You Do You

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

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

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

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

Your Voice

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

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

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

Recognize that Stretch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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College Admission Essays: I’ve heard that one before…

Last week I talked to a high school senior as a favor to a friend. The student is not applying to Georgia Tech, so I was giving him general application advice.

We talked about prioritizing extra-curricular activities, such as putting the things you care about most and have the most involvement with, first. While an application may have eight, 10 or 30 lines for involvement, busy admission officers who speed read this section may only get to third on the list. Make them want to keep learning about you by telling them clearly and thoroughly what’s most important to you.

Then we talked about his supplemental responses. Since I don’t work for the schools he’s applying to, I told him to research their websites, social media, and literature and pay attention to themes and key messages. At Tech we focus on our motto of Progress and Service and improving the human condition. Students applying to us will see questions along those lines, or should be astute enough to find opportunities to provide connections to those concepts. Every school has these, you just have to dig deeper at some places. Inside Tip: if you can’t identify what’s important to a school, then they haven’t done a good job articulating it, or they can’t differentiate themselves, or they’re just not resonating with you. Any of these is a red flag.

The Essay

Finally, we talked about his essay. I’ll be honest, the topic was trite (something about learning through basketball about overcoming odds). Admittedly, at that point, I was also packing for a trip so I was a bit distracted (and I was not being paid for this time or advice). But here’s the bottom line: the topic doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve been reading essays for over 15 years. I’ve read for several institutions, two testing agencies, and various scholarship competitions. Conservatively, I’d say I’ve looked at more than 10,000 essays by now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more, and I know plenty of people on my staff and around the country who put that number to shame.

But as somewhat of an expert, here’s what I firmly believe: there is no completely unique topic: sports analogy about life, failure, and triumph? Heard it. Mission trip to a third world country, including multiple transportation modes, animal crossings, and flat tires? Check. Family drama where you displayed tremendous patience, empathy, and wisdom beyond your years? Sure. The list goes on: difficult coach/teacher turned advocate… stuck out a horrible summer job that provided valuable lessons and renewed focus and direction … beloved grandparent who moved in, built close friendship, died, but taught a lot of valuable lessons in life and death (this one often doubles as an excuse for late app submission as well)… second verse, same as the first.

As Ecclesiastes says, “When it comes to college admission, there is nothing new under the sun” RCV (Rick Clark Version). Does that mean the essay does not matter? That you should resign yourself to mediocrity? Not at all. My point is that your energy should not be spent on selecting the topic. Once you figure out which question you want to answer, meaning you really have something to say or you’re somewhat excited to respond, start writing.

Find Your Voice

Knowing the topic won’t differentiate you, it has to be something else, right? This is where your voice has to be evident. And like the list of extra-curricular activities, it needs to be clear in the first sentence or two. I know many readers who read the first and last paragraphs and only go back if those are compelling. Otherwise, it’s a dime a dozen and the ratings are accordingly average. Some schools will tell you that two separate readers evaluate every essay in its entirety. Given volume, staff sizes, and compressed timelines between application deadlines and decision release, that seems at worst a blatant lie, and at best an incredibly inefficient process.

So how do you find your unique voice? I’m going to give you a few steps, but first check out the picture below. The woman on my right either thinks I’m insane or that something disgusting is on my hand. The woman to my left could not care less and simply can’t believe I’m still talking. The guy on the end may be interested in the woman to my right and is likely mad at me for making her mad at life. So continue to read knowing that if you disagree or think these tips are weak, you’ll not be the first– and certainly won’t be the last.

Step 1: Read it aloud. There is something magical about reading out loud. As adults we don’t do this enough. In reading aloud to kids, colleagues, or friends we hear things differently, and find room for improvement when the writing is flat. So start by voice recording your essay.

Step 2: Do it again and Listen. REALLY listen. Is there emotion in it? Does your humor come out? Can the reader feel your sadness?  Does it sound like you? If you can’t tell, play it for someone you know and trust. What do they say?

Step 3: Do the Math. (What?! I was told there would be no math on the essay section.) If 5,000 other applicants chose the same essay prompt, and 100 of those choose the same topic, will your essay be noticed? Does it provide specifics and descriptions of you or others, as well as setting and moment?

Step 4: Keep it simple. Three steps is enough. Once you’ve gone through those, hit submit and move on. Sitting on your essay until deadline day is only going to drive you nuts. So pray over it, do a dance, catch a falling leaf, or whatever else you think will help, and then be done.

Your essay topic may not be entirely different or unique, but your senior year can be. Go enjoy it!

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The Welcome Manual: Part 1 of 3

I woke up to the sound of rain on the windows and roof. Not a completely uncommon noise but somehow this seemed different. Then the water started hitting my arm and face and I forced my eyes open.

I was sleeping on a porch at the beach. My family took a vacation last week to Cape Cod, MA. Beautiful area and great to escape the Georgia heat at this time of year. But after a long night of stories by the fire, I had decided to sleep on a porch bed to enjoy the cool evening.  Looking around me at the wet sill and blanket it was clear that it had been raining a while. I went back into the house and began closing the windows in my wife and kids’ rooms. Then I went into the bathroom. Oddly, it was here that it felt like rain was falling directly on my head… and it was.

I looked up and realized there was an open sunroof that I had not noticed during the beautiful, clear days before.  Not wanting to turn on the light or wake anyone else up I stared up at the skylight. Rain was coming directly into my face at this point.

This house was built in 1920. The ceiling was a good 12 feet high and there was a precariously archaic looking crank to close this hatch. I searched the wall hoping perhaps it has been modernized and one of the switches would control it. Flip, lights. Flip, fan. Flip, not sure what that does but it does not control the sunroof.

Finding The Solution

Do I put down towels and go back to sleep? Appealing but irresponsible. Do I wake my wife up and ask for help? No. It’s 3 a.m. and she was buried under 2 pillows and taking up the entire bed at this point. Plus, she’d much prefer a wet bathroom than being woken up with questions I should be able to answer.

So… the only solution: climb. I’m not saying I’m Spiderman or anything, but having young kids has renewed my playground acumen, which as this point was looking to prove necessary. I step up onto to toilet. Put a foot into the wall and my hand on the window sill and pulled myself onto that and the top of the door frame.  I was 6-7 feet off the ground and could reach to 11 or so. Almost there. I stretched further and could almost touch the crank now. But it was slick and rain was picking up. I jammed my back into wall and reluctantly reached to the crank and closed the sunroof. At this point I was dripping from both sweat and rain.  I eased back down to the top of the toilet careful not to make the final step the one that sent me to the Cape Cod hospital. And that’s when I saw it. Sitting in the corner, right next to the plunger was a 2 foot silver rod.  I picked it up. What the…?!  Expanding it out to a good 6 feet like a tent pole, there was a perfect aperture for the crank.

That would have been good to know! I’m so glad the welcome manual for the house included directions to the beach and restaurant recommendations, instead of helpful nuggets like this one. Yelp and Google Maps have got me covered in 2016, but so far there is no “crank” app that I’m aware of.

The Admission Welcome Manual

Part of what creates anxiety in the admission process is what brings about stress in all of life: uncertainty.  When we don’t feel like we have all of the details or good information on something, it shakes us. And then questions start swirling: Should I apply or is this school too far out of reach? Will they like my essay and find it compelling? Have I done enough outside the classroom to complement my good grades? How much will they look at test scores, and will that be the only factor they care about? Will the fact that 10 other students are applying from my high school hurt my chances?

As we head toward August and the opening of applications around the country, it’s clear we need to go back to the basics. Today, we’ll cover the first step in our three-part series, the“welcome manual” to college admission.

Step 1 – Separate yourself

The other day I was talking with a student who just finished his freshman year at Tech. Crazy talented when it comes to film and media. He’s going to have a very successful career, and he’s majoring in business to complement his creative skills. We started talking about the admission process, and I fired off a few questions I love to ask: where else did you apply? Why did you choose Tech? What would you tell a high school student now that you wish you would have known?

And his answer to that surprised me– he said he did not highlight his passion for film because he thought Tech admissions would question if he were a good fit. He didn’t want to “look too different from others I knew were applying.” He actually wrote different supplemental essays for Tech than he did for University of Chicago and Stanford. At this point, my mouth was agape. “What?! Wait… what?!”   I know we talk about “voice” in every presentation. We write about “conveying individualism” in blogs and in publications. We have made videos speaking to this very point. It’s one of those moments that makes me want to throw up my hands.

The entire purpose of the supplemental essay is to separate you from other applicants. This is your interview. This is the one time in the app that you get to convey your voice. That voice is precious to us because it does not come out in test scores, course choice or performance, or even in the activities you choose to participate in. We need your authentic, passionate, individual voice and content there. His desire to combine business and film is PRECISELY what makes him an attractive candidate for us. We saw that he had his own film company when reading his activities and noted he had worked in that capacity within school and the community.

Like many applicants, we Googled him and checked out some of his work during file review. We want to know these things you care about. Shaping and building a class means finding many distinct pieces and combining them to create a beautiful puzzle.

So repeat after me, “Step 1: Write to separate yourself.”  When we read essays and make comments, we use a rubric. On our scale the mid-range is “dime a dozen” or “not a separator.” Basically this means that the essay does not hurt but does not help. It’s neutral. It’s effectively mediocre. Reaching the higher end of the rubric is achieved by augmenting your application with writing that helps us hear you, helps us remember you, understand you. Think about going out on a first date. You want your answers and conversation to be interesting, elaborative, insightful, creative. One word answers that you give your parents about where you went, who you were with, and how your day was are mediocre. (Try stepping that up too– they love you.) You know the difference. Now show us that!

We’ll hit Step 2 next week. In the meantime, don’t go climbing up wet walls in the night groping for a rusty crank.

Make it a summer!

In the world of college admission, March and April are a busy time as campuses host prospective underclassmen, admitted seniors, and their families. Those heavy visit months come right on the heels of an isolated and compressed winter hibernation (also known as application reading season). And that period was immediately preceded by a fall of heavy recruitment travel, which is guaranteed to garner lots of hotel and airline points but ruin some otherwise promising millennial romantic relationships. Personally, I love that this work is highly cyclical, and you’ll notice that career admission folks will schedule weddings, vacations, tax submissions, and house closings around this schedule (attempts to schedule births are noble but less predictable, and often met with mixed reactions from spouses).

So each year as May arrives, I’ve started telling myself and our staff to “make it a summer!” Summer is our time to think, reflect, plan, and just relax a little. We encourage staff to work remotely more consistently; put the suits, ties, and dresses in the closet for a while; take vacation; get out to professional development conferences and workshops; and build campus relationships when everyone has more capacity. Make it a summer: go to the beach; don’t stay longer at the office than you need to; build that deck; and hang out with your friends and family. Admittedly, at times it can feel a bit neurotic. It’s how I imagine Manitobans treat the month of August: “Go!! Do everything this month before the snows return and your flip flops are buried until this time next year.”

If you are wrapping up your junior year, I suggest you “make it a summer,” because even though you are excited about exams being over and the pool opening, sometimes as the weather warms up, so to can the pressure from parents and others about your upcoming senior year and the college application process.

So stay calm and check out these seven tips for making the most of your summer

One: Write

Writing your essays in the summer allows you to spend your senior fall focusing on school and life outside the classroom, rather than agonizing over your introductory paragraph. My guess is when it comes to completing the application, you’ll nail your name and birthday pretty easily. It’s the essays that take time. And let’s be honest, writing by the pool is a lot more appealing than on October 15 at 11:38 p.m. in your room with mom looking over your shoulder yelling, “Submit! Submit! Submit!” Just a heads up, the Common Application and Coalition Application essay prompts are now posted for your writing enjoyment.

Two: Visit

Summer visits often get a bad rap because fewer students are on campus. While this may be true at some schools, summer visits are a great way to rule places in or out of consideration.

If you visit and discover that you don’t like the town/city, or the campus has too much green grass, or the gothic architecture freaks you out, that’s not going to change if students are walking around and leaves are falling. Often advisors and faculty (if you give them advance notice) have more time in the summer to meet and talk– as do admission officers. You can revisit schools you’re interested in  after you are admitted, or in the fall to confirm you want to apply.

Three: Homework

Normally, when I say that word my second-grade son falls over and starts rolling around on the ground. In hopes you won’t have the same response, let’s call it “poolwork.” Regardless, this is the season for narrowing your college list and determining exactly where you want to apply. Use resources like BigFuture or CollegeView as well as less conventional tools such as Reddit or College Confidential. We’ve also found this to be one of the most helpful, creative, and comprehensive websites in the college admission space. Keep in mind (minus the last site) these are only one part of the equation, but the more pieces you compile, the better cumulative picture you will have of a place.

Four: Relax

It’s summer. Enjoy it. The truth is, you don’t need to put your summer calendar into an optimized spreadsheet to enjoy your senior year or have a good plan for applying to colleges. Ultimately, there is no perfect formula. A certain enrichment program, mission trip, or particular internship isn’t going to “get you in” to a specific school. So, this summer don’t think too much about a high GPA — do think about a high SPF.

Five: Work

Gotta love “work” coming right after “relax.” Sheesh! You have an opportunity every summer, but particularly right before your final year in high school, to get a sense of the type of job you might ultimately want.

Even if you don’t land a paying job, maybe you can work out a deal to get in 10 to 15 hours a week volunteering at a local business or organization. Being in a professional environment will give you a sense of what you may or may not want to pursue. And to be honest, working in any setting is a good thing, even if it’s at the local yogurt shop (just keep your job by not giving away too much away for free), or waiting tables or selling camping equipment at REI. My favorite high school job was delivering Chinese food. Good money, quality time listening to music, and I now have no need for the Waze app because I still have all streets in my hometown in my head. Downside is I consumed more fortune cookies in those two years than most humans could in two lifetimes.

Six: Learn

What do you love? What is the most interesting topic or subject for you? Look around and see if a local university or community college is offering a course in that field. Not only could you earn college credit, but you’ll get a good sense of the rigor and pace of a college course.

Schedule too tight or not too concerned about earning credit? How about a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)? Learning in this environment will serve you well as you head to college, and certainly in your career as this medium will be increasingly vital to business and relationship cultivation. What better way to stretch your knowledge of a field and also grow as a learner than taking a course in this format?

Seven: Network

Reach out to an older student you know who just finished senior year. Ask them fresh off their admission search and decision making process about lessons learned, tips, and so on. Extra Credit: Find someone coming home after freshman year in college. There is often no better resource for insight into a college — especially one farther from home — than a student who once sat in your high school and adjusted to that living and learning environment from your hometown. (If you end up getting a date out of this, give a shout out @gtadmission)

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The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Part 2: Admission Counselors

CODE RED

If you’ve seen A Few Good Men (sidenote: ranks in my wife’s Top 3 of all time) then you remember this exchange in the Navy courtroom as Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) examines Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson—never married to Cruise) about whether or not he ordered a Code Red that led to the death of an enlisted Marine.

Kaffee: *Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?*

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: *You want answers?* a-few-good-men-quotes_288x288

Kaffee: *I want the truth!*

Col. Jessep: *You can’t handle the truth!*

Anyone else’s blood pumping?! Man, what a great scene. Anyhoo… yesterday we looked at some of the lies students tell. Today we spin the mirror around and take a look at college admission counselors.

I frequently have the opportunity to speak on panels and hear colleagues describe their college or university at high school programs. Some of the trite responses and canned information gets incredibly frustrating at times, and this is one reason we urge our staff to rely on “stories not statistics” in relaying the Why Georgia Tech message. You can only listen to so many admission folks talk about “great study abroad programs” or “find a professor and a few friends and you too can start a club” before you start having flashbacks to Charlie Brown cartoons. Yet while those lazy, vague descriptions may become mundane, they’re far more tolerable than the lies we tell.

Lie 1- “We are looking for reasons to admit you, rather than deny you.” I’ve heard this from numerous admission representatives at highly selective schools and I’m only two utterings short of standing up next time and coughing, “BS!”

I always suspected this was false, even when Tech was admitting more than 50% of applicants. Now that we’re closer to 30%, I see that it’s a confirmed lie. (Note: schools admitting more than 50% likely would not say this because they don’t have to, but if they do, it is true in their case, so please don’t reference me if you call them out in public).

Here’s how you know this lie can’t be true: You are shopping online for a new backpack for an upcoming trip, and you have some parameters of what you need. You land on REI’s website and they have 638 different backpacks available. Here’s your criteria:

  • Less than 5 lbs… hold more than 65 liters…. include a hydration component… allows for a sleeping bag compartment… water resistant… and less than $300.

All of a sudden that 638 becomes only 10 options. Your search ruled out things that did not fit your criteria, and left you with fewer options to find the best choice. I realize that all metaphors ultimately break down, but stick with me. Let’s say that the backpacks are applicants and you are an admission counselor. Isn’t the same concept true? You start by filtering out what’s not “in range” based on the number of students you can admit given class size and traditional yield projections. That’s why when you hear colleges say, “most of the students who apply could be successful here” they are being honest. If you did not have all of those specific parameters, then easily half of the backpacks would do—they hold stuff, go on your back, and are in price range. It’s a backpack. But schools admitting only one in every four or five students have lots of various filters, parameters, needs, and wants. When it comes down to that last 10 and they can only “buy one pack,” they may be looking for reasons to admit you rather than deny. But like Lt. Kaffee, you are entitled to the truth—and now you have it.

Lie 2- “Be Yourself.” You will most often hear this line referring to essay writing or interview preparation. It’s unhelpful, insincere advice… and it’s a lie. Be myself? Ok, well I enjoy violent war movies, I sneak out with my friends and drive around town most Saturdays at 3 a.m., and I am excited about all of the good looking girls at your college. How do you like me now?! I think we debunked this one a lot faster than number one.

Here’s the translation: use your essay or interview to communicate something insightful or revealing that does not come through in your grades, classes, extra-curricular participation, etc. Readers and interviewers are wanting to take something away that provides additional insight into your life, background, quirks, passions, etc. They’re looking for something that will help them advocate for you in committee that tells your story beyond the numbers. You don’t have to hide the fact that you sneak out, but if you go there give perspective into why that is indicative of who you are more broadly, i.e. it is representative of your curiosity or your sense of adventure. We owe you explanations of why and how we make admission decisions, and you owe us a more reflective and insightful illustration in your writing.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the Lies Parents Tell.