Straight Talk

I don’t love the title either. What can I say?

I was talking to a Tech grad recently who managed a major hedge fund in New York and is now a multi-millionaire living on a golf course in one of Atlanta’s nicest neighborhoods. After we concluded our conversation, I eavesdropped on his next conversation (told you it was a life skill) with a graduating senior majoring in business. It started in a typical fashion about big firms and the importance of graduate school versus practical experience. But then it got really interesting:

Student: “I’m about to start with X firm (big, famous, super competitive) next week.  I’m excited about the salary and my apartment, but I’m worried I’m not going to have any work/life balance.”

Alum: “You’re not. Well, at least not if you want to keep getting promoted. The rest of the guys there are going to be all in. 70 hours is expected and that’s a slow week.”

It was blunt, but it was honest. And while the kid looked a little dazed at first, I think he also appreciated it–or at least he recognized it as true, and ultimately as a decision he’d have to make.Georgia

Last week I got back on the recruiting beat for Tech. On Monday, I hit Rome and on Wednesday, Athens (Georgia that is… we also have Cairo and Bethlehem for those scoring at home). Either during or after our presentations, an inevitable question is: “Should I take an AP class or a dual enrollment class at a college in my area?” Another version: “Is it better to take IB or AP?” Or perhaps: “Should I take the fourth year of Spanish or another science course?” The beauty of my job is I can simply respond, “it depends” and then walk away. But I don’t… or at least I haven’t yet.

It Depends…

It’s true though… it does depend. Are you applying to a school with a 50%+ admit rate (and be reminded that would be the vast majority of colleges in the country) where they publish an academic formula for how they make decisions? Well, if that’s the case, then no, it does not really matter. Do what you want to do. You will know before you apply if you’re going to get in or not, because they’ve published their standards online. If you are having problems doing the math of the formula they use to calculate whether you’ll be admitted, i.e. SAT + GPA = X, then I’d suggest you consider donating your application fee to a charity instead.

If you’re asking because you are legitimately concerned about which is the better foundation or preparation for college, then choose the one which most aligns with your intended major or future aspirations.

But if the question is about “getting in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 2000+), then the clear answer is take the tougher class and make an A in it. Which one is harder? You know better than I do. Be honest with yourself about it. Is the reason you want to go take English at the college down the road because your high school’s English teacher is known to be really tough? Well, then you’re ducking rigor–and that’s not going to fly in Yale’s admission process. Is the reason you want to take Spanish really because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester?  Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class.

The competition is real.

Don’t misunderstand me. I want kids to be kids too. I wish we could go back to the 70’s, and not only because of the sweet clothes. It would be great to re-visit a time when students could pay tuition by working a part-time job, and getting into your state’s flagship was merely a matter of graduating from high school. But that’s not where we are.  Application numbers at the most prestigious schools continue to go up. These places are not growing substantially in enrollment, so their admit rates continually decline. The competition is real. You will hear college reps on panels talk about holistic admission and looking at the entire person. We’ve all signed on to the Turning the Tide report. We are not lying. We do want kids on our campuses who will genuinely care about others, positively influence their local community, and play integral roles in their family. But at these places the baseline competitive applicant is so high both academics and outside passions and impact are possible.Which One

The Next Level

Think about something in your community: band, soccer, chess, debate. There are levels of those activities, right? The truly elite young soccer players are committing their time to academies and clubs. They’re playing year round and spending their weekends traveling, doing skills sessions, watching film. If you want to make the team next year, you keep on pushing; you keep on lifting weights or running on your own; you keep on going to camps in the summer. Yes, those are sacrifices. No, there is not a lot of balance. But that’s what being in the top 1-5% of soccer players around the country requires now.

The same is true of highly selective colleges and universities. The applicants getting accepted have chosen rigor. They have piled on academic courses, in addition to all of the other things they’re doing outside the classroom.

Don’t interpret this as my endorsement of overloading academics or any pleasure in exacerbating the situation.  I can poke holes all day in the methodology of the rankings or point fingers at people in certain communities who insist on their kids applying to a very specific subset of schools.  But that is not the question at hand.  Similarly, I don’t think my Tech alumnus friend was saying, “Forget your family and work all the time.” He was saying in that climate, and in that field, and in that city, you’re not going to have work/life balance if you want to be the most successful.

Let me bottom line this for you: the most elite schools are going to continue to admit the students who have pushed and stretched and challenged themselves the most in high school. “But Jerry Rice and Brett Favre came from lesser known schools and were NFL superstars.” “What about the kids in the small remote village who never hears the gospel?” “I read about a kid who got into Harvard who had some Cs and low test scores.” Okay, sure, But we are talking about YOU. If you are “that student” at the session asking an uber-selective college if you should take one course over another, save your query to ask about whether the vegetables are locally sourced.

Still don’t love the title, but it is accurate.

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Magical Mystery Tour

“It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile”

The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Those famed lyrics would never have been penned had John Lennon and Paul McCartney not met in Liverpool, England 60 years ago last week on July 6. And from the moment they joined forces until now, The Beatles have never gone out of style.The Beatles

If you caught any news last Thursday, you likely heard this story. 60 years! Yes, that is a long time, but it’s also a fairly random number. We don’t celebrate many things at 60. 25, 50, 100, sure. But only the things that really, really matter are celebrated at 60. And the fateful meeting of these two teenagers is something worth celebrating, because together they helped change the course of modern music.

In brief, the story is that John Lennon’s band, the Quarry Men, were playing a gig at a local church garden party (in other words small venue, small crowd, small reach). Paul McCartney accompanied a friend and was struck by John’s style and improvisation of the song ‘Come Go With Me.’

Paul hung around that day to listen. And later, when he had a chance to show off his chops on the guitar, he played several brand new rock n’ roll songs from the US, including Eddie Cochran’s ‘Twenty-Flight Rock.’ Unlike John, he not only knew all the lyrics, but also nailed all of the chords to this difficult tune. Later that night he also demonstrated great skill on the piano.

Here is where it gets interesting: John, who was the lead vocalist and leader of the group, initially debated whether or not to invite Paul to join the band, because McCartney was such a strong musician. But ultimately he took the risk of sharing the stage with someone so talented, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And your point?

Well, thanks for asking. It’s actually two-fold for seniors heading off to college this fall:

1. Like John, you need to open up. There is ALWAYS going to be someone better than you. Someone faster, smarter, more talented, better looking, more innovative or more capable. If you have not already experienced that, you are either an extremely big fish in a small pond, fatally flawed in your self-perception, or hanging around the wrong people.

When you get to college the number in that next-level category grows infinitely. I sincerely hope that instead of being unsettled or intimidated, you will proactively seek them out. Surround yourself with them, study with them, hang out with them, or invite them to grab a meal or go on a road trip. John Lennon had panache. He was talented and confident. He was a leader. But his Quarry Men band mates all played second fiddle (actually second guitar, but you get my point).

Had he stuck with that crew, he may never have left the Liverpool circuit. Ultimately, what made him great was putting an infinitely more gifted musician on stage with him so his gifts of improvisation, creativity, and flare could be fully realized.

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

The Beatles, ‘Nowhere Man’

2. Like Paul you need to show up. Without Paul’s curiosity, desire to hear great music, and proactive ask to be included, the meeting– and the Beatles—would have never happened. He stuck around. By all accounts, John was somewhat intimidating. And he was a year older than McCartney, which at 15 and 16 can be a big deal. But he believed in himself enough to try to work his way in.  He could have just listened and left, but he recognized an opportunity. So he picked a really tough, brand new song that had not been fully released in the UK and then demonstrated his skill on two totally different instruments. He essentially asked to be included then showed why he should be.

At its core, this is a paradoxical lesson in humility and greatness. In order to truly become great, in order to really become world-class, in order to truly become unique, both of them demonstrated humility, and that launched them toward greatness. (Yes, yes. I know what ultimately happened to The Beatles and this relationship, but for now let’s focus on the early years. Maybe a later blog about transfer on their break-up.)

Humility and Greatness

One of the biggest mistakes smart students make in their freshman year is not asking for help. Most come to Tech, and schools like us, having never needed to. They were the ones tutoring others in high school. They were the ones friends, neighbors, classmates came to for help. They were, if you will, the lead guitarist.The Beatles

I am not a big fan of the college rankings, because I think too many people use them to initially create their college lists or lean too heavily on them when ultimately choosing a school. Many will insist there is a consequential difference between number 11 and number 19. Based on experience and rankings methodology, I would vehemently contest that opinion. However, one thing you can be assured is identical between them– they are going to challenge you academically. You will be stretched and pushed due to the rigor of the course load, your inherent desire to do well, and the quality of professors you meet.

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
 But now these days are gone and I’m not so self-assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind, I’ve opened up the doors

The Beatles, ‘Help

HELP!

Ask for it early. Ask for it often. Even if you see or visit the tutoring centers on your orientation tour this summer, go back in the first week and introduce yourself to the people who work there. Once you get your schedule, hold time each week to study and put the location down as their office. Bookmark their website, make their homepage your mouse pad. You get my point. No matter where you are going to school, there are going to be other students in your residence hall, classes, labs, sororities, clubs, and teams who can help your creativity and other talents come to life. They can help lift your proverbial voice. But like John, you need to open yourself up to those relationships. Like Paul, you need to show up and embrace their complementary talents, so they can sharpen you– and vice versa.

The real tragedy, whether it be in sports, academics, music, business, clubs, community or any other venture, is when you shut down or close off due to a lack the humility or willingness to risk not looking like THE absolute best, because the truth is that only assures you of never becoming YOUR absolute best.

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But… what do colleges prefer?

This week we welcome our Regional Director of Admission for the West Coast, Ashley Brookshire, to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

It’s a question I hear often – mostly from families at college fairs who are frantically trying to absorb every available nugget of information available to them in the tight time frame of the event: “But… what do colleges prefer?”Georgia Tech

“My daughter has the opportunity to take classes at our local community college this summer or do an internship – which one do colleges prefer?”

“My son is thinking about going on a mission trip or finding a job for the summer – which one is better?”

“I can either stay with band or debate for my senior year, but not both. What should I do?”

Students, and parents, are hoping for a concrete answer – a guaranteed road map to get in to the college of their choice. If an admission counselor says it, then it must be truth, and should be followed to a “t” (trust me, we wish we had that kind of all-knowing power!). But if you’re reading this in hopes of gaining a paint-by-numbers insight into the college admission process, I’m afraid you’re going to be terribly disappointed.

The better question to ask is “why do we ask students to supply an activity record with their application?” Is it to count the number of hours you spent volunteering at a local hospital? Do we tally the number of times you were elected into an officer position for a club at school? No, on both counts. We are looking at three things: your experiences, the talents you possess, and the skill sets that you’ve developed throughout your high school career. These three items help us gauge your fit and potential impact on our campus.

Experiences

Your experiences inform your beliefs, passions, and ambitions, and ultimately, this is what we want you to bring to our community. What types of opportunities did you opt into (or in some cases, stumble into by chance) and how did they differ from your initial expectations? Have you stepped into a club, trip, or commitment that was outside of your comfort zone?

The beauty of a college campus is its ability to offer a more robust list of experiences than most high schools can provide. What experiences are you bringing to the table? I’m not just talking about the stamps in your passport. When we look at your application, we want to see the behaviors that make you open to experience life with new people, places, and activities.

Talents

A talent is an innate ability to do something, whereas a skill set is learned and developed. Many of the families I speak with seem to focus on talents, but in the admission process, skills sets are equally as insightful (more on that in a moment).

I haven’t been a powerful force in a music classroom since learning to play the recorder in 5th grade. I can appreciate that some people have inherent abilities that I do not. If you have talent in art, music, dance, athletics, or public speaking, then you’re likely drawn to these types of activities.

What students usually overlook is that you determine how your talents are utilized and ultimately captured on your application. Are you part of a club, company, or team that allows you to hone your craft? Have you created opportunities for others to engage in this activity? From an admission perspective, we’re not looking to fill a class of individuals who were born with special talents. We are looking for students who are motivated to share their unique talents in impactful ways.

Skill Sets

Skills, on the other hand, are developed. They are practiced, trained, and learned. These can be hard skills (programming, marketing, or painting) or soft skills (networking, time management, perseverance). Sometimes students apply so much effort to developing a skill set that it appears as a natural talent to others, leaving them unaware of the work going on behind the scenes.

The skills you’ve cultivated by balancing your time outside of the classroom and working with others will make you a powerful member during the many group projects you’ll work on in college. Enrolling in a summer academic program or college course will sharpen your academic prowess and allow you to accelerate your coursework in college. The leadership skills you’ve gained as a club officer at your high school will embolden you to step into pivotal roles in one of the hundreds of organizations that contribute to our campus culture. As a volunteer, you’ve stayed mindful of those around you and connected more personally to your community.

All of these experiences, talents, and skills bring positive value to a college campus, yet all cannot be pursued at the same time. Even in the summer, there are a limited number of hours in the day.

The Answer

So, back to the original question: “which (insert activity here) do colleges prefer?” We prefer that you use your time intentionally in whichever way you feel best engages your interests, utilizes your talents, and allows you to grow as an individual. These are the types of students who will join a college community and thrive both inside and outside the classroom.

At the end of the day, we want to enroll a well-rounded freshman class. This is quite different than every student in our class being well-rounded. It means that, as a whole, our class is filled with philanthropists and athletes, musicians and researchers, leaders and employees, and their collective experiences, talents, and skills create dynamic, thought-provoking interactions on our campus.

But before you schedule every free moment of your summer, remember: summer should bring reprieve with it. Enjoy the additional time in your day – days are longer and summer doesn’t normally hold the same time commitments as the school year. Take a deep breath, celebrate your achievements over the course of the last year, and catch up on that book or tv series that you set aside during the school year. After all, senior year and college application season is just around the corner.

Ashley Brookshire is an Atlanta native and Georgia Tech alumna who has worked in college admission for nearly a decade. Ashley serves as Georgia Tech’s Regional Director of Admission for the West Coast, making her home in Southern California. She’s been a California resident for more than 5 years and is a member of the Regional Admission Counselors of California.

 

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Do Something New

Keeping it simple. Sort of…

My wife and I had a one-present Christmas, as in, one gift only to exchange. “Let’s keep it simple.” But while one present should be easy, it also adds some pressure. Do you go functional? Something she’s asked for to show I am listening? Or is that predictable and boring? Should I give her an experience (show tickets or a night away)?

In the end, I gave her a jacket. On the surface, that may sound lame. But this is not just any jacket. It’s the Patagonia Houdini, the best low weight, versatile jacket on the market. I’ll not delve into all of the virtues and attributes of the jacket, but message me if you want more testimony.

If you always do what you've always doneOn Christmas Day, after our kids ripped through their gifts like small, wild animals, I looked for her gift in anticipation. What would she choose? And what would that say about our relationship? This was particularly intriguing because rather than a big box or a new bike in the driveway (shoot!), there was a small envelope. “Tell me this is not a gift card!” was all that was going through my head. I know she’s got more creativity than that. I mean, gift cards are an uncle’s gift, c’mon.

I opened the envelope and read curiously. I was definitely surprised. Does this mean she loves me or hates me?  It was in fact a gift card… from her Yoga studio, a class called “Yoga for the stiff guy.” Six weeks to cover the basics of positions, poses, props, etc.

A Humbling Experience

I’m not going to lie to you. The first class was humbling. I think the instructor was pretty easy on us. I hung in there overall, but just when I started feeling more confident, she’d say something I could not even reconcile, like “Now, move your belly towards your thigh.” Wait, what? Balance, breathing, Bhakti. I was just trying to comprehend the language and instructions. At times I could sense her eyes scanning the room, and inevitably they’d land on me.  I’ve learned that “You may want to modify that”  is Yoga-speak for “you’re not ready for this.” And even when I thought I had mastered some poses, I’d hear “Oh no. Much, much wider.” Okay. Watch your much’s–one will do.

I was challenged.  I was humbled. But it has also helped me think more about my posture, my breathing, my core strength, and a general awareness of my body. I still don’t know how to bring my belly to my thigh, but I figure that comes in the latter part of the six weeks.

Incredibly Different

So as we launch into 2017, I’ve decided she gave me the perfect gift, because it’s such a divergence. So incredibly different. A nudge to grow and stretch (literally in this case).  Here are three reasons I hope you’ll also get out there and do something different in 2017.When was the last time you did something for the first time

1- You will see new places.

No matter where you live, your community focuses on a few colleges or universities. As a culture we get very myopic, especially among the most academically talented students, and focus on an incredibly small set of schools. I want to challenge you to at least visit, apply, and strongly consider attending a college nobody in your family went to, or a place nobody in last year’s senior class decided to attend. Not saying you need to actually attend, but do go see it. I guarantee you will learn, grow, and benefit from the experience.  The courage to explore…the desire to try something completely new and different, will lead you to places you’d otherwise never experience.

2- You will need to process. 

At some point in the college admission process, you will likely be deferred, denied, waitlisted, or receive a financial aid package that makes it impractical for you to attend a certain school. You will likely see someone “get in” or even get a scholarship when you do not believe it is right or fair.  This is called a “process.” But you need to remember it’s a verb too. Process things. Grow from your thoughts and your experiences. To do that you will need to clear your head and get perspective. Do something different. New music, new road trip, different type of podcast or book or movie. If you do this, you will grow. You will change. You will be preparing yourself in ways no AP or IB course ever could for what it means to really be ready for college.

3- You will challenge and ultimately make others around you better. Do you know someone who is always picking up a new hobby or listening to a new artist or reading something you’ve never heard of? If you don’t, go find someone like that. I have a friend who is a DJ, a Taekwondo master, and an airplane pilot. Another friend is a pediatrician who in the last few years has built box gardens, picked up the guitar, BMX racing, and is emerging as an accomplished storyteller in Portland. When I listen to these guys talk about their curiosity, lessons learned, and the people they meet and know, it’s inspiring. It makes me want to expand my knowledge, my skills, and my worldview.

Push, Stretch, and Be Challenged

At the end of the day, that’s what college should be about, right? To be surrounded by people who will push you, stretch you, and challenge you to be better, to be smarter, to explore and experiment and consider things that you have not to this point. It’s easy to list school size or location or cost or other highly quantifiable traits. But as you pick schools to visit, apply to, and ultimately attend, these are the types of communities that you should be listening for in talking to students, faculty, and alumni.

I’m currently reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. It’s the story of a 66-year old mother of 11 and grandmother to 23 who in 1955 left her Ohio farm with a pair of Keds and a hand-sewn bag to become the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It’s remarkable because after a lifetime of intensely hard work, a marriage riddled with physical and mental abuse, and years of pouring her life into raising a family, she walks into the woods. Her experiences inspired our nation. And many say her reports from the trail “saved the Appalachian Trail.” We all need those outlets that give us vision beyond the immediate. I’m urging you to try something new and different this spring. Namaste.

By the Way…

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College Admission Essays: I’ve heard that one before…

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes and key messages. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all. My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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