It’s The Most Wonderful Time of Year?

While the air may be filled with songs and the streets lined with lights and decorations, the holidays can be a frenetic and stressful time. If your family is like ours, the number of obligations over the next few weeks is staggering. Parties, school functions, visits from relatives, and holiday travel quickly result in a full calendar and empty energy tank. If you are the parent of a high school senior, you also juggle a unique set of concerns and pressures, as many college admission and financial aid decisions and deadlines loom just after the new year.

I do not purport to have all the answers to combat this stress, but after watching the college admission process repeat itself for the last 20 years, I do have a few tips (and hopes) for your family as you head into the holidays.

Ask big questions. The end of one year and beginning of the next lends itself to reflection. Families in the middle of their college admission experience should do the same. Instead of becoming mired down in the details about deadlines or grammatical perfection in essays, my hope is you’ll slow down and zoom out.

Your son or daughter has plenty of classmates, teammates, and random strangers asking them, “Where are you going to college next year?” Make time in the weeks ahead to have them consider a question far too few people ever ask, “Why do you want to go to college?”

Whether they have already been admitted to a few schools and are waiting to hear back from others, or have yet to submit a single application, this question is foundational. Encourage them to write their answers down. Knowing why will help answer where. It will help them think through each school they are considering and ensure it aligns with their purpose. Ultimately, it will serve as a filter this spring  when they are choosing between a few universities to which they’ve been admitted.

Protect Your Time. Discussions about college, especially during the holidays, can creep into far too much of regular life. This is the last winter break with your daughter or son living full-time under your roof—do not lose sight of that fact. These are fleeting and limited moments, my friends. What’s next is important, but what’s now is precious.

My hope is your family will put some ground rules in place. Establish an hour or two a week for a college conversation. This is more than enough time to look over an essay, double check deadlines, or schedule an interview or campus visit. Everyone must agree to show up with an open mind and a commitment to listen, but without a cell phone or terribly crunchy snacks.

Outside of those times, college conversations are off the table. The beauty of holding these “family meetings” is they allow everyone to truly rest and enjoy each other, and the much-needed vacation. If you find not talking about college outside of these isolated times is challenging, it is a good indication you should recalibrate in 2020.

Escape Your Local Echo Chamber. The great thing about the holidays is they bring people together. Unfortunately, that is also the downside. Conversations at parties often surround which students were and were not accepted in Early Action or Early Decision at certain colleges. Understandably, it is easy to leave wondering what that means for your own child or how unfair and confusing the admission experience can be.

Take time to look at the Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 lists of companies and their CEOs. Most come from schools that are not categorized as “highly selective.” Need more reassurance? Pick up and read a copy of Frank Bruni’s book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.

My earnest hope this holiday season is you will talk to fewer parents who have kids in high school and more who have kids in college. Ask them about their family’s experience. You’ll hear them say they wish they had not stressed as much. They will tell you about their daughter who was not admitted to her first choice school, ended up elsewhere, and is thriving now. They’ll talk about how their son did not receive the merit scholarship he had hoped for, selected another option from his choices, and now has an incredible internship and a girlfriend (who they actually like) that he never would have met otherwise.

Take A Break From Social Media.  I hope you will not post anything about your son’s or daughter’s college search online this holiday season. They call this an “admission process” and it should be just that. At this point, unless you have a kid who has gotten in ED to a school and is definitely going, you are only part of the way through. Hold off on putting things online about decisions, frustrations, deliberations, etc. This is not only healthy for you and your family’s relationships, but it also helps people in your community as well.

Unfortunately, social media is largely filled with terribly misinformed opinions, negative banter, catty comments, and frequently bold-faced lies. I’d encourage you not to read or engage in college admission dialogue online. Instead, take opportunities in-person to re-center the conversation with your friends, neighbors, or relatives.  If anything, my hope is you will use your platform to encourage, reassure, and provide healthy and desperately needed perspective when discussions go off the rails and fan the flames of anxiety.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

The college admission experience can seem incredibly complicated because it is filled with a myriad of dates and deadlines. It seems confusing because the press and marketed how-to guides provide incomplete and frequently inaccurate data. It seems consuming because friends and colleagues incessantly share “inside” information and anecdotes (or the alleged stories of relatives) on social media. It seems confounding because those same friends and colleagues have widely divergent experiences and opinions and are quick to share each time they see you at the school, store, or stadium. It seems complex because colleges and universities all have different processes, review different factors, and operate on different timelines.

Things seem this way because most people are solely focused on “getting in.” This holiday season I hope your family will instead ask big questions, protect your time, and escape your local echo chamber; and take a break from social media. In short, focus less on getting in and more on being and staying together as a family.

Happy Holidays!

A version of this blog originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution on December 11, 2019. See article here.

Communicating Thanksgiving

Each Monday morning our Communications Team meets. Our agenda is broken into four basic parts:

Immediate outbound: We discuss mass communications via email and address what applicants need to know about the admission cycle. What expectations do we need to set on timing? What are we communicating to prospective students to help them better understand campus culture, highlight interesting students, faculty, alumni, etc.?

Urgent/Fires: Our website is down. There has been a natural disaster somewhere in the world and we need to consider and communicate a deadline extension. My parents are coming tonight and you did not finish folding the laundry. (Wait… sorry, that was just a text from my wife.)

Our team member from the Communications Center (aka “the Calm Center”) reports on inbound calls and emails. What do we need to clarify or address immediately? “We’ve had 100 calls this week about X.” We then examine the source of confusion and look to communicate X more clearly on our site, publications, or in presentations.

Visual display of communicationOn application deadline day, we inevitably get hundreds of calls asking, “Is today really the deadline?” “Is that midnight my time or yours?” “It says on my portal that I’ve been admitted. Is that really true?” You think I’m kidding. That is a very common one, actually. While it does make us question the decision, we don’t view skepticism as a reason for rescinding admission. Instead, we have come to appreciate there are some questions people simply want another human to answer. This is not an admissions fire. This is human nature (an entirely different type of fire).

If you are not receiving these types of emails from schools you are interested in, you can visit their website to subscribe. If you are receiving too many of these emails from colleges around the country, I can only apologize and urge you to a: unsubscribe to those you are no longer legitimately considering; b: create a separate email address just for your college search; c: blame the internet (that’s kind of my go to for all that is awry in the world).

Future focus/Strategic: What is coming up? These are the bigger communication projects we are working on, such as the production of videos, publications, events, or campaigns. We check in on needs/ status/necessary iterations or alterations.

Social Media/ Timely: We try to provide an authentic, day- to- day sense of campus life. Pictures, stories, events… a “sense of face and place” is our fundamental goal. What have we or should we be saying and showing on social media to engage, educate, entertain, and at least one more word starting with the letter “E.” Following (or at least trolling) social media from official admission accounts is worthwhile. I would also highly recommend doing the same for campus clubs or orgs at the schools you are interested in, because this is student-to-student communication that is organic, authentic, unvarnished and unfiltered, i.e. the real deal. Great way to get a sense of true culture and student life.

Back when only my mom and a few of her friends were reading this blog, we’d sort of hit that at the end. And by “the end,” I basically mean as people were walking out someone would idly mumble, “So, Rick. Are you going to write another bizarre story about your kids and then loosely correlate it to college admission?”

Once they realized that there was an endless supply of said anecdotes and debatable correlations, more team members volunteered to write. Now, we actually discuss the blog more intentionally: Who is writing this week and next week? What topics are most relevant/timely/helpful during this part of the cycle? What have we learned from feedback via comment or email?

This week the basic consensus was, No blog needed. Students are checked out, counselors/teachers are burned out, and parents are wishing they could just eat out. I get it. Thanksgiving is a time to relax, watch football, hang out with family, sleep, and travel. “Light reading” is the score ticker at the bottom of the TV, rather than a blog about college admission.  Still, because we all have so many challenges and rough situations to deal with throughout the year, I thought a brief and simple message was important.

Give Thanks

The admission process- like our communications meetings and life in general- is filled with a lot of looking forward. It is clogged and clouded with impending deadlines, calendared dates, planning, wishing, expectation and anticipation. While it is important, it is so rare and hard to celebrate your wins. As humans it seems we are always on to the next thing. But this week… this week is an oasis–a respite. It  is a rare time to reflect and to actually sit still for a minute or two, or take a long walk and ruminate.

Thanksgiving Offerings

I’ve heard a number of politicians use the quote, “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you can be sure it did not get there by itself.” On some level, however, we all fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved, succeeded, or climbed on our own, because we know that it has taken a lot of work. Today, however, I am asking you to reflect on who it is that has helped facilitate your success. Who gave you that job? Who selected you to be on the team or named you captain? Who took time to also write your recommendation letters after a long day teaching, coaching, and grading papers? Who sponsored the club you have grown to care about so deeply?

Take the time right now to send them a text or give them a call. Simple but powerful. Give thanks for these folks. This is not homework. This is an opportunity.

A Note to Seniors
Your parents need some love this week. Fall of your senior year is not easy on them. They’re excited for you, but they’re also nervous. They’re starting to realize this is the last Thanksgiving you will be living full-time at home. They may pretend it’s just dusty in the house or blame their emotions on a turkey- induced stupor, but it’s actually reality sinking in. Don’t let their plans to convert your room to an office or guest room fool you. Their hearts are breaking a little right now. They could use a hug and a note too.

Despite what the commercials might say Thanksgiving is not really about the food or football or pre-Christmas sales. The true heartbeat of Thanksgiving is slowing down, reaching out, and choosing family. At its core, so too is the college admission experience. “Getting in” is what people talk about but staying together is what they should be focused on.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

 

Run YOUR Race

I went for a run in the woods the other day. I do that a lot this time of year. Last weekend it was a 15-mile trail race in North Georgia. In early December, I’ll go 19 miles through the rolling pines near Warm Springs, GA, where FDR famously spent time.  Late fall and winter is a busy time in college admission, so multi-hour runs are a catharsis of sorts.

On a particularly long and isolated stretch of forest last week, I began thinking about a conversation I’d just had with a friend whose daughter is a high school senior. He called me because they were arguing about her applications- mainly where she should apply and if she’d applied to “enough” colleges. “So, what would you tell her?”

I said I would think about it. And so somewhere around mile eight, that’s exactly what I was doing. Ironically, the more I ran, the more I realized how much trail running and college admission have in common. I also realized there was not much to “tell” – but definitely a lot to hope for.

So, seniors, as you run YOUR race this year– as you work on applications, await and receive admission decisions, and head into your final holiday breaks before heading to college, here are my TOP 5 hopes for you:

1-      That you will not be overly influenced by the opinions or experiences of others. Remain true to yourself and your unique and deeply personal college admission experience. Listen. In races you see some runners go out quickly. They charge up the hill or around the corner. That is not wrong, but it may not be your style or best approach. Maybe you did not have an Early Decision school that you felt 100% sure about and now you are questioning if you did something wrong by not applying under that plan. Maybe a few friends have already been admitted to college and you are still waiting on decisions or working on essays for other applications. Maybe you look around and believe everyone else knows where they want to go and you are still unsure and open. My friend, that is absolutely fine. Perfectly normal. You are not alone. Ultimately, your goal is to find a college campus where you can thrive both academically and socially. Pace of getting there will naturally vary. Keep the end in mind.

Cheering someone onPeople will use the word “process” when they talk about college admission. This makes it seem like it’s a one-size-fits-all equation or formula, or that there is a specific way that leads to a predictable conclusion. That is a bunch of crap. Reject that. This is an experience. You have choices, options, and there will be inevitable turns and twists along the way. Run YOUR race. The beauty of trail running, in my opinion, is that you have to make decisions and keep your head up to look for blazes on the trees or signs in the woods. Unlike a road race where everything is cleanly marked, train running requires more thought and decision-making. The same is true for college admission. If you are doing this right, you won’t do it the same as your brother or best friend or the way you read it online in some guide. Keep your head clear and be confident. Run YOUR race.

2-      Enjoy your one and only senior year. Anytime you only have one of something it’s precious and should be treated and cared for as such. Enjoy your year. Don’t rush it or wish it away, because it will go fast enough on its own. Look around you in class or in the hallways or in the cafeteria next week. These people you have grown to know and love- and who also know and love you– will not be with you on a daily basis next year. Don’t take that for granted. Be proactive and give them a hug and tell them you appreciate them. Be specific about why they’re awesome. Make time for these people. You’ll never just have it.

3-      Be a light. Encourage people around you and help them. This is not going to help you get into college, but it is exactly the kind of person colleges are looking for. One thing I love about trail running is when someone misses a blaze and goes off track, other runners call to them. If a front runner sees a rock or a root or a branch, they call out or point to those obstacles and possible hazards. No matter what anyone tells you college admission it is not a zero-sum game. On almost every admissions panel I’m on someone in the audience will raise their hand and ask, “So if you have two applicants with the same GPA and same test scores, which one do you take?” In reality that’s not how it works.

I’ve often heard from high school teachers or counselors about students who won’t help others study for tests or share notes from class, because they’re afraid that will give their classmate a leg up. We’ve read essays about top students vying to be valedictorian who compete so ruthlessly academically they sacrifice their friendship. If thoughts like that are going through your head this year, I am imploring you to see the bigger picture. Helping others, sharing what you know, encouraging and facilitating the success of friends, classmates, teammates, colleagues is a life skill that will take you much further than the distinction of being valedictorian or getting into a specific school.

If you’ve been the subject of this type of behavior, I’ll simply quote the prophet Taylor Swift and say, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate…” They may end up with a specific title or offer of acceptance, but long-term that type of behavior, character, and approach ends up empty and often alone.

Percentage of population 25 years and over who completed high school or college4-      Celebrate every offer of admission. I get that some of you go to “college preparatory” schools or take Dual Enrollment classes. I understand that you’ve taken more Advanced Placement classes than I have hairs left on my head. In your family or school or community, it may be a foregone conclusion that you’ll go to college, but that is not really what the world looks like. Did you know that less than 40% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, and worldwide that number is less than 10%? Keep this in mind when you receive an offer of admission. It is not “Just the University of X…” No. No!! It is “I was admitted to the University of X!”

This is an opportunity and a choice. This is what you wanted from the beginning- options, choices, and offers. Congratulations! Celebrate every win. Go to dinner, buy yourself something. You do you. But promise me you’ll celebrate—and also thank those around you who have made your achievements possible.

5-      Tell your parents/family/support network THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU! I am always amazed when I get to the end of a long trail race and see how many family members are there with signs, food, smiles, and hugs. People drive long distances and wait patiently for hours (often in crappy weather) for runners to arrive at the finish line.

That teacher who wrote your recs or helped you prep for exams; that coach or club sponsor or boss who gave you opportunities, challenged you, and encouraged your best— that’s who I’m talking about. Write them a note, give them a high five, send them a text. Be sure you let them know you appreciate them, their time, & their part in your success. They don’t expect thanks, but they deserve it. If you are a senior, this is your job.

And for your family- whatever instrument or sport you play well now used to be very painful to watch and listen to. Still, they kept driving you, encouraging you, paying for lessons or practice or competitions, etc.

Thank you

Not convinced? Go open up the cabinets in your kitchen. Pull out any bowl or plate. Then ask your mom, dad, or whomever has raised you how many times they washed that or filled it with food. Think about five years ago when you were twelve or thirteen. Seems like a long time ago, right? Well, for the first five years of your life (time you basically have no recollection of), they fed you, clothed you, rocked you, nursed you, sang to you, woke up in the middle of the night worrying about you. They may not be able to physically still hold you the way they did then, but they are still doing absolutely everything they can to lift you up and support you now. Does that love look kind of crazy at times? Absolutely. Love is weird like that. What can I say? Nothing. What can you say? “THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU!” Make an effort to say that weekly from now until you graduate.

Along the trail in a race, there are all kinds of variables: hills, rocks, roots, creeks, downed limbs, changing temperatures, rain, wind, snow, blazing heat, major elevation changes. You have to adapt and adjust. It’s unpredictable- and college admission is the same. So while I can’t promise or predict exactly where you’ll start in college next year, I can guarantee that if these hopes come true, you’ll finish this year well- and that is a race worth running.

The Event Planner’s Guide to a College Application

This week we welcome Associate Director for Guest Experience, Andrew Cohen, to the blog. Welcome, Andrew!

As the leader of Georgia Tech’s campus visits team, part of my role is to plan and execute our daily visit program, open houses and events.  I love the thrill of event planning – from the initial conversations about the vision of the event to seeing it all come together.  Being a professional event planner, I often find my event planning skills and thinking spill over into my personal life… just ask my friends when it comes to making plans… everything is a production!

Georgia Tech Event Planning TeamRight now, our team is preparing for multiple events on campus. We are excited to host a large group of high school seniors this week for our open house event.  This weekend we host our annual counselor fly-in program for college counselors from all over the county and world.

Event planning is much like preparing to submit a college application.  Everything leads up to the moment you press the submit button.  Like an event, there are multiple people involved in this process, like your college counselor and parents. There are also times when things do not go according to plan, and you must be prepared for these situations.  As you work on your college application, here are some helpful event planning tips to help you stay organized and be prepared to hit that submit button.

Understand the Bigger Picture

When planning events, it is crucial to understand the big picture.  Sometimes we get so caught up in our to-do list that we forget we need to take a step back.  This week we are hosting multiple events in a short amount of time.  This requires me to understand the impact different to-do list items have on other people assisting with the event, not to mention the event’s overall success.  For example, although we have several events this week, we also must think long term as space reservations become available for next year.  If we do not reserve these spaces now, we will face challenges when hosting events next year. It’s hard to think about a year from now when there’s something else in the immediate future.

When it comes to preparing your college application, it is essential to understand the bigger picture.  You will need assistance from others, so it is important to think about their schedules and what else they might have on their plate.  Teachers and college counselors are happy to help with your college application, but you need to understand what else is on their plate and remember they are helping multiple students, not just you.

Understanding when a college needs your high school transcript will help you know when you need to request this from your college counselor.  You cannot expect them to drop what they are doing to submit your transcript the second you ask.  They are submitting transcripts for many students to multiple schools.  Putting your request in well in advance is necessary to ensure they are all delivered in a timely manner.  (This also goes for teacher recommendations, so make sure to give them plenty of time to write and submit the letter).

Proofread… Proofread… Proofread!

When we host a large open house event, we have multiple sessions, in multiple locations, with many different presenters.  These sessions and their locations are all listed on a program for guests to use to navigate the event.  We have a separate list of spaces we have reserved for the event, and another spreadsheet listing all the sessions, locations, and names of presenters.  For an event to run seamlessly, we must be sure all these different lists and spreadsheets match what is listed on the program given to our guests.

If we didn’t carefully proofread, anything could happen at the event.  We could be sending guests to a room we do not actually have reserved.  Or maybe a faculty member could show up to the wrong building or room, maybe even at the wrong time!

Whenever I review an event program, I always proofread by crosschecking these additional lists/spreadsheets.  I must be sure all the times and locations are correctly listed on all of them and be sure a presenter has been secured for each presentation.

When finishing your college application, you need to proofread!  Yes, I know you have probably read your essay 100 times, but one last thorough read is worth the effort!  I always print copies of my event programs to review, and you should do the same with your application.  I know it’s not the most environmentally friendly option, but it will help with that final review (plus, that’s why recycling exists!). A final proofread is your chance to be sure all your application details make sense and show up correctly.  After every application deadline, our Communications Center receives hundreds of calls and emails about minor errors on an application (which we cannot update).  I bet many of these could be avoided by printing out your application and reviewing it one final time from start to finish (and ask someone else to read it too!)

Have a Rain Plan

Over the past year the weather has not been in our favor.  We can plan an awesome event that runs smoothly, but the one thing out of our control is the weather!  Torrential downpours can obviously affect our event and we must be prepared for these situations.  This might mean we pre-order rain ponchos for our guests, or we make last-minute changes to the program to keep guests inside a bit more.

An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doingIt may not be rain that affects our event, but a fire alarm set off by another department, or a power outage in the building (all things that have happened to me before!).  These things are out of our control, and as much as we are prepared for our event to run smoothly, we must be ready to think on our feet and make last-minute changes. Believe it or not, this is one of my favorite parts of being an event planner. It tests me and keeps me on my toes. No, I do not hope we have pouring rain or other disruptions, but I do enjoy the thrill of needing to quickly make a change and implement it with our team.

When submitting your college application, you will encounter hiccups and issues.  Many of our early action applicants encountered a curveball this year when they logged into Common App and received a message (in bold red letters) that the deadline had already passed. The deadline had not passed, and students could still submit their applications. But this situation could have been avoided by submitting your application a few days (or a week) before the deadline!  Building extra days into your timeline allows for extra time should there be an issue with the processing of your application or application fee.  Giving yourself a few days helps you avoid panic when you run into an issue at 11:59 p.m. prior to the deadline. (Please note… Admission Offices are not open at that hour and we will not respond to emails/calls until the next day).

As you continue to work on your college application, build a to-do list, similar to the one I have sitting on my desk as we get ready to host a number of events over the next week (bonus tip: when you complete an item/task, it feels great to cross that item off the list!).  As we are busy working on putting the finishing touches on our events, you can do the same with your applications.

Andrew Cohen joined Georgia Tech in 2018 and currently oversees the guest experience for all Undergraduate Admission visitors. His love for providing visitors with informative, authentic and personal experiences started as a student tour guide at his alma mater, Ithaca College. Andrew’s passion for the visit experience has lead him to his involvement in the Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association, where he currently services as the Treasurer on their executive board.

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A Parents Guide to the College Admission Essay

My son started with Taekwondo when he was five. A few weeks ago, he was invited to test for his black belt. It’s a big accomplishment and he’s definitely excited. My wife and I are proud of him (and honestly kind of proud of ourselves too- that’s lot of driving, watching, and paying over the past six years).

Before a student can officially participate in the test, there are two final assignments to qualify.

One- you must build a carrying case for an egg and carry it around without breaking it for the week prior to the exam.

Two- In order to receive said egg, you must write a 3-5-page essay about your journey to this point, lessons learned, and how Taekwondo has impacted your life.

Now, I’ve seen him spar against black belts and get knocked down pretty hard numerous times. I’ve seen him get verbally lambasted by the master in front of the entire class and on-looking parents. He’s twisted ankles and bruised ribs along the way. But nothing has made me question whether or not he can actually achieve this more than the 3-5-page essay assignment.

While he has seen friends test for their black belts in the past, somehow this facet of the process escaped him too. “3 pages?!” he said exasperated and then went rolling onto the couch and smothering himself with throw blankets and pillows. “Oh… my…. gosh!” he said with a mix of desperation and exasperation.

As he continued muttering incoherently, my wife looked at me with her head slightly tilted, nodded in his direction and mouthed, “Have fun with that…” (I mouthed something back, but this is a PG-ish blog, so I’m leaving that out.)

Black BeltAre you with me?

If you are the parent of a senior, you may have experienced some of this same joint angst in recent weeks or months. The likelihood is that with more deadlines coming up for colleges, it’s not quite over either. Sorry to broach this if you were having an otherwise carefree and blissful day (please go immediately back to sipping your chamomile and mindfulness practices after you’ve read this).

Whether it be for college, Taekwondo, scholarships, job interviews, etc., as parents we simply want our kids to meet deadlines, write well, put their best foot forward, and not procrastinate. We know we should not do the work for them, but it is admittedly tempting.

Before you lose your mind in or snatch their laptop in frustration and begin writing or re-writing your daughter’s or son’s essay, I want to give you three tips to help them improve their essay and get it done, and then two others to help you keep perspective and sanity.

TIPS FOR STUDENTS

Have them voice record. My son had literally no idea where to start. The mere mention of three pages sent him tumbling over furniture and burying himself in a mixture of fleece and wool (not really the stuff of black belts, but I did not mention that to him at the time).

Whether they have not started on their essay, are merely brainstorming, or if they have been looking at a blinking cursor for the last three days, verbalizing their thoughts both changes and improves their writing. Suggest they grab their phone and simply get ideas out. This is not supposed to be perfect. Just words, phrases, quick sentences. Totally fine if they are not in a particular order or connected with perfect conjunctions or transition words. Just start expressing. Note: This is also helpful when they are done (or think they are done). We have all read an email or report we’ve written and thought it made perfect sense. Then, after hitting send, we realize we’ve left out a word or transposed two. As we know from reading books out loud to kids, there is great power in reading aloud. Suggest that before hitting submit, they print their essay out and actually read it again out loud.

Suggest they move around. In most cases, students are using mobile devices to apply—laptop, IPad, etc. If they’ve come into the kitchen eight times for snacks over a 47-minute period, you can officially diagnose them with writer’s block (citation: Dr. George P. Burdell, 1885).  You’ll need to find your moment, but encourage them to change locations. Go out on the porch. Head to a coffee shop. Find a table at the local park. Change of scenery does us all good. Charge the device and go.

Tell them to be specific. Many admission readers are reviewing between 30 and 50 essays a day. At Georgia Tech right now, we have 22,000 Early Action apps to consider before mid-January. That is a lot of different students, situations, lives, and stories. Think about the last time you watched American Ninja Warrior or the Bachelor (insert your show of choice here where multiple people are introduced). What helps us remember who is who? Specifics. We remember the guy from Indiana who grew up boxing with his cousin. We can vividly recall the picture they flashed on the screen of the barn with the Sharpie stenciled sign behind their makeshift ring. Why? Because it is specific. One of the best ways you can help your son/daughter write a “good” essay is by insuring that it is specific and unique to them. This is what admission folks mean when they say, “We just want to hear their voice…” or “tell us about your passions…”

Initially, I asked my son to simply type out what he wanted to say. Here are three verbatim sentences he wrote (and when I say verbatim, I mean I literally copied and pasted): Taekwondo has not always been easy. There have been times that I have wanted to quit. I like sparring.

He’s eleven. I get it. So after I read his first draft (which took him about thirty minutes to come up with and only included about four other sentences), we went for a walk. I brought my phone and just asked him a bunch of questions. Anytime he gave me something general (see above), I asked him to tell me a story: When did you want to quit? Who do you like sparring with and tell me about a specific time- what kicks and punches did you use, etc.? I understand that you are likely not going to be strolling your neighborhood asking your 17-year-old these types of questions, but the concept is the same. Be specific. Give details.

Parents are often tempted to re-write or edit essays by inserting multi-syllabic words or focusing on the transition from one paragraph to the next. Those suggestions are not entirely unhelpful. But what a reader is looking for is detail. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. They have already read 37 other essays that day. Daylight savings has kicked in and it’s cloudy outside. They just had their 2 p.m. coffee and are thinking about the text they just got asking if they can swing by the grocery store on the way home later.

Tell them a story. Be specific. Be memorable. “Taekwondo has not always been easy”…not memorable.

TIPS FOR PARENTS

It’s a thing. But it’s not the only thing. Yes, colleges require essays. They read them. They matter. Yes, readers want them to be good. They score them. They make notes and bring the subject and insight gained from essay up in committee. They are expecting them to be grammatically sound and flow well. However, the truth is they matter less than most students/parents think. For most schools if a student is solid inside the classroom, involved and impacting people outside the classroom, the essay is not going to be the tipping point. Decisions on a student like that are far more influenced by supply and demand and institutional priorities (where you are from, what you want to study, what the school is trying to increase or grow or achieve in their community) than an essay.

You’ll read on Reddit or see the video of a student on YouTube say, “Yea. I had seven APs and did well on my SATs, but I think it was really my essay that got me in.” No it wasn’t. That student was admitted because she had chosen rigorous courses and done well, had an impact on people outside the classroom in high school, and wrote an essay that was specific and (to use a very precise term here) not bad.

Similarly, my son’s essay for Taekwondo matters. His master is going to read it. It needs to not suck. But as long as he’s put solid effort and thought into it, the decision on whether or not he receives his black belt is going to come down to his performance and other factors (like that stinking egg).

Now, I understand you can read this one of two ways. A- What a relief! My daughter/son just needs to be specific and basically not write a bad essay. B- That is a bunch of crap. This is the magic bullet and everything hinges on it.

Admittedly, I am writing this to give you some solace. But I’m not going to lie to you. (Hint: The answer is A).

Simone Biles flipping before throwing out first pitch in GAME 2 of 2019 World Series.
Simone Biles flipping before throwing out first pitch in GAME 2 of 2019 World Series.

Go off speed. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in a Facebook Live interview with Grown and Flown (which is a great organization that produces a ton of good content for parents). At the end, for some reason my internet connection cut out. The question I was unable to answer was essentially, “What do parents do when their son/daughter has not finished their essay. Or when deadlines to schools are approaching and it feels like everything hangs in the balance?” Should you just finish it for them? Should you “make them” apply to two more schools or that one in particular. How do you motivate them to just get it done for God’s sake?!!

Maybe I’m being influenced by what I thought was a riveting World Series, but my answer is to throw an off speed pitch. The truth is that there is never a good time to have this conversation. If you bring it up again, things are going to go south quick. There is never going to be a “right time” or “right place.” So instead, I’m encouraging you to write also. Yes, it’s old school. Pick up a pen and piece of paper and write them a letter. This does not have to be an epistle. Simple is always best. Just remind them that you love them. Tell them you are proud of them and concerned because they have worked hard and deserve to put their best foot forward, i.e. you want them to succeed. Let them know you are there to help, but know you won’t be next year when they’re at school. And then have a glass of wine, go for a walk, i.e. let it go.

Tough for everyone but the truth is that the admission process is a necessary time for parents to also realize that kids will need to do their work, manage their time, and fight their own battles at college very soon- and certainly in life beyond. Put it down on paper. Find a good envelope and leave it for them to read on their own time and terms. Then, to reiterate, wine and a walk—very important.