The Best of Intentions

This week we welcome Regional Director of Admission (West Coast) Ashley Brookshire to the blog. Welcome, Ashley!

I love stories of wild animals mistakenly brought into people’s homes. While some of these stories are fake, it’s easy for us to believe that it could happen. You know the drill. It starts with a well-meaning, kind hearted (yet naive) individual who sees what they believe is a domestic pet in distress. They bring the creature into their home and give the animal what’s “best” for it: food, a bath, a warm bed. The images become public when this do-gooder posts them to social media, or a neighborhood app, hoping to reunite the scared, mangy, and increasingly irritated “pet” with its owner.

The entire time they are operating with the best of intentions, but unfortunately end up trying to fit a square peg in a round hole (or a mountain lion in a bathtub). It’s only when others chime in to widen their frame of reference (“that’s not a cat, its possum”) does the person start to gain perspective. Maybe the solution offered wasn’t best for the animal in question after all.

Mountain lion in a bathtub
Mountain lion in a bathtub (psst… hoax alert!)

The best meaning people in your community will have an abundance of opinions to offer as you go through the college application process: what is most important about a college experience… what athletic division is best… why you should go Greek… the one thing colleges care about in the application process… the sure-fire way to be admitted. Buckle up – this won’t be the only time you receive rapid-fire, unsolicited advice during a life chapter (weddings and pregnancies have a very similar effect on people).

Stop and Reflect

All of this advice is typically very well intended. Some of it may even resonate with you. But a lot of it may feel like grooming a coyote: it just doesn’t fit. Before you take to heart every piece of college-going advice you receive, stop and reflect:

  • Is the advice from someone who is a repeated participant in the college admission process (like a school counselor)? Or is it from someone speaking from a single experience, like your uncle who will likely disown his own children if they don’t attend his alma mater?
  • Are you learning about campus through the perspective of current students, or an alumna whose time in college didn’t include the internet?
  • Are you learning about requirements admission offices consider while reviewing applications from a representative of the school, or from the friend of your older sister who applied to three colleges five years ago?

Everyone – EVERYONE – has valuable wisdom and insight they can share from their experiences. Take time to listen to what those around you choose to share. After all, wild animal or pet, we can all appreciate a free meal from someone who cares. But please, keep in mind when people speak from their experiences, their perspective can be very limited—especially when it comes to talking about the “right” or “wrong” way to go through a process.

Have Perspective

Instead, think about the perspectives that some of the individuals mentioned above can provide, and how that may resonate with your search. While your uncle may not be the best person to talk about Early Action vs. Early Decision, he can certainly speak to the value of school spirit as part of his undergraduate experience and as an alum. While an older alumna may not know all today’s undergraduate experience entails, she does know how her university experience and network prepared her for life after college. And while your sister’s friend may not be an expert on enrollment management, she can share wisdom into the strategies she used to navigate the process (and keep her sanity).

Consider the SourceEqually important, learn where you should go to get information from the most appropriate source. Repeat participants in the college admission process, like your high school counselor and college admission representatives, can speak to trends and best practices. Questions about common application pitfalls, recommended timelines, and possible outcomes should absolutely be directed to these individuals.

While I love the Institute I represent, the reality is I am a paid staff member of the school. I take pride in the fact that our office and campus community operate with authenticity and transparency, but at the end of the day I am biased about opportunities at Georgia Tech (if I wasn’t, this would be a terribly challenging career). Our brochures, website, and admission presentations are also biased in highlighting the benefits of an undergraduate career spent on our campus. Keep that in mind as you use college-provided resources as part of your search. While incredibly helpful, they also have an agenda.

Current students are an invaluable resource to your college search. Unlike paid staff and faculty, students are consumers of the undergraduate experience and will provide you with a review from their perspective. That’s why so many resources about campus visits encourage you to engage with students in the dining hall, on the sidewalk, or at the student center. They will undoubtedly provide insight beyond the scope of the official school tour or information session you just completed as part of your visit.

Consider your resources and use them appropriately. Understand that those around you are excited for you, want to help you through your search, and are very well intended. But, also understand that wild mountain lions don’t need a good shampoo. Similarly, make sure the tools you’re using and the advice you’re considering makes sense for you and your college search.

Ashley Brookshire is an Atlanta native and Georgia Tech alumna who has worked in college admission for nearly a decade. Ashley serves as Georgia Tech’s Regional Director of Admission for the West Coast, making her home in Southern California. She’s been a California resident for more than 5 years and is a member of the Regional Admission Counselors of California.

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That ONE Thing!

You can also listen to the audio version of this blog here.

On Father’s Day we had my parents over for dinner. It was a beautiful early summer night. June in Atlanta can get pretty sticky, but there was a nice breeze. We sat outside and laughed, talked, listened to music, played a few spirited rounds of corn hole, and watched our kids put on some impromptu “shows.”

I had a conference set to start in Asheville, NC the next day at noon, so throughout the afternoon and evening I was progressively packing. You may have heard of progressive dinners– this is the lesser-known cousin. On the way to check the food on the grill, I put my phone charger and sunglasses in the truck. After setting out a few chairs in the yard, I put my bag and running shoes in the backseat. Some would call it multi-tasking, others would call it completely inefficient. It’s our differences that make the world interesting, people. Embrace diversity of approach and thought.

My parents left around 8 p.m. We cleaned up the yard and kitchen and got the kids ready for bed.  Hugs, prayers, put one idle corn hole bag back to the garage, and then I left around 9 p.m. for the 200-mile trip.

Heading for the hills…

Asheville, NC (Visit soon. There is something for everyone.)

With a full tank of gas, a couple great podcasts (highly recommend We Came to Win during the World Cup), and a few friends to call on the way, the drive passed quickly. I pulled into my friend’s house around 12:30 a.m., found the stashed key, and crashed on the downstairs bed.

We got up around 7 a.m. and went for a great run on a lake trail near his house. After a quick shower, we headed to downtown Asheville for breakfast. It was on the way I realized I did not have my wallet. The realization washed over me slowly as I checked carefully through my clothes, bag, and truck. No wallet. 200 miles away from home with no cash, no credit card, and even more disconcerting, no driver’s license.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I have arrived to work, drove to the store, and showed up at the gas station wallet-less. If it’s never happened to you, congratulations! But for me, it’s happened—let’s say once a year or so (maybe more frequently when we had newborns and I was lucky to remember to put on shoes). I’m sure the first six months of each kid’s life significantly inflated my LWLA (lifetime wallet-leaving average). So while I’m no wallet-leaving virgin, I had never left the state and driven hundreds of miles without it before. This was a first. This was a problem.

Here is what I did have:

  • 2 pairs of running shoes
  • 1 hammock
  • 2 phone chargers
  • 2 ear plugs
  • 7  (yes, seven!) bungee cords
  • 1 pocket knife
  • 1 inflatable pillow
  • 1 regular pillow
  • 2 toothbrushes (found one of my daughter’s in the console)
  • 1 jump rope
  • 1 umbrella
  • 0 wallet
  • 0 cash

I was only staying in North Carolina until Tuesday afternoon, so I certainly could have done with just one pair of shoes. No bungee cord would have been fine. But you know what I did need? A wallet. Yep. That I would definitely call essential. In fact, you could argue it was really the only critical item.  You can solve a lot of problems with a wallet. Forget a belt? Credit card. Pulled over in rural South Carolina? Driver’s license. Thirsty? Cash.

The Most Important Thing

I can’t tell you how many times after an admission presentation someone has come up and said, “Thanks. Really enjoyed that. So I heard you say grades and test scores and extracurricular impact and essays all matter,” and now leaning in closer as if to assure me the secret is safe, “But what’s the MOST important thing?” When a student is denied admission, we also receive countless calls and emails (apologies for a few currently unreturned) asking where they fell short. Was it my GPA or number of APs? Did I not have enough volunteer hours? Should I have done two years of cul-de-sac whiffle ball to enhance my sporty side?

The answer, of course, is never that simple. It’s never really just one thing in holistic admission review and decisions, because by definition they are broad and subjective. It’s not a formula ruined or solved by one factor.  Yes, nine AP courses does sound rigorous. But that one thing is not going to carry a decision. Your 1500 SAT is great. Still, it’s not the only thing. 28 ACT? Sure, lower than our average, but not going to keep you from being admitted. It’s awesome that both your parents are alumni, but again, not the only thing. No, the fact that you switched schools is not why you were denied. Yes, we did super score that to a 1500. Wait…ma’am didn’t you call two days ago with the same question?

Maybe as humans we just like simplicity and a clean answer. Give me the pill. Give me one reason. Yes, I’m hearing you describe all the problems my car has… bottom line, how much is it going to cost to fix it? You said it’s not me, it’s you. But exactly why?

I’m not going to lean in after a presentation and give that one thing. First, it would be creepy if we were both leaning in. Second… actually, there is not a second in this case. Since you’ve paid such a high price to subscribe to this blog, I’m going to give it to you for free today.

This is the one thing.

LISTEN. Yes, listen.

Listen to your counselors. They will say you can apply only to schools with admit rates below 20%. When you don’t really listen, that’s all you hear. April rolls around and you are on a bunch of waitlists or straight denied and there is finger pointing, gnashing of teeth, and a whole lot of second guessing. When you listen, you hear them add, “But it’s important that you also include a few foundation schools where your likelihood of being admitted is very high, you have an affordable option, and you might also be offered a spot in their honors program.”

Listen to your parents when they say it’s not a problem to apply to schools whose tuition is over $65,000 a year. When you don’t listen, you miss this part: “however unless they provide you a scholarship, a waiver, a significant discount, or an aid package that moves the actual cost closer to $32,000 a year, it won’t be a realistic option.” FYI. This listening thing extends beyond college admission. When you really listen to them, you’ll also pick up on a lot more “I love you’s” than you are currently hearing/feeling.

Listen to kids from your school or team or neighborhood who are in college when they come home over winter break and talk about how much they love their university. And recall (not technically a second thing because recalling is just remembering your prior listening) how only last year that was not their first choice school.

Listen to your teachers when they say they’ll be happy to write you a letter of recommendation. Inevitably, there is also the caveat of “but I’ll need you to tell me at least two weeks ahead of the deadline because I have lots of others to write and I’ll be taking my own kids out trick-or-treating on Halloween night.”

Listen to admission counselors when they come to your school this fall or you visit them on campus in the summer and they tell you what they’re looking for in applicants. When you don’t pay attention, you end up writing a terribly generic essay or deciding it’s not important to do the “optional” interview. When you listen, you pick up on all kinds of distinguishing characteristics and institutional priorities that can help you decide whether you really want to apply there, and if so, how to put your best foot forward in their process.

On the Road

I’m writing this post from Canada. For this trip we had checklists for packing. We distributed clothes and shoes and books and toys in our various bags to avoid weight limits and ensure the kids could help carry some of the load. But you know the very first thing I grabbed the morning we left? My wallet. It was the one thing I was not going to forget.

Like traveling there are elements of the admission process you cannot completely control or plan for. There may be some curveballs, frustrations, uncertainty and complications. But now you know the one thing you really need. The one thing you can do. The one thing you completely control. The one thing to keep with you through your entire admission experience. The one word to remember: listen.

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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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