Would You Rather…?

Would You Rather…? Yep. This question was a big part of the Olympic viewing experience at our house.

  1.  Would you rather have no training and compete in the Skeleton OR Ski Jump? Personally, I’m going Skeleton all the way here. Sure, it would be moderately terrifying to go that fast, but worst case you roll off (careful for those blades on the dismount) and walk to the finish line. Meanwhile, with Ski Jump, I just see no way I’m walking away with less than two broken bones.
  2.  Would you rather be in Ice Dancing OR Curling? Our kids are split here. Our son is adamant that he’d never wear that costume and dance with a girl. (In this case, I am translating “never” as “check back when I am 16.”) Our daughter adamantly argues that Curling is the most boring thing she’s ever seen. “Is this still on?” “Sweeping is not for fun,” and my personal favorite, “He looks like our neighbor.” Hard to argue.

I didn’t pose this one but it did go through my head (because this is the kind of thing that does): Would you rather participate in a sport that has a score/time to win OR one that is judged? I can see both sides here. You’ve trained for four years (some would argue a lifetime). You’ve risen early, worked, sweated, and bled. You’ve sacrificed your time and sleep and diet and even personal relationships to get to this point.  It makes sense that you might want a very objective, neutral, quantifiable measure to differentiate you from the other competitors. And if you compete in one of those sports, that’s exactly what you get. Granted, it must have been heart-breaking for the US Luge Team not to medal when they finished .57 seconds from Gold and .103 from stepping onto the podium for a Bronze, but they signed up for it.  And clearly the German bobsledders who finished upside down were not concerned about impressing any judges on route to their Gold medal. They were the fastest. Period.

In Freestyle Skiing or Figure Skating it is all about the difficulty of your program, the execution of your routine, and your style (could argue personality) that you exhibit to the judges. Frankly, as a native southerner, I was just impressed when someone made it down the hill, landed a jump, or managed not to fall during a routine.  As I watched some of these events, the eventual medalists were not always the athletes I thought were the best from the outside looking in. Of course, I was not privy to all of the metrics or aspects they were looking for to make those determinations. Still, I could see how after all of those practice sessions and injuries that having a group of judges deduct or reward points based on the slightest angle of a skate or hand position on a snowboard would be maddening. And yet, it’s not like they were racing. They were not expecting their results or medal to come from time or speed. They knew that there would be a level of subjectivity leading to or from the medal stand.

So many lessons to be drawn from Olympians about perseverance, dedication, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc. but I am going to stay in my lane and focus on how this applies to college admission.

Let’s start with this.  Most schools make decisions based on quantifiable metrics. Of the four thousand post-secondary options in our country (with over 2000 four-year colleges), the average admit rate is 65% (See page 3). In the vast majority of schools nationally, they have space available for talented students like you, and they are going to use your GPA and test scores to make those decisions.  These are publicly available formulas that are clearly outlined on their sites, in publications, and in presentations. In most cases, these schools have admit rates over 50% and they have determined that if you are performing a certain level in high school, you will be academically successful on their campus. At least one of these schools should be on your list. The good news is that you will absolutely find more than a few where: you will be admitted; you will find a lifelong friend; you will find a professor who will mentor you and set you up for success in graduate school or as you launch into a career; you could take advantage of phenomenal internships, study abroad opportunities; you can afford and may even provide you with scholarships as well.

Like an Olympic athlete competing in a sport that is evaluated by people, here are some things you should know if you are applying to a highly selective college that has very few spaces and yet a pool of incredibly accomplished students.

  • Numbers are not going to be the deciding factor. Yes, we ask for test scores. We look at them and consider them, but at Georgia Tech this year two of every three applicants had a 1400+ SAT/ 30+ ACT. The College Board and ACT research clearly demonstrates that using “cut scores” (i.e. drawing an arbitrary line between say a 1360 and a 1370 is a misuse or abuse of tests). Our own campus specific research verifies this as well. Testing is far less indicative of academic success on our campus than rigor of curriculum and performance in classes. This is why students appealing a denial at a highly selective institution because they have a 1500 SAT has no merit. This is not short track racing. We never said it was going to be about your testing- and our decision only demonstrates that we were transparent here.
  •  Strength of program matters. If you watched any of the Snowboarding or Aerial or Figure Skating, you heard the announcers talking at length about difficulty of program. An athlete who attempts and converts a quadruple salchow or double lutz or a Triple Lindy is rewarded for that accomplishment, skill, and ability at a higher level than a competitor who hedges their difficulty in order to avoid a fall or mistake. In admission committee and file review, we do the same thing. This is why colleges that have a difficult curriculum (not always directly correlative to admit rate or rankings) also value your course choice in high school. The bottom line is that a student from the same high school, i.e. has similar access to courses, who takes AB Calculus and Physics II and does well is a better fit for our Civil Engineering program than a student who has opts instead for Pre-Calculus and AP Psychology.  You don’t see the Olympic judges walking out of the arena questioning their decision to place value on this element, and we do not either. Rigor matters. Figure Skating

 

 

 

 

  • Paper vs. Practice. “How could you deny my son? He has all A’s.” I understand, sir. However, since his school adds extra points for rigorous courses, an A can range from 90 to well over 100. A 91 and a 103 are not the same… and we are going to differentiate. This year we have a school that sent us nearly 200 applications. Of those 160 had above a 90, i.e. an A average. Now we can go round and round all day about the chicken and the egg here on grade inflation just like we can try to grapple with how Russia’s Alexander Krushelnitsky failed a doping test for Curling, but that seems counterproductive. Highly selective schools, just like Olympic committees, are going to differentiate great from outstanding.
  •  Style matters. Yes, we look at the technical as well as the full program. Review includes essays, interviews, and opportunities for you to tell us what you do outside the classroom. Why? Because you will not just be a student on campus, you will be a contributing citizen. Ultimately, once you enroll and graduate, you will be an ambassador. Judges give style points. Admission committees do as well. We care where you are from. We are listening for your voice. We want to know how you have impacted and influenced your community. We are counting on your counselors and teachers in their recommendations to build context around a GPA or a test score or an IB diploma. And because all of this is plays out in a holistic admission decision, the student with the highest test score or most APs or who sits at the top of a spreadsheet on a sorted GPA column is not necessarily the gold medal winner. Nobody is holding a stopwatch in admissions committee.
  • It cuts both ways. The hard truth of selective college admission is that it is a very human process. The upside? You’re not being sorted out based on GPA or test score alone. We are looking in depth at school curriculum, grade trends, course choice, performance, as well as who you are, who you want to be, how you impact others, and how you will match with our culture and mission. The downside? We are human. Read: judgment calls, conversations in committee, subjective decisions based on institutional priorities. Not gold, silver or bronze… grey.

Ultimately, if you are choosing to apply to a highly-selective university, you have to submit your application with the mentality of an Olympian. The competition will be stiff and there is no guarantee that you “end up on the podium.” Trust your training. You have prepared well. You have worked hard. Watch the closing ceremonies this weekend. Whether an athlete has a medal around their neck or not, they will walk through that stadium with incredible pride in their accomplishments, as well as confidence and hope for the future. If you are a senior this spring, regardless of admission outcomes, this is how you should be walking the halls each day and ultimately across the stage at graduation. Confidence and hope, my friends. Your future is bright.

The More The Scarier

(Thanks for indulging the seasonally themed title.) 

I’m a huge fan of The Lonely Planet– their travel books/guides, their website, their name. Love ’em. I followed their recommendations on travel in Europe, Africa, and even parts of the U.S. When we went to Hawaii a few years ago, LP advice not only helped us save money and see amazing spots, but it also provided a memorable and helpful line I’ve quoted often: “Where there’s a line, you should dine.”

This is basically true, right? When you walk into a restaurant and you’re the only customer, it’s a sign. Conversely, the joint where hungry folks are wrapped around the block is usually popular for a reason.

Unfortunately, too many students take the same approach when applying to or considering colleges. I’m going on record as saying, “Yes–I have a problem with that approach.” Believe me, I understand you see dominant messages and marketing materials in high school which point you to certain schools (it often comes in the form of sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and matriculation lists on your high school profile). The national media typically focus on the Ivy League or Ivy-esque schools, and your local news stations and billboards in your community feature your state’s flagship university or another major public in the region.

Krispy KremeThere’s nothing wrong with these places. But as their application numbers continue to go up and admit rates go down, and before you take another sip of the Kool-Aid, hit the pause button. Since when did “the same” become cool? Familiar is safe but it usually has a ceiling. Is staying with what’s familiar going to help you maximize your potential, or is it comfortable? Often those two things are in conflict with one another.

Honestly, there is no reason to stand outside in the cold waiting for the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign to flicker on if you have a gluten sensitivity, right? It’s an extended metaphor. Bear with me.

Here are a few questions you should be asking yourself as you move forward in your college search:

Why are you in line?

Is the place you’re visiting or applying to of interest because you put it on your list, or because someone else told you to look there? If it’s the latter, you should seriously consider their motivation. Maybe it’s a school counselor who has seen many kids like you go in the past and believes it will be a great fit. Perfect. Maybe it’s a parent or another relative who went there (or wishes they did) and has pressured you to apply, visit, or ultimately attend. While that isn’t inherently wrong or bad, it is worth raising an eyebrow. Is this about you or them? Is this about ego or reputation or appearances, or is it about you, as a student at that school, and in that campus community?

Every year I talk to students who visited or applied to Tech who don’t truly want to come. They typically admit it just out of earshot of their mom or dad who is an alum or who “works with a lot of Tech people and thought it would be a good place to visit.” My advice is tell them today. Rip off the Band-Aid. Don’t live the lie. Selecting a college is not like the sweater you got for your birthday last year. You know—the one you opened, forced a grin, and wore out the door the next day and then stuffed in your bag and tried to trade for some headphones. You can’t consign a college. You’re talking big money, lots of investment, emotions, and expectations. Be honest early. If you realize you’re in the wrong line, step out now and have the uncomfortable conversation. Whoever told you to get in line loves you. I know it may manifest itself in pressure or lots of questions or text message reminders, but it’s actually love. And they’ll still love you when you level with them. Don’t apply somewhere for someone else.

Have you done your homework?

I know, I know. You aren’t reading this to get hassled (but while we’re at it, you did clean your room, right?). Anyhoo, last week I attended a retreat with leaders from other Atlanta-based schools, including MorehouseSpelman, and Agnes Scott. It’s possible if you live outside of the South you have not heard of all of these or don’t know much about any of them. But when you look at the opportunities they’re creating for students, the incredible professors, research, support, alumni networks and successes they’ve all had, it’s truly remarkable.

What are those colleges in your city, state, region? Check your mail. Quit lock-stepping and be willing to explore instead of following such a worn route. Have you heard of Colleges That Change Lives? Have you considered or visited an HBCU or a single-sex college option or a university outside the U.S.? Have you looked at the list of schools who don’t require test scores? Again, I’m not telling you to absolutely get out of line. But if your list is filled with predictable options of big name places “just because” then you’ve plagiarized. DO YOUR OWN WORK.  Check out BigFuture. Download Admittedly. Do your homework!

Who else is in line?

EatsTwo of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta are Homegrown on Memorial Drive and EATs on Ponce De Leon. Coming to campus or Atlanta soon? Check them out. Live in the Atlanta area and never been? Stop reading now and get in the car. I like them both for the same reasons: great food, good prices, and an amazing cross-section of people. When you are waiting for a table at either place, you will see everything from policemen to hipsters to judges to construction crews. The diversity adds to the experience.

Who is line where you are applying? Are these your people? When you go to an open house or one of the college’s online communities, do you connect with the other students or families? Sitting in an information session on campus or going on the tour and listening to questions and conversations, do these feel like future friends? Ten schools can look identical on paper– same academic profile, same admit rate, same majors offered, but the ethos, the demeanor of the students can and does vary widely. A college search done well requires extreme honesty and a willingness to listen when that still small voice says, “Nope. I don’t see it.” When it happens, trust it. Nod your head, grab your bag, get out of line and move on. Trust me– it’s the first step down a more unique and fulfilling path anyway.

Who is not in line? 

I visited my old high school (where about 55% of the students go on to four-year colleges) to talk to students about Georgia Tech. While I watched the buses line up after school, I couldn’t help but think about the kids I knew in my class who did not go to college. Looking back I realize I only took care of myself in my senior year. I watched my friends who had involved, proactive parents help them navigate the process and move on too. Knowing what I do now, I deeply regret not looking beyond myself. I could have made the effort to engage them in a conversation of “why are you not going to college?” or, knowing what I did about some of their families, I could have encouraged them about their academic potential.In any given moment we have two options

I’m challenging you to consider the kid on your team who needs extra help or tutoring to pass; to think of your friend from work who is jeopardy of not graduating. Who do you see that is questioning if they should go college? Who is not in line? Let me be clear. Encouraging them is not going to help you get into college. It’s not going to be something you can put on a resume or even on an application. It’s the right thing to do. It’s an opportunity you have now to start a pattern for thinking beyond yourself. Do you go to a school where 100% of seniors go to college? No excuse. It means you definitely have the resources and privilege to be part of this effort. Yep, it will take effort. Dig deep, look around, and pull some folks who need to be into the line.

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You Do You

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to a spin class. If you’ve not done one of these, it’s basically a lot of people on stationary bikes in a small, dim room, with music that accompanies it to aid in cadence and motivation. Ultimately, you control your own pace, but the instructor in the front calls out instructions on when to add tension, when to stand up and sprint, and when to recover, all in sync with the beat of the songs. Well, because it was Super Bowl Sunday (no comments on the outcome please… just typing this is difficult), our instructor had on a Falcons jersey. I’d never seen this particular woman before, but she did not strike me as a big football fan. What can I say? When you know you know.

As class started she made a few comments like, “Okay, let’s get some work in before the big game.” And intermittently through the first few songs, “Push harder up the hill so you can eat whatever you want tonight,” or “Dig deeper and really work now. Just like the Falcons are going to do against the Patriots.” Eesh. I could not help cringing a bit and squeezing the handlebars a little tighter while scrunching my nose and eyes on these comments. It all felt so forced, as if she felt compelled to wear the uniform and make some references since it was the Super Bowl.

Then we came to the second to last song. At this point, after riding hard for 45 minutes, you really do benefit from good music and encouraging commands from the instructor because you are pretty spent. As the beat started, I knew things were going to go downhill (no pun intended) fast. And they did. “Okay, Falcons fans. Close your eyes as you pedal. Imagine that you are there at the game. It’s first down, second down, third down. They pass and score. Julio Jones is in the end zone for a touchdown.” I cocked my head to the side to look at my wife as if to say, “Are you kidding me?” She just looked back at me, knowingly shook her head, and smiled. At that I raised both eyebrows and opened my eyes wide. She gave me a look that said “Be nice” and went back to looking straight ahead. I won’t go into  much more detail here, but suffice it to say it got worse. A LOT WORSE.

Since that was the last “working song,” the next one was a cool down where you take your hands off the handlebars, slow your cadence, and do some stretching on the bike.  Naturally, at that point, all I could think about was the college admission process.

Your Voice

I have written before that your college essay and short answer questions are your opportunity to help us hear YOUR unique voice. Throughout the rest of the application, grades, course choice, test scores, and even in your extra-curricular activities, you cannot communicate your voice—and it’s an essential differentiator. Because it is so critical to our review and to your “fit” for each school you are applying to, it’s even more important that you are genuine in your responses.  Are you pensive, deep and brooding? That’s great… love to hear it. But don’t try to summon your inner Emily Dickinson if you know for a fact she’s not in there. And the same is true for humor or rhymes or new words you may have found on Synonym.com.

Last week I was at a high school junior class program to “kick off” the college admission process with parents and students. In my speech, I made this comment verbatim, “We want to hear YOUR unique voice.” Afterward, a young woman came up and said she did not understand what I meant.  I have sat on panels and overheard some pretty confounding advice: “Push yourself academically, and do what you love, but set a good foundation because it’s all about preparation.” “Don’t forget you also need to know you’re in competition with the applicant pool, but really with yourself, and kind of with the curriculum too.” Yeah, that’s a little bemusing.

But “your voice” is just that: your voice. There is no hidden message. In other words, before you go donning the jersey, making the music selection, and wading into completely unfamiliar territory, take a hard look in the mirror.  You know you, so find your voice. You do you. You’ll thank me, and more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

Recognize that Stretch

At the end of spin class, everyone gets off their bike and stretches. And as I stood there in moderate pain, still pondering college admission, I realized this class (and therefore this blog) was a two-for-one lesson.

See, at this point, you have three choices of how to stretch: (1) put your leg up high on the handlebar, (2) mid-range on the seat, or (3) at the lower crossbar. My wife throws her leg up on the handlebar and puts her head to her knee as if that’s normal. Me? Not so much. I typically start at the lower crossbar and work my way up to the seat.

Here’s the thing: You will find that schools are very transparent with their academic profiles. Normally, they’ll publish these on their website and in their brochures as middle 50% ranges. For example, last year at Tech, our mid-50% range was 1330-1440 SAT or a 30-34 ACT. Our new freshmen averaged between 7-13 AP/IB/college level courses and were primarily making A’s in those classes.

So if you have a 28 ACT, mainly B’s, and have taken two AP classes when your school offered 15, we’d be “a handlebar school” for you, and your odds of being admitted are what statisticians would expertly deem as “low.” We will absolutely still read your essays, evaluate your background outside the classroom, gain context into your home life, and determine if there are any incredibly outstanding circumstances that need to be considered. But to borrow a phrase from spin class, you should be “recognizing that stretch.”

We often talk to students who are literally ONLY applying to Ivy League or Ivy-type schools (normally at the prompting of parents). Even if you have A’s, good classes and nearly perfect test scores, this is a BAD IDEA. How do I know? We denied about 500 students like that in Early Action this year. And keep in mind that at 26%, our admit rate is three times higher than Harvard’s.

Listen, I am all for you pushing yourself. I love the confidence. Want to take a crack at throwing your leg up on the handlebars? Go for it. Just be sure you have a few schools on your list in the seat and low crossbar range too.

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