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.

Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 3 of 3)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Holistic Admission

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I know it’s unsettling to read or hear that in holistic review there is little to no certainty. And I realize that uncertainty is one reason anxiety surrounding college admission exists. I don’t have the remedy for eradicating all stress but I do have some tips:

As you work on your applications, or as you research schools to apply to, you should be thinking about what differentiates one school from another in ethos and mission. While they may all have websites with happy smiling students under trees with professors or sunny days and brick buildings, there are fundamental differences. At Tech you will see a good deal of reference to our motto of “Progress and Service.” We are looking for evidence within a student’s background that is in line with this concept. A student who exhibits and embodies these characteristics, while potentially 40 points less on a section of the SAT or .2 lower in GPA than another student or the normal profile is more compelling since data will show those numbers have no predictive difference in determining college academic success. What does a school discuss online or in their print materials? Is your background or goals in alignment? How can you highlight or tailor your writing, course choice, experience to bolster your candidacy?

Tell your full story. Or as one of my colleagues says, “I want to see that they’re hungry (typically not hard for high school students).” Translation: do not let your numbers or stats deter you or leave you complacent. Every year we hear from students or parents after being deferred or denied asking why. Here’s a common lead into that query: “Didn’t you see I have a 35 ACT?” or “Don’t you know our school is the best in the state?” or “But I took more AP courses than your average…” As we unpack the process and the particular application, however, we often find there were many activities or anecdotes the student could have included but did not because they felt their academics would be sufficient. When a student at or below profile applies they know they have to do a great job on every part of the application and put their best effort in as a result. Students above profile applying to schools with low admit rates have to ignore the ranges or averages and do the exact same thing.

Don’t bother with “Chance Me” conversations online or in person and skip to the next item.

Be sure your essays and short answer questions broaden our understanding of who you are—not simply what you’ve done. We can pick up your accomplishments from your transcripts or extracurricular record. We want to hear your voice and deepen our understanding of “why and how” you would thrive on our campus or contribute to the dynamics. More on essays here.

Keep admission decisions in perspective. These are not value judgments or character decisions. Your future, value, and worth is not hinged to what a school decides in admission. So please do not blur those lines. The existence of a holistic admission process means by nature that highly qualified, supremely talented students will not be offered admission. If you choose to apply to a school that utilizes a holistic process, you are also stating that you are willing to accept an admission decision without an “admission explanation” you can fully understand, especially through the filter of numbers alone.

Let it go!

I have little kids, ages 7 and almost 5. This essentially means that, in attempting to raise them, I say the same things a lot, eat the same things a lot, and watch the same things a lot. It means other things too (like leg hugs) but we’ll just focus on the routine, repetitive nature of young humans.

Not unlike a lot of kids, mine love Disney. I think my current movie-viewing count is approximately three gazillion and my song-listening count is double that. Some of these Disney characters, lines, and themes are now forever emblazoned in my mind. They say when you learn another language you start dreaming in it. My wife recently heard me muttering something about a witch and a poison apple, so it seems I am now fluent in Disney.

Over the last year or so, Frozen has been ubiquitous. Interestingly, as Early Action and Early Decision deadlines approach, I think this movie has a lot to say about the admission process.

As you are probably aware, Elsa, the newly crowned queen, flees Arendelle in an attempt to begin a new, freer life for herself. She sings her passionate and cathartic song, “Let It Go,” as she creates an incredibly majestic ice paradise on the North Mountain.

When it comes to writing your college essays this year, I hope you will remember that scene and phrase.

You will hear supposed experts tell you to “be yourself” as you write. I think that is well-intentioned but dreadfully vague advice. To be more specific: Admission counselors want to hear YOUR voice and understand YOUR background.

All her life Elsa had been controlled and suppressed, and it was not until she left Arendelle that she could truly create something unique and beautiful. (Granted [spoiler alert!], she created an even greater masterpiece when she came back later and saved her kingdom and sister, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

You should absolutely ask others for their opinions and editing suggestions but don’t let them steal the power of YOUR story. Neither course choice nor course performance nor test scores nor extracurricular activities (that’s a lot of nors, I realize) convey you as an individual. Those details and attributes may trace a silhouette, but it’s your essay that colors in the full picture of how you are unique from the thousands of other applicants. Since very few schools interview students, think of your essay as an opportunity for the admission reader to really HEAR YOU.

The other lesson we can learn from Elsa about writing college essays is in her song “Let It Go.”

On the back end of the applications, we can see what percentage a student has completed. So when you finish detailing your extracurricular activities and biographical information,  you may be 70 percent or more complete. But year in and year out, applications will sit at 90 percent or so for weeks leading up to a deadline.

My guess is, the angst and uncertainty revealed by this incomplete status emanate from the fact that the essay is the last thing students can control. Your grades are all but set, your testing and scores are likely done, and you either did or did not join that club or play that sport in your sophomore year. But the essay … ahhh, this you can still hold, continue to massage … and perhaps it’s the magic bullet that will tip the scales.

But the truth is the essay alone will not be what gets you in or keeps you out of a school.

So, here is my strong and earnest advice: Choose a topic you care about, draft, write, edit, ask for feedback, refine — and then “Let It Go.”