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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You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

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Breaking Down the Admission Team: Week 2: Offensive Line

In Fantasy Football, you score with skill positions, like quarterbacks and running backs. But we all know that in order for a player to succeed, he must have a group on the line blocking, working, and grinding every play. They don’t garner the spotlight, the headlines, or the score sheet, but make no mistake, the offensive line is the very heartbeat of the team.

And that is absolutely true of the phenomenal women and men who work in operations around the nation in admission. They don’t stand up on stages and deliver impassioned speeches about the school. They are not usually the ones talking with visitors. Their pictures aren’t prominently displayed on websites or publications. But day in and day out, they are moving the proverbial ball forward.

Back in the Day….

A decade ago or so ago basically all information that came into an admission office was via mail. I distinctly remember mail time. Back then we would literally wait for the truck to pull into the driveway. We’d have letter openers in hand and big tables nearby where we’d open, sort, and file documents for applications. Ultimately, those documents would be placed into folders (think dentist’s offices), and either delivered to counselors’ offices or placed on big sliding shelves in the mail room (think ELF, minus the dancing) for review. When supplementary information would arrive, operations staff would find the file, match the documents, and update the counselor. Besides the physical sorting, there was also a ton of data entry to do, including everything from social security numbers to addresses to test scores.

Fast Forward to Now…

These days schools have converted to reading applications on screens. Applications are submitted online, and transcripts either accompany that submission or come in via another electronic medium. But even now, admission offices are by no means completely paperless. Last year we received about 15,000 hard copy documents, including transcripts, recommendation letters, citizenship documents, school reports and profiles.  We also get a lot of extra information that students (or someone associated with the student) believe will be compelling. These range from projects (think paintings detailing Civil War battles or paper mache volcanoes), to pictures from actors / movie stars / athletes who are recommending students, to attendance records from the 3rd grade, to science reports from middle school.

But the majority of information comes in electronically. Tech works with 14 companies on a regular basis: testing agencies, foreign credit evaluators, application vendors, transcript avenues, etc. Not to mention we had over 6,000 emails last year from students, teachers, and counselors with attachments of documents. So while admission offices nationally may have led to the decline in stock prices for band aids and white out, their work load has not diminished—it’s just the nature of the work and skill sets of these folks has shifted. Big League (too soon?).

What does this mean for you?

I realize we’re getting into the weeds a bit, but this work directly impacts the efficiency and effectiveness in which admission offices operate. Operations folks are the ones who are updating your online checklists, your applications for residency, verifying transcript receipt, and confirming test score accuracy. They spend a lot of time doing quality control—making sure YOUR application contains YOUR grades, recommendations, and test scores, even though each of those may have been sent from a different source. Sound fun? This is what it takes to play on the Offensive Line. I’m telling you, these workers are the epicenter of every admission office in this country.

Any smart quarterback knows that he better take his offensive line out for steaks once a month and buy them some good Christmas gifts or he’s going to end up on the ground a lot more. So here are a few ways you can help yourself as you work with Operations Teams around the country.

Apply First. Test scores are very easy to match to applications. But when students send other things early (whether that be transcripts or immunizations form kindergarten) we don’t really have a mechanism for holding and matching. Think of your application as the cornerstone of a building. Everything is contingent and hooked to that foundation.

One and Done. If your counselor sends a transcript via Naviance or Common App or another electronic company, please don’t also mail, email, fax and carrier pigeon that to us to “be sure we have it.” You are just clogging up the system and adding processing time to your file and others. Schools give processing windows (messages saying it will be 2-3 weeks or 7-10 days before your online checklist will reflect receipt) for a reason. We have not yet found a way to bend the space-time continuum, so trust that timeline, check back, and take action if it’s not been received. We get that you are nervous about deadlines and being complete, but if 30,000 other applicants (and adding in eager parents, make that 90,000 people) are all calling, emailing, and showing up in person, you can understand the inefficiency that creates.

Know Your Name. Be sure you list the same first, last, middle name on your test scores, transcripts, and application. You may not love that your formal name is William, but using that on your application and “Willy B” on your SAT is going to lead to matching nightmares on our end. We find this issue particularly problematic for international students. We will call you whatever you want when you arrive on campus, but let’s keep it formal and official in the application process.

Go Green. Let’s work to save the world one transcript or recommendation letter at a time. If your school or county is not yet sending documents electronically, put pressure on them to rectify that. This is not a vendetta against the US Postal Service but the bottom line is electronic documents are easier to handle, match, upload, process and read.

Shout Out!

One of the very best in the business talking about “all things operations” is David Graves at UGA. Dr. Graves is the Senior Associate Director there and does a phenomenal job talking about things specific to UGA but also applicable info on test scores and tips for working with processing offices within admission. Follow him on Twitter: @drgravesUGA.

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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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Ice Cream is the answer!

If you’ve been reading much surrounding the world of college admission this year, you’ve heard about the report out of Harvard called Turning the Tide. In this report, there is a call for colleges to attempt to minimize the stress in the process by not putting as much emphasis on test scores, redefining achievement and promoting meaningful contributions to the public good, rather than perpetuating the resume padding and gamesmanship that draws such angst and frustration. I am a signee on this report, so I’m not contesting or detracting from its noble intentions or merits. However, I also firmly believe that as long as American universities have single digit admit rates, there will always be frenzy that cannot be solved by asking different essay questions or telling students not to spend thousands of dollars to go on a mission trip. We can “turn the tide” slightly. Colleges can make efforts, many of which are outlined in the report, so that after riding the proverbial waves of the admission cycle you can still see your umbrella and beach blanket, but we’re not talking about bringing six feet waves down to a still pool by any means.  The only place that can happen is at home.

Let me tell you a story. A few weeks ago, I was walking across campus and bumped into Derrick Moore. “D. Mo” as he’s known on campus is the chaplain to our football team, a former NFL player, and one of the most passionate, inspirational, gracious people you will ever meet. If you’ve not seen one of his pre-game speeches on YouTube, you have unknowingly been leading an incomplete life. His messages typically surround the concept of being “all in” and fully committed to the team, believing in yourself, and family. When you hear these, you know he believes them with every fiber of his being.

d moAnd what I’ve come to appreciate about Derrick is he lives these messages every day at home with his wife and daughters. Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of watching him navigate the admission process twice now with his girls. His older is in college and another is a high school senior.

On the day we saw each other recently, he said it was ironic because that night his daughter would be finding out if she’d been admitted to her top choice school. He told me she’d been deferred in EA and had been understandably dismayed, but thankfully he explained, she also had a few other acceptances to some great universities. I asked him how he was doing and how she was feeling about everything.

He kind of shook his head and looked down, shuffled his feet a little and said, “Man, Rick. I’m nervous. I’m really nervous. She really wants to get into this school. It’s her first choice, and we are really hoping it’s going to work out.”

Then he looked up and said with striking confidence and conviction, “But here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going down to practice now to be with the team. Then I’ll leave a little early and stop by the store. I’m picking up some of my favorite ice cream and some of hers. Then we’ll sit down around our table, open up her laptop, and check her admission decision as a family. And I’ll tell you what– if she gets in, we’re going high five, hug, dig into that ice cream and enjoy every spoonful. But if she doesn’t get admitted, there are going to be some tears. Some tears from her and some from me and my wife too because we just love her so much. Then we’re going to eat our ice cream, give each other some big hugs, and then cry a little more. But tomorrow morning we’ll get up and we’ll get really excited about her going to X College, because it’s a great school and she loved her visit there.”

Behold the power of ice cream. It’s like the duct tape of foods. It repairs, it reinforces, it supports, it covers up, and it endures. Big break up– ice cream. Stressed about an exam– ice cream. Pregnant (not in high school. This is an illustration of ice cream’s longevity as a cure all) — ice cream. Celebrating a raise or a new house or a retirement— ice cream is the answer! In fact, when people tell me they don’t believe in God, I lean not on theology but rather on– ice cream. They quickly point to our current political climate to refute the existence of a higher loving deity. I pause, eat ice cream, and renew my faith. And frankly, in that moment with D. Mo, I also realized it’s also the way to best navigate the admission process. From searching for a college to applying to dealing with admission decisions to ultimately choosing a college– ice cream. Because ultimately it’s just love in a frozen state.

ice creamDo colleges have a responsibility to attempt to de-stress the process, to be more transparent, to think deeply about how to make applying to school more simple? Yes, of course. But the way students will feel good about their options at the point of application; the way they’ll process and deal with denials and admits with a healthy perspective; and the way they’ll best make a final decision does not hinge on semantics in an application or on a college’s website, but rather on a family sitting together around their kitchen table with spoons enjoying the same tub of ice cream. Unified, confident, committed to support and excitement, regardless of the outcome. That doesn’t turn the tide, it eradicates it altogether.

May 1 is nearly upon us. I’m sure there are still a lot of you who are coming down to the wire on deciding the best school for you and your family. What makes financial sense? Where will I thrive, grow, enjoy, be challenged and succeed? Before you make that decision, I point you to ice cream. When you grab your spoon remember this– you are not walking on a tight rope. This choice is like strolling on a very wide, smooth promenade. At the end of the day, the decision you make on where to go to college is not going to determine the rest of your life, contrary to what someone has inevitably told you or what the press will often purport. Instead, it will be the decisions you make in college: the grades you make, the internships you pursue, the network of friends, professors, advisors you create. Those will dictate your trajectory, your success, and your options, and ultimately your contentment in college and life beyond.

Whether you are a parent or a student reading this, it’s time to commit. It’s time to be all in. It’s time for family. And that means it’s time for ice cream! So donate or burn the other schools’ t-shirts, recycle all the literature colleges have sent you, go grab a few spoons and crack open a tub of your favorite ice cream with your family this week—and notice how smooth the waters are around you.