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

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What I Do and Do Not Know…

Listen to “Episode 11: What I Do & Do Not Know – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Georgia Tech Admission Staff Webinar Meeting
“Dress up/formal” staff meeting theme

Each of the last seven Wednesdays at 2:45 p.m., we’ve held a full-staff meeting. While smaller teams are also meeting at other points, this is our weekly chance to all be “together.” As our time sheltering in place has lengthened, and reports and articles of other universities around the country issuing furloughs or discussing re-entry timelines proliferate, I’ve found it increasingly important to begin each meeting by laying out what I do and do not know. The latter is way longer most weeks.

When it comes to how COVID-19 will impact our work in the months ahead, however, the story is far more balanced.

What I DON’T know

In April and early May, admission deans and directors around the country get a lot of questions from their faculty, staff, alumni, and administrators such as, “How are the numbers looking?” or “Are we on target for next year?” Normally thousands of visitors are touring campus, neighbors’ or friends’ kids are weighing college options, and they’re seeing social media posts and online articles about high school seniors graduating and heading off to various colleges.

In most years by this point I have a great sense of how August will look. In fact, we often host a Cinco De Mayo gathering for our campus partners to thank them for their assistance and tell them about the incoming class in terms of size, demographics, geographic and curricular make-up, academic quality, along with a few interesting anecdotes from students’ essays.

This year is different. This year there are many uncertainties about what the months ahead hold, and the only honest answer to “How are the numbers looking?” or “Are we on target for next year?” is simply “I do not know.” Granted, no admission dean is that succinct, so those four words are quickly followed by some combination of “ifs,” “assumings,” or “hopefullys” in the subsequent sentences.

Here are a few of the key predictive metrics enrollment managers and their data gurus typically watch in late spring:

  • comparisons with historical trends.
  • the number of pending offers of admission.
  • the number of students canceling their applications to go elsewhere.
  • the number of students who attended a campus visit or information session.
  • open rates on emails and interactions online or via phone with staff.
  • the number of students registered for orientation and applying for housing.
  • the number of students who completed all financial aid documents and viewed their aid package online.

These indicators, in combination with a variety of other factors, help determine the number of waitlist offers to make, as well as how many deposited students will melt (or choose to go elsewhere) over the summer.

The basic math of college admission:

Admitted students/ Total applications = Admit rate

Deposited students/ Admitted students = Yield rate

100- (Enrolled students/ Deposited students) = Melt rate

Right now there are simply too many unknowns to accurately predict the final class size. So, “how are the numbers looking?” and “Are we on target for next year?”

Great questions. Any chance you could help me answer these?

  • Is the economy going to rebound, and to what extent?
  • Will US embassies and consulates again be issuing student visas so international students can study in America in the fall?
  • Will in-person instruction be permitted and/or advisable from a public health standpoint?
  • How open will travel be around the United States?
  • How comfortable will families be sending their kids 10s, 100s, or 1,000s of miles away from home?
  • How many students will opt for a deferment term or gap year? 

Other things I’ve recently learned I don’t know:

  • How to braid hair.
  • “New math.”
  • How to separate plastic vegetable bags at the grocery store while wearing gloves and a mask.
  • The neighbors directly across the street.

I wish I had more answers for my own staff, administration, and family. I wish I could tell my friend whose daughter is supposed to leave for college in August whether that university will be on campus for in-person instruction. The truth, however, is I do not know.

What I DO know

When we discuss and attempt to predict the “further future” of how juniors will be evaluated in the admission process in the year ahead, I feel a lot more confident.

Q: How will you evaluate GPA and grades when students may only have pass/fail grades or partial term grading for the spring semester?

A: We will do what we always have done:  look at the high school they attend, what courses they had access to (course availability), which courses they took (course selection, e.g. academic rigor), and how they did in those classes (course performance, e.g. GPA). We will not look at all high schools uniformly, but rather take the time to understand context, including how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted that community, school, and student.

We’ll also review grade trends. In other words, how did they do in 9th, 10th, and the first part of 11th grade, and perhaps also ask for a mid-term report in the senior year, especially for applicants in EA/ED rounds. Lastly, we will use historical information from classes from previous years to see how similar students from that high school have fared on our campus. No students from that high school previously? Not a problem. In fact, we are always excited to receive apps from schools we’ve not in the past. Again, we will look comprehensively at all of the factors outlined above.

Q: How are you going to evaluate extra-curricular involvement since students had seasons, performances, or elections canceled in the junior spring?

A: Holistically, and with benefit of the doubt. I know everyone says how important the junior year is and I’m not taking away from that. But again, we know what you had planned. We know what you already participated in and what you have accomplished. We’ll do what we do every year—we’ll make assumptions and inferences, which always (and I use that word intentionally) lean toward benefiting you. Here is how that will sound in admission committee: “She was on the soccer team but they did not get to play most of the season. She also plays club soccer and summer tournaments and camps were canceled. Looks like she’s listing her intent to play again in her senior year.” Translation: They’re reviewing your file as if all of that actually happened. Always, to your benefit.

Q: What about testing if administrations continue to be canceled? How will colleges review tests administered at home or those of a different format/length?

A: The test score optional movement gains momentum every day. In recent weeks, you’ve seen many public and private colleges around the country introduce either pilot plans for the year ahead or permanent policies within admission review that do not require standardized testing. A full list of nearly 1,200 colleges and universities can be found here. I highly recommend this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education from my colleague Jon Boeckenstadt from Oregon State University, a long-time champion of test-optional admission policies. College Admission Standardized Tests

For those colleges who continue to require standardized testing they will need to be very clear about their policies and considerations surrounding testing prior to or after Spring 2020.  As a prospective student, you will have to wait and watch this summer for indications from the colleges you are considering.

If you already have a test score that falls into a college’s middle 50% range (whether they are test score optional or not), I recommend sending those as an indicator of interest. In addition to registering for one of their information sessions or accessing their virtual tours, this helps them identify and communicate with you as a student who is serious about applying and potentially enrolling.

Other things I know:

  • I REALLY need a haircut.
  • Colleges need students now more than ever.
  • Hybrid models, including synchronous and asynchronous, are being developed. This will allow some schools to grow their enrollment and create more access/seats.
  • While highlights and re-runs of games are entertaining initially, they only make you long for live sports to return.
  • I appreciate you reading and hope you have a great week. Don’t miss this opportunity at home to tell the people in your house how much you love them and appreciate them.
  • Grace, forgiveness, patience, benefit of the doubt, and love need to rule the day during this time (and by this time, I mean ALWAYS).

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What is taking so long?

Listen to “How Are College Admission Applications Reviewed? Episode 3: Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.
Every parent develops their own strategy for how to fend off the inevitable question kids ask on road trips: “When will we get there?”

Early on, I decided the best way to help a toddler understand distance was to use the rear view mirror.

“Okay, if this is our house,” I’d say while pointing to the far-left corner of the mirror, “and this is grandma’s house,” moving my hand to the far-right side of the glass, “then we are here.” Inevitably, “here” was about an inch away from where we had started- and that was being generous.

Last week my kids had Winter Break. On Tuesday, we headed to North Carolina to see my wife’s family. Inevitably, about an hour into the drive, Elizabeth (9) asks, “Where are we, dad?”

I started to explain the county we were in and what it was known for. She was uninterested and interrupted me to ask more clearly, “No, I mean on the mirror.” Wow. What started as an age- appropriate tactic seems to have turned into a barrier to gaining knowledge about geography and state history. Since I had worked all day and did not have it in me to protest, I simply pointed about quarter of the way down the mirror.

“That’s it? What is taking so long?!” About 40 responses went through my head in under three seconds, including trucks, construction, idiotic drivers, Atlanta rush hour traffic, and a number of expletive-laden opinions about population growth, city planning, urban sprawl, and more. Rather than utter these, I simply took a deep breath, shook my head quickly back and forth, and turned up the music. My wife was unimpressed.

I’m not sure what Elizabeth did after that, because I left the music up for the next half hour. But I started to think about her question: “What is taking so long?” Our culture has created an expectation of immediacy. We order a coffee, pay, slide down the counter and pick it up. Drive thru lanes are optimized, pictures can be printed at home or are ready for pick up immediately. We expect same day pick up for car repair, dry cleaning, or prescription refills. Actually, all of that requires actual effort. How about 1-click online Amazon orders that appear at our door often within hours?

A Road Trip Through the Admission Process   

When you apply to college, especially one that receives far more applications than they have seats available and uses a holistic and layered admission review, waiting is inevitable. If I were you, I’d definitely be asking, “What is taking so long?!” Don’t worry. I’m not just going to sigh and tune you out. Read on.

The application leaves home:

You hit submit. Now what?

Merging lanes:

At this point, the college matches supporting documents to your application in their database. Supporting documents includes everything from transcripts to letters of recommendation to test scores. The take home message is they’re ensuring your file is complete so they can begin their review.

If it is incomplete, your admission portal will show exactly what you are missing and you will start getting emails/texts/calls/owls about that. (By the way, if you are a senior reading this blog and not checking your email, stop reading this blog and go check your email!)

Carpool:

At this point, it depends on the system or style of application review a school has decided to use, but generally speaking the person who visits your school or is in charge of recruiting your city or state will be the one initially responsible for reading your application. At many colleges, file review begins once it’s complete, while others wait until all applications for that round have been received. Seeing all applications from a particular high school allows counselors to understand how your grades, rigor, trends compare to your peers in the applicant pool.

For example, one student receives a 91 in AP World History. That school adds 7 points of “weight” to all AP grades. While an admission officer would already know the A range extends from 90-107 based on the school profile and transcript, reading all applicants from a particular high school in the same day allows them to also see applicants who may have 102s or 104s. What does this mean for you?

  • Holistic review is both individual and comparative, rather than simply formulaic.
  • In a weighted system, two students can both have “4.0s” that look very different (in this example, 17 points).
  • This does not mean the student with the 104 is automatically getting in. Again, holistic means holistic. The entire goal of these processes is to gain and keep perspective, rather than to draw hard lines or apply a purely academic formula.

In some cases, initial review is conducted by a single individual. That counselor reads your application in its entirety, makes an admission decision recommendation and passes it along to another team member (often one slightly more experienced/senior on the team). Think about this as checks and balances. Schools want to be sure multiple people read your file and have a chance to offer their opinion on your candidacy for admission.

In other cases, schools employ Committee Based Evaluation or Team Based Review. The concept here is a simultaneous and synchronous review. Two team members read your application at the same time. One will evaluate you from a purely academic standpoint by reviewing transcripts, testing, and teacher and counselor recommendations. They take a deep dive into your course choice, grade trends, and how you have performed within your school’s context. The second reader tries to understand how you’ve used your time outside the classroom, as well as the impact and influence you’ve had on others through working, clubs, sports, or other pursuits. That staffer also reads your essays, short answer responses, and, depending on the college, may also read recommendations.  Each staff member makes individual recommendations based on their evaluation. They could both agree to admit or deny, or there could be a split decision.

Traffic Jam:

“Are we there yet?”

No! We are still only mid-mirror.

“But the driver and passenger both agree to head a certain direction.”

True. However, there are other cars on the highway, so now most files sit for a while.

“What does a while mean?”

You know how your Waze App has varying levels of red for traffic? Yea. Kind of like that. Sometimes it’s a dark pink, and often the time just keeps adding up.

“Why?”

Because admission decisions at selective institutions (those invariably using holistic review) are both individual and collective. Students are evaluated based not only on their performance in their school setting, and the other students in their high school (see example above), but also in comparison to the entire applicant pool.

Now counselors move on to that work. They begin reading other applications from schools, cities, or states they are responsible for, and they also help the rest of the team complete their first round of review.

As an example, if a college receives 20,000 applications in their Regular Decision round and has on average 10 pairs of people reading 50 applications a day, five days a week, it would take eight weeks to complete the first round of review. But you know life (and road trips) are never going to be that simple. There are holidays, sick days (for staff or their own children), as well as other recruitment responsibilities. Throw in some technology challenges, a fire alarm triggered by someone microwaving fish in tinfoil, and a good old snow day or two and you’re easily pushing 10 weeks.

“Why don’t you just hire more staff?”

Please call me on a secure line.

Recalculating….recalculating….

Next, schools move into “committee review,” or “cohort review,” or “class shaping.” Deans, directors, and VPs provide additional direction about institutional priorities and empower larger groups of staff to review applications on both an individual and comparative basis. Typically, in this phase discussions are informed by specific targets. Do we have enough admits from certain counties, states, or nations? How are particular majors doing in terms of their specific enrollment targets? Geography, academic major, ROTC, special talents, first generation, financial need, demonstrated interest may all come into play. Some or all of these student attributes, and potentially many more, are discussed as applications move through the committee review stage.  If faculty engage in the admission process, this is a logical time frame in which they’ll be consulted or asked to weigh in on student fit to their programs or the institution overall.

At some colleges, all files are reviewed again in committee, while at others only those who had a split decision in the first round enter this phase of review. Many colleges make admission offers to applicants about starting their academic career on a different campus, abroad, or in an earlier or later semester than the one for which they initially applied, which means committees are also attempting to hit targets for those institutional needs.

How long does this take? Well, that depends on the number of applications, the number of staff, and how bad flu is that year, but it usually takes several weeks. These are often tough and complex decisions that involve more people in the room weighing a series of macro factors and goals.

Re-routing:

We are almost to the far-right side of the mirror. Decision release day is approaching. Your calendar is marked and so is ours. Everyone is nervous. At this point, deans and directors are consulting with their data analysts to gauge their mathematical models for “yield” (the number of admitted students who actually choose to enroll).

Let’s say a college has a yield rate of 34% (this is actually quite common nationally). The dean knows her president, board, and faculty are counting on a class of 1,400. The current number of admits after committee is 5,000, which would result in a class of 1,700 students. The dean knows about 100 of the students who deposit do not ultimately enroll (this is known as “melt”). With residence halls and dining halls built for 1,400 new students, she is over by 200.

Accounting for yield and melt, a small group of senior-level admission folks take on the unenviable task of further reducing the number of admits (in our example by about 600+ students). This pushes previously slated admits to the waitlist, and as a result has a cascading effect on both the number and percentage of students who end up with that particular decision.

Owner’s Manual:

Every road trip and car system varies. I’ve tried to provide a general overview of how colleges review applications. If you want the full details of the operating system from a school you’re considering, check their website or consult one of their admission counselors. As an example, Georgia Tech made a video to illustrate our process.

Buckle Up! Inspirational picture describing the open road

I’m sorry this process takes so long (I’m also sorry this blog is so long). I don’t like to wait either. In fact, I don’t think I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know what I really love… waiting.”

If you are a junior just entering the college admission experience, I hope this gives you some insight and questions to ask as you consider specific colleges. When you visit or talk to one of their representatives, listen for their explanation of the process. Speak up and ask questions if it is not clear. You are going to put a lot of time and effort into applying. It is your right and responsibility to understand how they make decisions, as well as a clear timeline in which they do that.

If you are an applicant still waiting for the car to pull into the driveway, I hope you will take a holistic approach to waiting. Like admission officers, your goal is to keep perspective. You only have one senior year. Enjoy it. Go to games, hang out with friends, take trips, and have fun! Nobody ever looks back and says, “I wish I stressed out more and wished away the spring of my senior year in high school.” (Kind of like nobody says, “I want to marry someone mean,” or “I prefer to overpay for my meals.”)

Look around you this week in school.  I am asking you to fight the temptation to look to far ahead. Slow down. Remember this–  most of the folks you see every day now will not be around (in person) at this time next year. Give them a hug. Grab a meal together. Go see a concert. Just enjoy being together.

Ultimately, it is the things we have to wait for in life are the ones that shape us the most. You will come to the end of the mirror soon enough. Take in the sights. Share the road. Enjoy the ride!

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That’s Not How it Works… Part 3

Okay, so I lied. Or if you’re looking to be more gracious and generous (which doesn’t seem to be the norm these days) I was flat wrong. Back in March 2018 I wrote a two-part series titled “That’s Not How It Works!” (You may remember my lackluster attempt to proliferate #TNHIW, but like Gretchen Wieners with “fetch” in Mean Girls— it really didn’t take.) Regardless, my exact statement was, “There won’t be a three-peat or trilogy for #TNHIW, but if you want to peel back more admission myths and misconceptions, check out this layered Onion piece.”

I should have known this day would come. The truth is there have been many things I said I’d never do—wear buck oxford shoes, get a pedicure (in my defense it was a date with my daughter, but I’d be lying if I did not admit I enjoyed it), and the granddaddy of them all… own a minivan (initially painful but man, the sliding doors and TV are sweet). Professionally, this is also true. “We’re not going to the Common App…” “We’ll always release EA decisions before the Winter Break…” “I’m not a bow tie guy…”

So if you want to know who is going to win the Super Bowl, I’m not your best resource. Or if you hear me say, “I’m definitely not going to start wearing skinny jeans,” it’s understandable if you give me a sideways stare with a raised eyebrow.

Here’s the thing about college admission: it’s cyclical. The original two-part #TNHIW series was written in the spring, when we dealt with topics like the waitlist, depositing, financial aid, and appealing admission decisions. All still valid and helpful information if you want to check it out later, but it’s not as important to you right now.

What if I told you that’s not how it works!Since I’ve been on the road presenting and fielding questions from prospective students, as well as talking to students on campus, I thought I’d address a few of the common misconceptions admission officers often hear.

Quotas

“Our son goes to X high school. We’re a big feeder, so I’m concerned it’s going to hurt him because I know you only take a certain number from each high school.”

Well… that’s not how it works.

The truth is colleges do want to diversify their class. They work hard to recruit an applicant pool with qualified students from a wide variety of backgrounds—geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic, and so on—in order to insure their entire first-year class is not made up of students from only one county or state or nation. Ironically, what irks people in the admission process (“you don’t take as many as you should from my school”) is ultimately one of the aspects of campus life students (and alumni) love and appreciate (“I met people from all over the state/country/world, and not only learned from them but built a huge network as a result”).

Because there are not quotas, in any applicant pool, colleges can typically point to high schools with a 100% admit rate (granted the n of that varies) and others from whom they did not admit a single student.

Don’t believe me? (Understandable given this blog’s preface.) I point you to the data. Our office frequently gets calls like, “I got transferred by my company and we are buying a house in Atlanta. What’s the best school for my 7-year old to attend if she ultimately wants to go to Tech?”  Since we are not real estate agents, and because it keeps us (okay, me) from asking something like, “I’m sorry, sir, did you say 7 or 17?” we developed and published admission snapshots so families and counselors can see admit rate variance from school to school or state to state.

While not all universities capture or publish this granular data, most of their publications show lists or maps of their applicants and students. They also all have institutional research offices that keep this information  (there are even conferences for research folks, which I’m sure are a real hoot). Go check out some of the tables, records, fact books, and common data sets and you can see a varied admit rate and lack of quotas. Or just go ask your school counselor. Often they track this data or can show you variance in your high school from one year to the next. What you’ll likely see and hear is most colleges admit different numbers and percentages of students from your school each year. “But last year you took seven from our school and this year only five?” Exactly. No quotas… because #TNHIW

AP vs. IB vs. Dual Enrollment (vs. whatever your school calls challenging)

“You like to see AP more than IB, right?”

 “I’ve heard you prefer IB to AP.”

“Just tell me the total number of APs I need to get in.”

“I was thinking about designing my own curriculum. Which sounds better, IP or IA, because you know AI is already taken and I don’t like the idea of having a ‘B’ in there, you know?”

Well…that’s not how it works.

First, if you are applying to or planning to attend a school with a 60%+ admit rate (and remember they make up the majority of colleges in the country), the odds are if you have good grades and take generally challenging courses, slight curriculum differences and course choices are not going to be of great consequence. In fact, many schools openly publish their academic parameters online so there is absolutely no mystery in whether or not you’ll be admitted.

What's Your GoalInstead of worry about the type/name of a course- or the exact number of rigorous courses you have taken- here’s what you should be asking: “What’s my goal?” Is it to be as prepared as possible for the pace and depth of the classes you’re going to take in your major or college in general? If so, choose the path that is in line with those goals and aspirations. Look at the kids a grade above you or the seniors who just graduated who wound up at some of the schools you are interested in attending. There are no guarantees your outcomes will be identical, but at least you have some evidence of a viable path. Talk to your counselor now about the colleges you are interested in attending. They can guide you and, hopefully, provide you a bit of solace in your deliberations.

If your ultimate goal is simply to “get in” to a highly selective school (let’s arbitrarily say a 30% or lower admit rate, which would be around 100 of the nation’s 3,000+ colleges), then regardless of what the classes are called, you need to take the toughest ones available and do very well in them. Which classes are those? You know better than I do. What does “do very well” mean? Again… you know. Selective colleges are agnostic when it comes to what the course may be called- they just want to know that you have chosen rigor and responded well to it, because when you arrive on their campus, professors will have high expectations of your knowledge, and you’ll be surrounded by peers who are both prepared and eager to be challenged and stretched in the classroom.

Take some time to ask yourself if the reason you want to go take English or Calculus at the college down the road is really because your high school’s teacher is known to be really tough, or if it is because that is actually the best choice to help prepare you when you arrive on a campus full-time. If your school offers both AP and IB and you have a choice of one over the other, no college is going to say one is preferred in all cases. Instead, they’re going to evaluate you in context of your school. Which one attracts the best students in your grade? Ultimately, “ducking rigor” is not going to fly in the admission process at a college that admits one of every three, five, or 10 students.

So is the reason you want to take Spanish because of your passion for the language, or because you don’t know if you can juggle Chemistry, Physics, and Biology in one semester? Bottom line: the students admitted to Stanford, or those receiving premier merit-based scholarships at our nation’s top schools will take the three courses, suggest a more efficient way to run the labs, and teach the Spanish class. I’m not saying that is the way it absolutely should be. I’m just telling you how it works. And while I kind of hate to be the one to say this so bluntly, someone has to.

Ultimately, my advice is to forget the titles. Start by asking yourself why you are taking each course on your schedule. Is it to protect your GPA? Take advantage of state funded dual enrollment programs in order to save money and earn course credit? Provide time and balance for other pursuits inside or outside the classroom? To avoid a certain subject? Be honest about your goals, understand the pros and cons of each decision, and go from there. That’s how it should work.

Now, I’ve said my peace. Other than Rocky, Harry Potter (and arguably Star Wars depending on where you start counting) there is no need for a fourth edition of anything, so while I’ve learned my lesson to “never say never,” don’t expect another #TNHIW. And seriously, I’m drawing the line with skinny jeans.

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Girls Night!

Listen to the audio version here!

A couple of weeks ago I told you listening is “the one thing you can do” when it comes to college admission. The one thing you completely control. After that I got some really encouraging and humorous emails from fellow wallet-leavers (and those who love them) around the country. It is good to know I am not alone. I also got one note that said, “What they really need is just to know what admission people really want.” Challenge accepted!

You could call what I’m about to share the magic bullet; the linchpin, the Holy Grail. Or you could just call it “the one thing that admission people want.” It is what we hope you will do with your time outside the classroom. It is the type of person we want on our campuses. It is how we hope you’ll go about choosing your academic path through high school. And it’s also the best way to navigate the admission experience. For those of you who have been reading this blog since it started three years ago, I hope you were a freshman then, because your patience is finally paying off—just in time for this pivotal trade secret.

But since you have waited this long, you can wait a few paragraphs more, right?

Not everything that can be counted counts…

Unfortunately, too often the college admission experience begins with, and is plagued by, a mentality of “what do I have to do?” Here’s how this plays out:

Not everything that counts can be countedQ: In your presentation, you showed your middle 50% score ranges. (As they Google test-prep programs) So if I get 60 points higher, I will have a better chance, right?

Q: Your first-year profile shows that most students entering have taken around nine or 10 AP, IB or Dual Enrollment courses. Which other class should I add to my schedule?

Q: So I was reading about the value you place on extra-curricular involvement, contribution to community, and Progress and Service. Which is better: two years of ultimate Frisbee, or three years of Beta Club?

Year 1

The other night my wife and I watched the movie Girls Just Want to Have Fun with our kids. As it started, my wife said, “I haven’t seen this since our girls’ nights,” and then looked at me. Confused, so did both our kids. Let me explain.

When Amy and I first moved to Atlanta, she did not know anyone in the city. No friends, no job—just a new husband…me. She was planning on getting her master’s in physical therapy, but had a year to work on the pre-requisites, study for the GRE, establish residency, make some money to pay for the program, and adjust to a new town (and husband).

I know what you’re thinking: that must have been rough. And you’re right.  I already had a job and was originally from Atlanta. Several of my good friends from college lived here as well, so I was plugged in and fairly busy. In those first few months, Amy tried one job and hated it. Knowing everything was short-term with school starting the next fall, she took another job, and then another (to clarify, she did not work three jobs simultaneously).Girls just want to have fun

We would go to dinner or watch a game or just sit on our porch, and she’d talk about how difficult it was not having close friends or family in town, like she did in California and North Carolina. Finally, one night I decided I had to take a more radical approach to cheering her up. I had to do something unexpected—something just for her.

We started “girls’ nights” once a month. I had long argued that I was not physically built to power walk the way I knew she and some of her friends could. I remember seeing them go at an incredible clip for what seemed like hours, chatting and enjoying time together. So one night we power walked. Two hours, just walking and talking all through the neighborhood(s). Admittedly, I looked pretty awkward, and at times I struggled to keep up, but it was absolutely worth the effort for the joy it brought her. One night dinner was a just a giant salad and we spent the evening reading a book aloud to each other. And yes, one night we did facial masks and watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun (I’m telling you, it’s a must see!).

Not everything that counts can be counted…

So what’s the perfect class schedule, the right test score, the magic combination of sports, work, and school leadership? What is it that admission people really want? The answer is simple: we want Girls’ Nights!

  • Power Walks. We’d love for you to choose a rigorous curriculum solely for the love of learning and expanding your knowledge (more on love in the next point). That is why you so often hear the buzz phrase “intellectual curiosity.” What admission people really want to see is you power walking through your curriculum in high school. Yes—it means there will be times you are not totally comfortable. There will be some classes where you are not a complete natural and you have to work harder than some classmates to keep up or to excel. But if power walking is your mindset, you’ll know when the load is appropriately challenging versus absolutely overwhelming. You will be more appreciative of your teachers; more likely to seek help when you need it and give help when you are able; less focused on the grade and more on the content; and ultimately you’ll end up far more prepared when you arrive at college.
  • Love. We want you to volunteer at a hospital or master a language or earn your black belt not because it will look good or separate you from other applicants, but because it’s a genuine interest, an opportunity to grow, a passion, a love. If you hate tennis, quit. If you are miserable eating the bread in French Club, pack up your things and leave. Au revoir. “Which is better: two years of ultimate Frisbee, or three years of Beta Club?” Neither. Trust me—we are not making those kinds of delineations. Your sanity, enjoyment, and time are the priority. Love does not keep records or count accomplishments or track time. What do admission people want? We want to attract applicants and enroll students who are looking to build others up, rather than one up or edge others out. We are looking for future graduates who will invest deeply in people, communities, clubs, sports, and jobs—whether or not there is a picture in a yearbook or a line on an application.

The Perfect Night

There is no perfect or right girls’ night, just like there is no perfect or right college. Amy loved those evenings not because they were ideas from a Top 10 list or what someone else said would be best. She loved them because they were perfect and right for her. Some people are not big salad fans. I get it. If you don’t like humidity and roads that start with “Peach,” avoid Atlanta for college.

What do admission people want? We want you to explore all your options and to honestly consider and intentionally choose your best fit when you apply to college. We want you to be mindful that this is a deeply personal choice that is authentically yours, so you’ll be confident when you arrive at your university.

Utopian? Pollyanna? Perhaps, but I’m okay with that. Granted, you are talking to someone who has now read nearly every Nicholas Sparks novel aloud and unashamedly endorses early Sarah Jessica Parker. But this is about you, not me. I am just doing what was asked– telling you what admission people want: Girls Nights!

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