College Admission: Same as it Ever Was?

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission, Mid-Atlantic, Kathleen Voss to the blog!

In the college admission world, I am considered a dinosaur – which is a polite way of saying I am a fossil.  To put things into perspective, the summer after college, the president walked into my office and said, “We’re implementing a revolutionary new platform called EMAIL.”  When I started on this journey, way back in nineteen hundred and ninety-three, I was 5 years older than most of the high school students that I was working with!  

I remember talking to the kids and completely relating to them.  After those students enrolled, they became like my younger sisters and friends.  We had much in common, I listened to the same music they did, watched Days of Our Lives in the dining hall during the lunch hour, and understood their struggles with school work and social pressures.

These days, I tend to relate more to the parents, many of them graduates of the class of 1993. We commiserate about our kids and share our worries.  I am still musically savvy and can tell the difference between the Justins (Timberlake and Bieber) but I no longer have the time or brainpower for Days of Our Lives, and the memories of youthful struggles are fleeting.

Sometimes, while standing behind my table at a college fair (over 500 of them in my career!), I look around at all of those young faces, and I hear that Talking Heads song… “And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?”

While I am not sure where time has gone, here is what I DO know after 23 years of working with high school kids.

They Are Socially and Culturally Aware.
By the nature of their generation they have been developing skills since early childhood that have aided them in better understanding and “acknowledging the importance of harmonious social interaction.”  Today’s young people are more open to diversity than we were 20 years ago. I like that kids today have more sensitivity to people who are different, and more confidence in sharing those differences.  There is no doubt in my mind that young people are evolving by being exposed to all types of diversity.

They Work REALLY HARD!
According to Business Insider, kids today are taking 27.2 credits, compared to the 23.6 that high school kids took in 1990. At Georgia Tech, the average number of AP/IB courses our admitted students have taken is 10, and that’s on top of logging hours of service learning outside of the classroom. We see first-hand the volume and personal benefit of service learning. These hours, in addition to sports, work, and all of those other activities found in high school, make for very busy teenagers!

Often I am asked, “Should Johnny take AP Chemistry or stay in band?  His schedule won’t allow for both.”  My response is, “What does Johnny love?”  I tell my own children, “too much of anything isn’t good for you,” and that includes AP’s.  For many kids, they need the freedom that band, art or sports provide to help recharge their brains for those higher level courses.

They Face Pressures That Would Have Given Me Nightmares.
YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat.  Your entire life captured for the world to see! That Facebook meme that says something about being glad that there was no Facebook when you were in high school… it’s the truth!

Many of the young people I meet are burned out. They suffer from chronic stress.  While I do meet kids who thrive on the pressure, I have to be honest folks, if my parents were like some of the parents I’ve met out there, I would be stressed out too!  Asking about the college profile for your 1st grader because you want to make sure they are in the “right” classes, calling the admissions office to tattle about the disciplinary infractions of your child’s classmates, writing your daughter’s application essay because “I can just do it better,” berating guidance counselors when your child doesn’t get into the school that only accepts 5% of its applicants… where does it end?

One of my colleagues at an exclusive private school in the Washington DC area begins his college night presentation for parents with the following statement; “think about your alma mater…. over 50% of you would be denied admission if you applied there today… can you give your kid a break?”

They Are Going to Be Okay.
I have answered the same questions for 23 years: “What is your average GPA? SAT? ACT? How hard is it to get in? My friend said you don’t accept grades under a B, is that true? My counselor said that I don’t have enough safety schools on my list, what do you think? ”  I’ve seen some kids come in on fire and burn out in a semester… others needed a few months to acclimate and then take off. But in the end, most made the right college decision, especially if they were true to themselves.  In his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni does a great job explaining why it’s what the student does in college, not where they go, that determines success.

I’ve told parents and students at all of those college fairs and visits to high schools is that it IS going to be okay.  A year from now you will have landed, and if you stay true to yourself, it will be enough.

Finally, there really will come a time when all of this will be a blip on the radar. Your college journey will be a story that you tell your own kids when you, too, are a dinosaur.

“Same as it ever was… Same as it ever was…”

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On the Road Again…

This week I’ve been on the road traveling to spread the good word about Georgia Tech, or as I say, “Preaching the GT gospel.”

I love this part of my job, even though I don’t get to do it as much as I used to. There are many days when I’m in a meeting with a task force, committee, or commission and people are endlessly using phrases like “at the end of the day” or “synergy.” During those times, I find myself wishing I was waking up to a complimentary hotel breakfast and signing in at a high school to talk to students.

I’ve always thought that high school is one of the most critical times in a person’s life because of the implications it has on where you go, what you do, who you know, and how you ultimately see and experience the world. This is a huge part of why I got into college admission. What can I say? People have to work hard to stay interesting and optimistic as they get older– and most don’t. Conversely, the energy, enthusiasm and hope of teenagers and college students is contagious.

Since lots of college reps are about to come through your doors for visits or college fairs, I wanted to take some time to give you a few tips on how to maximize your time with these counselors.

  1. Do your homework. “What?! School just started and I’m taking 6 APs! You’re telling me I’ve got homework for college admission too?” Yep. Before a college visits your school, check out the programs that interest you about them. What do you want to do outside the classroom? Outdoor recreation, band, etc.? Research these. Then when they ask you what you want to know about, you’ll be ready. (If they’re not asking you that, see Tip 3 below).
  2. Shake their hand and introduce yourself. Pretty basic. You’re not doing this to advantage yourself in the admission process. Most the time they won’t remember your name from your handshake, since they’re also seeing 8 or 20 other students in that session. But it sets you up for questions later in the session and follow up in the future. Remember- this is the college admission PROCESS, and often it starts here.
  3. Interrupt. Yep, I said it. Too many admission counselors basically pull an invisible chain in their back and go into a useless spiel about study abroad, inter-disciplinary curriculum, and statements like “We have 400 clubs and activities. But if we don’t have what you want to do, just grab a friend and a professor and you can start one.” This is when the teacher’s voice from the Charlie Brown starts rattling around in my head. Your job is to throw them off script. They’re only there for 45 minutes. Make it worthwhile. Ask questions like “What are one or two things about your college that only a handful in the nation can also claim?” OR in a different version, “What makes your school unique?” “Why should someone from my city or state pick your school over the many similar in size and culture that are closer, further, less expensive, higher ranked, etc (you insert the appropriate descriptor).”
  4. Stay after or follow up. Sometimes you’ll have to leave immediately following the presentation. If that is the case, send a quick email to the rep thanking them for coming and letting them know if you have plans to visit their campus. Or wait until you apply and then send an email to say, “Hey. I really appreciate you coming to my school in September. Just wanted you to know I am really excited about Charlie Brown U and I have just applied.” (Don’t copy and paste that. I’m far more confident in your writing abilities than mine on this). But if you can stay after, be sure to get your questions in, remind them of your name, and then follow up as described above.
  5. BONUS: These folks are traveling. They’re hitting five schools a day, eating in their car, and trying to follow WAZE while not denting the rental car. Help them out. Give them a tip on a local restaurant for lunch or dinner. Tell them a good place to shop in the area or a park nearby if they want to go for a run. They’re just people. They appreciate that type of stuff. And it breaks both of you out of the normal college admission relationship that too often becomes robotic.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: No one person holds a corner on the market for what a school is really like or really about. You may find the rep hilarious. Doesn’t mean anyone else on that campus is- they may not even be an alum. You may find the rep really cute. That relationship isn’t going anywhere, and it’s definitely not a good way to pick a school. Or, you may find the rep dull and indifferent. Don’t let their personality (or a tour guide’s for that matter) be the reason you rule a school in or out.

Think about it like this: if you are looking at a school of 20,000, it’s basically a small city. Nobody speaks completely for that town. Your job in the process is to get as much info as possible to make a good decision on the best fit school for you. You can start with engaging the representative as we discussed here, but remember, your ultimate goal before you apply or choose any school is to talk to as many people as possible; alumni, current students, professors, and so on.

I hope that you’ll enjoy the college reps that you meet this year. Remember: You can make them better at telling their school’s story if you follow these tips. And ultimately, that is going to help you, your classmates, the other students they visit, as well as them as professionals in the long run too.

The Logical Connections Between College Admissions & Lasting Friendships

This summer I am moderating two conference panels for enrollment/admission leaders to share their career advice and insight. We are all concerned, no matter what our profession, with succession planning, i.d. identifying the “next generation” of talent. Maybe it’s just because its graduation season and I’ve been reading or listening to a lot of speakers lately, or maybe it’s because I’m just a little cheesy, but as I’ve been preparing my questions I realized that my tips for the  profession sound pretty similar to generally being a good friend.

Warning: If you are looking for ways to boost your SAT score or craft a perfect essay, you won’t get it in this blog entry. 

Go To Them

A former Tech football coach told me he thinks admission and coaching are very similar. “Everyone thinks they can do it better, and they are more than happy to tell you exactly how. You’ve got to get comfortable with plenty of second guessing and ‘Monday morning quarterbacking.’” It’s true. Each year hundreds, if not thousands of talented students are “left out” and thus upset about being denied admission. Internally, a campus department feels like admission did not bring them enough students, and another believes they have too many. Unlike Goldilocks you never seem to hear from anyone saying it’s “just right.” Those I think are phrased, “we don’t like the ones we have.” At the end of the day, sometimes it seems you not only can’t please anyone, but in fact you have pissed off everyone. I see our coach’s point… bowl game, 10 win season, but where is the national championship? What I have come to realize, and what I tell younger professionals, is that in those moments you cannot stay in your office and solve problems or mend relationships. Get up. Get out. Go to the people who are upset. Numerous times I’ve walked into a professor’s office when his son or daughter has been denied admission knowing it will be uncomfortable. But being in their office, looking at their pictures, and taking my time to show up is an indication that I value the relationship. It’s not always possible, but for some tough conversations with alumni or students in the metro Atlanta area, I have gone to the high school or met at a Starbucks in their community.

I think we’ve all found ourselves in a spot of feeling like we’ve pleased nobody and disappointed or pissed off lots of close friends or family members. Somehow this experience seems almost inevitable in high school– and I’d love to tell you it’s a one and done deal—but that is rarely the case. Whether this is a “mass make-up” or simply repairing the relationship with one person, I want to urge you to “go to them.” We have way too many mediums for communication: text, social media, stuff a note in their bag, send a message through a friend. It’s hard to say you’re sorry looking directly at someone. It’s uncomfortable to admit you were wrong when you see your damage in their eyes—and sometimes even worse to tell someone else that they were wrong and you are hurt. But true relationships, and ultimately lasting friendships, are mended and preserved through humility and a willingness to proactively heal the fissures.

Hey, I don’t have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I failed as much as I have succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.” Dicky Fox in Jerry McGuire.

Build a Strong Core Team

If you, your team, and your university are going to have the highest level of success, you have to be ok with being surrounded by people who are better at some things than you are. There is no way you can know everything, do everything, or accomplish everything that’s being asked on your own. I learned this the hard way. In April of 2008 I became Interim Director at Georgia Tech. At the time, I was serving as Associate Director. In this role I managed our recruitment efforts, communication efforts, and our athletic and alumni liaison work. Stepping into the Interim position and maintaining those duties was daunting and exhausting. A month later, my wife and I had our first baby. That summer I dropped 10 pounds and slept about the same amount of hours in total. It was brutal. There were days I forgot to wear socks and days I drank eight Cokes. I was putting everything I had into work and home, but I was ultimately marginal in all roles. It showed me in a painfully poignant way how critical it is to build a strong team, particularly the other leaders on staff. There are still some moments when I question if I should be doing some of the work I’ve delegated, or am almost embarrassed by how much more informed on a topic or issue a team member is than I, but it does not take long to remember the summer of 2008—and I’m instantly thankful for being surrounded by people who make me better and our team more successful due to their complementary talent and knowledge.

Last night I was sitting at the pool watching my kids play. A group of high school girls were talking next to me. I pulled my hat lower and put my sunglasses back on (I know tip 1 was “go to them” but poolside is not the time for being recognized as an admission director). Ultimately, one of them left, and the three others started criticizing her as she walked away. You could easily just chalk this up to being petty and immature, but ultimately it’s a sign of insecurity. I did not hear all of their comments (splash contest to judge), but clearly something about this girl was threatening to them. Maybe she was smarter, maybe a better athlete, or funnier or smarter or who knows. Check out this video from Tech’s “Wreckless,” a group committed to encouraging fellow students. Now contrast that to Donald Trump’s comments earlier this spring.  We challenge students on this all of the time. “If you don’t like being around people who are smarter than you, or who speak more languages, or who have traveled places you could not identify on a map, don’t come here.” Improving as a learner, living a more full, rich, and worthwhile life, comes from being around people who stretch and challenge you– and yes, even humble you.  (This is not political commentary. I just patently disagree with The Donald on this point.)

Be direct.

Our profession demands an ability to say “No” with grace and respect, but also with firmness. We constantly are asked, “What’s one more?” This kid has perfect SATs… this kid would really contribute to our club robotics team… he’s a state champion chess player… or she’s a nationally ranked equestrian. The recommendations of one more email, phone call, letter, walk- in visitor could easily become 200 more students in a class, if you don’t learn to say “No” with grace and respect, but also with firmness. I’ve found that while it can be uncomfortable and tense at the outset, it is possible to salvage relationships through honesty, empathy, but clear and direct communication.

And so too with friendship. I’ll never forget being on an airplane with a friend on the way to Boston. I could tell he was not happy with me, and so I asked him what was bothering him. “You are ALWAYS late. You were late today meeting me. You were late for dinner the other night. It’s disrespectful. Do you think your time is more valuable than mine?!” He was right. And even though it was painful to hear, I deeply value that conversation because it was honest but emanated from a place of love. He wanted to preserve and improve our friendship. Sure, it would have been easier to not say anything or simply “throw shade” (really wrote this entire blog just to use that newly acquired term), but that would not have deepened our friendship, which he did by being direct and real.

As promised there have been no tangible tips here to help you in AP US History. But as you go through the admission process, or enter college, or continue on in life no matter what your age, I’d assert that being proactive in relationships, surrounding yourself with talented and caring people, and dealing with friends and family directly and honestly, will mean a whole lot more.

 

The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Part 2: Admission Counselors

CODE RED

If you’ve seen A Few Good Men (sidenote: ranks in my wife’s Top 3 of all time) then you remember this exchange in the Navy courtroom as Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) examines Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson—never married to Cruise) about whether or not he ordered a Code Red that led to the death of an enlisted Marine.

Kaffee: *Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?*

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: *You want answers?* a-few-good-men-quotes_288x288

Kaffee: *I want the truth!*

Col. Jessep: *You can’t handle the truth!*

Anyone else’s blood pumping?! Man, what a great scene. Anyhoo… yesterday we looked at some of the lies students tell. Today we spin the mirror around and take a look at college admission counselors.

I frequently have the opportunity to speak on panels and hear colleagues describe their college or university at high school programs. Some of the trite responses and canned information gets incredibly frustrating at times, and this is one reason we urge our staff to rely on “stories not statistics” in relaying the Why Georgia Tech message. You can only listen to so many admission folks talk about “great study abroad programs” or “find a professor and a few friends and you too can start a club” before you start having flashbacks to Charlie Brown cartoons. Yet while those lazy, vague descriptions may become mundane, they’re far more tolerable than the lies we tell.

Lie 1- “We are looking for reasons to admit you, rather than deny you.” I’ve heard this from numerous admission representatives at highly selective schools and I’m only two utterings short of standing up next time and coughing, “BS!”

I always suspected this was false, even when Tech was admitting more than 50% of applicants. Now that we’re closer to 30%, I see that it’s a confirmed lie. (Note: schools admitting more than 50% likely would not say this because they don’t have to, but if they do, it is true in their case, so please don’t reference me if you call them out in public).

Here’s how you know this lie can’t be true: You are shopping online for a new backpack for an upcoming trip, and you have some parameters of what you need. You land on REI’s website and they have 638 different backpacks available. Here’s your criteria:

  • Less than 5 lbs… hold more than 65 liters…. include a hydration component… allows for a sleeping bag compartment… water resistant… and less than $300.

All of a sudden that 638 becomes only 10 options. Your search ruled out things that did not fit your criteria, and left you with fewer options to find the best choice. I realize that all metaphors ultimately break down, but stick with me. Let’s say that the backpacks are applicants and you are an admission counselor. Isn’t the same concept true? You start by filtering out what’s not “in range” based on the number of students you can admit given class size and traditional yield projections. That’s why when you hear colleges say, “most of the students who apply could be successful here” they are being honest. If you did not have all of those specific parameters, then easily half of the backpacks would do—they hold stuff, go on your back, and are in price range. It’s a backpack. But schools admitting only one in every four or five students have lots of various filters, parameters, needs, and wants. When it comes down to that last 10 and they can only “buy one pack,” they may be looking for reasons to admit you rather than deny. But like Lt. Kaffee, you are entitled to the truth—and now you have it.

Lie 2- “Be Yourself.” You will most often hear this line referring to essay writing or interview preparation. It’s unhelpful, insincere advice… and it’s a lie. Be myself? Ok, well I enjoy violent war movies, I sneak out with my friends and drive around town most Saturdays at 3 a.m., and I am excited about all of the good looking girls at your college. How do you like me now?! I think we debunked this one a lot faster than number one.

Here’s the translation: use your essay or interview to communicate something insightful or revealing that does not come through in your grades, classes, extra-curricular participation, etc. Readers and interviewers are wanting to take something away that provides additional insight into your life, background, quirks, passions, etc. They’re looking for something that will help them advocate for you in committee that tells your story beyond the numbers. You don’t have to hide the fact that you sneak out, but if you go there give perspective into why that is indicative of who you are more broadly, i.e. it is representative of your curiosity or your sense of adventure. We owe you explanations of why and how we make admission decisions, and you owe us a more reflective and insightful illustration in your writing.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the Lies Parents Tell.