Applying to College Isn’t Like The Movies

Listen to the Podcast: Spreaker | Spotify | Apple Podcasts

This week we welcome current Admission Digital Media Student Assistant Sarah Engel to the blog. Welcome, Sarah!

This admission blog has long been written by experts in application evaluation, the admission counselors themselves. But they’ve always hoped you would seek out additional voices in your college admission experience as well—students who can share the culture and community of their colleges as they experience it every day, who can provide been-there-done-that support and encouragement as you navigate the college admission experience. And truly, as a current college student, and the first to write on this blog (no pressure!) I can echo the importance of those lived perspectives. I know first hand that when you’re actually in the midst of gathering your materials, writing your essays, and sending them off to colleges with the click of a button, it can all seem a little…surreal and disconnected. Not only do you have academic and social pressures from your friends and family, you likely have your own, internal expectations and media driven perceptions that hover over you like a dark storm cloud. 

Press Play

Growing up, I recall seeing countless teen rom coms and dramas in which the protagonist is somehow accepted into a prestigious university. Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl being admitted to Brown University despite never attending class? Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls getting into Northwestern despite not understanding calculus? And, of course, the entire cast of High School Musical committing to Ivy Leagues, Juilliard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley? Not once did I see them studying between musical numbers in the gymnasium!

Disney family singalong: Zac Efron joins 'High School Musical' reunion

Now, in the age of social media, we are constantly exposed to “Reacting to my College Decisions” videos of shrieking students surrounded by family members, deserving student stories on Good Morning America being posted across Twitter, and congratulatory Instagram posts for friends committing to universities. As exciting as these seem, I know from experience how they can affect one’s mental health. The neverending stream of collegiate content across the internet, film, and television puts an invisible weight on the shoulders of students to perform well. Audiences (myself included) love the satisfaction of a loveable character embarking on a new, happy journey. But how realistic is the journey really? And what does this fascination with college in the media mean for real students applying to real schools?

Take a Pause

Spoiler alert: life isn’t always like it is in the movies (seriously, how do characters have so much time to hang out before they go to work and school in the morning?) and social media isn’t all that realistic either. When your admission experience looks different from everyone’s social media highlight reel, and Disney’s happily-ever-afters, that can feel a little lonely. But you’re not alone. My hope for you is that you’ll be kind to yourself. Check in on your friends, check in on yourself, have honest conversations with each other, and set boundaries. Hey, I work with digital media in our office, and while we hope to provide helpful content to students, I know that muting and stepping away from the screen can absolutely be an act of self-care. Taking breaks isn’t just healthy, it’s necessary.

Fast Forward 

Let’s look beyond the admission decisions: a fast forward through time for you, a rewind in time for me. Though it feels recent, I applied to college over three years ago (how is that possible?!). I remember dreading meetings with my college counselor, stressing over standardized test scores, reading my essays over and over, asking for recommendation letters, and that agonizing waiting period after applying. But then came the spring of 2019, and I was perfectly calm. Excited for the future, researching classes and clubs, planning out my dorm room decorations, and connecting with future classmates on social media. So much has changed for me since then! What hasn’t changed, however, is this truth: that, after the dust settles and the whirlwind of admission hype and headlines is behind you, what’s in front of you is an opportunity that’s yours to embrace. The keyword here is embrace. You may receive many admission decisions in the months ahead, ranging from exciting and surprising, to disappointing and… “you mean to tell me I have to send them more information?!”  The admission decisions themselves may not be yours to make, but choosing how you move forward, is. 

When I was a freshman in high school, I dreamed of going to a liberal arts college in the northeast. Perhaps Yale University, like Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), or NYU, like Lara Jean Covey (To All The Boys I Loved Before). I thought, with my grades and extracurriculars, I’d be able to get in anywhere and everywhere, that I would live out the dark academia aesthetic of my dreams (a la Harry Potter). But by the time I was touring and applying to colleges, that fantasy seemed so far away. I had to face a reality check somewhere around junior year. I realized I wasn’t getting many scholarships at private, out-of-state schools. I also came to understand that I didn’t want to be all that far from my family. That I could always revisit the liberal arts school dream for graduate school. 

As colleges prepare to release decisions in the coming weeks and months, I hope you take away at least this message: it works out. Everything will be okay. Your admission decisions might not be the fairytale ending you first imagined, but that’s because they were never really an ending at all…just the opportunity to embrace a new storyline, whatever it may be. Don’t be discouraged if your fictional hero or heroine is accepted to every school they apply to, or if your best friend got a better scholarship than you. Remember that you are the protagonist of your own story on your own path. It might not be easy, but try your best, and believe me, #ItWorksOut.

Sarah Engel is a third-year LMC major from Dunwoody, Georgia. Her involvements have included the North Avenue Review Magazine, LMC CoLab, Excel Program, German National Honor Society, and FASET. Now, she works as the digital media assistant for the Office of Undergraduate Admission. 

Launching Your College Application

This week we welcome the Director of Communications for Enrollment Management, Becky Tankersley, to the blog. 

In early September, you may have noticed a change in Georgia Tech’s Undergraduate Admission website. After (many!) months of talking, planning, building, and testing, the new admission website was ready for action!

From a user’s perspective, the new website simply appeared one day. But from a development perspective, the site came to fruition after more than a year of research, planning, testing, and development.

As the launch date approached, Rick noted, “You know, I bet there’s a blog you could write about that.” As I reflected on the process and the outcome, I can see the parallels between launching a website and launching a college application. Neither process happens quickly… yet each ultimately comes to life with a quick click of a button.

As you work to prepare to launch your college applications, here are a few tips on how to plan ahead for success.

Build your team.

Website creation involves a lot of communication, and a tight-knit team to make it happen. Our team includes a Web Developer (with knowledge in coding, servers, and security); a Marketing Specialist (who researched analytics and organized content based on user navigation and data); and a Graphic Designer (who creates imagery and ensures we’re in line with brand standards). My job was to keep us all organized, creating timelines and paving the path forward through conversations with all the other people invested in the project (including admission leadership, Institute Communications, and web hosting).

Each role is different, yet each is critical to the ultimate outcome of the project.

Your action item:

Who is on your team? This is likely your first (and perhaps only) time going through the college application process. It’s critical to have a close team around you to help along the way. Your team may include a parent/guardian, high school counselor, and another trusted adult like a teacher or coach.

Talk with your team, listen to their guidance, and lean on their experience as you go through the process. Most important, be sure this is a team you can trust. There will be moments when you can’t lean on your own knowledge to find a solution, so be sure you have a good team to support you through the process.

Do your research.

Building a website isn’t as simple as creating content and hitting “upload.” We first did our research. We talked with admission leadership about what they wanted in their new website. We talked with Tech’s web team to learn about differences in platforms and servers. We did a deep dive into data, using analytics to learn which pages were used often and which ones weren’t. This data also enabled us see user paths, revealing areas where users were getting lost when trying to navigate from one point on the site to another. We completed a competitor review to determine the best practices in our industry and see what else we could implement (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?).

Your action item:

We’ve said it many times, but it’s worth saying again: do your research before submitting a college application! Here are a few places to begin:

  • Dive into data. Explore the Common Data Set (CDS) for the schools on your list. The CDS allows you to look at public historical information, providing insight, perspective, and trends by looking at multiple years. Check out our previous blog on how to analyze this data on your own.
  • Review mission statements. University mission statements aren’t just flowery verbiage to put on the “about us” page. Mission statements (and strategic plans), drive institutions toward their enrollment goals. Institutional missions matter, so review these statements to ensure your values align with the values of the colleges where you apply.
  • Understand application plans. Early action? Early decision? Regular decision? Rolling admission? Application plans vary from college to college. Check out our podcast for insight into how these plans work.
  • Know the outcomes. Some admission decisions are simply “admit” or “deny.” But in many cases, it isn’t that clear cut. Understand the variety of admission decisions you may receive from each school on your list. For example, Tech admits first-year students to both the fall and the summer terms, yet each year we talk to students are caught off guard. Doing your research now can save confusion down the road.

Create a plan.

When you’re on the cusp of a huge project, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and wonder how you’ll get from Point A to Point B (much less Points C, D, or E). Before starting the work, first create a plan—and begin with the end in mind.

We knew the admission site needed to launch the first week of September. Once we identified the completion date, we created deadlines for our tasks and goals. We then shared that timeline with other groups who would play a role in the site launch. Creating a plan made it simpler to stay on target and keep everyone on the same page.

Your action item:

Look at your research (you didn’t skip that step, right?) and write down all of your application deadlines and due dates. You may need to add in additional dates, such as when to take the SAT or ACT, or when a recommendation is due. Put these dates on your calendar, and just as important, make sure your team has those dates as well!

Don’t allow a lack of planning on your part to create stress and panic for someone else in your circle. Mistakes do happen, but if you fail to meet a deadline because you a) didn’t plan for it, or b) didn’t tell someone else about it, then that responsibility falls on you.

Check Your Progress

Once the plan was in motion, our team met on a weekly basis to check in on our progress. Each week we had new action items to complete in order to keep the project on track. Inevitably, we came across unexpected (and unplanned!) challenges. Weekly meetings enabled us to address problems and/or issues quickly, as well as keep each other accountable on our progress.

Your action item:

Schedule regular check-ins with your team to make sure you’re all on track. There may be times you need to meet more, or less, often, so adjust accordingly.

Inside tip: As you get ready to hit “submit,” be sure you aren’t doing so at the last possible minute! As application deadlines approach, we see a tremendous increase in website traffic along with phone call and email volume from panicked students. Even if you do everything right on your end, expect the unexpected! Real-life examples (that, yes, I have actually seen happen!) include power outages, Common App glitches, internet issues, natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes or wildfires), and unexpected sinus infections that keep you stuck in bed for a day or two.

Take our advice: don’t wait until the last minute!

Follow up.

The morning of the site launch, our web developer did some coding magic and poof! The new admission website was live. But, was the project really complete? No!

Once the site was live there was a list of follow up items to complete, such as addressing 404 errors, helping people find new links, updating email templates, and notifying our division, campus partners, and campus communicators that the site launched and to update their information accordingly.

When a project is nearing completion, I can hear the voice of one of my mentors in my head: “What does ‘done’ really mean, Becky?” It makes me think twice before declaring a project complete, as there are always a handful of follow up items to address.

Your action item:

“What does ‘done’ really mean, (insert your name here)?” Although you may have hit “submit,” you’re not really done!

Access your applicant portals once you have access to do so. Check your email for any messages regarding your application (and READ them)! Allow time for all of your documents to find their way to your application, and monitor your applicant portal for updates. In some cases, an application that is marked as “complete” is later marked “incomplete” if an application reviewer determines more information is needed. Check out my previous blog for tips on what to do while you wait for your admission decision.

Lastly, once you’ve hit submit, celebrate! It sounds cheesy, but take a moment to reflect upon the goal you just accomplished. Applying to college is no small feat—well done! And be sure you to let your team know you’ve submitted your applications, too. Better yet, let them know by saying THANK YOU.

After all, it’s a team effort!

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!    

Waiting Well in Uncertainty

This week we welcome Senior Admission Counselor Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome back, Sammy!

Listen to “Waiting Well For Decisions-Sammy Rose-Sinclair” on Spreaker.

If you applied to colleges for regular decision, it’s been a few long weeks now that you’ve been waiting on your decision. For the many Early Action applicants deferred from schools this year, it’s been even longer—we’re talking months. Long enough to have watched The Office 26 times back to back.

Still waiting…

While you’re suspended in the discomfort of uncertainty for so long, it’s easy to fixate, to try and find insights that fill in the gaps of what you don’t know. First-year profiles and stats? “How I Got In” YouTube videos? Common Data Sets? Checked them. A thousand times. You may find yourself hunting for signs, trying to decipher anything, anything, as an indicator of what’s to come. An email from Financial Aid? A new button on the admission portal? That could mean something, right? And then there’s daydreaming about life after the admission decision, and how much better things will be.

This is not me passing judgment. This is me speaking from experience. Let me level with you for a moment:

While I was halfway across the country waiting on a potential job offer from Georgia Tech, I jumped into a bottomless pit of internet tabs and YouTube videos about Atlanta and Georgia Tech every night. Every. Night. While I was waiting to hear if my offer was accepted on my home, I scrolled through the pictures on Zillow over… and over… and over. Before long, I had mapped out every grocery store, restaurant, and retail store within a 5-mile radius.

To bring us back a little bit closer to home, I applied to graduate school two summers ago. Slightly different than undergraduate admission, but the application bones were the same: transcripts, test scores, essays, recommendations, the whole deal. I obsessed. I tried to find all I could about how likely I was to get admitted. (You know when you’ve hit the third page of Google results you’re in way too deep.) In my interview, the recruiter quite literally told me I was going to be admitted a few weeks later, and I STILL kept at it.

Feel familiar? Truly, my hope for you is to be better than me. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Getting excited about a new adventure is a good thing.

Researching and virtually visiting schools so that you’re well prepared to make a decision in a few months is a good thing. But doing all the things I just described above? That doesn’t feel good. If you stop to think about how you feel when you’re doing these things, you’ll likely agree.

My hope for you is that you can recognize that moment, and act on it. Reclaim your time, and see this period of time between submitting applications and making a college decision as an opportunity. There are people you care about and things you can do in your last year of high school that deserve your attention now, so much more than the college admission fixation. I promise you, investing your energy in them will feel a million times better.

Trying to peg your likelihood of admission with “chance-me’s,” or thinking up various calculations of where you fall/versus application numbers/versus admit rates, can only provide a fleeting and false sense of certainty where there isn’t any.

It won’t help. I understand the instinct to want to know the unknown. Unfortunately, while you’re waiting for an admission decision, I’ve learned there’s not much you can research that will truly help you “know.”

Here’s a bit of tough love for you:

  • “How I Got In” videos provide singular anecdotal evidence of an admission decision, without insight on what actually lead to that decision in application review. Yet, they’re often presented as a guide or formula to admission, which is terribly misleading. Don’t put any stock into them.
  • “Chance me’s” lack context of the high school, the full student experience, application, academic history, or the applicant pool—all things that factor into admission review.
  • First-year profiles, stats, and data sets, though they’re more data driven, are a guideline of historical numbers. They are not an absolute guarantee of admission results, especially in selective, holistic environments where the important qualitative elements of a class are difficult to summarize. Last year’s first-year profiles also are missing another critical factor: for the most part, those students applied pre-Covid-19. The context of their class profile is completely different than yours.

Boom. There’s the tough love. I don’t want to leave you feeling defeated and without a compass.  However, I believe it’s helpful to realize the compass wasn’t reliable in the first place.

Here’s the good news: wait well, and know that certainty is coming. You’ve worked hard! You’ve done your part to submit your application. The ball will be back in your court soon, but for right now, you’re not going to be in the room while your application is being read.

With all else that you have on your plate, refocus your time and energy on controlling what you can control. Take time for yourself. Take time for your friends. Hug your mama.

A college admission decision does not define you—it is not a judgement of your character, abilities, or a predictor of future success.

Let’s add on to that: a college in and of itself will not define you either. So, if you feel stuck, fixated on daydreaming about how great life will be at this one college if you could just get admitted… rethink that perspective. Don’t give any one school that kind of weight—put that power back in yourself. You’ll explore new opportunities, invest in your own personal development, challenge yourself, and create new relationships in the coming years. That’s not dependent on one college—that’s all you.

The truth is, you will be great no matter where you go, as long as you take that excitement with you, and really show up wherever you end up this fall.

My hope is that you can take the pressure off of any given admission decision in the coming months, and can get excited for the bigger picture. Trust us, it works out.

On behalf of college admission officers everywhere, thank you for waiting with us, and allowing us the opportunity and time to dive into your accomplishments. We’re in the home stretch now!

Sammy Rose-Sinclair has worked in college admission for five years. She moved to Atlanta and joined Georgia Tech three years ago as a senior admission counselor on the first-year admission team. She uses that same love of engaging with students, families, and counselors to interact with the Tech Admission community as the coordinator of our social media channels (@gtadmission).

Light in the Darkness

Listen to “Episode 29: Light in the Darkness – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

In the days following the attack on the U.S. Capitol, we have been inundated with social media posts, interviews, opinions, podcasts, and articles riddled with frustration, finger pointing, and fallout. News stories have aired everything from caustic political rhetoric to disconcerting details related to injuries, deaths, and arrests. At this point, hundreds of CEOs, presidents of boards, chancellors of universities and systems, and others in top positions of leadership have released statements condemning these events and expressing their outrage, sadness, and shock.

Simultaneously, we are watching the escalation of  diagnosed cases and hospitalizations related to Covid-19, and learning more about the threat of a new Covid strain. While the 24-hour news cycle would never tolerate succinctly summarizing the beginning of 2021, I think a fair and accurate word to use would be darkness.

Martin Luther King, Jr quoteIn stark contrast, admission officers are spending their days during this time reading essays, conducting interviews, and hearing stories each day from incredible high school students who are investing in their schools, families, and communities. While you would never know it, your descriptions of hopes, dreams, resolve, and purpose, and the indisputable evidence of your growth, resilience, and vision serve as precious gift. Sources of deep encouragement and optimism—or in a word: light.

My goal is to return the favor and provide you with some hope and encouragement.

As a high school student:

As 2021 kicks off and you head back to class, I hope you continue to pour yourself into your sports, clubs, activities, and work. If there were ever a time to dig in and contribute, it’s now. Make something around you fundamentally better this semester.

On college admission panels and during presentations people inevitably ask what we are “looking for.” In most cases, I think they expect us to rattle off some kind of formula that includes five AP classes, at least one award in the junior year, and sustained volunteer work. The truth is admission officers are looking for applicants who have been good students inside and outside the classroom in high school.  Simply put they want to admit and enroll people who will be deeply missed by their school and community when they graduate.

Take some time in the week ahead to thank those who have helped you and supported you along the way. Email your fourth-grade teacher, go for a walk with your little sister, send a note to your ninth-grade science teacher, and as always, hug your mama. Everyone could use some more light in their life right now. Embrace that opportunity.

I also hope you: practice listening; worry less about what people think about you; break out of any cliques or relationships you know are not healthy; be disciplined enough to intentionally put your phone away for specified times each day and week; and start each morning contemplating at least one thing you are grateful for in your life.

As a college applicant:

I hope you are confident enough to consider the opinions of others but think for yourself.

I hope you figure out why you are going to college and ask the questions that really matter to you along the way.

I hope you wait well. Concern yourself more with preparing for college in general than obsessing about the internal machinations and committee deliberations of any particular college.

I hope you will not use the term “top” or “first choice.”  Don’t take an offer of admission for granted, and instead enthusiastically celebrate each one as an exciting option and opportunity.

I hope you remember 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.

I hope you will be humble and selfless enough to celebrate your friends in their successes and comfort them in their disappointment.

I hope you are proactive in initiating critical conversations with your family about uncomfortable topics like paying for college, loans, distance from home, your major of choice, and colleges you do and do not want to apply to or attend. I hope as a result of those courageous dialogues you and your family will be able to make a unified decision devoid of ego and rooted in authenticity.

I hope you are cognizant of what and how you post on social media related to your college applications and decisions.

I hope your ultimate college choice will be based on an authentic internal compass, rather than on external pressures or commercialized rankings.

Continue to Be A Light 

For some reason people tend to think of the actual college experience and the college admission experience as separate entities. The truth is the two are closely linked.

They are both about developing critical thinking skills, seeing a bigger picture, seeking diverse voices, researching information, being comfortable with some gray and unknowns, weighing options, questioning data, understanding historical context, and keeping a broad (ideally global) perspective.

In a time of division, disruption, and disillusionment, thank you for helping those of us working in college counseling and admission, to see evidence of unity, progress, and hope. Ultimately, as a high school student, a college applicant, and both into and beyond your college years, I hope you will continue to be a light.