Beyond the Numbers: Digging Deeper in Your College Search

Listen to “Episode 23: Beyond the Numbers: Digging Deeper in Your College Search – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My parents are foils of one another. Introvert vs. extrovert, mountains vs. beach, butter on everything vs. butter only in coffee (I never said they were normal). Their preferences vary in weather, food, colors, sports—and that is just scratching the surface.

Perhaps the area in which they are most diametrically opposed is politics. My mom is an unabashed liberal and my dad is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  As a kid, my sister and I were acutely aware (and frequently entertained) by these divergent political leanings and opinions. In fact, we found great humor in listening to them comment and quibble about every story covered on the evening news (a thing people used to do in the 80s).

An advantage to growing up in a home like mine is it taught me not to accept any one opinion as absolute truth, but rather to think for myself and seek additional information and perspectives. It also reinforces the need to question any number, percentage, or statistic, because while one of my parents would criticize a candidate’s 43% approval rating as “suppressed due to skewed polling,” the other and would complain it was “laughably generous.”

So, with both the election and admission season upon us, I hope you’ll embrace these critical lessons from the Clark household.

Never take any number at face value.    Numbers

Admission people aren’t dishonest, but I admit we’ll always put a rosy spin on numbers. We omit the ones that don’t make our school look good and find various ways to frame those that, if displayed differently, may not look as favorable. You should read our numbers the way we read your application: holistically. Dig deeper and seek context.

College Costs. You would think this would be a number you could take at face value… and if you think that, you’re wrong. In many cases, the price is not really the price. Remember, you can’t trust the numbers, so lean instead into the letters. Say what?

Take the time to understand how your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is calculated. That will  lead you to the learn more about the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid), and potentially CSS Profile. The truth is many people do not ultimately pay the price you see on the college brochure or university website. In fact, it’s common that your COA (cost of attendance, which includes tuition, housing, meal plan, other fees) will not be the same amount to attend the same college during the same timeframe as a classmate/teammate/roommate. What the…?! Told you not to trust the numbers.

Dig Deeper. I just gave you a bunch of acronyms and links above, so start there. Then look into Net Price Calculators (NPC). Before you apply to any college, you and your family should plug in your most accurate financial information to determine the approximate cost you will pay based on your specific circumstances. Doing this will facilitate a robust and honest conversation about affordability, loans, working during college, or financial conditions and expectations.

  • Don’t rule out a school based on their published price.
  • Do talk to your counselor, contact college financial aid representatives, speak with current college students, and even venture into some dark recesses of the interwebs to piece together a more complete picture of financial aid packages at the schools you’re considering.
  • Don’t expect to receive a financial aid package and exclaim, “That’s incredibly generous. What are we going to do with all of our unspent savings?” Could happen but you’d definitely be the exception rather than the rule.

Beyond the Numbers: Evaluating Rankings.  

Not a fan (But again you need to think for yourself here). I’ve written about the questionable methodology of these before. Just like you would expect a college to view your GPA broadly, accounting for your high school, grade trends, rigor of curriculum, and other circumstances, I am imploring you not to draw firm lines in the sand (or in an Excel document as it were).

Every year we hear stories from students who say they were discouraged from applying to schools ranked below number 25; or decided only to apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school from which they received on offer of admission. No!

Dig Deeper. Do your homework. Understand the methodology and ask yourself if you agree with how these rankings are determined. Consider questions like:

  • Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)? The fact that these rely at all upon surveys is preposterous. Surveys?!
  • Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
  • Knowing that the rankings makers (think Seneca Crane) are under pressure to sell more ad space for vitamins and Audis, am I really going to choose to apply or attend a school based on this year’s number?

Others numbers I want to strongly encourage you to to dig into and not accept at face value: graduation rates, retention rates, test score bands, admit rates.

Perspective Comment
Perspective is critical. Ask lots of different people YOUR questions to gain confidence in your decisions.

Seek multiple perspectives.

Think about your own high school or hometown. If you only talk to the science department, the mayor, the basketball coach, or someone who moved away 10 years ago, you will get a very narrow take on what makes your school or town interesting, terrible, unique, or completely broken. Ask all of them and you can begin to see a fuller and more balanced picture.

The same is true for the colleges you are considering. Don’t take any one person’s opinion as gospel truth. I am the Director of Admission at Georgia Tech, but I am not the expert on all things Georgia Tech. And the same is true for any alum, tour guide, advisor, or current student. They have their perspective and lived experience, which is valuable, informative, and instructive on some level. But what is really relevant for you?

Your job is to listen closely to a variety of opinions and perspectives, so you can identify themes, trends, and the real culture or community. Be honest about what you really want or need to know, and then be proactive and diligent about asking YOUR specific questions.

Think for yourself. Dare to think for yourself

If you remember nothing else from this blog, please keep in mind this fundamental truth about the college search and admission experience—it is YOURS.  YOU are ultimately the one who will be going, regardless of how many times you may hear a parent say, “We are looking at UC-Davis,” or “Our ACT was canceled last month.”

The next time you hear a friend or teacher say, “You should go to X College” or “You need to consider Y University (Go Y’ers!),” thank them for their suggestions. Continually value and solicit the advice, opinions, excitement, and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, and others. However, don’t lose sight of your real goal and true success, which is not getting into a particular college (something completely outside of your control), but rather feeling confident about why you are applying to and ultimately choosing to attend a particular university.

Moving Forward

I hope you’ll apply these critical lessons in your college admission experience (and life in general): 1) never take any one number at face value, 2) seek multiple perspectives, and 3) think for yourself. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly in an election season, I’ve come to appreciate another lesson my parents always modeled—you can vehemently disagree with someone and still love and respect them.

The college admission experience is a pre-cursor to the actual college experience. I hope you’ll consider that last lesson as a key part of your preparation for your next four years and the years well beyond.

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The Basics of College Admission: Part 2

Because our family does not watch a lot of TV, my kids are fascinated by commercials. I’m not necessarily proud to admit they quote these regularly and pause to listen attentively when the Geico gecko speaks or the Audi logo flashes on the screen.

While I could not tell you who is currently promoting specific brands, or sing any popular jingles, I do appreciate their ability to emphasize words in order to highlight the quality of their product. Cereal companies seem particularly adept in this arena.

CerealIn fact, I’m giving serious thought to utilizing some of these phrases at our next board meeting. “This class is bursting with talent.” “They are simply chockful of future entrepreneurs, innovators, and change agents.” “Packed with students from around our state, nation, and the world, you won’t believe how much better you’ll feel after meeting them.” Then I’ll do that perfect slow pour of milk that bounces off the flakes just enough to entice your appetite without spattering on the table. Incredible!

Actually, since we are on Zoom this year, I’ll probably just stick to a few bullet points and infographics with the board. But this blog is a different story. I hope you are hungry and have a big spoon because these three are filled with nutrients to sustain you through your admission experience. Part II of The Basics of College Admission– It’s burst-pack-chock-O-licious!

Standardized Testing and Test Score Optional

Mary Tipton Woolley (Senior Associate Director) discusses how standardized testing factors into admission decisions, as well as what students should consider this year with so many colleges either test optional or test blind.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Standardized Testing & Test Score Optional-Sr. Associate Director, Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Listen for the “signals” schools will send you on the extent to which tests are or are not part of their admission decisions. Ask schools directly about their specific policies and what is going to “replace” testing in their process. An AP score or SAT subject test is never going to be the thing that gets you in or keeps you out.

Listen For: Optional means optional! (It’s not code for spend a lot of time, money, or heartache try to schedule a test during a global pandemic).

Key Quote: “Test scores really play an outsized role in the minds of families.” (Close second: “After asynchronous and pivot, ‘weird’ is my favorite word of 2020.”)

Further Reading: Fair Test and NACAC Dean’s Statement

Early Action/Early Decision & All Things Decision Plans

Ashley Brookshire (West Coast Admission Director) provides key tips for students and families about the alphabet soup of decisions plans, including EA, REA, ED, and more. She provides insight into the college admission timeline and how students can determine which admission decision plan is right for them.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Early Action/Early Decision & All Things Decision Plans – Ashley Brookshire” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Go to the source by seeking out each school’s website, decision plan description, and other requirements. Get organized and know your options. Use your resources (ex: school counselor and family). Apply when you are ready for your application to be reviewed. Never take one number at face value.

Listen For: Beware the traffic jam of applications.

Key Quote: “If you are assuming a decision plan is going to greatly increase your likelihood of being admitted, that is certainly a misconception!”

Further Reading:  Tulane Admission Blog by Jeff Schiffman, Common Data Set.

GPA, Rigor of Curriculum, aka All Things Grades

Laura Simmons (Director of Non-Degree Programs) takes on this behemoth of a subject in order to help students understand what admission readers are looking for when they review transcripts/GPA, grading scales, grade trends, course choice, and how they read/what they’re discussing in committee.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: GPA, Rigor of Curriculum, aka. all things grades- Laura Brown Simmons” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Study your transcript the way an admission counselor would. Be on the lookout for terms like holistic, selective, etc. to get a sense of the expectations a college will have for grades and course choice. Context is everything—you or your school should help colleges understand how Covid-19 has altered and impacted your academic experience. (For more on this check out our blog/podcast about the “Covid question” on the Common Application.)

Listen For: 20,000 transcripts in the last four years! (Translation: She’s an expert.)

Key Quote: “NOTHING predicts success in college like success in high school.”

Further Reading:  UGA Admission Blog by David Graves

Stay hungry, my friends, because we will be releasing new episodes each week throughout October. You can fill your bowl and feast anytime by subscribing and listening on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

Upcoming episodes include:

  • Extracurricular activities (Impact, Involvement, and Influence)
  • Special Circumstances/ Additional Information
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Interviews

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

Five Important Lessons from Covid-19

Listen to “Episode 21: Important Lessons from Covid-19 – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Stay at home orders in March, and the phased re-entry we have experienced since, has given us plenty of time to be with family members. If you are like me, this has been both beautiful and challenging. I’ve frequently found myself simultaneously thinking, “I love you,” and “Wow. I need some space.”

In our house, proximity and time have led to some healthy conversations and important debates on issues ranging from politics to healthcare to fashion to sports. Most of these exchanges have led to either a greater understanding of one another or a willingness to respectfully disagree.

Six months into quarantine, one major topic remains unresolved: PG-13 movies. We have a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. In my mind, it’s easy to round up for our son. My thinking is I’d rather be there for exposure to references, specific words, or other content. While my wife does not totally disagree with that mentality, our daughter is her sticking point.

“How are you possibly rounding up from nine? You can’t even do that by decades.”

Point taken. Honestly, my problem is more with the lack of consistency in the ratings system. First, 80’s movies rated PG would definitely be Rated R today (although I’m not broaching that because it would reduce our options by about 25%). Second, The Hunger Games is PG-13. Who is in charge here?

Ferris BuellerThankfully, she has relented on a few must see PG-13 films, including Blind Side, Black Panther, Hamilton, and The Avengers.  One I came across the other night was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Colorful language, stealing a car, lying to parents, skipping school, and tormenting the principal? No point even watching the trailer.

However, I did share a key quote from the opening scene with my kids: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Covid has pushed pause on an increasingly frenetic world. If you are a high school student, I hope you will take a page out of Ferris’ book—STOP. Look around. And don’t miss these five important lessons:

Consider what you do and don’t miss.

If summer baseball was canceled and you have been having dreams about curveballs and sacrifice flies, pay attention to that. When the things we truly love are taken away, we ache for them. Is there a class this fall not meeting in person and you are bummed about it? That is likely a sign of a subject you have a true affinity for versus one you’ve been told is important or one you should like/take.

Conversely, what are you relieved to get out of? Our daughter was over half way to her black belt in Taekwondo when Covid hit. Last Sunday I was helping her clean out her closet. I stepped away for a few minutes and when I came back she had discreetly wedged her uniform in the Goodwill bag between some dresses and pants.

What is your taekwondo? What have you been on the hamster wheel with and are now realizing is not really your thing? Pay attention to both sides of the coin academically, extra-curricularly, and relationally, because these are critical signposts as you consider which colleges and cultures best fit your personality, goals, and interests.

Control what you can control.

You can order from your favorite restaurant, you just can’t eat inside. You can go to the park but you won’t be able to sit on the benches. While experiencing limitations or being reminded we don’t control everything in life is never a fun lesson, it is good preparation for your admission experience. Students often feel like the admission process “happens to them.” Much is made in the press and school communities about who doesn’t get in or didn’t receive a specific scholarship.

As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that three-fourths of the experience is up to you. You choose where to apply. Then we choose whom to admit. After that, the ball is back in your court as you receive multiple offers and choose where you attend. And the one often left out, but arguably most important: You choose to maximize the resources and network your college offers. In this regard, I think Covid has been a good primer for college admission (and life well beyond). I am hopeful that perspective, relative importance, self-confidence, and personal agency will triumph over the fleeting disappointment of one or two closed doors.

Things change. You adapt.

Before you get up from reading this blog, take some time to appreciate all you have adjusted to over the last six months (six months!). You have demonstrated phenomenal resilience. Nobody would have chosen this situation. Any adult will tell you how sorry they are that your high school experience has been truncated or altered because of the pandemic.

And yet…and yet… you are here. You haven’t lost sight of your goals. You are undeterred. You are resolute. You are building powerful, lifelong muscles of adaptability, resilience, and vision of the future that will provide critical strength and skills as a college applicant, a college student, and well into life after graduation.

Money Matters.

This spring and summer colleges received more appeals and petitions for re-evaluation of financial aid packages than ever before. Covid has served as a harsh reminder of just how fast stocks can drop, markets can shift, and entire sectors can take brutal economic hits. The bottom line is your college list should not only have a range of academic profiles and selectivity levels, but also account for affordability.  While this is not a perfect proxy, I encourage you to strongly consider applying to at least one in-state public university and/or community college.

Before you submit an application be sure to initiate a conversation with your family about: a) their ability/willingness to pay for your college education, b) any limitations or conditions they have about the type of school they will or won’t pay for, c) their expectations of your contributions financially, including loans, jobs during college, etc.  This blog expounds on those topics and important questions.

It’s Not Over.

At the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the credits begin to roll after he again says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” But then there are actually two more brief scenes. If history is any indicator, we will not see another global pandemic in our lifetime. This time pause was hit for you. I hope you won’t miss the critical lessons above. But most importantly, I hope you will make a practice out of stopping and looking around. If Covid has taught us nothing else, it is that life is precious. Don’t miss it!

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

The Basics of College Admission

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Fit

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

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

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

Listen For: Legacy lurk.

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

Further Reading: Cappex and Big Future

Campus/Virtual Visits

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: YouVisit and Inside HigherEd

General Application Tips

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

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

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

Listen For: Underwater karate against sharks.

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

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

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

Upcoming episodes include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Optional means optional.

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

This is the question you need to ask yourself:

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

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

2. So What Did I Miss? So what did I miss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. This is a thing. But it’s not the thing. You're overthinking again

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

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

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

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

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