Applying to College Isn’t Like The Movies

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This week we welcome current Admission Digital Media Student Assistant Sarah Engel to the blog. Welcome, Sarah!

This admission blog has long been written by experts in application evaluation, the admission counselors themselves. But they’ve always hoped you would seek out additional voices in your college admission experience as well—students who can share the culture and community of their colleges as they experience it every day, who can provide been-there-done-that support and encouragement as you navigate the college admission experience. And truly, as a current college student, and the first to write on this blog (no pressure!) I can echo the importance of those lived perspectives. I know first hand that when you’re actually in the midst of gathering your materials, writing your essays, and sending them off to colleges with the click of a button, it can all seem a little…surreal and disconnected. Not only do you have academic and social pressures from your friends and family, you likely have your own, internal expectations and media driven perceptions that hover over you like a dark storm cloud. 

Press Play

Growing up, I recall seeing countless teen rom coms and dramas in which the protagonist is somehow accepted into a prestigious university. Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl being admitted to Brown University despite never attending class? Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls getting into Northwestern despite not understanding calculus? And, of course, the entire cast of High School Musical committing to Ivy Leagues, Juilliard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley? Not once did I see them studying between musical numbers in the gymnasium!

Disney family singalong: Zac Efron joins 'High School Musical' reunion

Now, in the age of social media, we are constantly exposed to “Reacting to my College Decisions” videos of shrieking students surrounded by family members, deserving student stories on Good Morning America being posted across Twitter, and congratulatory Instagram posts for friends committing to universities. As exciting as these seem, I know from experience how they can affect one’s mental health. The neverending stream of collegiate content across the internet, film, and television puts an invisible weight on the shoulders of students to perform well. Audiences (myself included) love the satisfaction of a loveable character embarking on a new, happy journey. But how realistic is the journey really? And what does this fascination with college in the media mean for real students applying to real schools?

Take a Pause

Spoiler alert: life isn’t always like it is in the movies (seriously, how do characters have so much time to hang out before they go to work and school in the morning?) and social media isn’t all that realistic either. When your admission experience looks different from everyone’s social media highlight reel, and Disney’s happily-ever-afters, that can feel a little lonely. But you’re not alone. My hope for you is that you’ll be kind to yourself. Check in on your friends, check in on yourself, have honest conversations with each other, and set boundaries. Hey, I work with digital media in our office, and while we hope to provide helpful content to students, I know that muting and stepping away from the screen can absolutely be an act of self-care. Taking breaks isn’t just healthy, it’s necessary.

Fast Forward 

Let’s look beyond the admission decisions: a fast forward through time for you, a rewind in time for me. Though it feels recent, I applied to college over three years ago (how is that possible?!). I remember dreading meetings with my college counselor, stressing over standardized test scores, reading my essays over and over, asking for recommendation letters, and that agonizing waiting period after applying. But then came the spring of 2019, and I was perfectly calm. Excited for the future, researching classes and clubs, planning out my dorm room decorations, and connecting with future classmates on social media. So much has changed for me since then! What hasn’t changed, however, is this truth: that, after the dust settles and the whirlwind of admission hype and headlines is behind you, what’s in front of you is an opportunity that’s yours to embrace. The keyword here is embrace. You may receive many admission decisions in the months ahead, ranging from exciting and surprising, to disappointing and… “you mean to tell me I have to send them more information?!”  The admission decisions themselves may not be yours to make, but choosing how you move forward, is. 

When I was a freshman in high school, I dreamed of going to a liberal arts college in the northeast. Perhaps Yale University, like Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), or NYU, like Lara Jean Covey (To All The Boys I Loved Before). I thought, with my grades and extracurriculars, I’d be able to get in anywhere and everywhere, that I would live out the dark academia aesthetic of my dreams (a la Harry Potter). But by the time I was touring and applying to colleges, that fantasy seemed so far away. I had to face a reality check somewhere around junior year. I realized I wasn’t getting many scholarships at private, out-of-state schools. I also came to understand that I didn’t want to be all that far from my family. That I could always revisit the liberal arts school dream for graduate school. 

As colleges prepare to release decisions in the coming weeks and months, I hope you take away at least this message: it works out. Everything will be okay. Your admission decisions might not be the fairytale ending you first imagined, but that’s because they were never really an ending at all…just the opportunity to embrace a new storyline, whatever it may be. Don’t be discouraged if your fictional hero or heroine is accepted to every school they apply to, or if your best friend got a better scholarship than you. Remember that you are the protagonist of your own story on your own path. It might not be easy, but try your best, and believe me, #ItWorksOut.

Sarah Engel is a third-year LMC major from Dunwoody, Georgia. Her involvements have included the North Avenue Review Magazine, LMC CoLab, Excel Program, German National Honor Society, and FASET. Now, she works as the digital media assistant for the Office of Undergraduate Admission. 

 

 

Handling Admission Decisions — A Coach’s Guide

Earlier this week my son played in a middle school basketball game. With two seconds left, he lined up to shoot free throws. He walked to the line, bounced the ball slowly several times, eyed his shot and released. Rattling from the front of the rim to the back, the ball ultimately glanced off the left side of the basket and out.

“AJ! Just take a breath. Relax and take your time,” I heard his coach yell as the opposing crowed waved their hands and pounded on the bleachers.

Perhaps it was just because he’s my son, but I could literally see the air go in and out of his chest as he tried to follow his coach’s instructions. He spun the ball around between his hands and shot…And again the ball caromed off the rim. Before anyone could rebound, the buzzer sounded. Game over.

After the team huddled for a post-game talk, the coach held my son back and put his arm around him. I couldn’t hear his words, but it was clear he was consoling and encouraging. Walking to the car, I decided not to say anything. We drove home in silence for the first ten minutes. Finally, I asked him directly, “What did coach have to say?”

He told me he understands how I feel, and that I will get another chance this season, so keep practicing and keep my head up.

In the weeks and months ahead, thousands of high school seniors will be receiving admission decisions, and even though they were delivered in a completely different setting, I felt like coach’s words are helpful, applicable, and worth repeating.

If you are deferred admission –Wrote about this last December, so you can read more here, but I hope you will not look back over what you could have done differently. Don’t spend time questioning if you should have written on a different essay topic or had someone else write you a letter of recommendation. Look forward not backward. You will get another chance this season. Finish this semester strong, send in your fall grades, and complete any forms or other requirements the school requests.

A defer is not a deny. Instead, it’s a hold on—a timeout to continue the basketball analogy. The game is not over, so don’t act like it is. As an example, 20% of Tech’s current first-year students were either deferred or waitlisted last year. Too many deferred students receive this news as a No, and they take their proverbial ball and go home. You did not apply for this round, but rather for next year. Be patient. Take a breath. Regroup. Shoot your next shot.

If you are denied admission —  I understand how you feel. Not just saying that either, so read this blog and the links within it for some hope, vision, and encouragement. Ok. You did not get in. This particular game is over and the buzzer has sounded. BUT you are talented. You are capable. You have tons of potential and promise. Keep practicing by rounding out your fall semester well and keep your head up!

It’s likely you’ve already been admitted to other colleges, or you soon will be. Maybe you need to spend time this holiday season working on a few more college applications. I understand you wish those free throws would have swished cleanly through the net, rather than rattled around the rim and out, but the long game is far from over. Keep your head up! If you do that, you will see plenty of people in the crowd cheering for you— family, friends, teachers, counselors, and others in your community who know you, love you, and believe in you. Focus on their words of affirmation, rather than the ones on a screen, a letter, or in your head right now.

If you are supporting a student receiving difficult news— Parents and other adults around students who are disappointed or hurting think they need to call the admission office (or the president or the governor), appeal the decision, “come down there,” or pull strings.

After twenty years of watching this cycle repeat itself, and particularly as my own kids grow up, I’ve come to appreciate ALL of that comes from a place of deep and genuine love. But ultimately, I think in these moments what kids (all of us, actually) need is very simple—and my son’s coach modeled this well—love, concern, empathy, belief, and encouragement. And hey, if the words aren’t coming, a heartfelt hug might be best anyway. You got this, coach!

College Admission- A Long-term Vision

“I can’t wait to get that extra hour of sleep this weekend!”

“This is great. We can stay up until midnight twice on Saturday.”

“I wish we could ‘fall back’ every weekend, so we could get an extra hour before Mondays.”

These are three statements I heard last Friday at work and at home (Identities have been withheld to protect the guilty).

I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the annual fall back weekend. Unlike most Saturday nights, and to the utter amazement of our kids, I actually watched the entire movie– rationalizing that 11 p.m. was really 10 p.m. But as the credits rolled, I was already dreading Sunday night, aware that for the next few months I would rarely make it home before dark.

If you are applying to college this year, my hope is A: You enjoyed your extra hour of sleep. Sleep is important and most teenagers don’t get enough. B: You will take the long-term, rather than short-term approach to college and college admission.

Look Ahead by Getting Organized/Re-organized Now

If you have not already done so, now is the time to create a spreadsheet with the various colleges you are considering. Application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, separate scholarship deadlines, notification dates, and so on. You can transfer these over to calendar reminders as well but start by visualizing them in one consolidated place.

Create subfolders for each college you are applying to and start unsubscribing from the schools you have ruled out. We took at look at an admitted student from last year and the number of emails we had sent her in March and April alone. I think the technical term was “a crap ton” but the actual number was too large to include here due to character count.

If you think you are getting too much email now, imagine when these schools offer you admission and go into full- out yield mode. Bottom line: make a plan and work the plan.

You Are Applying for Next Year- Not This One

Too many students who are deferred in the fall or winter stop out of the process because they are disappointed, mad, embarrassed, (insert other emotion here), or some combination of all of these. If you liked a college enough to apply early action or early decision, don’t let a deferral in December or January keep you from possibly becoming a student there next August. Hundreds of students in Georgia Tech’s first- year class were either deferred, waitlisted, or received both of those decisions last year.

Obviously, if you get a better offer, or have legitimately lost interest, you should cancel your application. All I’m saying is don’t let your ego or pride keep you from something you legitimately still want to pursue (and that applies to many things in life well beyond college admission, fyi).

Open Your Mind to Different Doors

Even prior to the pandemic, colleges were beginning to offer students different start terms. “Congratulations! We’re excited to inform you of your acceptance to Sample University! We know you’ll love being a (insert ferocious mascot name here). However, in order to join our first-year class, you will need to begin your studies in (insert international city, alternative semester, i.e., spring or summer, online, etc.) Post-pandemic, however, the number of colleges boosting enrollment by offering innovative enrollment options is proliferating. As an example, last summer 20% of our first-year students began their Tech career in June, and over the last two years we’ve started undergraduates in Shenzhen, China and Metz, France. This year we’ll add Oxford, England to the list.

Thinking long-term instead of short-term means you may have to get a passport, wait a semester or two to enroll, begin online instead of in-person, or transfer from another university after a year or two. Take some time now to learn about the options schools you are interested in offer applicants, and ask questions about the benefits, differences in cost or calendar, and other important details.

If you are going to focus on anything immediate, let it be your friends, family, grades, and impact on your community.  You only get one senior year– make yours memorable.

My hope is you will keep your options and your mind open. And enjoy those longer, lighter days that will come as a result.

 

 

How the Olympics Explain College Admission– Part 2

Listen to “How the Olympics Explain Admission – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

In Part 1, we looked at the two fundamental ways American colleges make admission decisions. Now that you know how colleges review applications, it’s time to look at three important ways you should approach your college admission experience like an Olympian.   

1) Train For Event – Not The Result. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the actual Olympic competitions: games, races, individual feats of strength, speed, and skill. But I am also a sucker for human-interest stories. It is incredible to see the athletes’ families, hometowns, the stringent training regimens, immense sacrifices, and longevity of focus which led to their Olympic moment. 

Whether it be in emails, phone calls, or during information sessions and presentations, students constantly ask “What do I need to do to get in?” Hey, it’s a valid question, and I understand where it comes from. Too often in our culture this is the mentality. What do I need to do to get: the grade? the date? the raise? the car? and so on. As Americans in particular, we are results oriented.  

However, I would assert Olympic athletes do not think this way. Sure. They want to win. They understand scores, times, or skills will come into play, but during the majority of training, their focus is on making the Olympic team and putting forth their best personal effort. In fact, sports psychologists constantly talk about envisioning actions, rather than obsessing about results. In other words, it’s not helpful to say, “picture yourself wearing a gold medal.” Instead, the message is, “Focus on executing. Imagine yourself running your best race or performing your best routine/dive/shot, etc. The results will take care of themselves.”  

And that is my hope for you. Your job is to “train” for being a successful college student. Don’t picture yourself being a student at a certain place, which you absolutely cannot control. Instead, “practice” what will make you great regardless of where you end up. Simply put- BE A GOOD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT. 

Work hard each day in the classroom.  

Push and challenge yourself academically.  

Learn to create a functional base of knowledge– and be curious about what you don’t know.  

Contribute to your school, family, and community.  

College admission reps will use a lot of words – A LOT – to say all of this, but essentially a good college applicant is a good high school student. Colleges are looking for students who will be desperately missed by the people they leave behind in their school, community, neighborhood.  

Applying an Olympic mentality means worrying less about the medal, the podium, the anthem, and instead committing to your day- to-day training. YOU GOT THIS!  

2) Respect The Competition. TV coverage only brought us a fraction of the action. This year there were 33  sports, 46 disciplines, and 339 total medal events with over 11,500 athletes competing. In the Paralympic Games, which just started this week, another 4,400 athletes will take part. However, unless you had some super- secret Gold Combo #4 cable package you only saw a tiny percentage of those athletes or competitions.  

As a high school student, this is one of the biggest challenges in the college admission experience- understanding the skills, strength, and potential of other applicants you never get to see or know. Colleges do a good job (often in a pretentious and boasting fashion) of describing how many applicants they received in the prior year, or their overall admit rate.  

However, since you are not in the room where files are received and reviewed, it’s impossible to appreciate the talent of this set of students. If you are applying to a college or university with “Olympic” level admit rates, no GPA or test average will adequately convey the depth of their applicant pool. Sure, they will have some percentage of Eddie the Eagle applicants who are not competitive or “in profile,” but those are the outliers.  

Talk to most college admission deans or counselors and they will marvel at the ability of students (hundreds or thousands) who do not end up “on their podium.” If you choose to apply to schools who are denying more students than they admit (sometimes by a wide margin), there is no guarantee. Yes, you have great grades, test scores, letters of rec, essays, and all the things. But so too do the other Olympians showing up at the Games. Again, this is why you need to build a college list with a range of selectivity.  

I expound on the value of seeing or visualizing other applicants in Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors, but if you are trying to decrease screen time or save your thumbs from scrolling, the take home message is basically covered in the conclusion of our last blog: “Before you ever submit an application to a college using holistic review, take the time to write down or say out loud that you are intentionally competing in gymnastics, rather than the high jump. You are choosing a nuanced, gray, and subjective competition and evaluation, and you are comfortable with the fact that numbers alone will not dictate your results. Promise yourself now that you will not waste time or energy (or precious weeks of your senior year) trying to predict the outcome. And, if you don’t end up on the “podium,” commit to handling your disappointment with class and grace.”     

3) Check Your Ego and Be Patient. Dang. Even writing this sounds like some sick combination of harsh and unrealistic. Welcome to the Olympics! Clearly, you cannot talk about the Tokyo Games without mentioning Simone Biles. The truth is an entire blog would not cover the lessons learned from the GOAT. But I think the 2021 Olympic experience of MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey are more relevant to you anyway. Jade came to Tokyo as an individual, rather than part of the four-person team. MyKayla was literally about to fly back to the US when she got the text to come back to compete. Both left Tokyo with medals and unpredictable opportunities.  

Olympians are used to the emotional roller coaster. If you listened to many of the interviews from Tokyo, you heard athletes from every sport and nation relay stories of “almost quitting” or “wanting to walk away,” because of the physical or mental toll of competing.  

Good news- your admission experience is not going to be so physically taxing (unless you’re trying to type your essay while on the Peloton). However, you can expect some ups and downs, possible setbacks, and a timeline you will not dictate. You may get deferred, denied, or waitlisted. You may be an alternate for a scholarship or just miss being named valedictorian, NHS, Top 10%, or some other distinction you have been working for and focused on achieving. When this happens (and it will happen), remember Jade and MyKayla- get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward. There will always be another opportunity, an open door, or an expected route to your goals.  

Whether you are a senior about to apply to college or an underclassman just starting to explore possible options, I hope you will learn these critical lessons from the Olympics: Train for the event- not the result; respect the competition; and check your ego and be patient.  

Mission Matters

Listen to “Mission Matters (How Mission Factors Into Admission Decisions, and Your College Search)” on Spreaker.

After releasing admission decisions, there is always an immediate volley back in the week or two following from disappointed, frustrated, sad, or angry people (typically parents to be honest) who were deferred/denied/waitlisted. (While admitted families sometimes call, it’s not usually looking for an explanation of the decision.) This is both understandable and reasonable. We train our staff to be ready for any range of emotions, perspectives, stories, questions, and bargains/threats/reasoning.  

What’s more sporadic and interesting is the small group of what I call “delayed inquiries.” These are the ones that don’t come in the subsequent days or week after a decision release, but rather pop up on a random Thursday five weeks after notification. While there are nuances to every case, a majority of these include a few common threads:  the student was admitted somewhere else (often with a scholarship or generous aid package), and they want reconsideration from us as a result; the student was offered admission to a college that the parent deems “better” or harder to get into, so naturally we made an error; or the student has such high grades and test scores that “there must have been a mistake.” That quote is inevitably preceded by, “I am not trying to question your process.” 

Why?  

Why does a student with a lower (insert your quantitative measure here) get in and another does not? 

Why does one school have 12 students admitted to Example College (Home of the Fighting Ex’s!) and another only has three? 

Why are the Dunkin Donuts signs changing to Dunkin instead? 

Why does a neighbor/teammate/friend/classmate receive a brochure or invitation to a campus program and you don’t? 

Why does one admitted student receive more financial aid, or a higher percentage of aid, than another? 

Why did Darius Rucker switch to country music(Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It) 

Why does the same student get into a higher ranked school and denied from one that is less selective, I.e. has a higher admit rate?  

If your answer to these questions was “MISSION,” then you either followed my logic or re-read the title after the seeming tangential Dunkin’ piece.

 MISSION DRIVES ADMISSION 

I’ve written about this before in Ad(mission) It’s Not Fair and a few other blogs, but it bears repeating: Mission is everything for deans and directors across the country. What makes these folks successful, and what they are judged by and charged with from presidents or boards, is not simply hitting enrollment targets and class goals, but also advancing the mission and vision of the university.  

Mission will influence which schools will come to your school or state this fall.   

Mission impacts the number of students in a first-year class or whether or not a school enrolls sizeable numbers of transfer students.  

Mission informs deadlines, essay topics, and the extent to which a school requests or values recommendations or interviews in their process. 

Mission has implications on the awarding of financial aid and scholarships. 

The way colleges recruit, invest time and resources, distribute admission decisions, and allot institutional dollars all comes back to Mission

  Your MISSION Should You Choose to Accept It (Yes, my sonand I are working our way through the Mission Impossible series this summer.)

 

Take a look at the Rose Hulman’s mission statement:  

“Our mission is to provide our students with the world’s best undergraduate science, engineering, and mathematics education in an environment of individual attention and support.”

 Now compare that with Berry College’s:  

“Berry emphasizes an educational program committed to high academic standards, values based on Christian principles, practical work experience and community service in a distinctive environment of natural beauty.” 

  1. What are the primary differences you notice between the mission statements of these two universities?
  2. Are there specific characteristics, traits, or priorities you can tell either may be looking for in students based on their missions?  
  3. How would understanding a school’s mission impact your essay or short answer responses? 

Mission Possible  

Take some time this summer to research the mission statements of a few of the colleges you are interested in applying to or visiting. You’ll find some are more clear, specific, and instructive than others, but the pages surrounding them will also include vision, values, and other content that will help you understand their priorities, distinctive qualities, and whether you resonate with their direction and culture.   

  1. What are some key words or phrases from their mission statement that stand out to you?
  2. Write down some of your previous experiences or future goals that align with their mission. 
  3. How does knowing their mission prepare you for a possible interview or essay/short-answer response?  
  4. What other questions does this review bring up about the schools you are considering? 

YOUR MISSION  

Universities spend an exorbitant amount of time and money rolling out mission statements, strategic plans, and value statements (Obviously, donut shops looking to be known more for beverages do too).  

As you enter into the admission experience, I want to challenge you to do the same thing. Take some time to consider what your mission in admission is before you ever submit an application.  

Step 1: Start by writing words, phrases, or a sentence in response to these questions.  

  1. Why do you want to go to college? 
  2. What are you looking for in a particular college? 
  3. How do finances factor into your search and selection process? 
  4. What is ultimate success for you when you are looking back on your search and selection journey? 
  5. How do relationships with your family factor into your search and decisions surrounding college?

Step 2. Review your answers and try to fill in the blanks here.  
 

My mission in the college search, application and selection journey is to ________________________________________________________. 

Along the way I am committed to _________________________________________________. 

Ultimately, I want to attend a college that ________________________________________________. 

As I finish high school and head to college, I hope my relationship with my family is characterized by ____________________________________________.  

Step 3. Ok. Now take 10-15 minutes. See if you can incorporate your answers from both steps into two or three sentences. 

Step 4. Sleep on it. Take a day or two and revisit your mission statement.  

What is missing? What edits, changes, deletions, or improvements can you make that encapsulate what you (not anyone else) are truly hoping for in this experience? 

YOUR MISSION…SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT

Did you skip past all of the work to this section? If so, go back and take time to do this. Understanding your big picture goal and having perspective on what truly defines personal success in your college admission experience will help you tremendously as you build a list, write essays, prepare for interviews, handle admission decisions, and make a final college choice.  

Note 1: portions of this blog were written by my friend and co-author Brennan Barnard for a forthcoming college admission workbook publishing this fall. 

Note 2: Yes, I know the Darius Rucker one is a stretch, but I was bet I couldn’t work that into a blog this summer.