Preparation Day

Listen to the audio version here!

On Sunday my son and I went to the Atlanta United Eastern Conference Championship game against the New York Red Bulls. During the tailgate, I got a text from a friend that read:  “My daughter was deferred. We were SHOCKED! What does that really mean?” (FYI this was another school’s decision. If you are waiting on EA decisions from Tech, you have not missed anything.)

My first thought was, “Really? You were shocked? You know their profile and admit rate.” My second thought was, “I’ll deal with this on Monday,” and I put my phone on do not disturb (because that’s the kind of friend I am).

About 30 minutes later I was talking to another friend. He has one kid in college and two still in high school. He told me that after watching his older son go through the admission process he has been telling his current high school senior who is applying to colleges to be prepared to hear “no.” The dichotomy between these two approaches was both striking and instructive. More importantly, it made me realize we need to add another key date to the admission calendar.

August 1- Many colleges open their application.

October 1- FAFSA opens.

November 1- EA/ED Deadlines at lots of colleges and universities.

May 1- National Deposit Deadline.

PreparationSo, by the power vested in me (which is none, by the way) I pronounce December 1 as National Preparation Day!

By or on this day, henceforth, any high school senior applying Early Action or Early Decision to a college with an admit rate of less than 50 percent must put their hand on a large, preferably leather-bound book of some kind and take this pledge:

“I, (state your name), being of sound (though overly caffeinated) mind and (sleep-deprived) body, do hereby swear that I will not presume anything in the admission process. Upon advice of my wizened counselor sages, I acknowledge that I will not look at middle 50 percent ranges and expect that my scores, though in the top quartile, guarantee my admittance.

I will not look at middle 50 percent ranges of hitherto admitted classes and expect my scores, though in the bottom quartile, will be overlooked based on my amazing essay, parents’ connections, pictures of me in a onesie from that college, or the 12 letters of recommendation that have been sent on my behalf.

I understand the heretofore explicated concept of holistic admission is neither fair nor perfect, wherein I will likely not agree with, nor be capable of predicting all results, despite the complex algorithms I employ or the kingdom fortune tellers I visit.

Furthermore, I agree that I will not view an admission decision as an indictment of my character, a judgment on my hitherto demonstrated preparation, nor a prediction of my future success.”

Note: Slightly misused Olde English conjunctions does not negate the spirit nor effectiveness of this pledge.

So What Does Defer Mean?

Back to my friend who’s daughter was deferred… what does defer actually mean, and what do you do with that decision?

It means you have some work to do.

You need to send in your fall grades. You may need to write an additional essay or tell the admission committee more about your senior year extracurricular activities. Defer is a “hold on.” It is a “maybe.” Don’t like those characterizations? Fine—call it “tell us more.” They will be looking at how you’ve done in a challenging senior schedule, or if your upward grade trend will continue, or if you can juggle more responsibility outside the classroom with your course load. Bottom line is you have work to do. Are you going to get admitted in the next round? No promises. But if getting deferred is what helps keep you focused and motivated, you should look at their decision as a good thing. Finish well.

It means you may need to submit another application or two. 

If you’ve already got this covered, that’s great. You were ahead of Preparation Day. If not, then good news—many great schools have deadlines in January. The bottom line is you need applications in at a few schools with higher admit rates and lower academic profiles than the one that deferred you.

It means holistic review is a real thing.

If your scores and grades are above their profile and they defer you, they only proved what they said in their publications and presentations—admission is about more than numbers. At Georgia Tech we are knee-deep in application review. We have not released decisions, but day in and day out we are slating students for defer who have ACT scores of 35 or 36 and great grades. Is that “shocking?” It shouldn’t be. Institutional priorities, shaping a class, and supply and demand drive admission decisions. Similarly, if your scores are in the middle or below their profile, a defer also proves decisions are made using more than just numbers.

It means you need to check your ego and wait.

Does that sound harsh? Sorry—but sometimes, life is harsh. This is why you should take the pledge. It’s why have formally added Preparation Day to the admission calendar. Take the Pledge(Someone update the NACAC website!) If you are prepared for “no,” then a defer will not rock you as bad. Admission decisions feel personal. How could they not? Nobody loves spending a few more months in limbo. But this is not about you. This is about schools who are hedging their bets and wanting to evaluate you in context of their overall pool. Kind of sucks. I get it. But too many students do not send in fall grades, complete the deferred form, or send other information schools ask for because they’ve never heard of a “maybe” ( perhaps the first they’ve ever heard). Think of the admission experience as your first foray into your college years and start looking at maybes as good things. If you liked a school enough to apply, finish the drill. Give them reasons to admit you in the next round. It is called an admission process. There are rounds for a reason. Don’t go halfway and stop.

It means you need to look forward, not backward.

I was not going to text my friend back and say defer means to “put off or delay,” but technically that is the definition. For you it means to look forward to something in the future. DO NOT look back! DO NOT second guess whether you should have taken AP Geography in the ninth grade instead of band, or blame Mr. Thompson for giving you an 89 instead of a 93 that would have bumped your GPA by .00083. This is your MARTA bus moment.

It means control what you can control. 

People want so desperately to predict and analyze admission decisions that are influenced by macro institutional goals and made in rooms they will never enter. Defer means stay focused on the micro. This is your one and only senior year.  Do well—but more importantly do good. Don’t worry about those rooms hundreds of miles away, but rather the ones you walk into every day. Be a good friend. Be a good sibling. Be a good teammate. Go thank a teacher that wrote a recommendation for you. Hug your mama.

December 1 is coming. Preparation Day. Take the pledge.

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You GET To Do This!

Listen to the audio version here!

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend time walking around farms in South Georgia as part of a leadership program. It was fascinating to hear farmers’ perspectives on everything from supply and demand to organic growing practices; from their daily monitoring and speculation about consumer behavior for their crops to the evolution of technology in farm equipment.

What struck me in particular was a simple concept: as a farmer, your job is to put a seed in the ground. Then you water it, fertilize it, pray over it, watch it grow, lose sleep worrying about it, and ultimately harvest it months later.Field

If you’ve read this blog for long, you know that (like the old school Tootsie Roll commercials) pretty much anything I see or hear reminds me of college admission in some way. That day was no different. Standing out in those fields, I could not help thinking about the months ahead and all the planning, time, work, and care it will take to enroll our next class.

#AdmissionsLife 

Fall is all about travel and recruitment—putting seeds in the ground, if you will. In fact, I started writing this post right before midnight on a Friday, and we’re still 30 minutes from landing at the Atlanta airport. This trip began in a very similar fashion to most trips in the fall: in the dark, as I crept out of my house Tuesday morning around 5 a.m. to catch a flight. Over the course of the next month, I’ll take three similar trips—early mornings, late nights, rental cars, and hotel breakfasts. That’s what you do in the fall in college admission: travel, shake hands, give talks, pass out business cards— rinse and repeat. (SIDE NOTE: The next time you see a college admission representative at your school or local college fair, ask them how they’re doing and give them a restaurant recommendation, or a good place to go for a walk or run.)

Four SeasonsWinter is all about reading applications. Like a farmer caring for and regularly inspecting crops, this season is long and protracted, with intensely critical monitoring and attention required throughout. There are no short cuts: tracking down transcripts, reading applications, ensuring test scores have been reported, reading applications, answering emails, reading applications, eating copious amounts of take-out food, reading applications. I mentioned reading applications, right? At Georgia Tech, we likely will receive more applications than we did last year— let’s conservatively say 38,000. To review these in our holistic process will take about 40 of us reading from mid-October to mid-March.

In the spring, we release admission decisions and immediately turn our attention to hosting admitted families trying to make a final college choice, as well as talking to prospective juniors and sophomores on their spring break barnstorm of college tours.

I relate to the farmer who is constantly gauging and adjusting to supply and demand. Based on applications and class size, our expected admit rate this year is around 20%, meaning we will deny admission to over 30,000 students (three times the number of applicants we had when I started at Tech). It’s not fun, and not why I got into this business. So spring is also about speaking with hundreds of incredibly talented students who are frustrated and deeply disappointed they were not offered admission. Ultimately, if our predictions are right, we will “yield” our crop… I mean class… of 2,900 students by the May 1 National Deposit Deadline.

I’m not that smart, and I’m no fortune teller. But college admission is cyclical, so I know these things are coming. It would be easy to look at the next eight months as time away from home and family in the fall; an over-caffeinated, pizza-fueled hibernation of sorts in the winter; and an oxymoronic persona of happy host/dream killer in this spring. (Anyone want a job?)

I GET to Do This

Immediately after leaving those farms in South Georgia, we heard from the Commissioner of Agriculture. One of the phrases he used was, “I get to do this.” His point was every day, every week, every month, and even every year, we make a choice about how we’ll approach life. Will our mentality be: “I have to do this” or “I need to do this”? Or, instead, “I get to do this.”?

That’s the phrase that went through my head early Saturday morning when I dragged myself from bed, shot Visine into my jet-lagged eyes, made a cup of coffee and headed out to coach a 7-year old girls’ soccer team. I get to do this!

That mindset fundamentally changes my outlook. I get to travel around the country to cities and states many people will never see. I get to read the applications of truly remarkable students who tell stories about innovative ideas, inspiring dreams, ambitious goals, tremendous impact, and amazing  challenges they overcame. I get to spend months working closely with a caring, funny, smart, dedicated staff. I get to constantly meet new people and tell them about a college I love and believe in. I get to articulate the value of higher education and try to bring some levity and solace to the often-anxious college admission experience. While we cannot admit everyone, I get to offer admission to thousands of students. I get to do this. What a privilege! What an honor! What an opportunity!

You GET to Do This

What do you have to do today? What must you do this week or month? What do you need to do this year?I Get To Vs I Have To

How does your mentality, perspective, attitude, and motivation change when you consider what you get to do today?

If you are reading this, you are one of the incredibly fortunate people who gets to apply to college. You get to go to school— probably one that offers a lot of really good classes, alongside peers who want to excel, and taught by teachers who hope to see you learn, grow, and succeed. You get to work or practice or be with your family. Sadly, these are opportunities too few around our country and world enjoy.

This should not make you feel guilty. However, I hope it’s motivating. I hope it alters your perspective. Admittedly, I hope it results in you giving someone in your house or school a hug, a note, a text, or a sincere, “Thank you!” You get to do this.

You get to spend another year at home. You get to share a room or a car or a meal or clothes with a little sister. You get to listen to your dad’s stories or your mom’s lessons or your neighbor’s jokes a few more times over the upcoming months. What a privilege! What an honor! What an opportunity! EMBRACE IT.

Again, I’m no fortune teller, but here is what I see coming for you in the months ahead:

  • You will likely be denied or waitlisted by a school or three. I did. Most of my friends did. I am guessing if you talk to many friends who are in college now they did too. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, sometimes those closed doors help point you to the right place.
  • You probably won’t get all the scholarships or financial aid you hope to receive. I have a colleague who says, “The students who don’t get in want in. The students who got in want money. The students who got money want more money. And the students who got in and got all the money wanted it from somewhere else.” (What can I say? Some of us admission farmers are a bit cynical.)
  • You’ll see a few people you don’t think are as talented, capable, or deserving as you get into schools you want to attend. College admission is not fair—it’s driven by supply and demand and institutional mission. If you are a carrot and that college needs more squash that year, well…you cannot control those market conditions.

But just as I know the great essays, amazing stories, and community changing ventures are coming, you need to trust and know you will also get some great admission offers. You will to find a college where you will make lifelong friendships and create a lifelong network. How do those long-term results come about? You put a seed in the ground. You change your mentality. And you can do that today!

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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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The Rules They Keep On a-Changin’

I travel a lot. I don’t have TSA Pre or Clear or Global Entry or Jedi mind powers, or any special clearance allowing me to bypass some of the issues I’m about to describe. I’ve had friends literally scoff in my face, and others, including close relatives, utter statements like, “What the @x>~?!” (Valid question, mom.) What can I say? I like being with the people. Maybe I don’t want to pay the fee. And frankly I simply haven’t taken the time to fill out the application and bring my passport to the airport to go through the process. If you know anything from reading this blog it’s that I’ve got some issues.

Atlanta Airport Security: “Remove your belt, shoes, and everything from your pockets, and place them in the bin. Laptops need to be in their own bin.” As I begin undressing in front of my fellow travelers, I hear, “Sir, sir. You do not need to take your iPad out of your bag.” With belt in mouth and one shoe off, I’m simultaneously hopping and fumbling to put my iPad back in my backpack. The TSA officer rolls her eyes. It’s shift change and I hear her replacement say something slightly more R-rated than “Same stuff. Different day.” They both look at me askance with an expression which can only be interpreted as, “Idiot.” And, truthfully, as I’m holding my pants up and chugging water from the bottle I forgot I had in my bag, it’s hard to disagree with them.

But not that hard, really.

Washington D.C. Security: “You do not need to remove your belt, sir. Please keep your belt on.” Eye roll, eye roll. Is this person the Atlanta officer’s cousin? Because I’ve definitely seen that expression recently. I re-buckle and remove my laptop. “Do you have an iPad also, sir?” Yes, I reply. “Well, you need to put it in the bin too.” I comply. “Not in the same bin as your laptop.” Oh. Ok.

“And shoes need to be placed on the belt directly.” Airport Security

This command confuses me. I slowly move my shoes toward my mid-section, “I thought you said I didn’t need to take off my belt,” I replied.

“The belt!” And he points at the conveyor belt leading into the security scan. I may not be hopping around like I was in Atlanta, but I still get the “Idiot” glance again. No shift change this time but he has really mastered the look, so it is equally condemning.

In Tampa they insisted I take off my hat. In New York they scolded me for getting out of line to put my hat in the bin. The Vermont officer was clear that you ALWAYS have to take food out of your bag. Umm…. I beg to differ, my friend, because your comrade in Houston was singing a different tune. Of course, it does no good to get into a debate about it. So I pull out the pretzels and Kind bar from my bag. Oh, crap. I realize as I pull them out one was half-opened. Crumbs, crumpling of wrappers. I know its coming and then, yep, there’s that look again.

As you can see, I cannot explain why security measures vary from one city to the next—and sometimes the same city from one week to the next. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It’s moderately disconcerting. Why can’t they all be the same? And if they’re all different, how am I supposed to know the rules?

What the @x>~?!  

The rules they keep on a-changin.’ And if you are junior just starting your college search experience, you probably feel the same way.

At one campus, you’re told how critical teacher recommendations are and all test scores must be officially sent from the testing agency. Two hours south and a quick stop at Wendy’s later you’re informed, “We are test score optional. So we don’t need the score report I see in your hand, but you will need to have an on-campus interview.” Got it. Bathroom break, drool-laden nap against the passenger seat window, two state boarders crossed, espresso shot: “Our College deeply values demonstrated interest. And please don’t send us rec letters, because we are not going to read them.”

And on it goes: We are exclusively Coalition App… We don’t accept the Common Application, but rather have our own school specific app…. We have Early Action, so it’s not binding…. We have Restrictive EA, which means, well, it’s restrictive… We don’t have ED1 but we do have EA and ED2, so consult your doctor if you experience any side effects in the application process…. We’re really thinking about implementing ED 2.1 next year or just skipping right to The X. It is confusing. Undoubtedly part of the anxiety and stress of applying to college arises because it’s not a uniform process from one place to another.

Admission is not Airport Security.  

I can see how the differences may be confusing and potentially frustrating, but unlike TSA, it’s logical for colleges to have different processes and requirements…BECAUSE they’re different. I realize it’s not always clear from our brochures, websites, and emails that are misleadingly and often embarrassingly similar, but it is true. We value and prioritize different things, and ultimately each school is trying to create a distinct class and community.

Over 1000 schools across our nation have determined their best match students do not need to send test scores because they can demonstrate their talents and ability to succeed on campus through different elements of an application. Georgetown University requires interviews, and many colleges highly recommend you interview with an admission representative or an alum. These places are setting aside significant time to get to know you, to let you ask your questions, and sometimes (through alumni interviews) to see a bigger part of their community and network.

Inside Tip: View the requirements of a school as an indicator of their culture. Allow those front facing webpages to lead you to ask questions and do your homework—to dig. I wanted so badly to ask the guy in Miami why I can’t put my business cards in my shoe, or why the laptop and iPad can’t share the same bin. Of course I didn’t ask for fear of ending up in some back room answering questions about that run in with the cops on Halloween of my junior year in high school. But you should ask questions when it comes to college admission. In doing so, you’ll quickly learn the school asking you to write four essays on their application is doing so because their students write a lot in class. Don’t like completing the application? Well… four years somewhere else might be a better choice. Hate interviews or personal exchanges in general? Universities requiring or recommending interviews typically deeply value classroom discussion, debate, and dialogue as a cornerstone of their curriculum and pedagogy. It’s what makes them distinct—not just in the application but in the student experience too.

Advance information. Technically, TSA has a Security Screening site but it does not provide helpful information about expectations upon arrival. This is my favorite line: “…you may notice changes in our procedures from time to time.” Yeah, I have. In contrast, colleges go to great lengths on websites, in publications and in presentations to lay out exactly what they are asking for from applicants. I wrote this on an empty stomach and decided to go with the cheese theme to pick three schools and find their requirements: Colby College, University of Wisconsin, and American University (I got all three links in less than three minutes with a total of 11 clicks).

Inside Tip: Create a spreadsheet with your college choices. Initially include basic information you can build on: school name, admission website, admission contact info, application deadlines, financial aid deadlines, requirements. You may find additional columns or sub-headings to add to this base. Once you apply, each school will give you a way to track your submitted documents, but as you’re searching for schools, and before you apply, a spreadsheet is a great way to keep up with colleges’ nuances.

Bonus: Be sure to add the admission email address to your safe-sender list, and adjust your Junk, Promotions, Updates and other folder settings throughout the process. “I didn’t get that the email” or its cousin “I didn’t see the email” are not going to be valid excuses for missing deadlines or not sending critical information (yes, we’ve seen this happen).

Double Bonus: Kudos if you got the hat-tip to Bob Dylan in the title. His song remains relevant today and even applicable in the admission experience. More on that next week.

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Be Batman! 

BatmanThis picture of my son came up earlier this week as a Facebook memory from a few years ago. You might think given the timing it was because he was getting ready for Halloween. Nope. For about a two year period, no matter where we went, he dressed like a superhero. Perhaps we should have tried harder to curb the habit, but in parenting like in life, you have to pick your battles. And this was not a hill I was going to die on.

Want to dress like Spider-Man for our ride to North Carolina? Fine. Going to wear the firefighter helmet and a cape to church? Whatever. So this picture from our local Waffle House was not a one-off occurrence. It was a pattern (and in hindsight an incredibly beautiful one). But the regularity of our visits to WaHo became apparent when a few of the servers started making requests on his next costume. “Bring back Green Lantern!” and “We want The Flash!”

I distinctly remember taking this picture because I was actually wearing a Captain America costume (long story) and because of something one of the cooks asked him over the counter: “Where is Batman?”  Without fail, when he’d wear his Robin costume this was the prevalent question. Interestingly, however, nobody ever asked about the Boy Wonder when he was dressed as the Dark Knight.

If you’re a senior reading this just ahead of the looming November 1 deadlines lots of colleges around the country have, I am going to assume it’s because you’re hoping for some pearl of wisdom, rather than merely procrastinating (if it’s the latter, I recommend this instead). In either case you’re most likely finalizing your admission essay or supplemental questions, and since we’ve been reading a lot of these lately, I have a few tips for you.

But First, an Exercise…

Close your eyes. Wait. Hold on. First, I want you to think of the kids in your school who have similar grades and classes to you. Maybe not exactly the same but essentially equivalent difficulty and a comparable GPA. Got a few? Okay. Now, consider those classmates who also have scored relatively the same on their ACT/SAT (those you expect to be within 100 points on the SAT or 2-3 points on the ACT, i.e. statistically insignificant). Now think about those students outside the classroom—keep in mind only those who may not be involved with the exact same sports, clubs, work, etc., but basically have had similar impact and influence outside the classroom (aka extra-curricular activities). My guess is all of you still have 3-4 people you could name— maybe more. Still with me? Good. Close your eyes and think about a college’s applicant pool. 10,000? 20,000? Maybe 30,000 applying? (By the way, you can open your eyes now).  For colleges with admit rates under 50% most of the applicants have “good” grades, “good” classes, and are involved outside the classroom too.

On paper you are the same. But you are not the same.

College Year Book1 – You. Are. Batman!  You have a unique story to tell, and we want to hear it in your writing. When an admission counselor reads your essay or short answer responses, they already have a sense of where you are from, your academic background, and even what you’ve chosen to do with your time because they’ve already looked at the rest of your application. But they have not heard you yet. They have a caricature; they have a black and white sketch; they have a shadow; they have Bruce Wayne. Your writing adds color, dimension, and completes the picture. Your essay brings out Batman. Don’t waste it by walking back through what we already know or telling us what makes you the same as so many other applicants.

2 –  Batman does not have superpowers. What’s cool about Batman is, unlike most superheroes, he does not have any actual superpowers. Instead he relies on his intelligence, strength, agility, and other skills (plus some super cool gadgets) to fight the forces of evil. I’ve talked to so many students who say they don’t know what to write about because nothing amazing has happened to them. The truth is some of the best essays are about mundane topics or experiences. You don’t have to write about the most dramatic or tragic or exciting event to have a great essay. Your voice, your story, your fit for a school, in fact, comes more from your character than external events.  We don’t expect you to be perfect. Often the sanitized, squeaky-clean is boring, safe, and insipid. We want to hear your passions and quirks and different perspectives or dreams. Most memorable essays, like superheroes, balance abilities and skills with humility and vision (X-ray or not).

3 – Be Batman! Remember how I asked you to think of all of those other applicants? Well, now forget them. And definitely don’t worry about who is reading your essay. You stand on your own. You are not defined by or associated with anyone else. You are the caped crusader. All due respect to Robin, you are Batman. Don’t try to be something or someone you are not. Your power is your identity– not an extra, nothing “super” or foreign or imaginary. Be distinct. Be different. Be yourself. Be Batman!

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