The Basics of College Admission 2.0

Is this a blog about a podcast? Yes.  

Do you realize this is not the first time you have done this? Yes. But hold on let’s acknowledge that the first time I did that was on March 5, 2020.  A year plus is always a long time ago in the life of a teenager, but a friggin’ eternity ago for humankind in general given the pandemic blur. 

How do you feel about using the term “friggin’” in writing? I’m more comfortable with that than I am the fact that I’m interviewing myself in writing. Let’s get to it, shall we? 

The brief on The College Admission Brief  

65 produced episodes 

53,600 total listens 

Top Countries outside the US for listeners: India, Taiwan, Japan, United Kingdom.  

No commercials, minimal product placement, and generally PG-13.  

Each month we dive into the analytics on our website, social media channels, blog, podcast, etc. Recently, as we did an annual review of the podcast, it was clear that the topics students most listened to surrounded a series we launched last year entitled: “The Basics of College Admission.” That series provided tips and insight about the college application, including how admission readers consider your GPA, rigor of curriculum, activities & leadership, essays/supplemental questions, as well as test scores (particularly in a test optional environment).  

FYI- another very popular podcast and blog from last year that is particularly timely right now was “Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges.” After seeing those analytics, I both re-read and re-listened. Other than giving me a bit of PTSD and reminding me of the “BRU-TAL!” experience, that is one that I’d definitely recommend to seniors getting started with their essays or short-answer responses this fall.  

With all of that said, since we are headed back into application season, our plan is to re-boot the application breakdown series this fall with new episodes and new voices. We thought long and hard about a good title. We brainstormed, white-boarded, design thought, post-it noted, and even brainboarddesignposted. Fueled by Sour Patch Kids, pour over coffee, and Lance crackers (this is the minimal product placement section), we came up with an incredibly fresh title…. “The Basics of College Admission 2.0” Thank you. Thank you very much.  

So, in the upcoming weeks/months, you can expect us to both write and talk about all of the key elements of the application, including tips, pitfalls, and inside the admission office perspective on the how/if to write about “community disruption” on the Common Application, why the “Additional Information” section is there and how to differentiate that from the “Covid-19” prompt, and much more.  

Additionally, over the last year we have been on numerous virtual sessions with students and are beginning to see more visitors back on campus. Our goal is to help you ask more clear, helpful questions in your college admission experience. So in each episode we’ll ask our guests a bit about how you should be framing your questions to get usable and important information. My last blog was about helping you ask and answer “Do I Care?” These podcasts will help you reverse that so you can hone in on the things you do care about and learn more.  

We genuinely appreciate you both reading and listening. As the new year begins, we are excited to continue bringing you helpful, timely, and hopefully succinct and uplifting content. Speaking of- our staff has been using resources from Action for Happiness. Consider downloading August’s calendar and putting this into practice this month. 

Our goal is always to be a resource to you. If you have questions, suggestions, or topics you would like to see covered, please reach out on social media @gtadmission. 

College Admission: It Depends

Traditionally, the work and world of college admission is cyclical. The early fall is about recruiting- hosting students on campus, traveling to high schools, college fairs, and communities to spread the word about your school. While Covid-19 may have disrupted how that was done, the concept held: fall= spread the word and plant seeds for the future. 

Late fall and winter, at least for schools that have a holistic admission process, is about reading applications and making admission decisions. In many ways it requires the opposite skills and focus from the prior cycle- very inward focused and lots of time spent with colleagues vs. constituents.   

In the spring, we turn our attention back to recruitment- convincing seniors to “choose us” from their other options via on campus programs or virtual or regionally hosted “yield” programs, as well as starting to talk with juniors or sophomores about future application.  

And then there is the summer. While students are still visiting campus for tours, and there are orientations and documents arriving to ensure the new class is ready to enroll, this is the primary season for reflection.  

What did we do well?  

What do we need to improve, ditch, change for the year ahead? 

Reviewing My Predictions 

Right on cue last week, Sammy Rose-Sinclair, the “woman behind the curtain” of @GTAdmission social media handles and the engine behind our podcast, The College Admission Brief, asked if I thought I had gotten more of my admission/enrollment predictions right or wrong in my October 2020 blog “The Future of College Admission?”   

A valid and timely question to consider. And, like so many answers in college admission, the truth is “it depends.”  

Is a 3.9 GPA good? Well… it depends. Is that on a 4.0, 5.0, or 13.0 scale (yes, those are all out there). 

Should I take AP English or dual enroll for English 101? Well… it depends on where you are dual enrolling, where you might ultimately apply to college, how those schools accept credit, which one you think you’ll actually learn more from, and so on.   

The truth is you can basically answer any question with those two words and then just walk off stage- or exit the Zoom room, as it were. But I’m not going to do you like that. So, let’s take a look.  

 1- Application volume.  

I wrote: “Most colleges will see fewer, or the same, rather than more applications this year….”  

Well… it depends. Obviously, you have Colgate, UGA, several UCs, along with some nationally known and highly covered universities (known for their plant-based athletic league) saw significant application increases. In fact, so much digital real estate went to covering that handful of schools that many believe it to be the real narrative.  

However, community colleges, regional publics, less selective private schools, as well as large swaths of colleges in geographic regions across our country lost students this year, and were either flat or down in 2021-2022 interest.  

What does that mean for you as a future college applicant? 

Well, only you can answer that question, but here’s another one to consider: Do you care?  

Application Totals Through March 1 

Institution Type  One-Year Change in Applications 
Private, large, less selective  2.23% 
Private, large, more selective  20.66% 
Private, small, less selective  0.41% 
Private, small, more selective  14.11% 
Public, large, less selective  12.97% 
Public, large, more selective  15.53% 
Public, small, less selective  -2.13% 
Public, small, more selective  -0.64% 

In 2020, Colgate’s first year class was approximately 800. UGAs non-resident number was not far from that. Recently, too many people have cited those two schools to be me as signposts of the “craziness of the year.” But if you are more interested in watching Hamilton than living in Hamilton, NY, or you don’t look good in red and can’t bark anyway, do these two places matter to you?  

Let’s be honest- it’s normally “adults” fueling the frenzy of consternation. If you have one of those in your life quoting limited statistics or regularly breathing heavily about college admission because of the headlines, you may have to be the adult by providing perspective and level-setting. Last I checked there were less than 65,000 total undergraduates in the Ivy League, whereas there are over 100,000 studying in Texas A&M system schools; there are 450+ schools still accepting applications right now; and many of the colleges receiving more applications this year also admitted more students due to concerns around yield.  

Mixed bag.  

GRADE: B-ish.  

2- Fewer Apps/ Student, aka A Narrower Net

I wrote: “As much as we’re all fatigued by this pandemic, it is not over. The financial impact on families, businesses, and communities is yet to be fully felt. As a result, I foresee 2021 seniors casting a narrower net when applying to college resulting in a lower application: student ratio.”   

According to Common Application data, unique applicants who submitted at least one application increased 2% from 2019-20 (sounds like more support of being more right than wrong in Prediction #1), BUT “they have submitted 11 percent more applications than last year — primarily to colleges in the Southwest (up 22.73 percent and in the South (up 15.47 percent). The mid-Atlantic and New England schools saw single digit increases.” Whoops. 

Sure, I could tell you that the Common App, while significant, only represents 900 of our nation’s 4000 colleges and universities. I could tell you that, like in #1, this varied across sector and region of the nation. I could cite my comment from the fall, “Let me be clear. There are going to be exceptions to this. Ivy League and Ivy-like schools with multibillion-dollar endowments will likely not be affected as much, so please don’t email me in six months saying I predicted Princeton’s admit rate was going to double. But here again we’re reminded those places are outliers and anomalies, not the signposts, in American Higher Education.” But those would be excuses and half-truths. Yea, it depends. But if we have to get binary, this one is leaning more toward wrong than right.   

What does that mean for you as a future applicant? 

In four simple words—BUILD A BALANCED LIST!  If you remember nothing else from this blog (and I’m hoping you’ll primarily forget where I was wrong), it is this. If you apply to a set of schools that vary in their selectivity, geographic setting, and school type, you are going to have great offers- both in admission and financial aid. Your job as an applicant is the same as it is as a student: research, listen, ask good questions, seek perspective and stay broad/open-minded.   

The truth is that many amazing colleges, due to losses during the pandemic, as well as concerns about future enrollment (see Demographic Cliff/ International fragility) are looking for students just like you. In fact, check your email or mailbox regularly in the next few weeks and you’ll notice this as truth.  

Here is a question- do you think there is another high school in this country where you could go to make friends, get involved, and learn things? How about within your city or state? Would it be crazy to even say there are 5, 7, 11 other high schools out there where you could also graduate prepared for life beyond high school and generally happy? (Hint: the correct answer is Yes.) 

Well… then take that same mentality and go find colleges with varying admit rates and academic profiles. To be very specific: a few below 50% admit rate and a few above.  

GRADE: C (but not a grade inflated C, fyi.) 

3- Bigger waitlists = longer cycle. 

I wrote: “Selective colleges are going to hedge their bets on yield rates. This means they will likely put even more students on waitlists and start pulling students earlier in the cycle (in other words, expect to see more mid-April admits as healthy colleges see deposits roll come in)…Higher education is an ecosystem. As schools continue build their classes through waitlist offers in May and June, they will be pulling those students away from other colleges. This activity and domino effect will extend deep into the summer, just as it did in 2020. We anticipated a more extended cycle as a result of NACAC’s CEPP adjustments and Covid has served to further elongate that timeline.” 

All of that seems to be true and has played out on some level. Honestly, the seemingly low degree to which schools went to their waitlists this year surprised me. That either means yield was higher than anticipated, or they put out more admits in order to adjust for flat-ish yield (my guess in most cases).  

However, the number of students receiving waitlist offers, again according to school counselors (plus a few Reddit threads) did in fact play out to be “obnoxious” as predicted. We’ll see when Common Data Sets are released in the fall, but reports of more than a few schools waitlisting well over 10,000 students are prevalent. AND, the elongated cycle is also proving to be true. 

What does that mean for you as a future applicant?  

Waitlists are used by the school to ensure they hit their class goal. As an example, Georgia Tech initially offered 6,600 students. 3900 accepted a spot, and we’ve offered admission to 240 from our waitlist to this point. While our class seems to be very close to target at this point, we have not released our waitlist. Why? Because we continue to see students melting due to waitlist offers from other colleges, request gap years/gap semesters, and we are watching the international landscape to determine likelihood of visa issuance, particularly in Brazil and India.   

Covid is forcing schools to re-build the predictive model they use to judge yield and melt. This is going to take several years. If you choose to apply to several schools with admit rates below 30%, you should expect to receive at least one waitlist offer. That may sound a little wet blanket, but again college and college admission are all about understanding history, analyzing statistics, and coming to logical conclusions based on information. Just saying. 

GRADE: B+/ A- 

FINAL GRADE 

It depends is the story of college admission this year.  

Were apps/admit rates/yield up or down this year? It depends. 

Were my predictions more wrong than right? It depends. 

Should you continue to read this blog given the consistently mixed results? Well… I did include multiple caveats and disclaimers in that predictions blog, so it’s not like I won’t tell you when I am on shaky ground.  

But here is one thing I do know to be true. If you have read this entire blog, you are a talented, smart, diligent, and committed student. So I’m 100% confident in this prediction: BUILD A BALANCED LIST and you will have great choices and options. BUILD A BALANCED LIST and you won’t need to dig into every line of a Common Data Set or maniacally follow sub threads next year. BUILDING A BALANCED LIST means that every school you apply to is your top choice, rather than reserving that moniker for one place. 

Prediction: YOUR FUTURE GRADE=  A+  

What Will Your Sentence Be?

Lewis Caralla is the head strength and conditioning coach for Georgia Tech Football. Many days, after practice, he records videos for his players that start with, “Hey, guys. Got a message.” While these are brief, they are always poignant, passionate, and indicative of his deep love for his players—reflective of his desire to see them challenged and constantly improving. 

Recently, he started one of these videos with, “I think, in the end, we are all going to be defined by one sentence.” Well…that got my attention.  He went on to ask how people in your life would describe you. What is the “first thing that comes to mind about you?”  

Over the last two weeks, I’ve taken some time to think about that concept and wrestle with how people around me would answer the question. What do my kids say to their friends about me? How do my parents, colleagues, or neighbors quickly describe and summarize who I am? What are the first words, common phrases, and connecting themes? 

At any stage of life, this is a convicting and important concept.  

What do you want that sentence to be?  

What is it right now?  

Where are the gaps between ideal and current?  

If you are feeling really bold, ask the people in your life that you love, respect, and trust to share their summary sentence with you.  

Got a Message. 

When most admission officers, high school counselors, or independent consultants talk about applying to college, they break down the application into various segments. We have done that on our blog and podcast as well. It works well for purposes of simplicity and digestibility, so you won’t have to search online long to find pieces like, “Five Excellent Essay Tips,” “Acing the Interview,” or “Excelling in Extra-curriculars!”   

And we know that most students approach their application this way too. “Ok. I’m going to go ahead and get my Activities section done this week, and then I’ll move on to the Supplementary Questions  next week.” Hey, good on you. I love the time management (just try to avoid “next week” ending with an 11:59 p.m. submission on deadline day).  

Don’t misunderstand me. It is important to step away from your work a few times before submitting in order to either have others give you feedback, or for you to gain perspective and catch things you might not see in your first round of working through the prompts or questions. However, continually talking about the application in this fragmented fashion is misleading, because at schools receiving far more applications from incredibly talented students than they have spots available, that is not how they’re ultimately discussed, nor is that how admission decisions are made.  

I understand movies about college admission will make it seem like these pensive and stoic deans are dressed up, wearing spectacles, and sitting around oaken (a word typically reserved only for admission review and Lord of the Rings) tables, debating for hours the merits of each student who has applied to their prestigious university that year. However, due to the speed with which they’re reading, the volume of applications they are reviewing, and the compressed timeline for making decisions, the notes, conversations, and exchanges of admission officers are more like a Coach Caralla video- informative, personal, passionate, and incredibly succinct.  

The question then is after one of these folks reviews your transcript, reads your responses to essays or short–answer questions, considers the context of your community, family and school, evaluates your activities, and looks over your recommendation letters, what will their sentence be in summarizing your application– and how it fits into the larger applicant pool?   

And, back to the original question, “What do you want your sentence to be?” 

What do you want your sentence to be?

If you are a rising senior, my sincere hope is you will make this a constant question in your college admission search and selection experience.   

What do you want your sentence to be will help guide and lead you as you research and ultimately apply to colleges. It will serve as a signpost for articulating your hopes and dreams and determining if that campus environment and community is a good match.  

What do you want your sentence to be will help you select an essay topic from the various prompts. Students are always asking “which one” is best or “which one” should I choose? Well, let’s flip that. Which one helps you communicate your sentence? 

What do you want your sentence to be will help you know when you are done. Too often students struggle to submit their application because they are either nervous, or legitimately think that one more round of proofing or editing must be done. At some point, that is an exercise in futility.  

Instead, read over your application like an admission counselor would- cover to cover. And then ask your touchstone question—what will their one sentence summary be 

Will they include that you pushed and challenged yourself in the courses that were available in your school? 

Will they include that you were involved, had an impact on those around you, and influenced people positively? Will they answer that you will be missed by your school or community or family when you graduate? 

Will they include that they have a better sense of who you are and what you value from your writing? Essentially, that is what admission folks mean when they say, “we just want to hear your voice” or  advise you to“be authentic.”  

What do you want your sentence to be will help you wait. Clearly, one of the hardest parts of the admission experience for students is waiting on a result. After all of the hard work, preparation, consideration, and consternation, you send your application into the black hole of the admission office. If you are confident that your sentence is truly yours, you will have solace in that silence. 

What do you want your sentence to be will help you handle those admission decisions. We’ve written extensively about this in the past, and while those thousands of words are still accurate and valuable, the bottom line is this—if you are confident that your application accurately and compellingly communicated your sentence, then you will be able to keep perspective regardless of the results.     

Coach Caralla’s video concluded with this, “If you want a defining sentence that matters to you one day, live the one you want.” Bam! 

As you work on your applications, wait for decisions, and ultimately make your final college choice, that’s the mentality I hope you will adopt. It will help you eliminate options, tune out unhelpful voices, focus on what truly matters to you, and maintain peace, perspective, and sanity in the year ahead.  

Live your sentence well, friends.  

 

The Unbroken Cycle of College Admission

This year it seems that the articles, news stories, and headlines surrounding college admission have focused almost exclusively on how significantly things have changed—the “dramatic increase” in applications (at a small set of schools); the disturbing decrease in undergraduate enrollment, particularly in our community college sector; gap year request; no campus visits or recruitment travel, “obnoxious waitlists,” and so on.

I admit to contributing to the chorus of just how unpredictable many elements of the field have been too, including FUBAR yield models, questions about issuance of travel visas, and the eroded “demographic cliff.”

H/T: UC-Davis

So while it is true that the inputs shifted this year, more people wore hats and pajamas to meetings, and the number of cats and kids in admission committee went up exponentially, the rhythm of the job did not change: the fall was still filled with recruitment programming; the winter with application review; and the spring with releasing decisions and convincing admitted students to confirm or deposit.

Ultimately, the actual work of college admission proved to be predictably cyclical, and the comments, questions, and interactions (as well as their timing) remained constant:

  1.  Student calls weeks after application deadline to see if he can submit late.
  2.  Parent disguises voice to receive portal password day before decision release.
  3.  Alumni friend of denied family writes to complain that the admission process is totally jacked up (PG version).

For those scoring at home: The pandemic shook things up but again did not bring in some of these:

  1. You must have made a mistake. This financial package is way too generous.
  2.  I wanted to come clean. I have been emailing you pretending to be my student all year.
  3.  Please audit your process and reconsider your decisions, because it seems you admitted too many kids from our high school.
  4. YES. I’m expecting you to admit her because of her father’s accomplishments.
  5. I wouldn’t call him a late bloomer- he was just lazy as a freshman.

Back to business…

And right on cue, earlier this month we started receiving emails and calls telling us about admitted or deposited students behaving badly.

These accusations come almost exclusively from one of two sources- current college students who “heard something” from their high school or “saw something” online and wanted to report it to the admission office; or from another student or parent in the high school. They almost never come directly from the student involved writing to admit to wrongdoing, a lapse in judgment, or a blatantly immoral/illegal/indecent act.

When we receive these, we pursue them. Normally, this starts by asking the student to provide their summary and perspective. Depending on the response, we will also reach out to the school counselor, principal, or other school official. Most colleges then involve their dean of students, office of student integrity, and when necessary their police department or legal team.

If all of this sounds uncomfortable, messy, and a long way from the earlier jokes about cats and pajamas, that’s totally understandable. Frankly, it’s uncomfortable to write about and the last 17 years of experience.

However, if you’re feeling all of those emotions because you are currently involved in something that you know falls short of the expectations of the college that admitted you, I am strongly encouraging you to be proactive and reach out to your admission counselor.

Owning your mistakes and initiating the review process is not fun, but it is absolutely the right thing to do. Tip: Don’t start with: “My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…”

If you have something to report,  own it. Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined and bagged them at the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off?

Hard to admit? Embarrassing and regrettable and serious for sure, but trust me- it is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances.

A Note to Seniors

Your final semester is supposed to be fun. You have lots to celebrate and enjoy. But I am asking you to be mature and thoughtful enough to hit pause when you find yourself in certain situations or when a “great idea” gets proposed in these next few weeks or over the summer. Each year we see incredibly smart and talented kids do indescribably dumb stuff that has lasting implications or consequences. So before you get behind the wheel; before you go to (or throw) that party; before someone brings out another bottle; when “everyone” is going to jump off that bridge naked in the dark into water at an untested depth; when cramming 12 people into a hearse to go blow up the principal’s mailbox gets suggested as a senior prank; before you post pictures or gossip or antagonizing content on social media, I hope you will thoughtfully consider your beliefs, character, and goals. (If all of that sounds too specific to be made up, well…).

I implore you not to rationalize with phrases like “everyone else is” or “she told me to” or “someone said it was okay.” Have the vision to say no or walk away or stand up or defuse the situation by speaking calmly in frenetic moments.

I encourage you to read your offers of admission from colleges closely. They are promises of a future community. They are based on your academic potential but also upon their belief you have and will continue to enrich those around you.

My hope is you will look around you this week (and every week between now and the time you head to college). Be reminded of how much your friends, family, class and teammates love and respect you– not for what you do or don’t do (or will or won’t do) in a certain moment on a particular night– but for who you are.

Above all else, my hope is you will have the composure and confidence to lead yourself and others with the maturity and character that earned you offers of admission. Finish well.

BONUS: Other “never heards” receiving votes:

  • I hear it’s easier to get in from our school than the one down the road.
  • I understand that my child’s admission experience, and likely their actual college experience, will be almost complete different from mine.
  • I got your helpful & carefully worded email on my next steps, and I read the whole thing!
  •  I have objectively concluded that my child’s unfavorable decision is just a reflection of a competitive applicant pool and not a fundamental bias in your process perpetuated in an urban legend.

 

Soothing the Sting of College Admission Decisions

Listen to “Soothing the Sting of College Admission Decisions – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My son has terrible seasonal allergies. Since Atlanta is basically a city in the forest, spring is really rough as everything starts to bloom. This week his throat has been so sore that he’s barely eaten, he’s woken up most nights crying in discomfort, and has spent his days at school suffering under a mask. As a parent, I want so badly to take away his pain, but I’m left helplessly repeating, “It is going to be ok. You are going to feel better soon.”  

All true but he’s the one having to suffer through the pain and frustration (plus pop Claritin and suck on lozenges). I can support and encourage him, but ultimately it’s just going to take time to improve  

Over the last few weeks, and in the days ahead, many colleges are releasing admission decisions. Inevitably, some of you reading this will be (or have been) denied or waitlisted (or supporting those who do)

I can’t totally soothe that sting, but over the years, I’ve written extensively about my own personal “re-routes,” as well as the experiences of students, family, and friends 

Here are a few that may give you some perspective, solace, and hope.  

Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors. Happened last year – lost an election to the board of my national organization. 

“The truth is we learn more about ourselves when we don’t get something, or when something is taken away, than when everything is smooth, easy, and going our way. Growth comes after discomfort or pain. My hope is you won’t just get through the admission process, but rather embrace it as an opportunity to remember the decisions of others are not what define us. They may change our direction, but character, mentality, and motivation is ours to choose.”

I Have a Brother. Multiple instances of not making a team, being selected, getting a job, getting into his first-choice college, and more. 

“My hope is you will come to understand and appreciate that success is not a point-to-point trip. A life fully and well-lived is not a straight road. So when you feel like things are falling apart; when you look around and believe “everyone else is happy;” when you question what you did wrong or why something did not work out, my hope is you will remember you are not at a dead-end, or even a U-turn that is forcing you to double back. These are inevitable turns, re-routes, and natural bends in the road you should expect on any journey.” 

Handling That MomentJunior year in high school, dumped by my girlfriend.   

If you If you find yourself in that moment, I hope you will have the clarity to know—or the willingness to hear your friends or parents or coaches remind you—of the truth: nobody is perfect. No college is either. 

The Other Side. Stories of current college students who did not end up where they expected. 

“There are many times in life that we need to be reminded to slow down, remain calm, and dream of The Other Side.  I hope you’ll strive to recognize those moments not only in your own life but in those of your friends and family members too. Take the time to encourage them; to come around them; to describe with optimism and confidence the better days that lie ahead.” 

Earlier this week, Melissa Korn, who covers education for the Wall Street Journal, sent out this tweet encouraging followers to share their stories of denial and disappointment. If you are a senior currently awaiting or having just received a waitlist or deny decision, I encourage you to go check out that thread, as admission directors and others from around the country shared their own stories.

I’ve said before and will say again, college admission decisions are not character judgments or predictions of future potential. Getting in, or not getting in, to a particular school does not change who you are, the feasibility of your goals, or define you in a substantive way. 

Just like with my son I know I cannot fully take away your discomfort or pain or frustration with my wordsThat is going to take some timeBut hopefully through these stories and posts will help you begin to believe and see that you are not just going to be ok—you are going to be great. TRUST!