You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

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Breaking Down The Admission Team: Week 3: The Bench

Alright, after a break for the election and Thanksgiving, it’s time to refocus on the important things in life… like Fantasy Football.

If you apply to a selective school (schools that  have an admit rate of less than 33%), they will use a holistic review process. Given that full-time admission staff also needs to travel for recruitment, meet with families, and make presentations on campus, there is simply no way for them to also read every application, front to back, with care and detail.

In Fantasy Football when you’re down a player, you need to have a good bench: skilled, experienced, and readily available to help out when the team is down. And trust me, when thousands of applications pour in on the last two days before the deadline and you are looking at a calendar trying to calculate daily quotas, you can feel down. The weather is getting colder, the sun sets earlier, caffeine doesn’t have its normal effect, the kids get sick and… sorry, where was I? Oh, yeah… the bench. Every good team has to have one, and in admission offices around the country, the bench are the seasonal employees.

 Our Bench: The Seasonals

Back when we received about 17,000 applications at Tech, we had five folks on the “bench.” Now we’ve crossed over the 30,000 mark, and our bench has grown to 15 (for context, plenty of other institutions employ well over 50 seasonal readers). Some schools only hire former admission officers, teachers, or counselors for these roles. We take a more holistic approach, so our bench includes an aerospace engineer, a former TV show producer, consultants from a variety of industries, several GT alums, and yes, some with extensive admission experience. Nationally, more and more of these employees work remotely, but ours mostly come into the office for 20-30 hours each week. They start with a week of training in early October to refresh on our process, learn any new updates, and go through complex application examples. They wrap up their work in mid-February each year.

Our staff loves this group– not just because they lighten their load, but because they bring life, energy, stories, and tons of personality with them each day. We call them “The Seasonals” (but we’re open to new team name suggestions).

Their Job

Seasonals come in specifically to read applications. Exactly which role this group plays varies from one school to the next, but ours are primarily doing first review. They review your transcript, enter your GPA in the system, count the number of AP/IB/ Dual Enrollment courses you’ve taken, note your highest math class, confirm official test scores are in, and verify that your senior schedule is complete. When they’re all reading, AND if our technology (including the Keurig) is working well, AND assuming no fire alarms, AND barring no silly meetings called by the director, they work through roughly 500 applications a day. Think of these folks as dental hygienists: they are poking and prodding around to ensure the file is complete, and clean, before advancing to second read.

Your Job

I’m not going to rename them “The Hygienists,” but to extend the metaphor, you would not intentionally put your tongue in the way of a double bend hook or ask to have your gum pierced by a sickle scaler. That would only lead to a bloody mess and severely slow the work of the hygienist. Similarly, you want to submit an application that’s clean and keeps these folks working smoothly.

1. Follow Directions. Before you start any section of an application, read all directions thoroughly. I know that sounds preachy, but this is a serious pitfall. Most applications specifically tell you not to abbreviate, and that’s for good reason. Sure, we know what Lit and Comp mean. But how about Dis of Hum Geo? Is that math or social science? And some abbreviations lead to all kinds of awkward… for example, Anal. Geometry is uncomfortably common.

2. Run Spellcheck. Senior schedules are basically free form, which can lead otherwise academically talented students to list Psycology, Psychologie, Scicology. Or how about Chemistrie, Cemistry, Chemistree? I’m not making these up, and they’re not one-offs either. The bench has a lot more patience for this kind of thing than I do (they’re good people, I tell you).  But remember that “best foot forward” thing? Yea… it’s a thing.

3. Be Specific. Students often say they’re taking Calculus spring of senior year, when in reality it’s actually Multivariate Calculus or BC Calculus. More information, not less, is the basic principle of holistic review.

4. Send All Transcripts. Have you switched schools in high school? Be sure that you have official transcripts sent from each one. We’ve seen plenty of examples of early grades being misrepresented (and often shortchanged) on the current school’s transcript. Is 9th grade not on your current high school transcript? Get it and send it.

Your School’s Job

1. Quality Check. Some schools (and at least one entire state) send photocopied transcripts (some with test score tapes covering important information). If we can’t read it, it’s pushed to the bottom of the stack until we can get a better copy. Not only does this not help your students and your school, but it also upsets the hygienist!

2. Help Us Help You. On the counselor form of The Common App, there is a place for “student rank.” This is where we should see simple numbers like 2/245 or 11/326. Instead, we will often see 1/119 followed by “Number sharing this rank: 21.” What the…?! 21 valedictorians? NO! Just like there should be limits to the distance off the highway that a restaurant must be in order to advertise on the exit sign, so too should there be limits to number sharing rank.

3. More Information, Not Less. Again, this is Rule 1 of holistic review. Selective colleges are making nuanced decisions. Based on application volume and class size, we are going to differentiate in extremely slight ways. Over the last decade we’ve seen fewer and fewer schools provide rank on profiles and forms. It’s moderately annoying, but borderline understandable. Lately we’ve seen a trend to not provide a GPA. Line crossed. Now we are in a position of making some uncomfortable assumptions about calculations in the absence of critical information.

I’ve heard many reasons from friends on the secondary side for these adjustments. Invariably, the headmaster or board or Grand Poohbah believes that not giving rank, or not giving GPA, or altering a grading scale, or not adding weight, is going to help more kids “get in.” We all have bosses, right? Admission directors can relate to the shoulder shrug, head tilt, eye roll, and knowing glance of “Yep. That’s what I told them.” Just humor me and add that Harvard’s admit rate is not going back above 7% regardless of how you frame your profile… and the bench doesn’t appreciate the extra splinters in the pine either.

Vegas, baby.

Our Seasonals primarily work out of two offices. These are small conference rooms with multiple desks or long tables. One is called “The Bat Cave.” The other is affectionately called “Vegas,” because what is said there stays there.

Don’t let the tips above be like Vegas. Share this, heed this, discuss these points, and put them into practice. We love reading your applications. We want to turn around decisions as fast as possible.

So show some love to the Seasonals as you submit information this winter. Accuracy and the quality of the information you and your school provide dictate their ability to keep the rest of the team moving. So how ’bout a slow clap for the bench?

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What’s Next for College Admission?

While there’s never a slow time for college admissions, the cycle is about to pick up as a new crop of high school seniors work on their applications and think about where they’ll be next fall.  There are several changes that will affect the class of 2021 and beyond. Here are a few trends I’m keeping a close eye on.

Prior-Prior Year FAFSA

Starting this fall the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be available earlier, now in October as opposed to January. And the forms will now use tax information from two years ago, known as Prior-Prior Year, as opposed to just the previous year.

Why does this matter? The change will enable students and families to file FAFSA earlier and receive federal aid eligibility information sooner in the college application process. Currently, financial aid information doesn’t become available until students and their families are nearing college decision deadline dates. While the schedule for Georgia Tech’s financial packages will not alter this year, the new rules will allow families applying to many schools nationally to receive their financial aid information earlier in the process, which will allow for more thorough and informed discussions about where to attend college. Even though the changes start this year, it will take a couple of years before we see the full impact across the higher education landscape.

Every individual family handles things differently, but I think that for the majority of people this is a very good thing. You will have more complete information on the table earlier and be able to rule in and rule out some places. I’m for anything we can do to eliminate some of the stress and anxiety over deciding where to go to college.

Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide, a report, released by Harvard University, calls on colleges to attempt to reduce application angst by not putting as much emphasis on test scores, redefining achievement and promoting meaningful contributions to the public good.

It is forcing people in admission to think differently and strongly consider what’s on their applications and how they are training their staff to review applications. These outside reports put colleges in the healthy position where we are asking good questions about how we can refine and improve the process.

For example, we’ve changed one of our supplemental questions on the Common Application to line up with the Institute’s motto of progress and service as it relates to how applicants are within their families. The new prompt is: Tech’s motto is Progress and Service. We find that students who ultimately have a broad impact first had a significant one at home. What is your role in your immediate or extended family? And have you seen evidence of your impact on them?

The idea is to communicate to students that impact is not only achieved through playing sports or involvement in clubs, etc. We care about your relationships, character, and who you are in your family. These are indicators of your fit for Georgia Tech.

Changes to the ACT and SAT

The two major college entrance exams – the ACT and SAT – have both gone through major changes, and students who are the first to take the revamped exams are stressed over how these new tests will impact admission decisions. Students, and their families, need to remember that colleges aren’t changing how they use these scores. The scores are just one of many factors considered during the holistic review of applications.

I know people don’t like change, and being the first to do something is scary. But I’m looking forward to getting an admission cycle under our belt with these changes so students will see they are being admitted and that this is not something they have to be worried about. Once colleges start releasing admission decisions in December, the tension and anxiety surrounding both entrance exams will begin to subside.

Statewide Tour

Part of Georgia Tech’s mission as a public university is to serve the state and help produce a more educated workforce and a stronger economy. Later this month, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and University of Georgia will kick off the annual Peach State Tour information sessions to meet with high school counselors, students and parents.

This year’s program is bigger than ever. Georgia State was added to the tour, and the three colleges will hold information sessions in 23 different towns and cities, nearly double what was done last year. This means Georgia Tech’s admission team will be within 50 miles of every Georgian.

I’m excited to travel across the state and meet with counselors, principals, students and families in communities to develop relationships that will last years. We want the best students in our state to strongly consider some of Georgia’s research institutions. We will not only talk about the opportunities at our three premier universities, but we will also answer questions in general about the college admission process.

The Welcome Manual: Part 1 of 3

I woke up to the sound of rain on the windows and roof. Not a completely uncommon noise but somehow this seemed different. Then the water started hitting my arm and face and I forced my eyes open.

I was sleeping on a porch at the beach. My family took a vacation last week to Cape Cod, MA. Beautiful area and great to escape the Georgia heat at this time of year. But after a long night of stories by the fire, I had decided to sleep on a porch bed to enjoy the cool evening.  Looking around me at the wet sill and blanket it was clear that it had been raining a while. I went back into the house and began closing the windows in my wife and kids’ rooms. Then I went into the bathroom. Oddly, it was here that it felt like rain was falling directly on my head… and it was.

I looked up and realized there was an open sunroof that I had not noticed during the beautiful, clear days before.  Not wanting to turn on the light or wake anyone else up I stared up at the skylight. Rain was coming directly into my face at this point.

This house was built in 1920. The ceiling was a good 12 feet high and there was a precariously archaic looking crank to close this hatch. I searched the wall hoping perhaps it has been modernized and one of the switches would control it. Flip, lights. Flip, fan. Flip, not sure what that does but it does not control the sunroof.

Finding The Solution

Do I put down towels and go back to sleep? Appealing but irresponsible. Do I wake my wife up and ask for help? No. It’s 3 a.m. and she was buried under 2 pillows and taking up the entire bed at this point. Plus, she’d much prefer a wet bathroom than being woken up with questions I should be able to answer.

So… the only solution: climb. I’m not saying I’m Spiderman or anything, but having young kids has renewed my playground acumen, which as this point was looking to prove necessary. I step up onto to toilet. Put a foot into the wall and my hand on the window sill and pulled myself onto that and the top of the door frame.  I was 6-7 feet off the ground and could reach to 11 or so. Almost there. I stretched further and could almost touch the crank now. But it was slick and rain was picking up. I jammed my back into wall and reluctantly reached to the crank and closed the sunroof. At this point I was dripping from both sweat and rain.  I eased back down to the top of the toilet careful not to make the final step the one that sent me to the Cape Cod hospital. And that’s when I saw it. Sitting in the corner, right next to the plunger was a 2 foot silver rod.  I picked it up. What the…?!  Expanding it out to a good 6 feet like a tent pole, there was a perfect aperture for the crank.

That would have been good to know! I’m so glad the welcome manual for the house included directions to the beach and restaurant recommendations, instead of helpful nuggets like this one. Yelp and Google Maps have got me covered in 2016, but so far there is no “crank” app that I’m aware of.

The Admission Welcome Manual

Part of what creates anxiety in the admission process is what brings about stress in all of life: uncertainty.  When we don’t feel like we have all of the details or good information on something, it shakes us. And then questions start swirling: Should I apply or is this school too far out of reach? Will they like my essay and find it compelling? Have I done enough outside the classroom to complement my good grades? How much will they look at test scores, and will that be the only factor they care about? Will the fact that 10 other students are applying from my high school hurt my chances?

As we head toward August and the opening of applications around the country, it’s clear we need to go back to the basics. Today, we’ll cover the first step in our three-part series, the“welcome manual” to college admission.

Step 1 – Separate yourself

The other day I was talking with a student who just finished his freshman year at Tech. Crazy talented when it comes to film and media. He’s going to have a very successful career, and he’s majoring in business to complement his creative skills. We started talking about the admission process, and I fired off a few questions I love to ask: where else did you apply? Why did you choose Tech? What would you tell a high school student now that you wish you would have known?

And his answer to that surprised me– he said he did not highlight his passion for film because he thought Tech admissions would question if he were a good fit. He didn’t want to “look too different from others I knew were applying.” He actually wrote different supplemental essays for Tech than he did for University of Chicago and Stanford. At this point, my mouth was agape. “What?! Wait… what?!”   I know we talk about “voice” in every presentation. We write about “conveying individualism” in blogs and in publications. We have made videos speaking to this very point. It’s one of those moments that makes me want to throw up my hands.

The entire purpose of the supplemental essay is to separate you from other applicants. This is your interview. This is the one time in the app that you get to convey your voice. That voice is precious to us because it does not come out in test scores, course choice or performance, or even in the activities you choose to participate in. We need your authentic, passionate, individual voice and content there. His desire to combine business and film is PRECISELY what makes him an attractive candidate for us. We saw that he had his own film company when reading his activities and noted he had worked in that capacity within school and the community.

Like many applicants, we Googled him and checked out some of his work during file review. We want to know these things you care about. Shaping and building a class means finding many distinct pieces and combining them to create a beautiful puzzle.

So repeat after me, “Step 1: Write to separate yourself.”  When we read essays and make comments, we use a rubric. On our scale the mid-range is “dime a dozen” or “not a separator.” Basically this means that the essay does not hurt but does not help. It’s neutral. It’s effectively mediocre. Reaching the higher end of the rubric is achieved by augmenting your application with writing that helps us hear you, helps us remember you, understand you. Think about going out on a first date. You want your answers and conversation to be interesting, elaborative, insightful, creative. One word answers that you give your parents about where you went, who you were with, and how your day was are mediocre. (Try stepping that up too– they love you.) You know the difference. Now show us that!

We’ll hit Step 2 next week. In the meantime, don’t go climbing up wet walls in the night groping for a rusty crank.

Fisher vs. Texas… It’s all about the data

I just returned from a 3-day hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest with a couple friends that I’ve known for 30 years. It was an amazing time to catch up and unplug. Before we left we downloaded a GPS app, purchased a topographic map of the area, and checked multiple trail and weather reports. As we gathered our gear at the trail head, we talked to people coming out about the downed trees, river crossings, and overall conditions. We did all of this to try to understand what to expect, how to prepare, and what to bring in order to have a fun and safe trip. We all do this when we buy a car or are thinking about asking someone out on a date, right? We read reviews, we talk to friends, we “shop around.” For any important decision we always want moIMG_1607re information, not less. And so it goes too for the college admission process.

Fisher v. Texas 

If you have been reading or watching the news lately, you know the Supreme Court is adjourning for the summer. In advance of that, they released a bevy of rulings last week, including the Fisher v. Texas decision, in which they ruled 4-3 (with Justice Kagan recusing herself) to uphold the University of Texas at Austin race-conscious admission policy.  For those of utilizing holistic admission processes, this is important because it protects the current precedent (established in Bakke, Grutter, Gratz and Fisher 1), which allows for race to be one of many factors in the admission process.

One of Many Data Elements

In my opinion, however, upholding the ability to utilize race in admission is symbolic of the larger win. To be honest, it’s more about the data. Maybe someone should write a song called, “It’s all about the data, ’bout the data.” Not sure that quite has the same punch as “the bass,” but the concept is absolutely accurate. If you start to take away data points, you begin to deteriorate the effectiveness of a holistic file review process. The entire reason you go beyond a formulaic process (only looking at classes, grades, and test scores) is to get a full picture of each student while reading an application. Take away data elements and you begin eroding the complete picture. It’s like removing critical pixels in a larger graphic. First, you remove race, then gender, then parents’ marital status, and the list goes on.

In fact right now the White House is pushing a “Beyond the Box” initiative and is encouraging schools to sign the Fair Chance Pledge. This calls for “colleges and universities to help remove barriers… that prevent citizens with criminal records from pursuing higher education.”  One of the factors that they cite is that students are less apt to apply if these questions are on the form. I’d like to see the research on that because certainly if that is deemed to be prevalent, it’s a reasonable argument. However, in general, I like to see those questions and the responses. Questions we ask in committee are: “What did the student do… and when? What has happened as a result? Is there evidence of grit or lessons learned?  Did they write about that?” Most of the questions we ask are in hopes of finding evidence that the student has grown and will contribute and flourish on campus.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Applications are built to form a picture, to tell a story, and to provide context. This is why we want to know what extra-curricular activities a student has chosen to pursue; it’s why we read the essays; it’s why admission officers or alumni take the time to interview students. We are constantly looking for history, background, and context.

Undeniably, race is a sensitive subject. And the court points to this stating, “it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.” The race/ethnicity of students, however, is only one facet of a much broader diversity goal that schools have—and what’s crucial to remember is why diversity in all of its forms (geographic, gender, extra-curricular, etc.) matters.

When students live and study alongside classmates from a wide variety of backgrounds, their experience is ameliorated. Rich dialogue and enhanced learning stems from differences. And those differences serve to improve classroom discussion and the overall campus ethos. Being respectfully asked “Why are you wearing that? Why do you believe that? Why did you jdiversityust say that?” in a college setting produces graduates who enter the workplace capable of being challenged and excited about being stretched to broaden their perspective. Ultimately, these graduates go on to bolster communities and enrich their workplace, because they are more aware of people’s differences, needs, challenges, and desires. They create better products, better policies, better communities, and a fundamentally better world.

So while many will take a myopic view of the Fisher result as being about race- it’s really about the data—and colleges need that to improve not only the learning environment on campus but, more importantly, our nation and workforce in the future.