The Basics of College Admission

Each summer we host a program for faculty, staff, and friends of Georgia Tech who have kids in high school. This has come to be known as “Admission 101.” In about an hour we discuss the landscape of higher education; how students can/should build a list of schools; how to make a good campus visit; what colleges are looking for in applicants/ how admission decisions are made; and how families can go through their college admission experience in a unified and healthy manner. It’s a lot. A lot!

In fact, someone could probably write an entire book on what we try to cover in an hour. Hmmm…

One piece of feedback we received this year is attendees wanted more of the nuts and bolts of each part of the application (academics, essays, testing, extracurriculars, interviews, recommendations, etc.)

So, now that college applications are open and Early Action and Early Decision deadlines are on the horizon, we are launching a two month podcast mini-series as part of  The College Admission Brief (available on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker).

Holding to the same promise of 10 minutes or less, the first three episodes of The Basics of College Admission are live, and ready for your listening pleasure.

Understanding Fit

Alexis Szemraj (Senior Admission Counselor) discusses the questions you should ask yourself as you consider colleges, as well as practical ways to evaluate and compare schools.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Understanding Fit – Alexis Szemraj” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Use your network, keep an open mind, and ask yourself tough and real questions. Check out the alumni magazine and student newspaper from the schools you are considering, as well as their various social media channels. Think career, not major.

Listen For: Legacy lurk.

Key Quote: “The process should start by looking at yourself- not just a list of colleges.”

Further Reading: Cappex and Big Future

Campus/Virtual Visits

Katy Beth Chisholm (Assistant Director for Campus Visits) provides key tips for students and families about how to access colleges using online resources, such as online tours, sessions, webinars, and other campus resources.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Campus/Virtual Visits – Katy Beth Chisolm” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Take and keep notes, debrief with friends, family members, school counselors. Find authentic sources. Pace yourself.

Listen For: The Massive Matrix Spreadsheet. (I did find this one.)

Key Quote: “Check out the YouTube channel, Facebook Live, and Instagram stories (from individual colleges).”

Further Reading: YouVisit and Inside HigherEd

General Application Tips

Alex Thackston (Senior Admission Counselor) provides great insight on who admission readers really are, and discusses practical tips and common pitfalls students should know while working on their applications.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: General Application Tips – Alex Thackston” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Prepare, don’t procrastinate! Find a trusted proofreader. Be yourself.

Listen For: Underwater karate against sharks.

Key Quote: “We can read the rush in your application.” (aka Don’t procrastinate.)

Further Reading:  College Admission Timeline for Seniors and Common App Application Guide

We’ll be releasing an episode each week throughout September and October. You can subscribe and listen on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

Upcoming episodes include:

  • Early Action v Early Decision
  • Standardized Testing and Test Score Optional vs. Test Score Blind
  • Extracurricular activities (Impact, Involvement, and Influence)
  • Special Circumstances/ Additional Information
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Interviews

To Answer or Not To Answer the College Admission Covid-19 Question

Listen to “Episode 19: Answering the Covid Question – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My cousin comes to our house each Wednesday afternoon to tutor our kids. Not only is it always good to see her, because she’s family and has the biggest smile and most genuinely cheerful spirit of anyone I know, but it’s also a helpful reminder of the day.

“Kenzie’s here!!” Okay. Must be Wednesday.

When Covid really hit the U.S. in mid-March, life got wonky for us all. One of my friends has decided it’s actually still March—in this case March 182. You don’t have to look far on the internet, social media, or the national news to be reminded that the last five months have varied widely based on who you are, where you live, your family’s health/wealth, school response, and community impact. Personally, I have friends who have lost their business and were forced to sell their house as a result. I know people who have gotten sick and recovered, as well as several who have contracted the virus and died. However, I also have friends who have received promotions, new jobs, and are in businesses that are thriving as a direct result of the pandemic.

So not only is it logical, but it’s also critical that The Common Application has provided an opportunity for students to respond to a question directly related to Covid-19.

This optional question is accompanied by an FAQ to assist students if they choose to respond:

Community disruptions such as Covid-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Here are three basic tips on how to approach this question/section.

  1. Optional means optional.

You’ve likely heard this statement related to standardized testing this year, but it applies here too.

This is the question you need to ask yourself:

Do I have something additional I want them to know about my last six months in particular that I’ve not been able to express elsewhere?

If the answer is Yes, this section is available to you. If No, click the box and move on.

2. So What Did I Miss?

We use the title “admission reader” intentionally. They read. Think of your application as a story.

Chapter 1- You complete the demographic information, including name, gender, high school, age, family information, etc.

Chapter 2- You provide a transcript and your counselor sends us a school report so we understand your academic background, choices, and performance.

Chapter 3- You tell us on your Activities section what you chose to invest your time in outside the classroom.

Chapter 4- You write an essay and answer short answer questions for colleges to help them hear you and see you— think of writing like coloring in an otherwise black and white outline.

Okay. Are you satisfied? Do you feel like your story has been told? If not, what did you miss (I had I bet with my daughter that I could work in at least three Hamilton references on this blog)?

If there is more to share, you need to determine whether to include that in the “Additional Information” section or in the Covid response piece. Again, that will be dictated based on timing. If what you want a reader to know is acute and was triggered by the pandemic, this question is for you. If the circumstance is more broad and protracted, likely it best fits in the Additional Information section.

3. This is a thing. But it’s not the thing.

Please do not overthink this. We’ve already gotten way too many calls and emails about this question. I’m willing to put money on these two statements at any college around the country:

First, if you put something down that a reader does not think is relevant, they’re just going to move on. It’s not going to hurt you and it’s not going to “keep you from being admitted.”

Second, imagine the most dramatic, gut wrenching, tear jerking, and unbelievable scenario you can describe in 250 words. Even that… yes, even that, is not going to get anyone in. No reader is going to say, “Hey. This kid has been making C’s and D’s since 9th grade, has been expelled three times, and put down “Torments Cats” as their only activity. BUT…check out this Covid response! I really think we should admit them!”

Unfortunately, I was kicked out of the Cub Scouts, so I don’t know a special sign that means “Trust me.” Honestly, I wish someone would develop an emoji that equates to: “I’m not BS’ing you here,” because if I had that, I’d put about nine of them here at the close. In the absence of that, I’ll just trust you are a logical, smart, and reasonable person. I mean you are reading this blog after all, #amirite?

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Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

Listen to “Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges” on Spreaker.

On Monday, I gave the same 30-minute presentation five times. It was a challenge on several levels. First, the technology platform did not allow me to see the participants when I was sharing my screen, which meant no head nods indicating they were tracking with me/still awake. Second, the school placed all students on mute, so unlike in-person sessions, nobody was laughing, “uh-huh-ing,” or asking for clarification along the way. Third, the chat feature was not viewable during the presentation, so I had no idea if students were asking questions, leaving comments, or making snide remarks as I talked. And lastly, it was the same presentation. Five times. For 30 minutes each.

That’s right. I went back-to-back-to-belly (LUNCH) back-to-back talking to my computer screen about “Writing for Colleges.” Brutal. Oh… and did I mention it was a Monday? BRU-TAL!

As I was eating my microwave burrito during the lunch break, I tweaked my presentation a bit– and then I did so again after the fifth  time. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues you need 10,000 hours to become “really good” at something. However, that was the pre-Covid world. Now the standard is presenting on the same topic five times in a three-hour period to an unfeeling, unresponsive computer screen.

Yep. The next time someone asks me to do that, I will be ready. I won’t agree to it, of course (did I mention it was BRU-TAL?), but at least I can now pull some images, stick with a theme of five, and share part of what I talked about with those muted, invisible students on Monday (Monday!).

A few weeks ago, I gave some of our best all-time advice about writing essays. Those blogs speak to who is reading; the fact that there is no perfect essay topic; and how to prepare and approach your essay. If you want philosophy and perspective, read that blog. This is the nitty gritty. NO sugar coating. Do these things or perish.

Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

  1. Answer the freakin’ question. Does this sound as ridiculous to read as it does to write? Well, hopefully your class will get this right and I can leave it off next year’s blog. But I doubt it. Every year, EVERY YEAR, there are students who submit essays and short answer questions that are completely unrelated to the prompt. When your girlfriend’s mom asks what you want for dinner, do you say, “17?” Then why, for the love of all things holy, do you write off-topic college essays? C’mon, man. This is the most basic of basics.

At many colleges and scholarship programs this is commonly the first line in the rubric for grading or scoring your writing, “Does the student answer the question?” Don’t start in a hole. Just because you wrote a paper three weeks ago of the same length for your history class and got an A, does not mean you CTRL+C and paste that thing into your Common App. Answer the freakin’ question.

What’s in that bag? Why did she lick it but not eat it? Your reader is curious. Get to the point.

2. Get to the point. Your first sentence matters. Admission readers start with you. They are naturally curious. They open every application and essay hoping it is good. Your job is to keep them with you.

The first sentence of every paragraph matters. Many readers skim. Don’t you? If you’d been reading 30-50 essays a day for weeks on end, you’d want some punch in the first line too, right? You’d want the first paragraph to have detail and be specific and lead you into the rest of the essay too, right? See, these people aren’t so different from you. Don’t bury the lead or waste a bunch of time and words when you have so few for most of these prompts. Get to the point.

Sometimes we need to look at things from a different perspective to see everything clearly (Do you see the old and young lady here?).

3. Print it out.  Let’s be honest. We’ve all sent a text or an email with a misspelled word or two put words in the wrong order (see what I did there?). Sometimes we look at a computer screen for so long that our writing sounds correct in our heads, because we know what we meant to say.

After your first draft, and again before you submit your application, print out your essays and short answer questions. You will see things, catch things, and improve things as a result. Trust me. Print it out.

 4. Read it aloud. Once you print your essay out, grab your phone. Go to the voice notes app and hit record. Now read your essay and listen to it once or twice. I’m guessing you don’t even make it through the first 150 words without pausing to revise. That’s a good thing.

Keep reading and listening to it until you are satisfied. This is your best simulation of how an admission reader will hear your voice in your writing. Does this sound a little awkward and uncomfortable? I’m sorry. Try presenting the same 30-minute session five times in three hours and we can talk about awkward and uncomfortable. Didn’t we already establish that awkward and uncomfortable are two key steps on the path toward improvement? Read it aloud.

5. Get it done. In most years, over 2/3 of applications are submitted in the last three days before deadlines (and a few thousand in the last couple of hours). It disturbs my wife greatly when I try to think like a 17-year-old. But when I do I’m confident the reason it’s taking so long to submit the application is not because you’re trying to remember your address or whether or not you have a driver’s license. Nope. It’s the essay. This is not an egg. Sitting on it does not make it better. You know what does? Numbers 1-4!

So after you have done those, turn it in and move on with your life. You cannot control exactly how your essay is received. You cannot be assured it will be the best writing they read all year or “the thing” that gets you in, but you can be assured these five tips will make it better.  Not convinced? Try reading this all over again four more times.

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Application Tips for Activities and Leadership

Listen to “Episode 16: Application Tips for Activities and Leadership – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Earlier this week, The Common Application sent out an email indicating 166,948 students have created an account to start the process of applying to college this year.

If you are a senior working on your application, you will find the first few sections go pretty fast, and you quickly arrive at the Activities section. On the surface, this is relatively self-explanatory and the directions provided are clear. In other words, completing it should not be hard or confusing.

However, it is always helpful to get some perspective “from the other side.” I believe that’s particularly true during Covid when many colleges will not be using test scores to make admission decisions and some of the activities you usually participate in have been canceled or modified over the last six months.

What method are they using to evaluate? 

Just like individual high school grading scales, the rubrics colleges use to evaluate this section are not uniform. So, if you are applying to five or seven schools, your application will likely be evaluated on a variety of scales. Same application, same activities, same applicant – different systems. While one college may use a scale of 1-5, another could be out of 10 or 100. Alphabetic evaluations, check marks, +/-, or perhaps even emojis and .gifs could be used. Some schools fold their evaluation of this section into an overall admission decision recommendation without even assigning points or a score.

Who is reading?

People– not robots or algorithms. I’m always amazed that students believe we’re just feeding their applications into some kind of a machine that calculates the number of words you’ve used or hours you’ve reported in this section. Nope. These are actual living humans with families and dogs. They have been living through this quarantine just like you. They understand that life looks really weird right now. They get that your drama production was canceled and the internship you had lined up fell through.

The way colleges will read your activities is not going to change this year. They always make assumptions and inferences-and those always (and I use that word intentionally) lean toward providing you the benefit of the doubt. I believe that will be particularly true this year because my prediction is colleges in general will see applications go down and admit rates go up. Translation: They want and need students who are going to contribute on their campus.

…So What are they looking for?

While the training of staff, the number of committee members, and the flow of an application between admission officers will vary from one college to the next, the fundamental questions they are asking as they review your activity section are the same:

  • What was this student involved with outside the classroom?
  • Is there evidence this student made an investment beyond that involvement?
  • What impact is evident through this student’s investment and involvement?
  • Is there evidence that this student’s involvement, investment, and impact influenced others?

In an effort to help you get inside the mind of the admission committee, and also to receive tangible and actionable tips, I dug through the archives of our blog to find helpful advice we’ve provided over the years.

What: The Nuts and Bolts (Part 2)

When: October 2017

Who: Mary Tipton Woolley,  Senior Associate Director of Admission

Why: Because Mary Tipton answers questions students and families always want to know, including how many files do we read a day and how many people are in the room where it happens. But she also provides sage wisdom in her recommendation to “front” your most significant activities by listing them first.

“Then put the remainder in descending order of importance to you. It could be descending order of time spent, or significance of impact – you know best what will work for you. We discussed the review of activities in our staff training, emphasizing the importance of looking at both pages of activities in our review, but we all confessed we’d missed significant activities because they were at the end of the list.”

You can also apply this concept to your essays and admission or scholarship interviews. Make your most important point quickly. “Hook” the admission officer intentionally by prioritizing what matters most to you.

What: Subtle Leadership

When: October 2019

Who: Dr. Paul Kohn, VP for Enrollment Management

Why: Because this blog, written before any of us could have come up with the word “Covid” in a game of Scrabble, demonstrates the continuity of college admission. The way Dr. Kohn articulates leadership and impact proves my point that admission committees’ review of community involvement has not changed due to Coronavirus (Thanks, boss.).

If we were counting hours invested or the number of words on each line of your application, then sure, you would likely have less to include or describe during this pandemic. But check out his instruction to think about the filter in which you consider your influence, and how that comes across in the Activities or Community Involvement section:

Truly examine your experiences and look for the times you inspired others, demonstrated good decisions, set an example of honesty and integrity, or showed commitment and passion for a goal. Look for moments in which you cooperated with others to achieve an outcome, or you displayed empathy for others.”

Importantly, the questions he enumerates are arguably even more helpful this year than when he originally wrote his blog:

  • Have you demonstrated and preached tolerance of divergent ideas and thoughts?
  • Have you helped a classmate accomplish a goal?
  • Have you helped members of your family through a difficult time?
  • When have you helped others know the path without literally ushering them down it?
  • Have you given a speech or written an op-ed piece about the benefits of voting or contributing to certain causes?

What: Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

When: April 2019

Who: Katie Mattli, Senior Assistant Director of Admission

Why: Because she keeps it simple. Aaron Burr may have rap sung/ sung rap/ the 10 Duel Commandments in Hamilton, but Katie rocks the Three Extra Curricular Tenants here (apologies in advance for my attempt to lyricize her wisdom).

Number 1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive. The challenge demands satisfaction. This is not a reaction. She’s unapologetically repetitive. Simplicity and consistency are her sedative. Don’t write this off as sappy, because it’s true, “’What activities make you happy?’ Do… more of those things!”

Number 2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.  If you are sitting pat, applications fall flat. Don’t concern yourself with what we want to hear. Be sincere. “Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ!” See? “Trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.” Oh, boy. No. Want the bottom line? Fine. Don’t let this cause you strife. “Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.”

And if you didn’t know- now you know.

Number 3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.  “I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.” Hold on a minute. That’s right- “easy and happy are not the same thing.” That line should be on a cover. And that’s why we love her. Because she can cover the basics and make great suggestions. Read her full blog for more insight and guiding questions.

What: Is it OK if I?

When: October 2018

Who: Ashley Brookshire, Regional Director of Admission, West Coast

Why: Because what you do in high school, what you do in college, and what you do throughout life should not be about playing the game or trying to win the approval of others. That box checking, resume padding climb will end up with you looking down/out/over what, exactly?

As we’ve said before, your college admission experience is a foreshadowing of your overall college experience. Don’t miss the important lessons it can teach.

In this piece, Ashley helps you “reverse this idea” and “apply to the colleges that model YOUR interests and values, rather than molding yourself to fit a school.” Now that is a life lesson. You can apply that same thinking to relationships, jobs, and many others decisions. Ashley went to Tech. She worked as a student in our office, and began her career as an admission counselor with us.

She’s since gotten married, moved to California, and had a baby. Lots of changes in her life, but what has not changed is her ability to things down to their essence and help bring out the most salient and important point. In this case:

“Is it ok if I…? Yes. Yes, to however you finish the question, because it is, and will be, okay! You can and should invest your time and energy in the things that feel most beneficial for your personal development and growth, regardless of which college you end up attending.”

What does all of this mean for you? 

Ultimately, your job is to convince the admission committee that you will be missed once you graduate– whether that be by a coach, a club sponsor, a boss, your family, a non-profit in your community, or another group or organization.

I’m confident after reading these excerpts you will have no problem doing that. Enjoy the experience. Take some time after you’ve completed this section to marvel at what you have done—and equally as important what you will inevitably contribute on a college campus.

Bonus Listen: Want more on this topic? Here’s an excellent conversation from CollegeWise to check out.

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Finding REST

This fall we are designating one “quiet day” each month for our staff. Essentially, this means we won’t schedule meetings on those days, and we’re encouraging our team to protect their schedule as much as possible.  While we are not being overly prescriptive, our hope is this will help create margins for people to refresh, plan, catch up, spark creativity, or do something that brings them joy.

Covid-19 is testing everyone physically and emotionally. Between ad nauseam Zoom calls, work/school responsibilities, family obligations, and the underlying stress of navigating life amid a global pandemic, it is critical to not only take good care of ourselves, but also to look for opportunities to serve those around us—family, friends, teammates, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors.

As you head into the school year, and especially if you are also applying to college, you know plenty of work is coming.  You’ll need to be intentional about finding REST.

Read (or watch… or listen)

One of my 2020 resolutions was to read books or magazines on the train ride home each day (no Kindle or other digital content). This daily, scheduled time gave me a chance to avoid screens, decompress, and check out topics that interested me. It was life-giving.

Initially the pandemic sidetracked me because my train time was gone. However, I quickly realized since I was basically homeschooling my kids, I could assign them an hour of reading each day. Bam. Win-win. Solace regained!

Soon you will return to the land of assigned readings. Before school starts and the deadlines and assignments roll in, I encourage you to schedule time each week to check out an author, genre, or topic simply for enjoyment. Whether it be a fiction novel, an article about the controversy surrounding your favorite professional team, a children’s picture book (yes, I’m serious), a research piece only true wonks could appreciate, or a mindless paperback you skipped this summer when the beach trip got canceled, don’t let reading purely for fun/entertainment/curiosity get squeezed out.

Simply cannot bring yourself to read more? Okay, I get it. Find a new podcast, check out a documentary, watch a classic movie, or discover a foreign film. Go off the beaten path. Ask friends, family members, Siri, or random pedestrians for recommendations. Do something different. As a high school student, much of what you are exposed to will be dictated by your classes. Frankly, this is true in college as well. Set a pattern now for exploring beyond the curriculum.

Escape.

Most of us could tell you exactly where we were last Thursday at 2:45 p.m. by glancing at our phone. Routines, calendars, schedules, agendas, and deadlines effectively rule our lives. Understandably, for most of the week this is necessary… but not for all of it.

This fall, especially since it is likely many of your activities will modified, limited, or canceled, I implore you to escape both physically and mentally. Find something that will stimulate your mind and spirit. Do something you’ve long wanted to—or try something random on a whim. Get outside. Learn Irish dancing. Try Frisbee golf. Start photographing scenes in your hometown. Embrace spontaneity.

It is far too easy to fall into patterns and ruts. Fight against the trap of status quo and explore something new and unfamiliar. Find adventure this fall—and regularly in life. You will gain perspective, meet new people, and grow. Aren’t those a few of the reasons you want to go to college in the first place?

Socialize.

Covid-19 is teaching us lessons and forcing us to consider how we have been living, and how we want to live in the future. While going to high school during a global pandemic has plenty of negatives, I’m hopeful it will serve as a focusing point for you too. Don’t miss this opportunity to seriously consider (and perhaps even write down) the activities and classes you are bummed are off/altered, and conversely, those you have not particularly minded being limited or canceled.

Similarly, pay attention to the friends, classmates, co-workers, teammates, and others in your “normal” life that you miss seeing regularly. From a culture standpoint, understanding the role these specific folks play in your life, as well as the type of people who bring out your best, is instructive as you consider where you want to go to college.

More importantly, I hope you will consistently reach out and be proactive in your relationships this fall. Instagram will tell you one story, but reality is always much different. Whether it be your grandmother or your best friend since kindergarten, there has never been a more critical time for people to hear your voice. That’s right. I am asking you to go visit them (socially distanced, of course) or call them, rather than merely send a text.

We all have a role to play in taking care of one another during this time. If you are reading and escaping, your cup will be full, allowing you to pour that good stuff out into the lives of others. What do colleges want? Obviously, in part the answer is successful students. But their long game is to enroll good community members, graduates who will extend the school’s reach by being a positive influence in their company, city, and community. Check in on your people.

Technology.

Last Sunday I gave my wife my phone and told her not to give it back to me until that evening. A day free from texts, emails, social media, and basically anything happening in the bigger world.

It. Was. Glorious.

There is simply too much coming at us on a daily basis right now. Between death counts, family drama, hospitalization rates, neighborhood gossip, political grandstanding, senseless tweets, civil unrest, and the inane comments on social media, we are barraged each day with information, opinions, and indirect or direct pressure.  I encourage you to go on a digital diet. Just like an actual diet, I’m not telling you to cut all carbs or completely eliminate sugar.

However, I know you need to cut back. I know you are going to feel better if you will find even a few waking hours each week to shut off your laptop, phone, Xbox, iPad, or whatever USB rechargeable device you have in your pocket or bag. Black out the Bluetooth. Give Alexa some time off. Unplug and power down consistently each week, so you can power back up and recharge yourself and those around you.

I can guarantee you will have plenty of work this fall. Will you make it a priority to find REST?

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top of the page. We welcome comments and feedback at @gtadmission on Twitter.