” not just hit ENTER on an Excel sheet to figure out who gets in. Is this fair? NO. But they don’t call it Fair Admissions. They call it Holistic Admission- probably because “Choices and Options Admission” rolls off the tongue like Debbie’s gluten free casserole in the GSSG bathroom.

Second, it means if you are deferred admission, they are not saying you are not smart, or they don’t like you, or that you should have joined the French Club back in sophomore year and that would have done the trick. Instead, they are saying we’d like to see our full set of choices and options. Send us your fall grades or maybe write another supplemental essay (good times!) about why you really want to come.

Fun to wait? Absolutely not. I polled 100 humans recently about their five favorite things to do in life and surprisingly nobody listed “Waiting.” But understanding the WHY matters. Too many students take a deferral as an ego hit. Or they are mad, confused, and feel wronged. Deferrals- and ultimately waitlist decisions- are part of the process. What do colleges want? Choices and Options, people. Choices AND Options.

Lastly, it means you may get into a school with a higher ranking or a lower admit rate than another school that denies or defers you. Each year after we release admission decisions, we get calls or notes starting, “With all due respect… (Note: This is the southern equivalent of “Bless your heart…” and basically should be interpreted as “I’m about to tell you why you are wrong or clueless.”) I think you have made a mistake. See, I was admitted to/ got a scholarship from (insert supposedly better college here), so I’d like you to re-review my application.” First, that’s not a valid appeal. Second, what led to the decision was that particular school’s choices and options based fulfilling their distinct institutional priorities.

As I said earlier, colleges often look the same on their websites or brochures. A picture is worth 1000 words, but when all the pictures are the same, it can seem like all colleges are too. Thankfully, they are not. At the end of the day, they all have different goals, different priorities, and different processes for enrolling our students. What they are “looking for” varies widely, but the one thing all colleges want is Choices and Options.

The good news is you can learn a lot about how to approach your college search and selection experience from understanding how colleges approach building their class. And we’ll cover that next time. Until then, have a great Thanksgiving Break. Eat well, take a nap, read something that’s not been assigned, and as always- Hug your mama.

Celebrate Your Submission

Yes. I have heard you get better traction on posts if you have a title that includes “Tips” “Top” or something inflammatory. Yes. I know at best this title sounds paradoxical and at worst—actually, not sure what worst would be. Something really dark, I’m sure.

Good news- that’s not this blog. In fact, my hope is it’s the flipside of dark.

On Sunday night, along with my colleague, friend, and co-author Brennan Barnard, I submitted the updated manuscript of our book to publish a second edition.  I’m not going to lie, it was a heavier lift than either of us expected.

Originally, when we discussed the project, it sounded easy. We had a solid base. This would just be making some additions, particularly since the first book was published just six months before the world stopped… aka March 2020.

Yea- we’ll talk about the rise of test optional, the virtual visit world, changes to yield prediction, and the new and shifting ways colleges are recruiting students in 2022 and beyond. No problem.  But I sort of forgot about the fact that I also have a full-time job, a wife and two kids, other responsibilities in my community and around campus, and a constant desire to add or change “just one more thing.”

So, after a few months of periodic work on the book, I stayed up way too many nights recently until 1 a.m. editing, revising, snacking, re-thinking, and sometimes just straight procrastinating. Ultimately, however, as I’ve written in this blog before, deadline means DEADline, so Sunday night we finally hit submit. Done.

If you recently applied to college via an EA or ED deadline, I’m guessing this sounds familiar, particularly the snacking and procrastination part. Personally, I’ll put in a plug for Reese’s Pieces, salted almonds, and in a pinch, Fritos, but I’m always up for a good gas station run, so if you have suggestions, hit us up @gtadmission on your favorite social media channel.

My point, friends, is that when you originally started your application earlier this fall or summer, I’m guessing you also were like, Yea, I got this. Street address, date of birth, full name. Scoop of chocolate, scoop of vanilla.

And then you ran into the essay; the various supplemental questions for multiple colleges; the mental gymnastics of whether or not to use the Additional Information section; and of course, the always enjoyable consternation about whether or not to send test scores to each of the schools you are considering. Several hundred (thousand?) calories and dozens of hours killed later, you finally hit SAVE for the last time—and then—SUBMIT.

Here’s What I Don’t Know

I don’t know if people are going to love the new book. My guess is a few people will say the Hamilton metaphor doesn’t work or that the Jessie J lyrics seem forced.

I don’t know who else may publish books about college admission in the same timeframe. Last time a flurry of other books came out around the same time. Different angles, different strengths, and different audiences.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the world in the year ahead as this publishes. Did not have my money down on a global pandemic last time, I can tell you that.

Same Same

I don’t know how your essay is going to “read” in different admission offices on that particular day with a certain admission committee. Maybe they’ll love it. Maybe not.

I don’t know which students or exactly how many applicants are going to apply to the places you applied to this year. Over the last two years, Tech has received 10,000 additional applications- from 40k to 50k. Admit rates change, institutional priorities shift, etc.

And I don’t know what’s going to happen in your life or the lives of people around  you that may dictate how you weigh your decisions or make choices about where you will ultimately go to college next year.

Here’s what I do know

I do know applying to college is a big deal.

I do know you have worked hard academically in high school and contributed significantly to your family, school, and community over the last few years.

I do know you spent the last few weeks editing, revising, proofing… and snacking, of course.

I do know the world spins way too fast. And because of that fact, we need to be intentional about hitting pause and recognizing our wins.

I do know as humans we are prone to focus more on the things that go wrong or we are worried about, and that too quickly we move on to “the next thing.”

Celebrate Your Submission

And that leads us back to the weird title. Celebrate your submission! Some of you finally hit submit after all of that work and then just went to bed, woke up in the morning and ate your cereal like it was any other day. Others of you checked the clock on November 1 and thought, “Oh, good- it’s only 11:54 p.m”.…waited 5 mins and then hit submit (Yea, I see you. Hope you enjoyed Halloween!)

Come on, people! Where is the fun?! Where is the appreciation, the satisfaction, and the other tions?

When we turned in the manuscript, I walked out of the room, kissed my wife, cracked open a… LaCroix… (come on, folks, this is a PG blog), and then got on Amazon and ordered a pair of shoes I’d been wanting. You do you and I’ll…. wake up the next day and eat a huge plate of French Toast!!  (Look, let’s not get all judgy about other people’s celebrations.)

Yes. I realize you have not been admitted yet. I realize this is just submitting applications. BUT it’s a big deal. A BIG DEAL. So don’t drop the ball here. CELEBRATE. You put in a ton of work to get to this point. Good on you. When you get in, we’ll go next level on the celebration, but don’t go flying past this stage.

So, to recap: send us snack recs, creative procrastination techniques, and submission celebrations!

Proud of you. Seriously. Proud. Of.  YOU!!