The Basics of College Admission: Part 2

Because our family does not watch a lot of TV, my kids are fascinated by commercials. I’m not necessarily proud to admit they quote these regularly and pause to listen attentively when the Geico gecko speaks or the Audi logo flashes on the screen.

While I could not tell you who is currently promoting specific brands, or sing any popular jingles, I do appreciate their ability to emphasize words in order to highlight the quality of their product. Cereal companies seem particularly adept in this arena.

In fact, I’m giving serious thought to utilizing some of these phrases at our next board meeting. “This class is bursting with talent.” “They are simply chockful of future entrepreneurs, innovators, and change agents.” “Packed with students from around our state, nation, and the world, you won’t believe how much better you’ll feel after meeting them.” Then I’ll do that perfect slow pour of milk that bounces off the flakes just enough to entice your appetite without spattering on the table. Incredible!

Actually, since we are on Zoom this year, I’ll probably just stick to a few bullet points and infographics with the board. But this blog is a different story. I hope you are hungry and have a big spoon because these three are filled with nutrients to sustain you through your admission experience. Part II of The Basics of College Admission– It’s burst-pack-chock-O-licious!

Episode 4: Standardized Testing and Test Score Optional

Mary Tipton Woolley (Senior Associate Director) discusses how standardized testing factors into admission decisions, as well as what students should consider this year with so many colleges either test optional or test blind.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Standardized Testing & Test Score Optional-Sr. Associate Director, Mary Tipton Woolley” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Listen for the “signals” schools will send you on the extent to which tests are or are not part of their admission decisions. Ask schools directly about their specific policies and what is going to “replace” testing in their process. An AP score or SAT subject test is never going to be the thing that gets you in or keeps you out.

Listen For: Optional means optional! (It’s not code for spend a lot of time, money, or heartache try to schedule a test during a global pandemic).

Key Quote: “Test scores really play an outsized role in the minds of families.” (Close second: “After asynchronous and pivot, ‘weird’ is my favorite word of 2020.”)

Further Reading: Fair Test and NACAC Dean’s Statement

Episode 5: Early Action/Early Decision & All Things Decision Plans

Ashley Brookshire (West Coast Admission Director) provides key tips for students and families about the alphabet soup of decisions plans, including EA, REA, ED, and more. She provides insight into the college admission timeline and how students can determine which admission decision plan is right for them.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Early Action/Early Decision & All Things Decision Plans – Ashley Brookshire” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Go to the source by seeking out each school’s website, decision plan description, and other requirements. Get organized and know your options. Use your resources (ex: school counselor and family). Apply when you are ready for your application to be reviewed. Never take one number at face value.

Listen For: Beware the traffic jam of applications.

Key Quote: “If you are assuming a decision plan is going to greatly increase your likelihood of being admitted, that is certainly a misconception!”

Further Reading:  Tulane Admission Blog by Jeff Schiffman, Common Data Set.

Episode 6: GPA, Rigor of Curriculum, aka All Things Grades

Laura Simmons (Director of Non-Degree Programs) takes on this behemoth of a subject in order to help students understand what admission readers are looking for when they review transcripts/GPA, grading scales, grade trends, course choice, and how they read/what they’re discussing in committee.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: GPA, Rigor of Curriculum, aka. all things grades- Laura Brown Simmons” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Study your transcript the way an admission counselor would. Be on the lookout for terms like holistic, selective, etc. to get a sense of the expectations a college will have for grades and course choice. Context is everything—you or your school should help colleges understand how Covid-19 has altered and impacted your academic experience. (For more on this check out our blog/podcast about the “Covid question” on the Common Application.)

Listen For: 20,000 transcripts in the last four years! (Translation: She’s an expert.)

Key Quote: “NOTHING predicts success in college like success in high school.”

Further Reading:  UGA Admission Blog by David Graves

Stay hungry, my friends, because we will be releasing new episodes each week throughout October. You can fill your bowl and feast anytime by subscribing and listening on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

Upcoming episodes include:

  • Extracurricular activities (Impact, Involvement, and Influence)
  • Special Circumstances/ Additional Information
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Interviews

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Five Important Lessons from Covid-19

Stay at home orders in March, and the phased re-entry we have experienced since, has given us plenty of time to be with family members. If you are like me, this has been both beautiful and challenging. I’ve frequently found myself simultaneously thinking, “I love you,” and “Wow. I need some space.”

In our house, proximity and time have led to some healthy conversations and important debates on issues ranging from politics to healthcare to fashion to sports. Most of these exchanges have led to either a greater understanding of one another or a willingness to respectfully disagree.

Six months into quarantine, one major topic remains unresolved: PG-13 movies. We have a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. In my mind, it’s easy to round up for our son. My thinking is I’d rather be there for exposure to references, specific words, or other content. While my wife does not totally disagree with that mentality, our daughter is her sticking point.

“How are you possibly rounding up from nine? You can’t even do that by decades.”

Point taken. Honestly, my problem is more with the lack of consistency in the ratings system. First, 80’s movies rated PG would definitely be Rated R today (although I’m not broaching that because it would reduce our options by about 25%). Second, The Hunger Games is PG-13. Who is in charge here?

Thankfully, she has relented on a few must see PG-13 films, including Blind Side, Black Panther, Hamilton, and The Avengers.  One I came across the other night was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Colorful language, stealing a car, lying to parents, skipping school, and tormenting the principal? No point even watching the trailer.

However, I did share a key quote from the opening scene with my kids: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Covid has pushed pause on an increasingly frenetic world. If you are a high school student, I hope you will take a page out of Ferris’ book—STOP. Look around. And don’t miss these five important lessons:

Consider what you do and don’t miss.

If summer baseball was canceled and you have been having dreams about curveballs and sacrifice flies, pay attention to that. When the things we truly love are taken away, we ache for them. Is there a class this fall not meeting in person and you are bummed about it? That is likely a sign of a subject you have a true affinity for versus one you’ve been told is important or one you should like/take.

Conversely, what are you relieved to get out of? Our daughter was over half way to her black belt in Taekwondo when Covid hit. Last Sunday I was helping her clean out her closet. I stepped away for a few minutes and when I came back she had discreetly wedged her uniform in the Goodwill bag between some dresses and pants.

What is your taekwondo? What have you been on the hamster wheel with and are now realizing is not really your thing? Pay attention to both sides of the coin academically, extra-curricularly, and relationally, because these are critical signposts as you consider which colleges and cultures best fit your personality, goals, and interests.

Control what you can control.

You can order from your favorite restaurant, you just can’t eat inside. You can go to the park but you won’t be able to sit on the benches. While experiencing limitations or being reminded we don’t control everything in life is never a fun lesson, it is good preparation for your admission experience. Students often feel like the admission process “happens to them.” Much is made in the press and school communities about who doesn’t get in or didn’t receive a specific scholarship.

As a result, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that three-fourths of the experience is up to you. You choose where to apply. Then we choose whom to admit. After that, the ball is back in your court as you receive multiple offers and choose where you attend. And the one often left out, but arguably most important: You choose to maximize the resources and network your college offers. In this regard, I think Covid has been a good primer for college admission (and life well beyond). I am hopeful that perspective, relative importance, self-confidence, and personal agency will triumph over the fleeting disappointment of one or two closed doors.

Things change. You adapt.

Before you get up from reading this blog, take some time to appreciate all you have adjusted to over the last six months (six months!). You have demonstrated phenomenal resilience. Nobody would have chosen this situation. Any adult will tell you how sorry they are that your high school experience has been truncated or altered because of the pandemic.

And yet…and yet… you are here. You haven’t lost sight of your goals. You are undeterred. You are resolute. You are building powerful, lifelong muscles of adaptability, resilience, and vision of the future that will provide critical strength and skills as a college applicant, a college student, and well into life after graduation.

Money Matters.

This spring and summer colleges received more appeals and petitions for re-evaluation of financial aid packages than ever before. Covid has served as a harsh reminder of just how fast stocks can drop, markets can shift, and entire sectors can take brutal economic hits. The bottom line is your college list should not only have a range of academic profiles and selectivity levels, but also account for affordability.  While this is not a perfect proxy, I encourage you to strongly consider applying to at least one in-state public university and/or community college.

Before you submit an application be sure to initiate a conversation with your family about: a) their ability/willingness to pay for your college education, b) any limitations or conditions they have about the type of school they will or won’t pay for, c) their expectations of your contributions financially, including loans, jobs during college, etc.  This blog expounds on those topics and important questions.

It’s Not Over.

At the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the credits begin to roll after he again says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” But then there are actually two more brief scenes. If history is any indicator, we will not see another global pandemic in our lifetime. This time pause was hit for you. I hope you won’t miss the critical lessons above. But most importantly, I hope you will make a practice out of stopping and looking around. If Covid has taught us nothing else, it is that life is precious. Don’t miss it!

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Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

Listen to “Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges” on Spreaker.

On Monday, I gave the same 30-minute presentation five times. It was a challenge on several levels. First, the technology platform did not allow me to see the participants when I was sharing my screen, which meant no head nods indicating they were tracking with me/still awake. Second, the school placed all students on mute, so unlike in-person sessions, nobody was laughing, “uh-huh-ing,” or asking for clarification along the way. Third, the chat feature was not viewable during the presentation, so I had no idea if students were asking questions, leaving comments, or making snide remarks as I talked. And lastly, it was the same presentation. Five times. For 30 minutes each.

That’s right. I went back-to-back-to-belly (LUNCH) back-to-back talking to my computer screen about “Writing for Colleges.” Brutal. Oh… and did I mention it was a Monday? BRU-TAL!

As I was eating my microwave burrito during the lunch break, I tweaked my presentation a bit– and then I did so again after the fifth  time. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues you need 10,000 hours to become “really good” at something. However, that was the pre-Covid world. Now the standard is presenting on the same topic five times in a three-hour period to an unfeeling, unresponsive computer screen.

Yep. The next time someone asks me to do that, I will be ready. I won’t agree to it, of course (did I mention it was BRU-TAL?), but at least I can now pull some images, stick with a theme of five, and share part of what I talked about with those muted, invisible students on Monday (Monday!).

A few weeks ago, I gave some of our best all-time advice about writing essays. Those blogs speak to who is reading; the fact that there is no perfect essay topic; and how to prepare and approach your essay. If you want philosophy and perspective, read that blog. This is the nitty gritty. NO sugar coating. Do these things or perish.

Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges

  1. Answer the freakin’ question. Does this sound as ridiculous to read as it does to write? Well, hopefully your class will get this right and I can leave it off next year’s blog. But I doubt it. Every year, EVERY YEAR, there are students who submit essays and short answer questions that are completely unrelated to the prompt. When your girlfriend’s mom asks what you want for dinner, do you say, “17?” Then why, for the love of all things holy, do you write off-topic college essays? C’mon, man. This is the most basic of basics.

At many colleges and scholarship programs this is commonly the first line in the rubric for grading or scoring your writing, “Does the student answer the question?” Don’t start in a hole. Just because you wrote a paper three weeks ago of the same length for your history class and got an A, does not mean you CTRL+C and paste that thing into your Common App. Answer the freakin’ question.

What’s in that bag? Why did she lick it but not eat it? Your reader is curious. Get to the point.

2. Get to the point. Your first sentence matters. Admission readers start with you. They are naturally curious. They open every application and essay hoping it is good. Your job is to keep them with you.

The first sentence of every paragraph matters. Many readers skim. Don’t you? If you’d been reading 30-50 essays a day for weeks on end, you’d want some punch in the first line too, right? You’d want the first paragraph to have detail and be specific and lead you into the rest of the essay too, right? See, these people aren’t so different from you. Don’t bury the lead or waste a bunch of time and words when you have so few for most of these prompts. Get to the point.

Sometimes we need to look at things from a different perspective to see everything clearly (Do you see the old and young lady here?).

3. Print it out.  Let’s be honest. We’ve all sent a text or an email with a misspelled word or two put words in the wrong order (see what I did there?). Sometimes we look at a computer screen for so long that our writing sounds correct in our heads, because we know what we meant to say.

After your first draft, and again before you submit your application, print out your essays and short answer questions. You will see things, catch things, and improve things as a result. Trust me. Print it out.

 4. Read it aloud. Once you print your essay out, grab your phone. Go to the voice notes app and hit record. Now read your essay and listen to it once or twice. I’m guessing you don’t even make it through the first 150 words without pausing to revise. That’s a good thing.

Keep reading and listening to it until you are satisfied. This is your best simulation of how an admission reader will hear your voice in your writing. Does this sound a little awkward and uncomfortable? I’m sorry. Try presenting the same 30-minute session five times in three hours and we can talk about awkward and uncomfortable. Didn’t we already establish that awkward and uncomfortable are two key steps on the path toward improvement? Read it aloud.

5. Get it done. In most years, over 2/3 of applications are submitted in the last three days before deadlines (and a few thousand in the last couple of hours). It disturbs my wife greatly when I try to think like a 17-year-old. But when I do I’m confident the reason it’s taking so long to submit the application is not because you’re trying to remember your address or whether or not you have a driver’s license. Nope. It’s the essay. This is not an egg. Sitting on it does not make it better. You know what does? Numbers 1-4!

So after you have done those, turn it in and move on with your life. You cannot control exactly how your essay is received. You cannot be assured it will be the best writing they read all year or “the thing” that gets you in, but you can be assured these five tips will make it better.  Not convinced? Try reading this all over again four more times.

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Finding REST

This fall we are designating one “quiet day” each month for our staff. Essentially, this means we won’t schedule meetings on those days, and we’re encouraging our team to protect their schedule as much as possible.  While we are not being overly prescriptive, our hope is this will help create margins for people to refresh, plan, catch up, spark creativity, or do something that brings them joy.

Covid-19 is testing everyone physically and emotionally. Between ad nauseam Zoom calls, work/school responsibilities, family obligations, and the underlying stress of navigating life amid a global pandemic, it is critical to not only take good care of ourselves, but also to look for opportunities to serve those around us—family, friends, teammates, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors.

As you head into the school year, and especially if you are also applying to college, you know plenty of work is coming.  You’ll need to be intentional about finding REST.

Read (or watch… or listen)

One of my 2020 resolutions was to read books or magazines on the train ride home each day (no Kindle or other digital content). This daily, scheduled time gave me a chance to avoid screens, decompress, and check out topics that interested me. It was life-giving.

Initially the pandemic sidetracked me because my train time was gone. However, I quickly realized since I was basically homeschooling my kids, I could assign them an hour of reading each day. Bam. Win-win. Solace regained!

Soon you will return to the land of assigned readings. Before school starts and the deadlines and assignments roll in, I encourage you to schedule time each week to check out an author, genre, or topic simply for enjoyment. Whether it be a fiction novel, an article about the controversy surrounding your favorite professional team, a children’s picture book (yes, I’m serious), a research piece only true wonks could appreciate, or a mindless paperback you skipped this summer when the beach trip got canceled, don’t let reading purely for fun/entertainment/curiosity get squeezed out.

Simply cannot bring yourself to read more? Okay, I get it. Find a new podcast, check out a documentary, watch a classic movie, or discover a foreign film. Go off the beaten path. Ask friends, family members, Siri, or random pedestrians for recommendations. Do something different. As a high school student, much of what you are exposed to will be dictated by your classes. Frankly, this is true in college as well. Set a pattern now for exploring beyond the curriculum.

Escape.

Most of us could tell you exactly where we were last Thursday at 2:45 p.m. by glancing at our phone. Routines, calendars, schedules, agendas, and deadlines effectively rule our lives. Understandably, for most of the week this is necessary… but not for all of it.

This fall, especially since it is likely many of your activities will modified, limited, or canceled, I implore you to escape both physically and mentally. Find something that will stimulate your mind and spirit. Do something you’ve long wanted to—or try something random on a whim. Get outside. Learn Irish dancing. Try Frisbee golf. Start photographing scenes in your hometown. Embrace spontaneity.

It is far too easy to fall into patterns and ruts. Fight against the trap of status quo and explore something new and unfamiliar. Find adventure this fall—and regularly in life. You will gain perspective, meet new people, and grow. Aren’t those a few of the reasons you want to go to college in the first place?

Socialize.

Covid-19 is teaching us lessons and forcing us to consider how we have been living, and how we want to live in the future. While going to high school during a global pandemic has plenty of negatives, I’m hopeful it will serve as a focusing point for you too. Don’t miss this opportunity to seriously consider (and perhaps even write down) the activities and classes you are bummed are off/altered, and conversely, those you have not particularly minded being limited or canceled.

Similarly, pay attention to the friends, classmates, co-workers, teammates, and others in your “normal” life that you miss seeing regularly. From a culture standpoint, understanding the role these specific folks play in your life, as well as the type of people who bring out your best, is instructive as you consider where you want to go to college.

More importantly, I hope you will consistently reach out and be proactive in your relationships this fall. Instagram will tell you one story, but reality is always much different. Whether it be your grandmother or your best friend since kindergarten, there has never been a more critical time for people to hear your voice. That’s right. I am asking you to go visit them (socially distanced, of course) or call them, rather than merely send a text.

We all have a role to play in taking care of one another during this time. If you are reading and escaping, your cup will be full, allowing you to pour that good stuff out into the lives of others. What do colleges want? Obviously, in part the answer is successful students. But their long game is to enroll good community members, graduates who will extend the school’s reach by being a positive influence in their company, city, and community. Check in on your people.

Technology.

Last Sunday I gave my wife my phone and told her not to give it back to me until that evening. A day free from texts, emails, social media, and basically anything happening in the bigger world.

It. Was. Glorious.

There is simply too much coming at us on a daily basis right now. Between death counts, family drama, hospitalization rates, neighborhood gossip, political grandstanding, senseless tweets, civil unrest, and the inane comments on social media, we are barraged each day with information, opinions, and indirect or direct pressure.  I encourage you to go on a digital diet. Just like an actual diet, I’m not telling you to cut all carbs or completely eliminate sugar.

However, I know you need to cut back. I know you are going to feel better if you will find even a few waking hours each week to shut off your laptop, phone, Xbox, iPad, or whatever USB rechargeable device you have in your pocket or bag. Black out the Bluetooth. Give Alexa some time off. Unplug and power down consistently each week, so you can power back up and recharge yourself and those around you.

I can guarantee you will have plenty of work this fall. Will you make it a priority to find REST?

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Better

At home I have a firm “one in = two out” policy—for every one item that enters the house, two others have to go. My kids don’t always appreciate this approach because it can come off as a bit abrupt, especially on birthdays. “Oh, that’s a pretty sweater, sweetheart. What are you getting rid of?” or “Oh man. Look at all these great presents. You are so lucky. While you fill a bin with old things you no longer use, I’ll get the truck and we can head to Goodwill.” Marie Condo sparks joy. I burn it to the ground.

Coronavirus quarantine (and perhaps a few threats from my wife) has made me realize I can’t be quite so draconian on a daily basis with things like clearing and cleaning up dishes, picking up idly strewn clothes, or hanging up towels or bags. Do I deny threatening to “take everything left downstairs at the end of the night and torch it all in the fire pit?” No. But, in general, I’ve taken a more progressive and repetitive approach.

In fact, for a solid week I just had one word written on our kitchen chalkboard: Better. I told them my challenge is to leave every room better than they found it. Three months into Covid cloistering, I have to say… they’re not doing terrible. I’m seeing progress. I’m seeing better.

Better – As an applicant

I have written about this before but I sincerely hope you will ask, “Why do I want to go to college?” as often as you ask, “Where do I want to go to college?” Write your answers down or record them on a phone or iPad. While you are working on your application (and definitely before you pay and hit submit), honestly assess whether or not that school truly aligns with your why.

Too often students are admitted and later say, “Yeah, but I can’t really see going there.” Or “I only applied to College X because (insert adult name here) told me to.” Worse, they actually choose to attend a college based on pressure or expectations of others, or because they are trying to fit an image.

This pandemic may have robbed you of many experiences and a sense of normalcy but it has also afforded you the rare opportunity to really reflect and be honest with yourself in a way most students unfortunately are not. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we should be genuinely excited about what we actually “get to do.”

Because of your hard work in high school; because of your family’s support and commitment to your education; because of coaches and teachers and other community members who have built into your life, you get to go to college. Better means having the courage, self-awareness, and confidence to honor that investment in how and where you apply.

Challenge: Before you “leave the room” and hit submit on an application, be sure that school aligns with your why. Better is knowing and embracing your goals, hopes, dreams, aspirations, and motivations. Better means every college you apply to is your first choice.

Better – As a family member and community member

Let’s be honest, no one knows what the next few months or year are going to look like. From daily news stories to your neighbor’s sidewalk musings, the level of uncertainty is absurdly high. Making it through 10 minutes of a conversation or a meeting without hearing at least one “if,” “we’ll see,” or “assuming that” is as likely as finding the toilet paper aisle fully stocked or people creating human pyramids in your local park. Between major macro concerns (unemployment, protests, and elections), as well as micro consternations (haircuts, pool restrictions, limited professional sports) people are stressed. Now is the time for better.

Whether they are saying it or not, your parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors are carrying more anxiety than normal. They are wrestling with their fears, doubts, and unsettled moments. In the weeks and months ahead, I hope you will bring better into your house, your relationships, your job, your clubs, teams, and your group of friends.

Challenge: Before you “leave the room” and head to bed each night make sure you’ve taken some time that day to send a text, make a call, give a hug, or offer up a virtual or a socially distanced high-five to someone in your life. Will this help you get into college? No. Will this help you be a much better friend and community member? Absolutely.

Tell your family “Thank you” and “I love you” every day. Don’t be fooled by the Coronavirus trance. You are not going to be at home forever. Hug your mama every day.

Better – As a high school student and future college student

In her recent Chronicle article, Sarah Brown describes the compacts and pledges students will be asked to sign on many campuses this fall in order to comply with health guidance and safety protocols. Many of the current college students and faculty she interviews are skeptical about their campus community upholding those agreements. In other words, they are expecting student conduct to make things worse rather than better.

My hope is you will run as hard as you can in the opposite direction. As you return to high school this year (in person or virtually), I hope you will constantly ask: How can I improve and contribute to this class, discussion, campus, community, and school? Who can I lift up? How can I invest my time and unique talents to improve the people and place around me?   

Challenge: Before you “leave the room” and graduate, be sure you have made someone or something in your high school irrefutably better. Students love to ask admission officers, “What are you looking for?” They expect to get a GPA average or a specific number of AP classes.

What are we looking for? We are looking for students who will be deeply missed when they graduate from high school. We are looking for students who are unmistakably and unabashedly committed to better.

Better

A few weeks ago, our family went to see the Space X shuttle launch. As we were leaving the beach, I sent my kids to throw away the remains of our lunch and snacks. While I was collecting our blanket and chairs, my wife tapped me on the back and nodded toward the trashcan. My daughter was picking up the garbage that someone else had left. Sand must have blown just then because my eyes legitimately started welling up.

Better is possible. Better is inspiring. Better is in you. Bring it into every room you enter this year, and you will be sure to leave it when you go.

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