3 Ways to Spread Cheer in College Admission

With a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, we have many things in our house. Family consensus, however, is rarely one.

The variety of opinions between the four of us is comical at times. At times. Mostly it’s maddening. From seemingly simple decisions of what/where to eat to the conservatorship of Britney Spears, on nearly a daily basis, there are adamant divergent perspectives about music, sports, and what constitutes important or urgent.

The subject that garners the most consternation, however, is movies. Typically, two of us agree, and we can coerce one other to concede. But getting the fourth? Oh baby! It’s like the backroom machinations or public theater of moving Congressional legislation: name calling, bribery, blackmail, horse trading, posturing, grandstanding… and that’s all just from my wife.

Thankfully, at this time of year, there is a movie that we not only all agree on but are actually jointly excited to watch…ELF. You knew that was coming, right?! Who doesn’t love ELF? If that’s you, feel free to unsubscribe. If you haven’t seen this modern classic, do yourself a favor and check it out today.

Naturally, we still have some disagreement surrounding this movie, but it’s more about when to watch. My daughter contends it should be the first movie of the holiday season, while I advocate for it to be last. Typically, this means it is the one movie we watch twice in December. We also each have different favorite scenes: “Mailroom,” “Snowball fight,” “Unmasking Santa,” and the bathroom rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are our four.

The movie also contains fantastic lines that each of us quote during December and periodically throughout the year:

“Santa!! I know him.”

“He’s an angry elf!”

“Congratulations! The world’s best cup of coffee!”

“Make work your favorite. Work’s your new favorite.” (You can probably guess who says that one and when in our house).

Regardless of your favorite scene/line in ELF, I think we can all agree that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” The truth is we could all use more cheer in our lives in general, and in college admission, particularly this year, cheer sounds pretty good right about now.

So, if you are a high school senior, here are three easy ways to spread admissions cheer:

  1. Make Celebrating Your New Favorite. When you into a college, whether or not it is your absolute top choice, your job is to celebrate. If you find yourself saying, “Yea. Well, I figured I’d get in there,” or “I’m in. But it’s my backup,” or it’s “just the University of X,” then you are doing this wrong. Wrong I say! Naughty list. C’mon, man. You put in the time, effort, thought, and money to apply to each college. When they come back with an admit, you are obligated to smile. What?! You don’t remember signing that agreement on the Common App? Trust me. It was there.

People call these offers of admission. Forget that. It’s an invitation- an amazing opportunity- and another choice you get to make! Amazing. What human doesn’t want invitations, options, and choices? Congratulations! Celebrate every win. Go to dinner, buy yourself something. You do you. But promise me you’ll celebrate. Spread that cheer, people.

2. Move the “Clausometer.” As we discussed recently, the college admission experience, if done right, is a chance to learn, grow, discover, and mature. But did you know it can also make you a better friend? That’s correct. For no additional charge, college admission can actually improve your relationships with classmates, teammates, and peers. I don’t know what’s happening with you right now. Maybe you have been admitted Early Decision and are excited, happy, and at peace. Maybe you were deferred or denied by a school where you were really hoping to be admitted—or likely somewhere in between. Not to get all Papa Elf on you, but… that’s life.

When things are going well and you are excited about your momentum and successes, it’s easy to forget to celebrate the wins and successes of others. Conversely, whether it be disappointment or lack of contentment with your job, relationships, finances, influence, etc., we can miss the opportunity to lift our friends up and come around them in their winning moments. “The best way to spread admission cheer, is to sing loud for all to hear.” Who in your life is fired up about an admit they recently received? What can you do to celebrate that? Be a good friend. Sing it with me—Loud for all to hear!

3. Celebrate that “Someone Special!” It is hard work being a teacher, a counselor, a coach, etc. Getting into college is an excuse to give them some love. My hope is that every time you get admitted you will be reminded that you did not get there alone. Somebody drove you to school and practice. Somebody taught and coached you. Somebody paid for stuff (technical term) and made big sacrifices along the way on your behalf. You are great! Of course. But you have been made great by a collective effort and consistent investment. The support that amplified your talent and potential.

Take the time this month to look around and “sing” thank you. A sibling, parent, teacher, coach, relative, or a manager…or all of the above. This is not text time, friends. I’m going to challenge you to step it up here and go to them in person. Imagine the joy and excitement you’ll be able to share together if you walk in, high five/fist bump/hug them and acknowledge that they are a big reason for the opportunities you have now. Let’s get ELF-ish here and sing this one with some real gusto.

Happy Holidays!

Fittingly, this makes the 23rd blog of 2023! I am deeply appreciative for you taking the time to read, consider, share… and SING! Enjoy time with your friends and family this season. I sincerely hope you will rest, relax, and be reminded of what is really important. You are bound for amazing things in 2024. Looking forward to being part of that. Much love and Happy Holidays, friends.

College Admission: 3 Messages You Need to Hear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dismissed! 

 

 

College Application Submission, 3 Final Checks

I fly a lot. Not “consultant a lot” or “pilot a lot,” but monthly or multi-monthly for sure. Over time I’ve gotten pretty good about tuning out the safety video that precedes take off. Recently, however, I saw one that caught my attention. Instead of a flight attendant walking down the aisle of a plane or vested and scarved employees’ predictably demonstrating seat belt tightening techniques, this one took place in a theater with ushers, a stage, and an entirely different context for how to discuss the same topics. It caught my attention. I watched the entire production. And, for the first time ever, confirmed I actually had a flotation device below my seat.   

It’s October. You may have picked up on that based on the cooler weather, the preponderance of pumpkins, and possibly… just possibly Christmas music playing in a shop. Do I think they should be fined? YES. Is that what this blog is about? NO. Do I think Christmas is the global warming of Holidays? YES. Do I understand even mentioning global warming may be a way to lose readership/followers/applicants? YES. Do I care? NO. 

Anyhoo… it’s October. This is a huge application submission month, since many colleges have EA (Early Action) and ED (Early Decision) deadlines on or around October 15 and November 1. Over the years, I have come to understand and appreciate through writing books and blogs that we all want some security, comfort, and peace in knowing that we are done and ready to hit submit, aka to “take off.”

So, if you are a senior who is logging in multiple times to your Common Application to be sure everything is saved; if you find yourself going down YouTube rabbit holes about “essays that worked;” or if you find yourself obsessively re-ordering your Activities list, here is your pre-flight safety video, aka pre-submission final checklist, designed to give you some solace and confirmation that you are set and clear.

Final Checks

  1. Look over your entire application. Flight attendants walk the whole plane checking to be sure seats are in their upright position, tray tables are locked, and all bags are stowed securely under the seat in front of you (Told you… multi-monthly). You should be disturbed and disconcerted if they only check first class or shrug their shoulders disinterestedly if an overhead bin is open with a 30 lb. dumbbell teetering on the edge.  

My point? Too many students obsess about their essay, but they do not have anyone read their entire application for them. Do this! Have a parent, a friend, or another supporting adult you trust “walk the entire plane.” The question they should be asking is “What is missing?” We established last time that while super form-y, the application is actually YOUR STORY. So have them look for what details or interesting parts of the plot, or instrumental character development is either absent, buried, or needs to be revisited.  

After you receive feedback and make your edits, convert your entire application to a .pdf. and both save it and print it out. First, this is how colleges see your application- in .pdf format. And it does look different from how you see it on the screen. Second, you will inevitably see something in that different view which will help you make final adjustments. And third, having a saved .pdf on file will provide you additional solace, and possible back up, if there are issues or questions later. I’ve seen this be a huge benefit to students for a variety of reasons in the past.

2. Sleep on it. I’m guessing you have sent hurried texts, snaps, or emails in the past to the wrong person, or having left out word (see what I did there?), or with an illogical .gif (not going to debate pronunciation).  

Before you submit your app, I want you to take at least 1 day-and ideally two- away from working on it. A final look with fresh eyes and hopefully some good rest in between will help you catch mistakes, make valuable edits, or be confident that you’ve said what you want to. You want a well- rested, fresh- eyed pilot flying your plane, right?

Don’t be “that guy” who calls asking about time zones on November 1. Technology fails, credit cards don’t go through, and sending anything in around 11:59 p.m. just sounds like an all around bad idea. We’re trying to fly a plane here, people. Let’s be professional.

3. Confirm your destination. Recently, I was on a plane that was still parked at the gate. The pilot announced over the PA, “We are set for an on-time departure. The weather looks good the entire way up to Detroit. If you don’t want to go to Detroit, now is the time to deboard.” It was humorous, and seemingly ridiculous given all the ID and boarding pass checks it now takes to get onto a plane, but apparently those mistakes still happen.  

Before you hit submit, ask yourself if you would go to each of the schools you are applying to. Does that sound as dumb to read as it does to write? Do it anyway! Every year kids with high grades, tough classes, and good test scores, apply to schools where when they get in, they ultimately say, “They admitted me, but I was never really interested in going there.” So, look your list over. If you are on the plane to Detroit and you do not want to go there, please get off. Don’t waste their time or your money. You should be excited and sincerely interested in every school on your list! 

This is your captain speaking… 

After you have gone through these final checks, my hope is you will feel confident and excited, rather than nervous or anxious about getting airborne (i.e., hitting submit). And once you do, sit back, relax, and enjoy your senior year. You only get one, and it’s not worth wasting unnecessarily by expending energy worrying about things you cannot control that may or may not be happening in committee rooms hundreds of miles away. Instead, commit yourself to being a positive influence and a meaningful contributor in the rooms you walk into each day- your living room, classroom, etc.   

Fly well, my friends!  

 

The College Application is NOT a Form. It’s YOUR STORY!

Over the years, I have tried to shine a light on what people often misunderstand in the college admission experience. This has ranged from explorations of waitlists to examinations of deadlines to explications of supply and demand and institutional missions. (I’m sure if I thought hard enough I could come up with other verbs starting with ex and how admission issues are connected.)

Recently, I have also come to appreciate the massive disconnect between how students approach and complete the application and how it is actually read in admission offices.

Students see the application as a form. And I get that because it starts the same way most forms begin- asking for biographic information like name, address, family details, date of birth, etc. It also looks a lot like other forms they have seen in high school— job or driver’s license applications, sport and club registrations, and so on.

Report your test scores, tell us which high school you attend, etc. It’s definitely form-y. Even after the standard details, college applications include sections with lots of lines and boxes that ask you to provide details about what you have done outside the classroom. These are extremely prescriptive in their character counts and instructions. Form-ish for sure. On the Common Application, which I’m guessing if you are a senior you are using for at least a few of the schools you are considering, you need to quantify exactly how many hours a week and weeks per year that you have worked, played sports, volunteered, etc.

So, yea, when you log into an online platform and begin entering and saving information, this all seems like a standard and basic form. But the truth is that at schools using holistic review where essays and supplemental responses are required, once you hit submit, the person on the other side is not “reviewing” your form. They are reading YOUR STORY.

Think about it. Colleges post jobs for “application readers.” There are videos about reading season. And you’ll inevitably receive email bounce backs from schools in the winter that basically say, “Yea. Not going to reply anytime soon— I’m READING.”

If you view the application as a story, it will change the entire way you approach applying to college. And it will greatly reduce some of the stress you feel along the way. Win-Win.

Telling a story is an opportunity. Completing a form is a task. When you login to your applications this fall, I’m hopeful you will think about conveying rather than completing. You are not “working” on your application, which is what most students say. Instead, you are simply telling your story. Poll 100 people and ask them to list the Top 10 things they do for fun. “Complete forms”—not on the list. Telling, reading, watching stories, however. Different…well…story. Similarly, when you finish, you are not “submitting.” Forms get submitted. Sending in your story, on the other hand, is exciting. It is something you can and should take pride in. And if you will let it, it may even be the F word– FUN.

Stories are read. Forms are processed. Holistic admission is human. People with their own kids, hopes, worries, DNA, Instagram, and food preferences read your application. If you think of your application as a story, it changes how you approach this. Think about it. Nobody buys and opens a book hoping it sucks. Nobody pays $17 to go to a movie and another $24 for popcorn, candy, and a coke in anticipation of a boring or lackluster experience. Instead, as people, we always start with the desire to see something good. So that is your job on the application. That is your job with your story. Tell them what is interesting about you. Give them a full sense of your character- what interests you, what excites you, what do you hope for, and how have you arrived at this point. The same way authors and directors create compelling characters in their movies, novels, or video games.

If you look at your application this way, it will help you know where to start on your Activities section. It will help you figure out what you WANT to write about in your essay. Not what you SHOULD or what they want to hear, but what you genuinely NEED them to know about you as a fully developed character, aka applicant.

Stories are fully reviewed before publishing. We just published a book on college admission, so I can tell you that typing the last word or page does not mean you are done. Instead, there are multiple phases of review. In the editing process, we had to go back over each chapter, each piece of data, and each table, figure, and image to confirm, check, and verify. We also had an outside editor read over the entire book to provide insight and feedback.

In my experience, students are apt to have a parent, counselor, coach, teacher, or another trusted adult or friend read their essays and perhaps their supplemental responses. In other words, they do ask for feedback on what they have written. BUT most students do not have anyone read the way admission readers do- from beginning to end. So, before you hit enter and send up your prayers for stable technology and a kind soul on the other side of the interwebs, have at least one other human read your entire application from beginning to end.

Ask them to write down what they think you have left out. Have you undersold something you’ve been investing in at home, school, or in your community? Give them the chance to relay how your story reads and if there is any opportunity they see to provide more context, information, or insight into who you are, what you have accomplished, and how you would likely contribute and enhance a college campus.

Peace

One of the reasons students struggle to ultimately send in their applications is because they know that letting go means signing up for weeks or even months of uncertainty. I’ve been there friends, so I get it. Not easy. However, my hope is that changing your perspective from completing and submitting a form to sharing your story will help. Ultimately, when you are sitting in class or driving home from school wondering what is happening in some distant office or committee room, you will not dread the review of your form, but instead be excited for someone to read your authentic and unique story. (Trust me- I try to think this way every time I post one of these blogs.)

Ultimately, you can’t control if a school you apply to gets 4000 more apps this year and their admit rate drops as a result. You cannot control if a college decides that they are going to reduce the number of students they admit and enroll from your state or in your major this year. But you can control how you tell your story; think like an admission reader; review and seek feedback on your entire application; and choose peace and confidence.

TELL YOUR STORY. AND ENJOY DOING IT!

Let’s Get A Few Things Straight (about College Admission)

There has been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about how much has changed in college admission.

Maybe….

But just like during and following the pandemic, much remains constant. So, let’s get a few things straight.

College Admission is Not Fair. I know some groups may claim to have brought this about with the proverbial wave of a wand or banging of a gavel, but the truth is that no system or process is (or ever will be) fair or perfect. Humans run processes. Humans are imperfect, flawed, and operate in a broken world.

Do not confuse quantitative measures with fairness. I remember when Georgia Tech operated on a purely formulaic basis. We recalculated GPAs so that everyone had a max GPA of 4.0. We did not consider the rigor of the high school, performance of past graduates, or a student’s grade trends. We considered Honors, Magnet, Gifted, AP, IB, Dual Enrollment to all be rigorous and each received an extra .5 bump- again with a max GPA of 4. We effectively “let out the slack” from the top until we had admitted the number of students we needed based on historic yield models.

I’m guessing many of you are already poking holes in how FUBAR this model is– and can likely channel some of the complaints and questions we’d get…

I have all APs and my classmate only took honors level. You’re weighting that the same?

But I had all As in a full IB diploma program and my “friend” only took general courses. Are you telling me that we both end up with a max 4.0?

I made a 1300 on one take with no outside help. My neighbor made a 1200 the first time and then after thousands of dollars in private tutoring ended up with a 1350. That’s going to be the difference? He’s got lower grades than me!!

At the time, I was not the director, but my name was on admission letters for students whose last name started with A-C.  As a result, even though I did not agree with how we were making decisions, I was left to defend them.

One of the most memorable cases was a girl in North Georgia who was the valedictorian of her high school. She had taken the toughest classes, made the highest grades, and accomplished all of this while juggling a 25-hour a week job at a local restaurant to help support her family. She was not admitted because her SAT score was 10 points below our threshold that year– 10 points. Meanwhile, we admitted three other kids from that school who had slightly lower grades, less rigorous courses, and less impact on their community, etc. Fair? Hell no. In fact, I can still remember talking to her mom on the phone and having to suppress my own frustration.

Over the years, we have continued to evolve our file review process to make it more contextual and holistic. Academically, we look closely at grade trends, course choice, rigor, high school history, etc. We do not draw hard lines on test scores and we use macro data to help understand student testing context.

And, of course, a great deal of time is spent in committee looking at a student’s involvement, impact, and influence. Still, I’d be the first to say that neither our process, nor any other college’s in the world, is perfectly fair– it’s not possible or designed to be. Instead it’s designed to be comprehensive and thorough, but fair….NO.

There has been a lot of talk lately about checkboxes on applications. Here is one you won’t see on an application but you need to mentally agree to:

“By submitting this application, I understand I may not agree with the decision I receive, the timeline on which I receive that information, or the rationale I get for why the decision was made.”

Mission Drives Admission. Think of your high school. It exists for a purpose. Maybe it’s a public school and is located to intentionally serve kids from your part of the city or county. Maybe you attend a private or religious school. Again, it was founded for a reason and is attempting to attract and enroll students and families centered on that mission. Companies, community centers, organizations… they all have a mission and are making decisions geared toward moving that forward.

As a public school, Georgia Tech’s goal is to enroll 60% of our undergraduates from our state. This means we prioritize Georgians in our entire process. We attend more recruiting events in Georgia than out of state; we set deadlines earlier for our residents, and inform GA applicants of their decisions ahead of non-residents. Tuition is much lower for Georgia kids and our admit rate is three to four times higher for Georgia students than it is for non-Peach staters.

In an attempt to enroll students from all across our state, we have programs like the Georgia Tech Scholars Program for valedictorians and salutatorians. Are there cases where the number three (or thirteen) student at one school is as strong as the salutatorian from another… and yet decisions vary? Yes. Is the average SAT/ACT from out of state/country higher than it is for Georgia students? Yes. Is mission driving admission? Y.E.S.

A college you apply to may be trying to grow a particular major. That is going to influence their admission decisions. Another school is looking to enroll more students (or less) from your region of the country or nation. That will have an impact.

The truth is you are not always going to know these things. What you do know that is institutional missions – not your particular test, GPA, number of APs, or selected essay topic- drives admission.

What does all of this mean for you? 

1- Apply to a balanced list of colleges. If your current college list only includes schools with admit rates under 20%, you need to re-think. Applying to more schools with single digit admit rates does not increase your odds of being admitted to one of them. That’s just not how it works.

2- Celebrate your wins. Every time you receive an offer of admission, you need to pause, celebrate, reflect on your hard work, and thank the people around you who’ve made that possible, i.e. friends, family, teachers, counselors, coaches, and so on. As always, hug your mama!

3- Control what you can control. Admission is not fair. And mission drives admission. You cannot control where you get in or how much money they offer you in financial aid. You can control how you receive and process admission decisions. These are not value judgments or predictions of future success. Don’t over index.

You can control how  you treat people around you. You cannot control the decisions made in admissions offices you’ll never enter, but you can control the decisions you make in the rooms you enter everyday– your living room, classroom, etc. I hope you’ll make that your mission. Fair?