Application Tips for Activities and Leadership

Listen to “Episode 16: Application Tips for Activities and Leadership – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Earlier this week, The Common Application sent out an email indicating 166,948 students have created an account to start the process of applying to college this year.

If you are a senior working on your application, you will find the first few sections go pretty fast, and you quickly arrive at the Activities section. On the surface, this is relatively self-explanatory and the directions provided are clear. In other words, completing it should not be hard or confusing.

However, it is always helpful to get some perspective “from the other side.” I believe that’s particularly true during Covid when many colleges will not be using test scores to make admission decisions and some of the activities you usually participate in have been canceled or modified over the last six months.

What method are they using to evaluate? 

Just like individual high school grading scales, the rubrics colleges use to evaluate this section are not uniform. So, if you are applying to five or seven schools, your application will likely be evaluated on a variety of scales. Same application, same activities, same applicant – different systems. While one college may use a scale of 1-5, another could be out of 10 or 100. Alphabetic evaluations, check marks, +/-, or perhaps even emojis and .gifs could be used. Some schools fold their evaluation of this section into an overall admission decision recommendation without even assigning points or a score.

Who is reading?

People– not robots or algorithms. I’m always amazed that students believe we’re just feeding their applications into some kind of a machine that calculates the number of words you’ve used or hours you’ve reported in this section. Nope. These are actual living humans with families and dogs. They have been living through this quarantine just like you. They understand that life looks really weird right now. They get that your drama production was canceled and the internship you had lined up fell through.

The way colleges will read your activities is not going to change this year. They always make assumptions and inferences-and those always (and I use that word intentionally) lean toward providing you the benefit of the doubt. I believe that will be particularly true this year because my prediction is colleges in general will see applications go down and admit rates go up. Translation: They want and need students who are going to contribute on their campus.

…So What are they looking for?

While the training of staff, the number of committee members, and the flow of an application between admission officers will vary from one college to the next, the fundamental questions they are asking as they review your activity section are the same:

  • What was this student involved with outside the classroom?
  • Is there evidence this student made an investment beyond that involvement?
  • What impact is evident through this student’s investment and involvement?
  • Is there evidence that this student’s involvement, investment, and impact influenced others?

In an effort to help you get inside the mind of the admission committee, and also to receive tangible and actionable tips, I dug through the archives of our blog to find helpful advice we’ve provided over the years.

What: The Nuts and Bolts (Part 2)

When: October 2017

Who: Mary Tipton Woolley,  Senior Associate Director of Admission

Why: Because Mary Tipton answers questions students and families always want to know, including how many files do we read a day and how many people are in the room where it happens. But she also provides sage wisdom in her recommendation to “front” your most significant activities by listing them 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.”

You can also apply this concept to your essays and admission or scholarship interviews. Make your most important point quickly. “Hook” the admission officer intentionally by prioritizing what matters most to you.

What: Subtle Leadership

When: October 2019

Who: Dr. Paul Kohn, VP for Enrollment Management

Why: Because this blog, written before any of us could have come up with the word “Covid” in a game of Scrabble, demonstrates the continuity of college admission. The way Dr. Kohn articulates leadership and impact proves my point that admission committees’ review of community involvement has not changed due to Coronavirus (Thanks, boss.).

If we were counting hours invested or the number of words on each line of your application, then sure, you would likely have less to include or describe during this pandemic. But check out his instruction to think about the filter in which you consider your influence, and how that comes across in the Activities or Community Involvement section:

Truly examine your experiences and look for the times you inspired others, demonstrated good decisions, set an example of honesty and integrity, or showed commitment and passion for a goal. Look for moments in which you cooperated with others to achieve an outcome, or you displayed empathy for others.”

Importantly, the questions he enumerates are arguably even more helpful this year than when he originally wrote his blog:

  • Have you demonstrated and preached tolerance of divergent ideas and thoughts?
  • Have you helped a classmate accomplish a goal?
  • Have you helped members of your family through a difficult time?
  • When have you helped others know the path without literally ushering them down it?
  • Have you given a speech or written an op-ed piece about the benefits of voting or contributing to certain causes?

What: Which Activities Will Make Me Competitive?

When: April 2019

Who: Katie Mattli, Senior Assistant Director of Admission

Why: Because she keeps it simple. Aaron Burr may have rap sung/ sung rap/ the 10 Duel Commandments in Hamilton, but Katie rocks the Three Extra Curricular Tenants here (apologies in advance for my attempt to lyricize her wisdom).

Number 1 – If you love it, you naturally become more competitive. The challenge demands satisfaction. This is not a reaction. She’s unapologetically repetitive. Simplicity and consistency are her sedative. Don’t write this off as sappy, because it’s true, “’What activities make you happy?’ Do… more of those things!”

Number 2 – If you are interested, I’ll be more interested.  If you are sitting pat, applications fall flat. Don’t concern yourself with what we want to hear. Be sincere. “Nothing engages me more than a student who tells me, “I love XYZ!” See? “Trying to craft a summary of undertakings that you really don’t enjoy.” Oh, boy. No. Want the bottom line? Fine. Don’t let this cause you strife. “Applications have a life and an energy when a student is trying to use every available space to expound on a passion project.”

And if you didn’t know- now you know.

Number 3 – Activities that are difficult can still make you happy.  “I said this was not a softball answer and I meant it.” Hold on a minute. That’s right- “easy and happy are not the same thing.” That line should be on a cover. And that’s why we love her. Because she can cover the basics and make great suggestions. Read her full blog for more insight and guiding questions.

What: Is it OK if I?

When: October 2018

Who: Ashley Brookshire, Regional Director of Admission, West Coast

Why: Because what you do in high school, what you do in college, and what you do throughout life should not be about playing the game or trying to win the approval of others. That box checking, resume padding climb will end up with you looking down/out/over what, exactly?

As we’ve said before, your college admission experience is a foreshadowing of your overall college experience. Don’t miss the important lessons it can teach.

In this piece, Ashley helps you “reverse this idea” and “apply to the colleges that model YOUR interests and values, rather than molding yourself to fit a school.” Now that is a life lesson. You can apply that same thinking to relationships, jobs, and many others decisions. Ashley went to Tech. She worked as a student in our office, and began her career as an admission counselor with us.

She’s since gotten married, moved to California, and had a baby. Lots of changes in her life, but what has not changed is her ability to things down to their essence and help bring out the most salient and important point. In this case:

“Is it ok if I…? Yes. Yes, to however you finish the question, because it is, and will be, okay! You can and should invest your time and energy in the things that feel most beneficial for your personal development and growth, regardless of which college you end up attending.”

What does all of this mean for you? 

Ultimately, your job is to convince the admission committee that you will be missed once you graduate– whether that be by a coach, a club sponsor, a boss, your family, a non-profit in your community, or another group or organization.

I’m confident after reading these excerpts you will have no problem doing that. Enjoy the experience. Take some time after you’ve completed this section to marvel at what you have done—and equally as important what you will inevitably contribute on a college campus.

Bonus Listen: Want more on this topic? Here’s an excellent conversation from CollegeWise to check out.

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College Admission Brief Podcast

We started the GT Admission Blog in 2015. At the time, I had a regular Thursday afternoon “running meeting” with our former director of enrollment communications, Matt McLendon. We’d set off with a full agenda to cover, but inevitably somewhere along the Beltline I’d start rambling about a particular challenge or admission issue. One day (mid-run/ mid-rant), Matt gently suggested I “write this stuff down.” He asserted that families needed to hear more honesty and openness from admission deans and directors, and my random analogies and anecdotes may actually be a refreshing way to present subjects that often stir anxiety. (Is it likely he was just trying to enjoy the run and stay on task? Absolutely. Nevertheless, here we are.).

In the early days of the blog, I was the sole/soul author. And for the first month, it was basically just my wife, mom, and aunt reading (using several email accounts to up our subscriber number). Since that time, we’ve found ways to bring in a variety of different voices from our admission team, enrollment division, as well as campus partners. The goal remains to provide perspective, insight, and helpful tips in a relatable and accessible tone–and hopefully to also bring some levity and solace along the way.

At the time of this writing, we have over 3,550 subscribers. We know that parents and counselors regularly share our blogs in their communities and friend sets. Thank you! And while we occasionally hear from applicants who have read an entry or two, we understand high school students may not always be up for reading another 1,200-1,400 words in an already word-filled day/week of going class, studying, taking notes, etc.

Still, we know from questions in and after presentations, as well as from emails, calls, and online posts, students want to get perspective about college admission. They want to know how decisions are really made, what they mean (and don’t mean), and often simply need to be reminded that the people reading their apps are just that—people.

College Admission Brief Podcast

College Admission Brief Header

To that end we just launched a new podcast, The College Admission Brief. Just like our blog, we hope to personalize the admission process by sharing timely tips and encouraging advice from colleagues and campus partners. While we’ll sometimes use Georgia Tech as an example, the goal is to include general information, advice, and broadly applicable admission insight for students to use in their college admission experience.

A great example of why we launched this podcast is my obnoxiously long (2,160 words to be exact) blog from last week. If you read it, thank you. Grit is a valued trait and you have it in spades, my friend. (Plus you now have a sense of what Matt was dealing with on those runs). The actual title was “What’s Taking So Long?” and anyone who is honest would admit they asked themselves that precise question several times during the reading.

If you skimmed a few paragraphs and clicked back over to Instagram or scrolled down twice hard with your thumb only to realize you were only to the second picture, I understand why you bowed out. Seriously, I get it. Good news- our latest podcast episode with our Senior Associate Director, Mary Tipton Woolley, covers the same content in under 10 minutes. Bonus- you can listen while walking, driving, or waiting around for a practice or rehearsal to start. (Multitasking is a skill and we’re here for you.)

Listen to “How Are College Admission Applications Reviewed? Episode 3: Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.

We are still tweaking the audio and working out some behind the scenes kinks, so just like: the world; my laundry folding skills; the admission experience; or any one of us, it is not perfect. Still, we hope you’ll find these interviews and recordings encouraging, relatively light, shareable, and at times humorous. But if nothing else we guarantee this—they’ll be brief! Each episode is less than 10 minutes. How bad can it be? Download and listen on iTunes, Spotify, or Spreaker to check it out. Happy listening!

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Sports Metaphors and College Admission

This week we welcome Senior Associate Director of Admission Mary Tipton Woolley to the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

I’m doing what we tell students not to do in their essay—writing about how sports are a parallel to life. But please indulge me for a minute. In fact, if you want to skip past my life story and get to the point of this blog, feel free to go straight to paragraph number five.

My daughter is seven. Since she was three we’ve joined countless other parents in trying out various local sport leagues. Why? The common refrain among parents is that we want him/her to have the experience of playing on a team. It typically ends with a phrase such as, “just like I did as a kid” (more on that later). First we, er… I mean she… tried soccer. Nothing says ‘team’ like a herd of three year olds running in a pack after the ball with one inevitably picking daisies in the corner of the field. By the time the kids turned 5 and pushing/shoving became more prevalent, mine decided she had enough of others up in her personal space.

SwimmingNext, she decided to join our neighborhood swim team, and we were introduced to the production that is summer swim team in neighborhoods all over Atlanta. Swim lessons have vexed me her whole life. Unless you believe your child is the next Michael Phelps and want them to swim year round in a club, finding swim lessons that fit the schedule of two working parents is more difficult than getting tickets to Hamilton. Even knowing her swimming skills weren’t great, we dove right in (see what I did there?) to putting her on the team.

Finally, in a truly bold move, she decided to play softball. She didn’t know anyone who had played, none of her friends were doing it, and she would be the youngest in a combined 6U/8U league. In an even more shocking twist, I think she got the idea from me (likely one of the few things in her life she thought was a good idea from mom!). After she got hit in the face during tryouts by an equally inexperienced 6-year old, I thought she was done. But she persevered. We were introduced to a fielder’s mask and off she went!

It’s Not My Journey

So, what have I learned over the last few years? Most importantly, this is my daughter’s journey–not mine. Ugh – that’s a hard lesson that I’m confident I will have to learn over and over. I should confess now that she took two seasons of softball to get a hit, which finally came in the last game this spring (where she got three!). She also started the season as the slowest member of her swim team, and I’m editing this while I watch her swim in our city-wide meet at a real Olympic pool at Georgia Tech (where she finished 45 of 46).

Despite, or due to, this she is having fun, making new friends, listening to her coaches, improving and showing lots of signs of resiliency and bravery! These are all traits I can get behind – even if it isn’t the same path as mine. In fact, I’m working on getting behind them because it isn’t the same path as mine.

While my daughter may not be getting ready for college applications just yet, I do see similarities between this season of parenting and the one I’ll face in 10 years when she’s 17. I’ve worked with a lot of families as they’ve navigated the admission process, and here are a few takeaways for both parents and students as college admission season gets cranked up.

To Parents:

I’m sure you have similar memories of your student’s younger years, whether it’s sports teams, music lessons, or chess club. As parents of children in the midst of their college search, these same lessons apply but are often harder to remember, especially since it feels like more is on the line. It’s okay for your student to seek out different schools than the one you attended – they may even have a list that’s entirely different than yours! Ultimately, that’s a good thing.

This journey belongs to your student, and, just like these early life experiences, it can be humbling for a parent. Instead of focusing on the bumper sticker you want, focus on the experience your student is having in high school and what is really going to be the best fit for them in college.

Sit down and talk to your student about what they are looking for in a college. Questions about size and location are obvious. Some others to consider are:

  • How do you want to be involved on campus?
  • How do you want to remember your time in college?
  • What are you most looking forward to in your college experience?
  • Who do you want to be in college?
  • What kind of life are you expecting after college?

You should also visit campuses together as a family. If you can’t travel to a specific college due to distance, visiting local schools can still be helpful. Sit back and let your student take the lead on those visits – your focus should be on watching their reaction. What’s their body language? Are they smiling? Do they want to stay and see more than the tour covers or are they ready to leave immediately? Answers to these questions can help you as a parent gauge how truly interested, and engaged, your student could be at that particular school.

To Students:Embrace Your Journey

Don’t be afraid to speak up and tell your family what you want out of a college experience. I know, that’s sometimes easier said than done.  But it is going to be your college experience for the next four years.

  • Ask good questions during your campus visit.
  • Consider each college’s mission and think about how it fits with what you’re looking for in your experience.
  • Talk to your parents, and discuss any legitimate constraints for your college search, especially surrounding finances. Having an honest conversation now can save a lot of stress down the road.

Finally, utilize resources you have at your disposal to figure out what you want in a college experience. High school counselors, friends and older students already in college are great resources. I’m always impressed by the clarity college students seem to have about the search process, despite how stressed they may have been when going through the process themselves. Hindsight is 20/20, so don’t be afraid to talk to those around you and learn from their experiences!

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Sweet Summertime

This week we welcome Senior Associate Director of Admission Mary Tipton Woolley to the blog. Welcome, Mary Tipton!

Hello SummerAh, summer. The time of year to sit back, relax and enjoy life. Maybe for some, but not for those of us in college admission! In the admission office, “summer” is the time to wrap up the enrolling class, reflect on the year behind and plan for the year ahead. Summer is in quotes because it goes by so quickly!

As a parent, I’m glad to only have 10 weeks to find camps/babysitters for my child, but as a higher education professional, it’s challenging. We are busy checking final transcripts for enrolling students (yes, we really do check your final transcripts!) and other required documents. In just a couple of weeks 300 first-year students will arrive on campus for the summer term, so the timing of these final checks is critical. If you swing by our office this summer, you’ll find us wrapping up the past year and planning for the year ahead.

Students, you are likely doing the exact same thing. Whether you’re already enjoying your summer or slogging through the last few days of school, follow our lead and make it a summer!

Assess the year behind

Take time to reflect on the year that has passed, determine what you can learn from it, and decide what you need to work on in the year ahead. What worked well? Where do you need to make improvements? Our staff is taking a deep dive into important areas like our visit program (which now accommodates over 40,000 visitors per year!), training, and professional development. Meanwhile, our transfer team is still finalizing decisions for fall transfer students—their summer hasn’t even started yet!

Ask Yourself:  what classes did you enjoy most? Where do you have gaps in learning that you can work on over the summer? My six-year-old is reading (mostly) every night to make sure she continues to improve before starting first grade in the fall. Maybe you need to go back over work from the past year to ensure you’re ready to move forward in the year ahead. Maybe there is an activity that you want to improve in the year ahead – can you run more over the summer to earn a faster time, or study robotics to improve your team standings?

Prioritize tasks for the year aheadAsk Yourself

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we changed the way we review first-year applications. The team-based reading approach was a huge success, but I’m already thinking about how we can move our process forward and provide staff what they need to manage application volume in an efficient and effective way. Our transfer team is looking for opportunities to revise the way they review applications to manage the volume and priorities they have been asked to meet. We also have staff planning fall travel. I’m still old school, but have learned the hard way over the last few years that waiting to schedule high school visits until August does not end well! On top of planning for next year’s application cycle, our campus visit team is planning events for next year. They are constantly looking for ways to accommodate everyone who wants to visit campus, which is no small feat!

Ask yourself: what are your goals for the year ahead? Maybe it’s to improve your grades, find a job, get involved in something new, or take on a leadership role. Whatever it may be, now is the time to think about how you’re going to get there. If you’re going to be a senior in the fall, getting a jump on your college applications will be critical to ensuring your sanity in the year ahead (trust me!). Many applications, like the Common Application and Coalition Application (both of which we accept) never close. That means essays and activity pages are available now, while you have time to reflect, write and refine.

Make it a summer!

No matter what is on your agenda for the summer – working, summer camp, vacation – I hope you’ll take time to reflect, plan for the upcoming year and have fun! Summer is a time to recharge. We do that by attending conferences, going on office retreats and taking some time off to be with family and friends. We all need that kind of recharge to be successful in the year ahead. If part of your summer plans include visiting Atlanta, I hope you’ll swing by campus. It’s called “Hotlanta” for a reason, but we still offer tours all summer – no matter the temperature and humidity!

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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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