The Definitive College Admission Field Guide

Last week my kids had Fall Break. I’m not going to lie…. I went into it feeling pretty cynical. A: it’s not fall, and B: they really don’t need a break. Six weeks and then a week off. Come on, man. Soft.

But my wife wanted to be sure “we did something fun ‘FOR THEM.'” (She’s crafty like that.) So while I worked at the beginning of the week, I took the latter part off and headed to the lake to meet up with them and some friends. I drove alone late one night and got there in the pitch black dark. The whole way I was thinking about all the things I could be getting done at home. But when I woke up the next morning to the sun shining off the water, a good cup of coffee in my hand, and some built in entertainment for our kids, the switch flipped immediately. Just the latest in a long line of “You were right” moments in my life and marriage.

“You’re hungry? Grab some pretzels. I know it’s 9 a.m. Don’t care. I’m on vacation.” We took the boat out. The boys wake boarded and knee boarded and jumped between dueling tubes. Me? Snacked. Put my hat over my eyes and lounged. Finally, I got on the mega inflatable couch with the two 5-year old girls and then basked in the sun as they sang and danced to “Shut up and Dance with Me!” Didn’t question the lyrics or think about this same pair 10 years from now in bathing suits with boys next to them. Nope. I leaned back… and breathed.

Take a Breath

We all need that, right? Just a good, long, selfish breath. We get into patterns that are necessary but also tiresome: Wake up, head to school, go to practice, study. Rinse and repeat.

And in the admission process you need that breath, too. Same brochures coming each day with taglines only varying by verb tense, school colors, and font. Campus tours like death marches with polo clad, flip flop wearing guides citing the number of volumes in a library or the myriad flavors of ice cream available in the dining hall. College reps at fairs and at your school touting that they’re #23 for number benches on campus. And the beat drones on…

We feel your pain. And in a “lake moment” we decided to create the definitive “Admission Field Guide.” I hope you will find it different. And refreshing.

It’s created to help you navigate this year smoothly: to give you helpful tips for your application, essays, and interactions in the college admission process; to remind you to laugh and breath along the way; and ultimately to enable you to find the college that will help you thrive and achieve your goals.

Even if you don’t click on these links or watch the videos, I earnestly encourage you take breaks this year. Go to the lake (even if it’s figuratively). Dance and sing. Surround yourself with the people who know how to help YOU take care of YOU. At the end of the day I’ll be singing this: “Shut up and breathe with me!”

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Make it a summer!

In the world of college admission, March and April are a busy time as campuses host prospective underclassmen, admitted seniors, and their families. Those heavy visit months come right on the heels of an isolated and compressed winter hibernation (also known as application reading season). And that period was immediately preceded by a fall of heavy recruitment travel, which is guaranteed to garner lots of hotel and airline points but ruin some otherwise promising millennial romantic relationships. Personally, I love that this work is highly cyclical, and you’ll notice that career admission folks will schedule weddings, vacations, tax submissions, and house closings around this schedule (attempts to schedule births are noble but less predictable, and often met with mixed reactions from spouses).

So each year as May arrives, I’ve started telling myself and our staff to “make it a summer!” Summer is our time to think, reflect, plan, and just relax a little. We encourage staff to work remotely more consistently; put the suits, ties, and dresses in the closet for a while; take vacation; get out to professional development conferences and workshops; and build campus relationships when everyone has more capacity. Make it a summer: go to the beach; don’t stay longer at the office than you need to; build that deck; and hang out with your friends and family. Admittedly, at times it can feel a bit neurotic. It’s how I imagine Manitobans treat the month of August: “Go!! Do everything this month before the snows return and your flip flops are buried until this time next year.”

If you are wrapping up your junior year, I suggest you “make it a summer,” because even though you are excited about exams being over and the pool opening, sometimes as the weather warms up, so to can the pressure from parents and others about your upcoming senior year and the college application process.

So stay calm and check out these seven tips for making the most of your summer

One: Write

Writing your essays in the summer allows you to spend your senior fall focusing on school and life outside the classroom, rather than agonizing over your introductory paragraph. My guess is when it comes to completing the application, you’ll nail your name and birthday pretty easily. It’s the essays that take time. And let’s be honest, writing by the pool is a lot more appealing than on October 15 at 11:38 p.m. in your room with mom looking over your shoulder yelling, “Submit! Submit! Submit!” Just a heads up, the Common Application and Coalition Application essay prompts are now posted for your writing enjoyment.

Two: Visit

Summer visits often get a bad rap because fewer students are on campus. While this may be true at some schools, summer visits are a great way to rule places in or out of consideration.

If you visit and discover that you don’t like the town/city, or the campus has too much green grass, or the gothic architecture freaks you out, that’s not going to change if students are walking around and leaves are falling. Often advisors and faculty (if you give them advance notice) have more time in the summer to meet and talk– as do admission officers. You can revisit schools you’re interested in  after you are admitted, or in the fall to confirm you want to apply.

Three: Homework

Normally, when I say that word my second-grade son falls over and starts rolling around on the ground. In hopes you won’t have the same response, let’s call it “poolwork.” Regardless, this is the season for narrowing your college list and determining exactly where you want to apply. Use resources like BigFuture or CollegeView as well as less conventional tools such as Reddit or College Confidential. We’ve also found this to be one of the most helpful, creative, and comprehensive websites in the college admission space. Keep in mind (minus the last site) these are only one part of the equation, but the more pieces you compile, the better cumulative picture you will have of a place.

Four: Relax

It’s summer. Enjoy it. The truth is, you don’t need to put your summer calendar into an optimized spreadsheet to enjoy your senior year or have a good plan for applying to colleges. Ultimately, there is no perfect formula. A certain enrichment program, mission trip, or particular internship isn’t going to “get you in” to a specific school. So, this summer don’t think too much about a high GPA — do think about a high SPF.

Five: Work

Gotta love “work” coming right after “relax.” Sheesh! You have an opportunity every summer, but particularly right before your final year in high school, to get a sense of the type of job you might ultimately want.

Even if you don’t land a paying job, maybe you can work out a deal to get in 10 to 15 hours a week volunteering at a local business or organization. Being in a professional environment will give you a sense of what you may or may not want to pursue. And to be honest, working in any setting is a good thing, even if it’s at the local yogurt shop (just keep your job by not giving away too much away for free), or waiting tables or selling camping equipment at REI. My favorite high school job was delivering Chinese food. Good money, quality time listening to music, and I now have no need for the Waze app because I still have all streets in my hometown in my head. Downside is I consumed more fortune cookies in those two years than most humans could in two lifetimes.

Six: Learn

What do you love? What is the most interesting topic or subject for you? Look around and see if a local university or community college is offering a course in that field. Not only could you earn college credit, but you’ll get a good sense of the rigor and pace of a college course.

Schedule too tight or not too concerned about earning credit? How about a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)? Learning in this environment will serve you well as you head to college, and certainly in your career as this medium will be increasingly vital to business and relationship cultivation. What better way to stretch your knowledge of a field and also grow as a learner than taking a course in this format?

Seven: Network

Reach out to an older student you know who just finished senior year. Ask them fresh off their admission search and decision making process about lessons learned, tips, and so on. Extra Credit: Find someone coming home after freshman year in college. There is often no better resource for insight into a college — especially one farther from home — than a student who once sat in your high school and adjusted to that living and learning environment from your hometown. (If you end up getting a date out of this, give a shout out @gtadmission)

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“It’s Not You… it’s me.” Denied Admission– A Path to Recovery

“This is not working out.” My high school girlfriend and I were working on math homework at her house. We were trying to solve equations I hadn’t seen before (I’m sure most of you reading this would scoff at their simplicity, but it was difficult at the time). I said, “I know. But we will figure it out.” She paused, then put her pencil down and said kindly, but definitively, “No.” Then “this,” pointing her finger back and forth between my chest and hers. “Us. It’s not working out.” I remember so clearly how those words sounded at the time.

I know this has become a predictable Hollywood storytelling technique, but it was one of only three times in my life when the noise around me seemed to fade into the background. I watched her continue to tilt her head, stroke her hair and occasionally look down, somewhat painfully, as she explained why “we” needed to break up.

I had known this girl since Kindergarten, but it had only been in the last year that I realized she was truly beautiful. And funny, and smart, and kind. We liked the same music, she watched sports (although cheered for the wrong team…Bulldogs), and we laughed together a lot. Basically, I thought she was perfect. And it was sinking in that she was taking that perfection and moving on.

I really can’t tell you what I said to her… maybe I actually said nothing. All I remember was getting my books, getting my bag, and getting the (deleted) out of there. I drove the four miles home and on the way I rolled down the window, turned up the music, and yelled out the window a mixture of questions, anger, and tears. I was a mess.

I walked into my house and my mom was doing dishes in the kitchen. She could see I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I remember sitting next to her on the couch and listening to her tell me everything was okay… there would be other girls… and maybe I was better off anyway.  In fact, now I wonder if she did not have a hand in writing The Avett Brothers song I Would Be Sad: “One day son, this girl will think of what she’s done and hurting you will be the first of many more regrets to come.”  It was one of those moments that I’m sure she could see my thought bubble of “Yeah, easy for you to say.” At the time, I didn’t understand that at one point in her life, she was a teenager too. I thought she’d always been married to my dad and that her life started when I was born. So how could she know what I was going through?

Road to Recovery

At this time of year, a good number of colleges have already released admission decisions. I’ve heard a number of these conversations in our community, and have started to read the advice and speculation online or on social media as well. If you have been denied from a school that seemed perfect and you had your heart set on, I’ve got three tips for you:

  1. You’re Not Okay. Go ahead and scream, cry, talk to your parents… beat your pillow, or cook something (you can even try all of those at once if you’re really upset). Do whatever it takes for you to begin to move on and clear you head. But don’t drive while you’re healing… be stationary (or on a treadmill) and then let it rip.
  2. You will be Okay. Here’s what I see every year. Some students whose first choice was not Georgia Tech end up coming here and loving it. Then again, every now and then I’ll run into a sibling or parent or counselor of a student we denied admission to who tells me that student was devestated about not getting in here, but is now at X College and doing great. One of the schools you’ve applied to, or are waiting to hear back from is IT. Take a moment to believe that—and be encouraged and get excited about it.
  3. Refocus. When I had to refocus, I dove into school and soccer. Immediately after that break up, I wasn’t a lot of fun to be around for a few weeks. But I threw myself into academics and practicing with incredible focus, resolve, and motivation to get better and succeed. I remember long nights of studying and going early and staying late for practice. What is that focus for you? Maybe it’s another college. Or perhaps it’s proving the school that denied you wrong by thriving through your senior year and into college elsewhere.

I understand that it seems unlikely you could completely distill moving on after being denied admission into three easy steps. Or maybe it’s not. After all The Avett Brothers song continues, “‘If she doesn’t call, then it’s her fault and it’s her loss.’ I say, It’s not that simple see, but then again it just may be.”

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The “D” Word

I don’t swear a lot. Occasionally, but not that often. Partly that’s because I’m not apt to losing my temper, and I also remember being told that cursing lacks creativity. That always stuck with me, and I think it’s had a lasting impact.

THE ‘S’ WORD

Recently, my seven year old son came home extremely upset because a neighbor kid had used “THE ‘S’ WORD!” Despite being the Holidays I was pretty sure we weren’t talking about Santa, so I immediately started considering how I’d respond. I asked him to tell me more and as he began I started thinking about my advice. Something surrounding how “THE ‘S’ WORD” is not appropriate and you can get in trouble for using it and…. then I heard something that made me pause. “Yea. He was like, ‘that is just plain Ssssssss’… and then you know… and then, ‘Pid.'” Ok. Totally different “S word.” Totally different lecture. Totally different approach. Now we are moving into how that word is insulting, and lazy, and all the other synonyms that are more interesting.

THE ‘D’ WORD

But it got me thinking about college admission. Logically. At this time of year a lot of schools are releasing their EA and ED decisions. I’m already seeing posts on social media and hearing more from friends in our neighborhood talk about their son or daughter. One of the biggest questions surrounds…. “THE D WORD!” Nope… not deny. I suppose that’s kind of like the actual “S WORD.” Pretty clear. If you are denied, it’s frustrating, it’s upsetting, it’s a tough blow. But at least you have a decision and you can move on. I’ll write more about this in a future post, but it’s a lot like breaking up. You know where you stand… and who you won’t be standing next to. Unfortunately, defer and deny both start with the same letter. But their implications are extremely divergent.

If you are deferred admission from a school, it’s important for you to remember three things:

1. You are not denied. If a school did not think you were competitive or a good fit, they would have denied you. This sounds harsh but it’s true. There is a reason you got a different “D Word,” so pay attention because the message is as different as the two “S Words” above.

2. Finish the drill. Getting deferred is not fun. It means being in limbo a while longer. Now you are going to need to send in fall grades, you may need to write an additional essay or tell more about your personal activities. But you are not denied. The school that deferred you wants to see more. They need to understand perhaps how you’ve done in a challenging senior schedule, or if your upward grade trend will continue, or if you can juggle more responsibility outside the classroom with your course load within. And they likely also want to see how you stack up with the entire applicant pool. So defer is a “hold on” or a “maybe” or even a “tell me more.” So do that. If you liked a school enough to apply, you should finish the drill. After all, it’s called an admission process. Sometimes that means more than just one round. See it through by submitting what they request and put your absolute best foot forward. OR cancel your application and be done. But don’t go halfway and stop giving your best effort.

3. Check your ego.  The truth is that you should do this when you are admitted, denied, or deferred. After all, an admission decision is not a value or character decision. Don’t blur the lines. If you are deferred from a college you really want to attend, you need to give them every confidence that you should be admitted in the next round, or even from the wait list. If a school asks for a mid- spring report, or they call your counselor, or they ask you to come in for an interview, you have solid grades and interesting new information to share. Your job as a senior is to finish well.

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Four Key Lessons of a Lifetime

Jerry Hitt (right) pictured with Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Faussemagne in 2010. Photo courtesy: GT Alumni Magazine
Jerry Hitt (right) pictured with Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Faussemagne in 2010.
Photo courtesy: GT Alumni Magazine

Even though he was several decades older than me, Jerry Hitt was my friend. Over the years, we developed a special bond. Jerry started working in undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech in the 1960s and continued to work full-time at the Institute until the 1990s. When I met him, he was still reading applications seasonally in a Director of Admissions Emeritus role.

Jerry died just before Thanksgiving, so the past week has been bittersweet. His health had declined over the last few years and his memory faded. He had started to tell the same few stories but still with great passion and detail.  What never diminished was his zeal for life and his unrivaled love for Georgia Tech.

I learned many lessons from Jerry, but these four really stick out to me.

1) Keep it simple

We quickly hit it off. Jerry loved to talk about simpler times. No cell phones, no email, no online admission decisions. He would spin yarns about faculty versus  staff softball games, tell stories about presidents gone by, or recount how Georgia Tech came to use a holistic admission process. Whether in the hallway, on the golf course at Bobby Jones (where he served as a starter) or over a meal, he always helped me to slow down and appreciate how we got to where we are as an institution.

2) Seek Perspective & Enjoy Life

He always encouraged me as director to build trust and relationships on campus, and to walk around rather than relying too much on phone calls or email (pretty sure he did not ever learn to text…). He always pointed me back to the things that matter the most: spending time with family, really listening to students, faculty and staff needs and dreams, and generally enjoying life.

3) Serve others

I’ve traveled all over the country for Tech, and never go more than a few months without an alum mentioning Jerry. They talk about how he gave them a chance by admitting them and in doing so changed their life. Or I will run into someone that worked with Jerry and they ask about him with great fondness and respect.  He was just one of those people– he listened well, he liked to laugh, and he treated people sincerely.

4) Express Appreciation

If you’re applying to college, there is no question that there are a few people who have given you that vision and provided you with opportunities and encouragement. It is easy to get caught up in completing essays, making sure all of your recommendation letters have been submitted, and taking exams.  Jerry would simply urge you to pause in an otherwise frenzied time to say thanks to those who have put you in the position to be able to apply to and ultimately attend college. Maybe that person is a parent or a teacher or coach, or perhaps a counselor or a grandparent. Who are your Jerry Hitts? Who keeps you grounded and adds value in your life? Be sure you take a moment to hug them, tell them you love them, and let them know you recognize the gift of their impact on you.