The Discipline of College Admission

Listen to the audio version here.

If you are not one for imposed holidays, you’re in the right place. Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote about how love and admission have a lot in common. This V-week we are going full contrarian and talking about school discipline.

Most applications ask students to report discipline/behavior history, including suspension, expulsion, and arrests. In acceptance letters colleges discuss both the need to keep your grades up, as well as your responsibility to inform them if you have some form of school or community discipline incident after you’ve been admitted.

I’ve had several questions about this topic on college panels recently, so this is my attempt to address those and provide broader insight. As always, I’m writing generally and do not claim to speak on behalf of all colleges. If, after reading this, you have specific questions, call or contact the particular school you are interested in (don’t worry–you won’t be the first to disguise your voice or indicate you are “asking for a friend”).

The short answer: schools use the same individualized, holistic process for reviewing a student’s discipline history that they do for reviewing academic or extra-curricular background.

Here’s the long answer.

Context. Typically, the first question admission counselors ask when they open an application is “where does this student live and go to school?” The goal is to understand who you are, where you are from, and what your family, academic, social, and community background looks like. Admission counselors are charged with gaining perspective on your high school setting and experience in order to understand both the options available to you and the choices you made, both inside and outside the classroom.

Context MattersMoved three times in high school? Had a two-hour commute each day? Saw mom and dad go through an ugly divorce? Suffered a concussion or another illness that caused a prolonged absence? In college application review, context matters. Context is critical. Therefore context is always considered.

The same is true of our review of your disciplinary background. I once read the application of a student who was arrested for being in a dumpster behind his school. Why? Because his mother was working a double shift and had not left him a key to their apartment, so he was looking for warmth and shelter. Another student was arrested for being in a dumpster after spray painting the school with graffiti and slurs (the dumpster was simply where the police found him and his friends hiding). As you can see, context matters—and context will always be considered.

Timing. In their academic review, many colleges separate a student’s 9th grade GPA from their 10th-12th grade academic performance. This does not mean grades in Geography or Geometry in freshman year don’t matter, but rather indicates we recognize they’re not as predictive of academic success in college as grades in higher level courses (this is also why committees look at grade trends in a holistic review process).

Timing is also one of the factors admission counselors consider when reviewing a student’s discipline record. No, we don’t love your sophomore year suspension, but if there are not additional infractions, we are likely to exercise grace, consider it an isolated incident, and trust you learned a valuable lesson. The bottom line: holistic review = human review. Admission deans, directors, counselors may look polished or established now, but we’ve all made plenty of mistakes (I likely up the overall average). It is important you know we bring our ability to make judgment calls into our review of transcripts, test scores, family background, non-academic impact, and yes, disciplinary infractions as well.

Process. The admission “process” is not just for students. Colleges also have an entire process, including one for review of all elements of an application. In most admission offices, there are initial guidelines for discipline/behavior/criminal review. Most of the questions relate to severity, timing, the school’s action, and the implications that incident had on other students. If the situation warrants additional review, staff members escalate it to an Associate Director, Dean, Director, or an official review committee. At this point, 99% of cases are cleared without further action. However, if the case requires another layer of review, schools will involve partners from around the university for insight and areas of expertise, e.g. Dean of Students, General Counsel, and perhaps Chief of Police or other security representatives.

Having participated in many of these layers, I am always encouraged by how thoroughly and thoughtfully questions are asked and facts are gathered. One of the most difficult things about living in this beautiful but broken world is coming to the realization that as much as we may desire it, there are few things that are 100% good or bad; 100% right or wrong; 100% black or white.

Ownership.  Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. 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.

“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? 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? We’re listening.

Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation.

A Final Note to Seniors

Your final semester is supposed to be fun. You have lots to celebrate and enjoy: games, productions, awards ceremonies, spring break, prom– tradition upon tradition, and last upon last. I get it.

I ask you to please hit pause when you find yourself in certain situations or when a “great idea” gets proposed in these next few months. Each year we see incredibly smart and talented kids do

Class of 2019
FYI- Wow. What a diversity of Google images you get when you search for “seniors.”

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 maturity and vision to say no or walk away or stand up or defuse the situation or speak 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.

I said there would be no cheesy Valentine’s sap here, and I’m sticking to my promise. True love is not capable of being boxed up and forced into one day. It can’t be captured in a card. Instead, it is both shown and proven over time. My hope is you will look around you this week (and every week between now and graduation). 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 consistently.

Above all else, my hope is you will have the composure and confidence to lead yourself and others with character in these final months of high school. Finish well.

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What The…?!

Listen to the audio version here!

Young kids are like productivity’s kryptonite. A good day is two steps forward, one step back. I’m not saying they aren’t cute. I’m not warning you not to have them in the future. I am saying any adult who manages to keep these young beings alive, while also accomplishing more than the most mundane, perfunctory tasks, deserves to be praised, exalted, and cheered in the city square.

Just when you think you’ve washed all the dishes, you turn around to see an abandoned half glass of milk and two casually nibbled carrots on the counter top. And what is this in your periphery vision? Why it’s a lone striped sock, discarded by someone next to the fireplace. Mowing the lawn now involves an extra 30 minutes of post-cut clean up because of the 23 Nerf bullets shredded into hundreds of tiny pink, green, and orange pieces and sprayed all over the walkway and bushes.

If I’m being honest, in these moments I really have to watch my temper, tone, and tongue (a different three T’s than discussed a few weeks ago). Typically, I exhale deeply, close my eyes, and slowly bow and shake my head. Sometimes the sage words of Jimmy Buffett assuage my frustration, “If we couldn’t laugh, we’d all go insane.” But in most cases, amidst a swirling combination of confusion, exasperation, and uncertainty, all I can utter is, “What the…?!”

Here are a few recent examples:

Rick Clark's Kids
I admit this could be called progress after the peeing in the vent story from a few years ago. That, however was more like no steps forward and $1200 back.

Yesterday, I received this Facebook memory of my kids. Looks innocent enough, right? Creating a work of art out of old cereal boxes on the surface may look like a commitment to sustainability and artistic expression. No. This was a mandated “project” that resulted after finding bins of wrappers, boxes, cartons and other trash our son had been hoarding in his room for months. Bins—plural! What the…?!

Just before bed one night last week, my wife asked me, “What is that goo on the floor in the kitchen? It’s an odd green color and seems to be spreading.”

I don’t know. Where? You didn’t smell it or try to clean it up?

“I wasn’t touching that. Could not tell what it was.”

Stumbling downstairs, I saw the substance in question. It was a brownish-green puddle a few inches in diameter. Food? Human discharge of some kind? Melted Play-Doh? A combination of all three? What the…?!

And today, I went to the refrigerator in the morning for some yogurt only to find a few mechanical candles randomly placed on the shelves. Not destructive, but again, “What the…?!”

On The Road

It’s recruitment season, and while traveling to high schools recently I have had a disproportionate number of questions about the open-ended section of the application called “Additional Information” or “Special Circumstances.”

“Is it going to hurt me if I don’t answer that question?”

“Can I include one of the essays I could not fit anywhere else here?”

“I’m a poet and was thinking about including…”

“Would you call filling this section out demonstrated interest?”

I get it. Most of the college application is straightforward. Name: check. Address: got it. School information: no problem. Activities, Essays… all of it makes sense.

Then there’s this: “Do you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application?” If you select yes, you have a free form box that allows up to 650 words. No additional instructions. No examples. No guidance.

Most applicants neither use nor need this section. In other words, unlike the unidentifiable goo on the floor, you can just leave it be. For those that do complete it, these are the three big bucket reasons:

Significant life events.

You had mono as a junior and missed the first two months of school. Your parents’ divorce was finalized in the summer before senior year but the end of eleventh grade was filled with turmoil. You moved three times during high school due to a parent’s job transfer, promotion, or loss. These are just some of the examples we see in this section. Readers appreciate the perspective you can provide and they will make notes or highlight pertinent pieces they believe are relevant to their review and admissions decision, especially as it relates to overcoming challenges, persevering, or demonstrating tenacity/grit. In some cases, this information may lead them to add to or revise their notes from prior sections.

Academic Context.

Readers want to know if your schedule choices were impacted during high school. Are some courses only offered at certain times? Was a class you had hoped to take canceled due to low enrollment? If you moved multiple times during high school, readers will see that on your transcript, but you also have an opportunity to tell them what impact that may have had. If your move precluded you from being able to take a certain course or begin on a particular curricular track upon arriving at your new school, feel free to elaborate in this space.

Additional Activities.

There are times when the activity section is too limited in space for you to demonstrate the extent to which you contributed. Often this surrounds a business you started, a fundraiser you need to provide more details about, or additional levels of achievement from an activity you listed earlier in the application. Remember, this is “additional” for you– and to an extent it is additional for admission committees. HINT: Put your strongest, most compelling information FIRST in the activity section. Do not intentionally bleed over into additional information unless it is absolutely essential to convey the depth of your work or time.

Still unsure?

Ask your school counselor for their advice. See what their experience has been in the past with students who have used this section. You can also simply call or email the school you are applying to and ask them for their advice.

This is a section about necessary whys or what else– not the place for another essay. Instead, readers evaluate this section looking for pieces of information that provide valuable context (inside or outside the classroom) that you cannot convey elsewhere. Do not over think it! If you believe you have something noteworthy to add, then use this section. Readers will incorporate what they deem helpful and dismiss what they do not. It is as simple as that. It will not hurt you if you do not complete this section (again, most students do not), or if you include something that is deemed irrelevant.

It is called “extra” or “special” because it is not standard. Readers will not combine those two words in their head and assume any applicant completing this section is “extra special.”

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Advocacy is the New Application

This week we welcome Admission Counselor Mikala Bush to the blog. Welcome, Mikala!

School counselors and teachers, this blog’s for you!

Over the summer our staff prepared for the upcoming recruitment and application cycle. While we were certainly busy, we also had time to have fun, share ideas, and enjoy being together. We had a huge list of must-see movies and TV shows on our whiteboard to check off before summer ended. A few of my personal favorites include Ladybird (which should have won every Oscar!), Waiting for Superman, and Precious Knowledge (especially if you’re into educational documentaries), and most importantly the phenomenon known as O.I.T.N.B.

I’ve joined the millions of binge watchers who are currently hibernating with the newest season of Orange is the New Black, an Emmy-award winning show. In its sixth season, the theme is all about advocacy. The characters are advocating for themselves, for each other, and for better conditions while serving their time.Orange is the New Black

Are you in(mate)?

Advocacy, in most situations, is giving voice to those who do not have one or expanding/amplifying someone else’s story. In college admission, students certainly have the opportunity to advocate for themselves (in their essays and supplemental questions), but they also rely heavily on school counselors and teachers to do this for them through recommendations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Advocacy is the New Application (see what I did there?).

Before starting in admission at Georgia Tech, I was a college adviser at an amazing public high school here in Atlanta. In that time, I often wondered how best to advocate for applicants.

As admission counselors, our advocacy looks a bit different but we still fight hard for your students. We highlight their self-awareness, passion, grit, perseverance, and we defend the setbacks that are out of their control. We ask where did this student start in the race and how have are they finishing? Each student is given full analysis with respect to their high school – be it the culture, policies, or the community that surrounds it.

Now that I’m on the inside (get it) I’m here to help you highlight important elements of a student’s story in your letters of recommendation.

What are you in for?

Letters of recommendation can be extremely helpful in the review process when they provide insight into a student’s story. Unfortunately, the majority of letters sound like this:

Johnny is a caring, charismatic, courageous student. He has a 4.0 GPA and a 34 on the ACT. He is involved in X, Y. AND Z activities. He would make a great addition to your campus.

While all of these characteristics may be true, admission readers have seen this information elsewhere in the application. A recommendation letter should highlight something new. If you are a teacher, highlighting a project that a student completed, how they interact with others in class, how they react to challenges, or the insightful questions that they bring to the discussion can really help tell a more complete story. Your voice is invaluable to us because it represents an on the ground angle that we simply do not hear anywhere else in the application.

If you are a counselor, ask yourself: How is this student different from others in the class, grade, school, etc.? How is this student perceived by peers and faculty? What might this student undersell or not see in themselves that I can highlight? Addressing these questions will ultimately lead to a better letter that shines a new, broader light.

Your past crimes don’t define you.

One of the subtle points students, and recommenders, forget is that we, as admission counselors, are human! We don’t expect perfection. When I worked as a school counselor, I once hosted a college visit in which I noticed there were more students in the session than had registered for the event. I then realized five students skipped class to meet with this particular college. I made a stern announcement about visit protocol and how to participate with the approval of teachers. Of the five, only one came up to me after and said “Ms. Bush, I was one of those students who did not get permission to come today. I am sorry and promise it will never happen again.”

This student showed courage to admit her mistake, apologized, and corrected it rather than slipping off quietly like her peers. The situation spoke to her character, which I was happy to later write about and advocate for in her recommendation letters.

Give yourself permission to write about students as humans – beautiful, flawed, and improving over time. I realize vulnerability and imperfection may seem contradictory to a process that is supposed to be about putting the best foot forward, but providing somewhat sensitive, yet unquestionably authentic information in your recommendation letters allows you to highlight growth and potential—and to both celebrate the student’s past and advocate for their future!

Are you a supporting witness?

Teachers, before you agree to be a recommender, help them answer these questions: Does this person know me well? Can they speak to my personality and character inside, and ideally also outside, the classroom? Have I spent quality time with them? Will they be an enthusiastic advocate? Remind them that often the teacher who can write with the most clarity and excitement is not necessarily the person in the academic area they plan to pursue in college.  That’s right–sometimes the best recommendation for a future physics major is the drama teacher!

My One Free Call…

Finally, I want to take a moment to say, as a former school counselor, to simply say, “THANK YOU!” Thank you for service to students. Thank you for your time, concern, and sacrifices. Thank you for writing and counseling these kids. Thank you for your advocacy!

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That ONE Thing!

You can also listen to the audio version of this blog here.

On Father’s Day we had my parents over for dinner. It was a beautiful early summer night. June in Atlanta can get pretty sticky, but there was a nice breeze. We sat outside and laughed, talked, listened to music, played a few spirited rounds of corn hole, and watched our kids put on some impromptu “shows.”

I had a conference set to start in Asheville, NC the next day at noon, so throughout the afternoon and evening I was progressively packing. You may have heard of progressive dinners– this is the lesser-known cousin. On the way to check the food on the grill, I put my phone charger and sunglasses in the truck. After setting out a few chairs in the yard, I put my bag and running shoes in the backseat. Some would call it multi-tasking, others would call it completely inefficient. It’s our differences that make the world interesting, people. Embrace diversity of approach and thought.

My parents left around 8 p.m. We cleaned up the yard and kitchen and got the kids ready for bed.  Hugs, prayers, put one idle corn hole bag back to the garage, and then I left around 9 p.m. for the 200-mile trip.

Heading for the hills…

Asheville, NC (Visit soon. There is something for everyone.)

With a full tank of gas, a couple great podcasts (highly recommend We Came to Win during the World Cup), and a few friends to call on the way, the drive passed quickly. I pulled into my friend’s house around 12:30 a.m., found the stashed key, and crashed on the downstairs bed.

We got up around 7 a.m. and went for a great run on a lake trail near his house. After a quick shower, we headed to downtown Asheville for breakfast. It was on the way I realized I did not have my wallet. The realization washed over me slowly as I checked carefully through my clothes, bag, and truck. No wallet. 200 miles away from home with no cash, no credit card, and even more disconcerting, no driver’s license.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I have arrived to work, drove to the store, and showed up at the gas station wallet-less. If it’s never happened to you, congratulations! But for me, it’s happened—let’s say once a year or so (maybe more frequently when we had newborns and I was lucky to remember to put on shoes). I’m sure the first six months of each kid’s life significantly inflated my LWLA (lifetime wallet-leaving average). So while I’m no wallet-leaving virgin, I had never left the state and driven hundreds of miles without it before. This was a first. This was a problem.

Here is what I did have:

  • 2 pairs of running shoes
  • 1 hammock
  • 2 phone chargers
  • 2 ear plugs
  • 7  (yes, seven!) bungee cords
  • 1 pocket knife
  • 1 inflatable pillow
  • 1 regular pillow
  • 2 toothbrushes (found one of my daughter’s in the console)
  • 1 jump rope
  • 1 umbrella
  • 0 wallet
  • 0 cash

I was only staying in North Carolina until Tuesday afternoon, so I certainly could have done with just one pair of shoes. No bungee cord would have been fine. But you know what I did need? A wallet. Yep. That I would definitely call essential. In fact, you could argue it was really the only critical item.  You can solve a lot of problems with a wallet. Forget a belt? Credit card. Pulled over in rural South Carolina? Driver’s license. Thirsty? Cash.

The Most Important Thing

I can’t tell you how many times after an admission presentation someone has come up and said, “Thanks. Really enjoyed that. So I heard you say grades and test scores and extracurricular impact and essays all matter,” and now leaning in closer as if to assure me the secret is safe, “But what’s the MOST important thing?” When a student is denied admission, we also receive countless calls and emails (apologies for a few currently unreturned) asking where they fell short. Was it my GPA or number of APs? Did I not have enough volunteer hours? Should I have done two years of cul-de-sac whiffle ball to enhance my sporty side?

The answer, of course, is never that simple. It’s never really just one thing in holistic admission review and decisions, because by definition they are broad and subjective. It’s not a formula ruined or solved by one factor.  Yes, nine AP courses does sound rigorous. But that one thing is not going to carry a decision. Your 1500 SAT is great. Still, it’s not the only thing. 28 ACT? Sure, lower than our average, but not going to keep you from being admitted. It’s awesome that both your parents are alumni, but again, not the only thing. No, the fact that you switched schools is not why you were denied. Yes, we did super score that to a 1500. Wait…ma’am didn’t you call two days ago with the same question?

Maybe as humans we just like simplicity and a clean answer. Give me the pill. Give me one reason. Yes, I’m hearing you describe all the problems my car has… bottom line, how much is it going to cost to fix it? You said it’s not me, it’s you. But exactly why?

I’m not going to lean in after a presentation and give that one thing. First, it would be creepy if we were both leaning in. Second… actually, there is not a second in this case. Since you’ve paid such a high price to subscribe to this blog, I’m going to give it to you for free today.

This is the one thing.

LISTEN. Yes, listen.

Listen to your counselors. They will say you can apply only to schools with admit rates below 20%. When you don’t really listen, that’s all you hear. April rolls around and you are on a bunch of waitlists or straight denied and there is finger pointing, gnashing of teeth, and a whole lot of second guessing. When you listen, you hear them add, “But it’s important that you also include a few foundation schools where your likelihood of being admitted is very high, you have an affordable option, and you might also be offered a spot in their honors program.”

Listen to your parents when they say it’s not a problem to apply to schools whose tuition is over $65,000 a year. When you don’t listen, you miss this part: “however unless they provide you a scholarship, a waiver, a significant discount, or an aid package that moves the actual cost closer to $32,000 a year, it won’t be a realistic option.” FYI. This listening thing extends beyond college admission. When you really listen to them, you’ll also pick up on a lot more “I love you’s” than you are currently hearing/feeling.

Listen to kids from your school or team or neighborhood who are in college when they come home over winter break and talk about how much they love their university. And recall (not technically a second thing because recalling is just remembering your prior listening) how only last year that was not their first choice school.

Listen to your teachers when they say they’ll be happy to write you a letter of recommendation. Inevitably, there is also the caveat of “but I’ll need you to tell me at least two weeks ahead of the deadline because I have lots of others to write and I’ll be taking my own kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween night.”

Listen to admission counselors when they come to your school this fall or you visit them on campus in the summer and they tell you what they’re looking for in applicants. When you don’t pay attention, you end up writing a terribly generic essay or deciding it’s not important to do the “optional” interview. When you listen, you pick up on all kinds of distinguishing characteristics and institutional priorities that can help you decide whether you really want to apply there, and if so, how to put your best foot forward in their process.

On the Road

I’m writing this post from Canada. For this trip we had checklists for packing. We distributed clothes and shoes and books and toys in our various bags to avoid weight limits and ensure the kids could help carry some of the load. But you know the very first thing I grabbed the morning we left? My wallet. It was the one thing I was not going to forget.

Like traveling there are elements of the admission process you cannot completely control or plan for. There may be some curveballs, frustrations, uncertainty and complications. But now you know the one thing you really need. The one thing you can do. The one thing you completely control. The one thing to keep with you through your entire admission experience. The one word to remember: listen.

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Admissions Festivus

I recently had the opportunity to co-write this article with my friend and colleague, Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling at The Derryfield School, an independent day school in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Here are the first few paragraphs to give you a sense of the premise:

College counselors who work in secondary schools, and college admission officers who represent universities, are by and large affable people. We are in this field not because we revel in being “gatekeepers,” but because we love students and deeply value education and the opportunities it brings. Conversations at professional conferences are typically wide-ranging, entertaining and passionate; from football to politics; from travels to cooking; from The Simpsons to Stranger Things.

Festivus

However, there are times when we disagree or simply dislike the way the other operates. And since our nation has too many poor public examples of finding understanding and middle-ground, we owe it to our students to model honesty and open communication. Unfortunately, as in all industries, there are some deeply entrenched patterns and phrases that can be divisive. Perhaps the biggest culprit in our profession is the notion that we are working on opposing “sides of the desk.” “Sides” fortifies our two roles and connotes division and intractable positions. The mere suggestion of a “desk” is also problematic in its formality- an austere, unbridgeable chasm.

So, in the spirit of the Holiday Season and the New Year, we’ve decided not only to resolve to stay open but also to turn a phrase and sit “side by side.” And what better way to do that then to borrow from a deeply loved tradition: Festivus. If you’re not familiar with this Seinfeld-created holiday, it’s essentially an airing of grievances.

Read the full article to see our gripes and rebuttals to each other’s objections…