Freshman Application Review – The Nuts and Bolts (part 2 of 2)

This week Senior Associate Director of Admission, Mary Tipton Woolley, returns to complete her two-part series. Welcome back, Mary Tipton!

In part two of our file review series, I’ll focus on how we’re preparing for review this year, especially in light of the changes we are making to our approach. To recap from last week, seeking greater accountability, efficiency, norming and prioritization of staff time, we moved to a new model for file review known as Committee Based Evaluation (CBE). In this model, an admission staff member, the driver, will be paired with a seasonal staff member, the passenger, to review applications.Admission Team

Training for file review every year is a big undertaking, but especially when we are implementing a new model. I am only the encourager and the voice of this implementation in our office, but I can’t take credit for figuring out the schedule for CBE (more on that later) and training staff on the change. I must acknowledge the staff member in our office who has coordinated logistics, worked with seasoned staff members on implementation and ensured all permanent and seasonal staff are trained and ready for reading this week. She has been a superhero in this effort!

Preparing for CBE

To prepare for CBE, we first had to figure out how many teams we could have reading at one time, what schedule worked best for staff, how to cover other office duties (daily visits, phones, emails, visit events, etc.) and where (as in the physical location) we could read. The location piece is more challenging that you may think, given 10 of our staff work in an open, collaborative space we affectionately call the “collabora-dome.” With 12 full-time readers available, we settled on a daily schedule of 8:30a-2:30p in CBE. This schedule ensures we can most effectively utilize our seasonal staff who don’t work a full work day and prevent reader fatigue for everyone. Maintaining this schedule requires knowledge of 42 different calendars and an understanding of each reader’s inherent biases and reading tendencies. In other words, it’s important we pair people who will complement each other and not engage in group think. The result is the color coded spreadsheet you see below!

In two days of “live” CBE and without a full staff (some are still on the road!), we completed over 250 application reviews all the way to a recommended decision stage. That’s compared to less than 200 that had only been first reviewed last year on October 10. These are obviously early returns, but I am beyond pleased with the efficiency gains we are seeing! Once we hit peak reading, we are expecting pairs to read 50 applications in a day for a total of 3,000 per week inclusive of all teams.

Of course, we didn’t just undertake this change for efficiency sake; we wanted to ensure staff felt more confident in their review of a student and their recommended decision because they were discussing the application with a colleague. First, we had to ensure that all staff are normed within a reasonable range of each other (norming means all staff are evaluating the strength of a student’s contribution, fit to Georgia Tech, etc., in the same way). We did this by reading groups of 2017 applications from in- and out-of-state and international. We then discussed their academic and out of class strengths and weaknesses to ensure we were considering items similarly. We got tripped up on a transcript with a strange math class name and a US Citizen in an international high school, but, all in all, we were recognizing and evaluating the nuances necessary to make decisions in a competitive admission environment.

What Does it Mean for You?

Now that you know a little more about how we prepared and implemented CBE, here is what this change means for you. Truthfully, I could stop typing here and say that nothing has changed, but I was told this blog should be no less than 1.5 pages. In all seriousness, let me explain what I mean. There’s been a lot of talk and some consternation about the speed in which applications are read in CBE. As explained last week, the person time on an application has actually increased. Having to only read one portion of an application has allowed us to dive more deeply into school profiles, letters of recommendation and other parts of the application where necessary.

However, there’s a few common sense things I think students and counselors alike should consider, whether the school to which they are applying is utilizing CBE or a traditional application review model.

Fronting Your Application

My biggest piece of advice is to “front” your application (or, for counselors and teachers, the recommendation letter). What do I mean by fronting? It’s a retail term my husband introduced me to from his background working in his dad’s store as a kid. When we first moved in together, I noticed he would go into the cabinets periodically and move all the canned goods and containers to the front of a shelf. I couldn’t understand why he was wasting perfectly good space behind the can of black beans, but he explained to me that it was good merchandising. As I didn’t understand the need to merchandise our cabinets, this was one of the many things we didn’t see eye to eye on when we first moved in together! As an aside, you won’t be surprised to learn that 17 years and a child later, he could care less where the canned goods go in the pantry!

Back to fronting and what it means for you…

Students, front your activities. List your most significant activities first, then put the remainder in descending order of importance to you. It could be descending order of time spent, or significance of impact – you know best what will work for you. We discussed the review of activities in our staff training, emphasizing the importance of looking at both pages of activities in our review, but we all confessed we’d missed significant activities because they were at the end of the list. The same advice goes for the long essay. Just like a book or article, you should work to hook us in the first paragraph. We really do read all essays, but if we aren’t hooked early, we might miss something important in a later paragraph because we are reading quickly.

Counselors, put the most important things we need to know about a student at the beginning of your letter. We don’t need a lead in paragraph—we  need to be directed to the things that are most important for us to understand about a student. More importantly, these should be things the student didn’t tell us, or at least given from a perspective the student does not have about themselves. Many of you are considering using bullet points in your letters. I applaud this move, and it’s really helpful for us to hone in on the information you want to highlight. However, a paragraph with a dot in front of it is not a bullet point! It’s still a narrative. Either format is fine, but put the most significant things early in the letter or at least draw our attention to them with highlighting, italics or the like. The example below is consensus for one of the best formats we’ve seen!

Counselor Recommendations

Above all else, know that we are enjoying reading applications again. Admission is a seasonal profession, and that’s something we all love about it. With this change of season and, more importantly, the change in model, I see a re-energized staff enjoying application review. Reading with a colleague is fun, and the whole process seems less daunting than ever before. I’m excited about the year ahead and look forward to reporting more as the year progresses!

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College Admission: Same as it Ever Was?

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission, Mid-Atlantic, Kathleen Voss to the blog!

In the college admission world, I am considered a dinosaur – which is a polite way of saying I am a fossil.  To put things into perspective, the summer after college, the president walked into my office and said, “We’re implementing a revolutionary new platform called EMAIL.”  When I started on this journey, way back in nineteen hundred and ninety-three, I was 5 years older than most of the high school students that I was working with!  

I remember talking to the kids and completely relating to them.  After those students enrolled, they became like my younger sisters and friends.  We had much in common, I listened to the same music they did, watched Days of Our Lives in the dining hall during the lunch hour, and understood their struggles with school work and social pressures.

These days, I tend to relate more to the parents, many of them graduates of the class of 1993. We commiserate about our kids and share our worries.  I am still musically savvy and can tell the difference between the Justins (Timberlake and Bieber) but I no longer have the time or brainpower for Days of Our Lives, and the memories of youthful struggles are fleeting.

Sometimes, while standing behind my table at a college fair (over 500 of them in my career!), I look around at all of those young faces, and I hear that Talking Heads song… “And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?”

While I am not sure where time has gone, here is what I DO know after 23 years of working with high school kids.

They Are Socially and Culturally Aware.
By the nature of their generation they have been developing skills since early childhood that have aided them in better understanding and “acknowledging the importance of harmonious social interaction.”  Today’s young people are more open to diversity than we were 20 years ago. I like that kids today have more sensitivity to people who are different, and more confidence in sharing those differences.  There is no doubt in my mind that young people are evolving by being exposed to all types of diversity.

They Work REALLY HARD!
According to Business Insider, kids today are taking 27.2 credits, compared to the 23.6 that high school kids took in 1990. At Georgia Tech, the average number of AP/IB courses our admitted students have taken is 10, and that’s on top of logging hours of service learning outside of the classroom. We see first-hand the volume and personal benefit of service learning. These hours, in addition to sports, work, and all of those other activities found in high school, make for very busy teenagers!

Often I am asked, “Should Johnny take AP Chemistry or stay in band?  His schedule won’t allow for both.”  My response is, “What does Johnny love?”  I tell my own children, “too much of anything isn’t good for you,” and that includes AP’s.  For many kids, they need the freedom that band, art or sports provide to help recharge their brains for those higher level courses.

They Face Pressures That Would Have Given Me Nightmares.
YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat.  Your entire life captured for the world to see! That Facebook meme that says something about being glad that there was no Facebook when you were in high school… it’s the truth!

Many of the young people I meet are burned out. They suffer from chronic stress.  While I do meet kids who thrive on the pressure, I have to be honest folks, if my parents were like some of the parents I’ve met out there, I would be stressed out too!  Asking about the college profile for your 1st grader because you want to make sure they are in the “right” classes, calling the admissions office to tattle about the disciplinary infractions of your child’s classmates, writing your daughter’s application essay because “I can just do it better,” berating guidance counselors when your child doesn’t get into the school that only accepts 5% of its applicants… where does it end?

One of my colleagues at an exclusive private school in the Washington DC area begins his college night presentation for parents with the following statement; “think about your alma mater…. over 50% of you would be denied admission if you applied there today… can you give your kid a break?”

They Are Going to Be Okay.
I have answered the same questions for 23 years: “What is your average GPA? SAT? ACT? How hard is it to get in? My friend said you don’t accept grades under a B, is that true? My counselor said that I don’t have enough safety schools on my list, what do you think? ”  I’ve seen some kids come in on fire and burn out in a semester… others needed a few months to acclimate and then take off. But in the end, most made the right college decision, especially if they were true to themselves.  In his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni does a great job explaining why it’s what the student does in college, not where they go, that determines success.

I’ve told parents and students at all of those college fairs and visits to high schools is that it IS going to be okay.  A year from now you will have landed, and if you stay true to yourself, it will be enough.

Finally, there really will come a time when all of this will be a blip on the radar. Your college journey will be a story that you tell your own kids when you, too, are a dinosaur.

“Same as it ever was… Same as it ever was…”

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The Coalition Application, perspective for professionals

Since the Coalition Application was announced in September, it has spurred significant press, healthy debate, and at times, heated criticism.  Let me be clear: I do not work for The Coalition Application.  So just as much as we tell students not to take one tour guide’s voice as gospel, please know this is not intended to be inclusive of all members, nor is it the “party line.”

What It Is (always wanted to be able to use that phrase in an article, so we’re off to a good start):

1) The Coalition Application is an alternative to The Common Application. It is not meant to replace The Common App, nor will it. It is another application option which provides relief for some schools that previously had a “single point of failure with only one application (which, as you may recall, created difficulty in 2013 when Common App struggled in initial launch).

2) It is a platform that brings together a significant number of colleges and universities, rather than proliferating disparate applications for individual institutions. That union is positive because it creates a larger college landscape for students and encourages breadth of consideration. Whether you work at a private or a public school, whether urban or rural, whether elite or Title I, we all want our students to look beyond the places they’ve always known. Isn’t that partially what college is all about: vision, options, and expanding horizons?

3) It is a group of schools that have had success on many levels in the landscape of American higher education. These places have some of our nation’s best support networks, internship programs, and retention rates. In the South specifically, it includes schools like Clemson, NC State, and UGA (who previously were not members of the Common Application); all schools that have made phenomenal commitments to student access, diversity, support, and success consistently throughout their histories.

My high school alma mater, like many urban public schools, had an abysmal counselor: student ratio. Counselors had a only a few minutes during a student’s entire high school career to discuss post-secondary options. Talented low SES students were often told to look at the local community college or the military, and perhaps college later. Today that’s still happening. It takes approximately 10 seconds to tell a student: “If you apply to one of these schools, you may not get in, but if you do, you will have access to the help you need, likely graduate on time, and will not be burdened by debt when you finish.” I realize a myriad of societal forces encroach between that advice and college matriculation, but the “elevator speech” is practical.

What It is Not:

1) I wrote this upon the initial announcement:  “The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school.” Some of the most passionate ire surrounds incorporating the word “access.” This is a goal. It is aspirational. And it’s very public. That’s all positive, because it motivates member schools to produce classes that reflect their participation.

2) It is not going to completely transform our nation’s socio-economic strata. However, what if, between adjustments The Common Application makes due to increased pressure, and the gravity, influence, and investment of Coalition Schools in this new platform, more Pell-eligible students graduate with lower average debt? What if more students from rural communities apply to and ultimately attend schools where they’re now noticeably absent? That would be a successful shift. That would be a step toward transforming the demographic picture of higher education in America. And that is a step worth attempting.

3) It is not going to to ruin a student’s high school experience. I’ve read hyperbolic phrases like “landmine,” “catastrophic” or “tossing a grenade.” The ability for a student to save some of their best work during high school in a central place that can be pulled into a college application is potentially fatal? Many feel that informing freshman (and their parents) they can do these things will elongate the admission process; that it will “strip” them of their high school career; that it will overwhelm counselors in schools who have high demand parents and communities.  I don’t doubt some of those scenarios could play out.  But those manifestations are due to culture. In “college preparatory schools” and “college going cultures,” educators educate. You put parameters in place that help your community navigate and thrive in the college admission process. Continue to set the rules, provide the insight, and be the expert. Tell your headmaster or principal or superintendent what you need to succeed. Sound hopeless? Sound impossible? Sound unlikely?  Culture is big. Shifting it takes leadership and unified community commitment… and time. But who has a better chance of doing that: A school focused almost exclusively on sending students to college or one with a 450:1 counselor to student ratio where most parents did not attend college and things are the same way now as they were 20 years ago? If creating a platform, rather than merely an application, can help move the needle on college awareness, yet creates some turbulence, I’d contend we’re all better off.

What I Don’t Know:  Lots. Seriously, lots. Not sure how Donald Trump can still be viable in election discussion; not sure how to respond when my four year-old daughter tells me she is going to move to California if I keep saying I love her; not sure about a lot acronyms I see on Twitter; so, again…lots.

What I Know: Students take their cues from us. We owe them sound advice, vision, and an example that is worth following. We owe them a commitment to trying new things, to not being content with the status quo, and to finding solutions to problems that are worth solving. None of that happens alone.  There has been far too much negative dialogue in our profession over the last year. Admit rates at selective schools are down, tuition rates nationally are up, and caseloads for everyone continue to escalate, so certainly there are quantitative factors. I implore everyone to consider how we interact in online forums; examine how the implications of phrases we use fan the flames of anxiety; and minimize common terms like “other side of the desk,” which, wrongly construed, can be unnecessarily divisive. Ultimately, we control the tone, the narrative, and the relationships. Let’s recommit to modeling for students, families, and the press that our field is committed to serving students with authenticity through professionalism.

 

 

Coalition Application

Solace in Uncertainty

Rick Clark
Director of Undergraduate Admission

Recently, as I was en route to visit a high school, the counselor called my office to let me know their AV system was down. She was concerned the malfunction would jeopardize my slide presentation. My assistant assured her, “Don’t worry. He’ll just speak from the heart.” That’s what I’m hoping to do today regarding The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.
If you are skeptical:

Understandably, there has been a good bit of speculation about whether this aspirational new platform will accomplish its goal of helping a more diverse population of students enroll in thriving universities across the nation. At this point, nobody can make that guarantee; however, the effort is noble, well-intentioned, and worth striving for, especially given the need to enhance socio-economic and geographic diversity on campuses and, ultimately, in the workforce.

If you’ve been walking around with one eyebrow raised since this press release, then kudos to you. Skepticism is part of what brings about excellence, innovation, and improvement. The people of St. Louis in the 1870s would not walk over the first steel bridge across the Mississippi until an elephant did.  Still, let’s commit to “benefit of the doubt” support and check back after a year — or better yet after three or four years (given that the platform aims to bring students into the process earlier in their high school experience) to see if participating schools have indeed been able to enroll more Pell-eligible or first-generation students.
I’m excited…

If you are in the college counseling or admission field, you believe in competition. We tell students all the time to compete against the curriculum: to push themselves and try new things, even if they sometimes fail, in order to be stronger, better, faster, smarter, and more successful long term.

So one reason I’m glad to see “The Coalition” option emerge is because it introduces a new mechanism for college search and entry, forcing those of us in the marketplace to respond, review, revise, and ultimately consider how we can make our product, communication, and results better. And who wins in that? Students.
I’m nervous…

Sure, I have some reservations about installing a new application system. What will this mean for staff training and multi-app file review? How can we effectively communicate to high school freshmen and sophomores through this platform and develop logical and distinct messaging based on grade, stage, etc.?

How about practical questions such as: What’s the schedule for application release, review, launch? How will we upload documents and which ones? When will students create accounts and who needs to be involved to help them do that successfully? What will be required for initial set up and maintenance? Even writing all this makes me sweat a little. So, yes, there’s concern on the college side about what this will mean for our processes.

But here’s what I keep coming back to as it pertains to change: Progress in history has always demanded disruption. And for me personally, when fear of a new process trumps the potential to provide access to currently underserved students and enhance institutional diversity, I’ll know it’s time to quit my job.
We’ve seen this before…

A few years ago, Georgia Tech migrated to The Common Application. That announcement was met internally and externally with skepticism, some heavy breathing, and a good bit of caffeine consumption. Many in Georgia and beyond felt the Common App was simply a ploy to increase applications or raise selectivity. Many on our staff accurately foresaw the work this would necessitate from IT, as well as  Institute Communications.Our goal, however, was to diversify geographically, in gender, in ethnicity, in curriculum, etc.

Two years later, those goals have been met — this year’s freshman class boasts the most women and African-American students in Tech history. Our first generation population is up, and our Tech Promise scholars are thriving. And the truth is, the collective and at times herculean effort required to implement the Common App bonded staff in our office and around campus. This is my hope for The Coalition too.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school. Yes, it will create more work, and yes, it will create some confusion. But I believe it will all be worthwhile in our collective effort to serve students, improve the college academic environment, and ultimately serve our nation in producing a diverse workforce for the future.