The Basics of College Admission: Part 3

It’s good to know your limits. It’s good to understand when the best thing to do is step aside and let someone else handle things. It’s also hard to miss those moments when family members communicate these things gently (but clearly) in statements such as:

  • “Just hand me the remote. I’ll show you how to find that.”
  • “I think we are good to go on virtual school today. It might be better if you go into the office.”
  • “That’s not an aerial. That’s not even a somersault. Watch this!”

This also happens to me at work. I’m fortunate to have an incredibly talented team of colleagues and friends around me. So, when it comes to communication strategy, data analysis, file review training, technology enhancements, and much more, I’ve learned to let the experts lead.

In that spirit, I’m cutting this intro short so you can hear directly from my insightful and experienced colleagues about key elements of your college admission and application experience.

Activities and Contribution to Community

Ellery Kirkconnell (Senior Admission Counselor) helps you understand what admission counselors are really looking for when they read and discuss your involvement, influence, and impact outside of the classroom.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Activities & Contribution to Community – Ellery Kirkconnell” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Focus on what you’ve contributed to your school, community, or family. This section is critical, so don’t short sell your involvement or rely on your strong academic background. “Tell us more” is the rule of thumb!

Listen For: Ellery’s crystal ball predictions on how this section will be reviewed in light of Covid-19.

Key Quote: “Impact does not necessarily mean you were a president of an organization… elected official… or the captain of a sports team.”

Further Reading Viewing: Ellery’s YouTube clip on C2C.

Letters of Recommendation

Kathleen Voss (East Coast Admission Director) provides key tips for students as they consider who to ask for letters of recommendation. She also provides helpful insight into what college admission readers are (and are not) looking for when they come to this section of applications.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Letters of Recommendation – Kathleen Voss” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Good recommendations showcase your character/compliment your story. Help your recommenders help you by giving them the time/direction/info they need to do their best job.  Only send the number of recs any particular college asks you to submit.

Listen For: The Starbucks Test (Honorable mention- Jerry McGuire hat tip).

Key Quote: “You are the book. And this is the person reviewing the book.”

Further Reading:   Big Future’s recs on recs. Insight from the Georgia Tech of Boston, aka MIT.

The Additional Information Section

Katie Mattli (Senior Assistant Director) explains what this section is (and what it’s not), as well as what readers are really looking for when they come to this section.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Understanding the Additional Information Section – Katie Mattli” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: It’s okay to leave this section blank. It’s not an additional essay or continuation of your resume and extra-curriculars. It’s an opportunity to include critical details of your story that you’ve not been able to include elsewhere. Google “the art of brevity.”

Listen For: Katie’s patented “two-part method” for approaching this section.

Key Quote: “I am a human being- and I’m trying to understand you as a human being.”

Further Reading: The Write Life.

That’s it for the real wisdom and helpful advice. In other news, here’s one more.

College Essays and Supplemental Writing

Rick Clark (Director of Undergraduate Admission) walks students through how to get started, possible topics to consider, and what “your voice” really means. He also touches on supplemental essays for colleges and walks you through very tangible tips for making your writing better.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Writing for Colleges – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Top Tips:  Voice record your essay and listen back for ways to improve. Your application is a story: how can your essay fill in gaps and round out the most complete picture of you? Have an adult who does not know you very well read your essays to simulate the experience and takeaways of an admission counselor.

Listen For: Personal secrets and confessions.

Key Quote: “Essays should be personal and detailed. The worst essays are vanilla. They’re broad and have a bunch of multi-syllabic words.”  

Further Reading:  Blogger, coach, author, and overall good person, Ethan Sawyer, aka The College Essay Guy. Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges.

Thanks for reading—and thanks for listening. We will be wrapping up our mini-series, “The Basics of College Admission,” in the next month with episodes including financial aid, interviews, transfer admission, and more.

At this point, we’ve reached about 18,000 listeners on The College Admission Brief podcast. Admittedly, my mom and kids have a few accounts I created which is inflating those stats, but in general we’re pleased and truly appreciative. The annual podcast fee just hit my credit card, so we’ll definitely continue to be around and want to make this as helpful as possible as you navigate your admission experience.

If there is topic you think we missed and want us to cover, please reach out to @clark2college or @gtadmission.

Thanks for subscribing or listening  on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top of the page. We welcome comments and feedback at @gtadmission on Twitter.

Five Important Lessons from Covid-19

Listen to “Episode 21: Important Lessons from Covid-19 – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

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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The Basics of College Admission

Each summer we host a program for faculty, staff, and friends of Georgia Tech who have kids in high school. This has come to be known as “Admission 101.” In about an hour we discuss the landscape of higher education; how students can/should build a list of schools; how to make a good campus visit; what colleges are looking for in applicants/ how admission decisions are made; and how families can go through their college admission experience in a unified and healthy manner. It’s a lot. A lot!

In fact, someone could probably write an entire book on what we try to cover in an hour. Hmmm…

One piece of feedback we received this year is attendees wanted more of the nuts and bolts of each part of the application (academics, essays, testing, extracurriculars, interviews, recommendations, etc.)

So, now that college applications are open and Early Action and Early Decision deadlines are on the horizon, we are launching a two month podcast mini-series as part of  The College Admission Brief (available on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker).

Holding to the same promise of 10 minutes or less, the first three episodes of The Basics of College Admission are live, and ready for your listening pleasure.

Understanding Fit

Alexis Szemraj (Senior Admission Counselor) discusses the questions you should ask yourself as you consider colleges, as well as practical ways to evaluate and compare schools.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Understanding Fit – Alexis Szemraj” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Use your network, keep an open mind, and ask yourself tough and real questions. Check out the alumni magazine and student newspaper from the schools you are considering, as well as their various social media channels. Think career, not major.

Listen For: Legacy lurk.

Key Quote: “The process should start by looking at yourself- not just a list of colleges.”

Further Reading: Cappex and Big Future

Campus/Virtual Visits

Katy Beth Chisholm (Assistant Director for Campus Visits) provides key tips for students and families about how to access colleges using online resources, such as online tours, sessions, webinars, and other campus resources.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Campus/Virtual Visits – Katy Beth Chisolm” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Take and keep notes, debrief with friends, family members, school counselors. Find authentic sources. Pace yourself.

Listen For: The Massive Matrix Spreadsheet. (I did find this one.)

Key Quote: “Check out the YouTube channel, Facebook Live, and Instagram stories (from individual colleges).”

Further Reading: YouVisit and Inside HigherEd

General Application Tips

Alex Thackston (Senior Admission Counselor) provides great insight on who admission readers really are, and discusses practical tips and common pitfalls students should know while working on their applications.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: General Application Tips – Alex Thackston” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Prepare, don’t procrastinate! Find a trusted proofreader. Be yourself.

Listen For: Underwater karate against sharks.

Key Quote: “We can read the rush in your application.” (aka Don’t procrastinate.)

Further Reading:  College Admission Timeline for Seniors and Common App Application Guide

We’ll be releasing an episode each week throughout September and October. You can subscribe and listen on iTunesSpotify, and Spreaker.

Upcoming episodes include:

  • Early Action v Early Decision
  • Standardized Testing and Test Score Optional vs. Test Score Blind
  • Extracurricular activities (Impact, Involvement, and Influence)
  • Special Circumstances/ Additional Information
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Interviews

To Answer or Not To Answer the College Admission Covid-19 Question

Listen to “Episode 19: Answering the Covid Question – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

My cousin comes to our house each Wednesday afternoon to tutor our kids. Not only is it always good to see her, because she’s family and has the biggest smile and most genuinely cheerful spirit of anyone I know, but it’s also a helpful reminder of the day.

“Kenzie’s here!!” Okay. Must be Wednesday.

When Covid really hit the U.S. in mid-March, life got wonky for us all. One of my friends has decided it’s actually still March—in this case March 182. You don’t have to look far on the internet, social media, or the national news to be reminded that the last five months have varied widely based on who you are, where you live, your family’s health/wealth, school response, and community impact. Personally, I have friends who have lost their business and were forced to sell their house as a result. I know people who have gotten sick and recovered, as well as several who have contracted the virus and died. However, I also have friends who have received promotions, new jobs, and are in businesses that are thriving as a direct result of the pandemic.

So not only is it logical, but it’s also critical that The Common Application has provided an opportunity for students to respond to a question directly related to Covid-19.

This optional question is accompanied by an FAQ to assist students if they choose to respond:

Community disruptions such as Covid-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Here are three basic tips on how to approach this question/section.

  1. Optional means optional.

You’ve likely heard this statement related to standardized testing this year, but it applies here too.

This is the question you need to ask yourself:

Do I have something additional I want them to know about my last six months in particular that I’ve not been able to express elsewhere?

If the answer is Yes, this section is available to you. If No, click the box and move on.

2. So What Did I Miss?

We use the title “admission reader” intentionally. They read. Think of your application as a story.

Chapter 1- You complete the demographic information, including name, gender, high school, age, family information, etc.

Chapter 2- You provide a transcript and your counselor sends us a school report so we understand your academic background, choices, and performance.

Chapter 3- You tell us on your Activities section what you chose to invest your time in outside the classroom.

Chapter 4- You write an essay and answer short answer questions for colleges to help them hear you and see you— think of writing like coloring in an otherwise black and white outline.

Okay. Are you satisfied? Do you feel like your story has been told? If not, what did you miss (I had I bet with my daughter that I could work in at least three Hamilton references on this blog)?

If there is more to share, you need to determine whether to include that in the “Additional Information” section or in the Covid response piece. Again, that will be dictated based on timing. If what you want a reader to know is acute and was triggered by the pandemic, this question is for you. If the circumstance is more broad and protracted, likely it best fits in the Additional Information section.

3. This is a thing. But it’s not the thing.

Please do not overthink this. We’ve already gotten way too many calls and emails about this question. I’m willing to put money on these two statements at any college around the country:

First, if you put something down that a reader does not think is relevant, they’re just going to move on. It’s not going to hurt you and it’s not going to “keep you from being admitted.”

Second, imagine the most dramatic, gut wrenching, tear jerking, and unbelievable scenario you can describe in 250 words. Even that… yes, even that, is not going to get anyone in. No reader is going to say, “Hey. This kid has been making C’s and D’s since 9th grade, has been expelled three times, and put down “Torments Cats” as their only activity. BUT…check out this Covid response! I really think we should admit them!”

Unfortunately, I was kicked out of the Cub Scouts, so I don’t know a special sign that means “Trust me.” Honestly, I wish someone would develop an emoji that equates to: “I’m not BS’ing you here,” because if I had that, I’d put about nine of them here at the close. In the absence of that, I’ll just trust you are a logical, smart, and reasonable person. I mean you are reading this blog after all, #amirite?

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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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