The Admission Guide to… Soup Making ?

I love the fall. It’s hands down my favorite season. Football, holidays, changing leaves, crisp days, and… soup. You can’t really eat soup in the summer in the South (the human body is just not built to tolerate that much heat). Every fall, I feel like I rediscover this simple delicacy. Chowder, French Onion, chicken noodle, vegetable… anyone else getting hungry? At this time of year, I could live off it. And with young kids, soup is easy to make and a good “project.” They have fun grating cheese, counting out the carrot sticks, and finding the right measuring spoons for spices. So unless someone slices a finger or gets onion in their eye, it’s a win-win. Dinner is prepared and we did a mini math lesson in the process.

Now what does this have to do with college admission? EVERYTHING. In fact, when I meet someone on a plane or at a random social gathering and I don’t feel like talking college admission, I say I make soup for a living. And it’s true. On a college campus, everyone has their own ingredients they want in the mix. Deans from each academic unit may want more or less students in their program, depending on faculty: student ratios or the health of job prospects in their industry. This year at Tech, we’ve added a major in Music Technology. That means students who may not have been a good fit last year are very much on our radar this year. On the other hand, if a college eliminates a major, that vegetable is out of the soup.  While there was plenty of oregano in last year’s bowl, this year that container is left in the cabinet untouched.

Institutional priorities such as academic profile or net tuition revenue dictate ingredients and the recipe for that year. If last year’s out of state enrollment was too high they may try to curb that back (so not a good year to be a radish). Or, they did not get enough in Business, so the directive may be to double up (and increase the amount of pepper) this year.

This article from Money magazine sheds some light into admit rate variance by admission plan (i.e. Early vs. Regular). It has some compelling points and stats, but I don’t think it delved into the real drivers of why students “have the same chance.” It implies both in title and content that the rationale for why some students are admitted and others are not is “hidden” from view.

Here’s how the soup is made

When applications roll in and reading season begins, it’s like walking through a really great farmers market. Almost every application has sound merits. We just started file review in our office and each day there are conversations about an amazing applicant who has done X or Y, or wrote a great essay, or had an incredible life circumstance. Each of our prep cooks is reading and saying, “Oh, yes. We definitely want this celery,” AND “Throw a couple of these potatoes in,” AND “Cabbage? Yep.” Each school/state (like a stand or stall at the farmers market) has fresh, beautiful, tantalizing options that would all be great.

BUT… the trick of soup making is the size of the bowl. Last year at Princeton that was around 1300. At The University of Washington, it was about 6800.

Admit rates are partly a function of applicant pool size but also of the other vegetables. (Note: This is Soup Making 101. We’re not going to get into the melting off of “yield rates” or the post-boil adding back of waitlist. Advanced Soup Making is a spring workshop.)

Public schools in North Carolina are legislated to enroll at least 82% of their class from their state. When the vast majority of your bowl is filled, your ability to add lots of celery or onions is going to be diminished. So the state you are from, major you want to study, or the background and interests you bring to the table, dictate admission prospects. You are not necessarily competing against all the other applicants—often it’s those like you by some academic, demographic or institutional goal measure. Is this fair? No. This is soup making. You may be a completely unbruised and symmetrically perfect tomato, but that does not mean you are going to be in this year’s “Brown University Bisque.” Because guess what? They may only needed a fourth of a tomato this year. You may be grass fed, organically raised, and free range but you are not included if UCLA decides they only need 22 from outside their borders.

What does this mean for you?

When you visit the campuses you’re interested in, ask them about students like you. “How many students were from Massachusetts in your class last year?” “Are you trying to grow in our area of the country, or in my major at your school?”  In asking specific question like this, you will more likely get specific answers. Schools are also happy to share their admit rates, but you need to ask the details behind those rates. At Tech our EA admit rate is higher than our RD rate often by 15 percentage points. Part of that is driven by the fact that Georgia students apply early, and our total undergraduate population is 60% Georgia. Historically our most talented in-state students apply in the first round.

Some schools won’t know some of these admit rates or demographics off the top of their head. Are they hiding something? Usually not. A chef (admission rep) walking around your school in the fall has his mind on telling the story of the restaurant (university), rather than all the details of the soup. That’s not cagey. It’s human. So they offer to get back to you, which is great, as you can continue the conversation and they know you are interested.

At the most elite schools nationally (>20% admit rate), you’ll often get a confounding answer that sounds a lot like a Jedi mind trick or political stump speech. But go back to the Princeton statistics. 29,000+ applicants to admit less than 2,000. Lot of super fine slicing & pinches of spices that leave amazing produce that would be the highlight of another soup sitting on the cutting board.  It’s not an evasive answer. They simply can’t answer that because they aren’t taking entire stalks of celery or broccoli.

Kitchen notes: At the end of the day, you may not end up in the recipe you have in mind right now. But the beauty of soup is that each ingredient is ultimately complimented and improved by what it’s surrounded by and interacts with over time. You will find the right place to add your flavor to others and be improved by their presence in the years ahead.

If you would like to subscribe to receive blog entries when they post, please enter your email address above, or click the “Subscribe” button in the header at the top of this page. We also welcome comments or feedback @gtadmission on Twitter.

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Executive Director of Strategic Student Access at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college