Georgia Tech admissions director: Figure out why you’re going to college before where

Rick Clark has new book to help families get through application process with less stress

A surefire sign of parents overly invested in their child’s college search: When they start to say, “We’re taking the SAT this weekend” or “We’re looking at Vanderbilt.”

Georgia Institute of Technology undergraduate admissions director Rick Clark offered that insight in a session today about the college application experience.

Much of Clark's presentation drew on a new book he co-wrote with college counselor Brennan Barnard called “The Truth About College Admissions: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together,” due out in September. (I read it today, and it's helpful, candid and pragmatic.)

A difficult truth that Clark shared with the audience at Tech: Smart, talented kids who meet all the criteria for elite colleges, including Georgia Tech, may still not be admitted.

Select schools with far more applicants than spots embrace a holistic admissions approach rather than a numbers-based formula that admits on GPA and test scores. In the holistic approach, which Clark acknowledged was imperfect and sometimes unfair, admissions staff handcraft a freshman class of students with varied backgrounds, interests and talents by going beyond scores and grades.

“We may have students in the same dorm room where one kid played three sports and the other literally cannot swing at a whiffle ball but did research and worked at a hospital,” he said.

(He cited Auburn as one of the colleges that tells students through its freshmen index exactly what GPA and test scores assure admission. "And I have never met an unemployed or unhappy Auburn graduate," he said. "Their outcomes are excellent; their alumni network is excellent.")

The college application process becomes fraught with anxiety and disappointment when students or parents insist there's just one ideal campus.

Clark’s book opens with a painful scene, a dismayed dad from a long line of Tech graduates quizzing Clark on why his highly qualified daughter was not admitted, proffering scholarship letters from other prestigious schools as proof of her worthiness.

Clark agrees the young woman would likely have done well at Tech, as would many of the students denied admission. But Clark told the family the decision was not going to change, and the priority ought to be considering which of the schools that had accepted her might be a good match.

Clark said there are about 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States, only 100 of which accept less than a third of applicants. The average admit rate for the schools is 67 percent, he said.

Yet, many parents remain fixed on the eight Ivy Leagues schools that together only enroll 61,000 students and have admit rates under 10 percent. Compare that, Clark said, to Texas A&M, which enrolls 100,000 students across its system of campuses. Texas A&M has the most graduates heading companies in the top fifth of the Fortune 500 list.

The belief a student’s future depends on admission to a subset of elite schools creates a pressure cooker for families in which kids are hounded to pile on AP courses, volunteer for the sake of resume building and treat their high school years as a means to getting into a good college rather than as preparation for life, said Clark.

He told the families to set aside Sunday afternoon or Tuesday night for conversations about colleges, so the issue doesn’t dominate every parent-child exchange. In college-going communities, students are asked by everyone where they're going to college, even by baristas, joked Clark.

The more important and first question is why a student is going to college, he said. And that requires a student figure out what they want from college and what their family can afford.

Clark told students to create three bins for all those slick college brochures that feature a trio of ethnically diverse students smiling under a tree and one posed on a cliff or outcropping in an exotic study abroad locale looking out to a bright future.

Brochures for colleges in which the student has zero interest go into a recycling bin; brochures for campuses that might appeal to friends go into another; and, finally, the last bin is for brochures from places the student may want to attend.

Clark gave students a tip for email communications with colleges: If their email is “Stud Dog” or “babysmama32,” change it. “Because it’s incredibly uncomfortable for us to email you and say, ‘Hey, Stud Dog, we need your transcript.”

He also talked about their application essays -- parents, keep out -- and who reads them. When he asked the teens in the audience how they envisioned the admissions officers reading their essays, the consensus of shouted answers was an old guy in a bow tie. (Clark is not old, but I have seen him in a bow tie.)

Not so, said Clark, explaining the average admissions staffer is 26 and female. "They know what Instagram is; they walk dogs; they wear North Face vests. You are 17; they babysat for you. And when they open up your package, they say, 'Please lord, let this be good. I don't want to read again about what it took to overcome AP U.S. History.' They start in your corner. Your job is to keep them there."