The Basics of College Admission

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Fit

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

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

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

Listen For: Legacy lurk.

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

Further Reading: Cappex and Big Future

Campus/Virtual Visits

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: YouVisit and Inside HigherEd

General Application Tips

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

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

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

Listen For: Underwater karate against sharks.

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

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

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

Upcoming episodes include:

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

The College Admission Climb

A few years ago, I took 10 first-year students on a hiking trip to Scotland. It rained almost every day, and the Scottish Midges were brutal. During the trip, we carried 40-pound backpacks (45-pounds when waterlogged) up and down ancient rocky trails, eating freeze-dried meals for nine days straight. Not everyone thought it was awesome.

The goal of the trip, led by Georgia Tech’s ORGT, was to put students in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment without access to 100 percent of the information they needed, encouraging them to collaborate, dig deep physically and mentally, and find solutions for the challenges that inevitably arose.

In my mind, I’ve been back in Scotland lately, because while the Covid-19 trail is metaphorical, the severe lack of information, the mental and physical exhaustion, as well as the need to get up each day and simply put one foot in front of the other to keep climbing is eerily familiar.

On our trip, the leaders were the only ones who knew what the day ahead would hold. They had the trail map, understood the topography, and could advise us on what to wear, keep accessible, etc. Now, I don’t know precisely what the days, weeks, or months ahead are going to look like for you and your family. I don’t know all of the lessons you are going to learn from this “trek.” But I do know a little about the terrain and climate you are heading into, so hopefully these tips will give you a sense for how to prepare.

(Note: The original blog includes the full story plus specific tips and insight on curriculum choice, admission committee mentality, or holistic admission practices.)

Preparing for the Trail Ahead

Expect False Summits. If you have ever encountered a false summit while hiking, you know how deflating it can be. You fix your eyes on that point, dig deep mentally, and convince yourself that once you reach that peak the pain and discomfort will end.

And then…you realize there is still further to go. You are not done. You have to keep climbing to reach your goal.

Now. If you know there will be false summits, it does not mean your legs won’t burn and your climb will be easy. However, it does give you a mental edge.

My friends, we are headed into a range full of false summits. I expect at some point or another very soon each of us will experience one. It could be that your high school opens and then has to close again due to Covid cases. It could be that you practice this summer for a season that never takes place. It could be that a college calls, emails, texts and woos you to apply, only to ultimately defer or deny you later.  The list of examples goes on and on.

I’m not saying this is going to be easy. I’m not saying it’s going to be fun. But when you talk to experts about what it takes to be successful in college and life beyond, they quickly mention grit, resilience, and resolve. Arguably, there is no better preparation and simulation for life’s challenges than what we are currently facing. Disappointments are inevitable but losing sight of your goals or stopping short is not an option. Lace ‘em up, friends. Expect false summits.

Don’t Hike Alone. If you are a senior applying to college this year, don’t try to attempt this summit on your own. I’ve written a lot about not sharing your college admission experience too broadly or publicly, especially on social media, but you do need a few key partners.

Find one classmate or friend who you trust implicitly. Keep where you apply, where you get in or don’t get in, and your thought process along the way reserved to the two of you. Pick someone who: will give you constructive, honest feedback on your essays; knows you well enough to ask good questions about your motives and rationale; will hold you accountable; and who will encourage, console, and celebrate with you along the way.

Before we left to catch the plane to Scotland, one of the leaders said, “This is not going to be easy. You are going to be challenged and uncomfortable at times, but together we will learn, grow, connect, and have fun doing it.”

Your family, counselors, teachers, and coaches are in your corner. Let them know when you need help, share your wins with them when they come, and thank them regularly for their support. The college admission experience is not meant to be a solo summit. Don’t hike alone.

Celebrate Wins! Our team talks about this all of the time at Georgia Tech and tries to build in natural points along the way to pause and appreciate what we’ve accomplished. Otherwise, we all end up on an endless hamster wheel that can rob us of both joy and meaning.

I’m urging you to commit now to celebrating wins this year. Every time you submit an application, celebrate. Every time you get into a college, celebrate. Consider the work it has taken to get there and the people who have been encouraging and supporting you on your climb. Look back at your hard work and stop to appreciate the view.  Equally as important is that you commit to celebrating the wins of others.

The Covid climb is going to test us all. Smiles and high fives (not just due to social distancing) are in short supply these days. Go overboard on emojis. Overuse exclamation points. Text, IM, Skype, GroupMe, Slack, call, drive by cheering, whatever it takes. Regardless of what is happening on your climb, celebrate the wins of others.

I don’t know precisely what the days, weeks, or months ahead are going to look like for you and your family. I don’t know all of the lessons you are going to learn from this “trek.” But I do know that as much as colleges are looking for academically talented students, they are also looking for students who exemplify character. And character is frequently developed, tested, and honed in times of uncertainty.

Expect false summits, don’t hike alone, and celebrate wins. Welcome to the trail!

Your Voice Matters

Listen to “Episode 14: Your Voice Matters – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

If you have ever heard an admission counselor discuss college application essays, they will inevitably say, “We just want to hear your voice.” Having worked at a number of institutions, I can tell you this is absolutely true. While grammar and style matter, conversations in committee rooms center on what your essays tell us you care about and how you think and operate.

Admission interviews are similar. In fact, “interview” is really a misnomer. Admission reps, alumni, students, faculty, or other university representatives you meet with have a battery of questions to ask, but really they are hoping for a conversation. They are interested in the content of your responses, your tone, your ability to build on ideas, and the tenor of the overall exchange and dialogue.

In other words, when an admission dean tells you they “just want to hear your voice,” they are not only thinking about your application, but also who you will be as a future member of their campus community—and ultimately as a graduate and a global citizen.

Your voice matters in the college admission experience.  How and when will you use it?

Your Voice Matters

As someone who works at the unique intersection between high school and higher education; as an educator charged with building and shaping a class and a community; as the father of two young children, I believe all schools and universities should foster discussion, expose you to new ideas, and surround you with people who think and approach life differently. These communities should serve as laboratories for the mixing and merging of perspectives and the facilitation of open, spirited dialogue. None of that happens without your full engagement and commitment—without your voice.

If you are about to begin your college career, go look at your acceptance letter from the school you plan to attend.

I hope it makes you feel proud. I hope you see it as a vote of confidence, an invitation, and a contract.

An offer of admission is our way of saying…

We trust you.

We believe in you.

We need you.

We are counting on you to show up and contribute. We want you to be challenged and to challenge us. We are offering you an opportunity to learn, transform, and improve. And we are also imploring you to teach, transform, and improve our campus community.

Your voice matters in college. How and when will you use it?

Your Voice Matters Now

These are fractured and tumultuous times. Our world is facing a global pandemic. Our nation is in a divisive and contentious election year. Our cities are experiencing protests and curfews.

Honestly, part of what gives me hope right now is you. On Sunday, my family went to a protest organized by the Beacon Hill Alliance for Human Rights. The first 10 speakers were either high school or college students from the Atlanta area. It further convinced me of what I already know from reading your college applications—your voice is powerful and crucial right now and as we move forward.

Whether you are returning to high school or beginning your college career, I want you to know your voice matters. Your voice can help bring about the change and healing our local communities, campuses, cities, and our country so desperately need.

After the recent killings of Aumaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, there has been no shortage of articles, interviews, speeches, and social media posts suggesting precisely how and when you should use your voice. Ultimately, that decision rests with you.

My hope is you will choose to use it in your school and community to:

  • call out and speak against injustice, inequality, racism, and discrimination.
  • encourage.
  • lift the voice of friends, classmates, or other community members who are marginalized or excluded.
  • inspire.
  • acknowledge what you do not know and commit to listening and learning.
  • forgive.
  • speak truth to power, especially when the reality of an organization or an institution does not mirror its stated values, mission, or vision.
  • challenge.
  • question and protest systems/ status quo that work against progress and equity– and ultimately vote accordingly.
  • engage.
  • call out who is not in the room and work to bring them in as equal partners.
  • love.

I want to be clear. I do not always get this right– far, far from it. The Real Cost of Silence is a story I told several years ago as part of Georgia Tech’s Transformative Narratives project, which demonstrates that fact. But it taught me that my voice matters; transformation comes through experience (often through missteps and failure); our words will never be perfect, but silence in the face of injustice and overt prejudice is patently wrong; we cannot change the past, so we must commit to a different and better today and tomorrow; and perhaps most importantly, not being part of the solution means you are part of the problem.

Your voice matters each and every day. How and when will you use it?

Your Voice Matters, Now More Than Ever

I hope you take this summer to read, listen, watch, learn, reflect, and evaluate.

I hope you will ask yourself big questions about who you are, who you want to be, what you care about, and what you believe. Whether you are applying to college in the year ahead or beginning your college career, those questions are critical.

I hope you consider what you want your future and the future of our nation and world to look like.

Most of all I hope you will be reminded and confident in this—YOUR VOICE MATTERS.

How and when will you use it?

More Georgia Tech Voices 

President Ángel Cabrera’s Statement on George Floyd

A Commitment to Drive Change by Archie W. Ervin, Ph.D.

Dean of Computing, Charles Isbell

Dr. Rafael L. Bras, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs

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

The Real Wonder Woman

As the parent of a 9- and 12- year- old, superheroes have surrounded me in recent years. I’m not talking about watching a few movies or picking up some random trivia or occasionally eating a Marvel- themed yogurt squeezie. I’m talking about intense action figure battles; regular discussions and speculation about individual characters; deep dives into specific qualities, relationships, powers, weapons, and personalities; and more than the occasional role-playing battle that spills out of the house and into the yard (maybe even once into the street, to the utter terror of an elderly neighbor who thought she’d met her end at the hands of three masked figures shooting arrows and screaming about the honor of Valhalla).

I have come to appreciate that while superheroes are pervasive in our culture on billboards, movie placards, and cereal boxes, real heroes have the same attributes, yet they walk among us.

Heroes come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes.

My hero is a 4’11” spit fire from East Tennessee named Nancy Beane. Nancy is retiring this year from The Westminster Schools in Atlanta after a 40+ year career as a teacher, mentor, leader, and counselor. Don’t let her stature deceive you. She has more wisdom, fight, savvy, and skill in her right pointer finger (one she uses often to emphasize a statement while holding her reading glasses) than the normal human possesses in their entire body.

Heroes know their imperfections and have found strength and perspective in humility.

Whether she is giving a speech, talking in the hallway between meetings, accepting an award, or discussing a topic over a meal, Nancy is always self-deprecating. She’s quick to point out what she does not know or who is more of an expert in a particular subject. However, I’ve come to realize you should always listen a little closer when she says, “Well, I probably don’t have a clue about this, but ….” Or “Now, I’m not sure I know exactly…” That’s when she drops real knowledge. It is kind of like Barry Allen speculating about speed. She knows. She doesn’t just have a clue—she has the entire case solved already.

Heroes use their strength and power to help others.

As far as I know, she does not have laser vision in those glasses or a Batmobile or superhuman strength. Instead, Nancy’s power is her access, privilege, and voice. She works at one of the most highly regarded private schools in the South. She has been the president of every organization I’m part of on the state, regional, and national level. Her husband, John, is a successful lawyer (and a hero in his own right). The people she meets and influences on a daily basis in her neighborhood, at local restaurants, and in her college counseling office run the city (cue Oliver Queen). It would be easy– I’m talking about Sunday morning strolling the beach easy—for her to just live in the status quo.

That’s not Nancy. She is a champion. She is an advocate– for her students, for younger professionals in the college admission and counseling profession, for women (especially as a proud Agnes Scott alumna), for colleagues who might otherwise be overlooked or undervalued, for anyone in whom she sees potential. She may have to pull a stool up to the lectern in order to reach the microphone, but once she has it, you can be assured she is going to use that opportunity to skillfully advance causes, give credit to others, encourage students, and skillfully incorporate wisdom, wit, and calls to action.

Heroes don’t look for credit.

Instead, their reward and satisfaction come from watching the people they serve have opportunities to grow and thrive. A few years ago, I watched Nancy plant a seed with a lawmaker in D.C. that ultimately became an education bill benefiting military veterans. Walking out I had no idea what we’d started, but she did. She always does. I think her comment was simply, “That ought to give him something to think about.”

Because that’s what heroes do. They give us something to think about. They see in us what we cannot or do not see in ourselves. As I look back, it was Nancy who first encouraged me to get involved with leadership in professional organizations. “Rick, you should consider putting your name in the hat for SACAC Board.” Consider is Nancy speak for do it.  Four years later, she called again. “You need to really think about getting involved on the national level.” When Nancy calls, you answer.  Often her calls were about her students. “Now, let me tell you about this boy. He’s really something.” I’m guessing hundreds of admission deans around the country have heard Nancy say those exact words. Always advocating. Always talking about how great others are.

Heroes are in the right place at the right time.

Superheroes have an advantage. They can fly or use super speed or swing from buildings to the arrive on the scene. Real heroes just show up. They call. They text. They don’t miss the party or the funeral or the big day. One of Nancy’s greatest powers is being present. She is at the games, shows, meetings, graduations, and celebrations. She calls when she knows you are hurting. She always picks up her phone, or is crazy quick to call back. “Sorry. I was trying to find the darn thing…”  She always asks about family first. She is a hugger.

Heroes pay a severe price.

I am convinced this woman does not sleep. She has sacrificed countless days, weeks, and years serving students and colleagues. Showing up and being available sounds good in leadership books—it’s in there because it’s so difficult to live out. Over the years, Nancy’s advocacy for the under-served has at times drawn criticism from friends, colleagues, and others in power. Using her voice and speaking up has come at a relational cost. This is the price of doing the right thing, of being a champion. But heroes don’t shrink from the fight, and she has only become more invested and committed as her power has grown.

Heroes change the world.

Unlike superheroes, Nancy (to my knowledge) has not moved a literal mountain. But one by one she’s spoken into the lives of thousands of students, professionals, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. One day at a time. One relationship at a time.

In a life that is often challenging, in a time that is extremely unknown and uncertain, in a world that has plenty of darkness and difficulty, we need heroes like Nancy Beane. They inspire us. They challenge us to live more selflessly. They come alongside us, lift us up, and believe in us, even when we are having difficulty believing in ourselves. Heroes beget heroes.

Like all good superheroes, Nancy is known by many names and titles: Mrs. Beane, mom, president, teacher, and counselor to name a few. But those who have had the honor of spending time with her know her true identity: she is the real Wonder Woman!

Congratulations on a heroic career, Nancy. We love you!

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

Dreaming

This week we welcome Dr. Rafael L. Bras, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, to the blog. Welcome, Dr. Bras!

Over the past few months, I have worked harder than ever and certainly worried more than ever. I have been worrying about family, friends, colleagues, Georgia Tech, the nation, the world. But the isolation and the long hours have afforded me some time to think. One recurring subject is my life. Although I have seen my share of failures and disappointments, like most people, I can unquestionably say that I have been successful by almost any metric. I am satisfied and happy — most of the time. So, I have been trying to distill the ingredients that made it so. I can talk about hard work, and about focus and dedication. But, while necessary, those alone are not sufficient conditions for success and happiness. In my opinion, the three ingredients for success in my life are family, education, and dreaming.

I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to a lower middle-class family — not an obvious launching pad for a career and life that has taken me to all seven continents. But my luck was being born to educated parents that had a dream for their children — a dream that could only be achieved through education. I fear that reliance on education as the most important instrument of social mobility may have weakened over time. I am sure experts will chime in, either in agreement or disagreement, with valid evidence and explanations.

I believe that my generation benefited from being the children of individuals shaped, early on, by the Great Depression, and later, by a World War that threatened their very existence. It was a time when the dream of every American was to own their home, have a family, and, for many, to study under the GI bill. The creation of the middle class was fast and dramatic, and correlated to education and hard work. I fear that those of us who made it to that cherished middle class or higher have become complacent, and more self-centered and less family oriented than our parents.

The education of our children is an expensive investment. And, while many truly struggle to educate their children, they try their best. But it is not uncommon to meet individuals who are unwilling to give up vacations, or other luxuries, in order to give their children the best education possible. I can say that my parents spared no effort or expense to offer my sister and me the best education possible at significant personal and financial sacrifice. This sacrifice was evident early on. They made sure I attended the best private school available, a reach for them and for me. That put me in a competitive position that led me to MIT.

I might as well have gone to the moon (which was, indeed, happening at the time). MIT was that far-fetched for all in my family. My parents not only lacked the resources to support me in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I was truly ill-prepared academically and socially. But their dream became my dream, and I was not about to wake up to a different reality.

At MIT, I was surrounded by very bright people to whom the phrase “changing the world” was not hypothetical. It rubbed off on me. All of a sudden, I was not a young man from a small far away island, but I had joined the network of movers and shakers of the world. My parents’ investment literally opened the whole world for me. The investment bought me a very good education but, equally important, it bought me access, visibility, and a sense of self-confidence derived from the realization that maybe I was not any different than my Nobel-prize winner professor or my wildly successful entrepreneurial friend.

Georgia Tech provides that same opportunity to our students. The environment, the peers, the culture all say “You can do that.” If not alone, you can do it with your friend, your roommate, your classmate, your professor, or with one of the thousands of alumni who will welcome you to the network. That network is linked by dreams of those who have been empowered, urged, to dream.

Let’s now talk about dreams. Many have studied and written about what makes us dream when we sleep. A few things are clear. Our dreams, when we sleep, are very much influenced by the experiences of our environment, and they are stimuli to our brains, occurring during the period of most brain activity while asleep. Dreams and aspirations also reflect our environments and are the essence of a successful, fulfilling life. We must encourage our children to dream — not doing so stifles their creativity. The role of top universities like Georgia Tech must be to facilitate dreaming by providing the stimuli, the challenges, the skills, and the network to make dreams reality.

I have had a lot of dreams in life. Many have become reality, and to that I attribute my success. My biggest disappointments in life have been the result of failing to dream or failing to live a dream. We want all our Georgia Tech students to live as many of their dreams as possible and we will do everything possible to help them become reality.

Life without dreams is not worth living. In fact, a successful life may be nothing but a dream and the dream is the life. That duality of life and dreams have been explored for centuries. Pedro Calderon de la Barca, one of the most prolific and extraordinary playwrights of all time (17th century) wrote a piece entitled: La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream). In the most famous soliloquy of the play, the main character, Segismundo, muses (one of many available translations):

“What’s life? A frenzied, blurry haze.
What’s life? Not anything it seems.
A shadow. Fiction filling reams.
All we possess on earth means nil,
For life’s a dream, think what you will,
And even all our dreams are dreams.”

For Segismundo, his nightmare (his life) ultimately became a fairy-tale dream. We must let our children dream, within the family, in the schools and in the universities so they can live the good life.

Dr. Rafael L. Bras is the provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Bras is a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. He is the first Tech faculty member to hold the K. Harrison Brown Family Chair.