How the Olympics Explain College Admission– Part I

Like much of the world, our family was hooked on the Olympics for the last two weeks. So many incredible stories of perseverance and life-long dreams, not to mention many memorable performances. We were distraught by the early losses of US Women’s soccer and Men’s basketball teams, elated by the heart and spirit of Suni Lee and Caleb Dressel, and torn as to which was the more surprising sport included at these Games: walking, trampoline, or sport climbing. 

While Olympic coverage and commercials may fade away in the months ahead, don’t forget the important lesson they’ve taught us—evaluation is made in one of two primary ways: purely quantifiable numbers/times (track, swimming, etc.); or with a certain degree of human judgment and subjectivity (diving, gymnastics, etc.).  

The college admission process is really no different. As we have established in prior blogs, there are nearly 4,000 colleges in America. While they vary as widely as Olympic sports, they essentially make determinations in one of these two ways: formulaic/quantifiable or holistic/ less quantifiable. 

Formulaic Admission Process (aka The High Jump)  

If you apply to a school using this framework for selecting students, you will be asked to sprint down a thin lane carrying a long stick and miraculously catapult yourself above a bar. What?! Nobody told you about that part? I hope you’ve been stretching.  

Formulaic review is typically found at public universities who have determined that academic factors alone (high school GPA and often test scores) are sufficient to evaluate and enroll students who will be successful at their institution. Formulaic admission is based on just that—formulas or regression models derived from evaluating the performance of current students (college GPA, retention rates, graduation rates) and then back mapping that information to establish that college’s admission standards.  

If you watched the high jump in the Olympics, the height of the bar was  immediately evident, and it was obvious who ultimately cleared it and who did not. Colleges with formulaic processes operate the same way. The “bar” is set and simple to understand because it is completely transparent. You’ll find these published on schools’ websites, often with an accompanying calculator for you to plug in your academic credentials.  

A good example of formulaic admission is found in Iowa  where students can plug their GPA and test scores into an online calculator, in order to determine their admissibility to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa. The admission standards for most of Georgia’s public universities are dictated by the Freshman Index, and the California State System outlines its standards here. In these examples, just as with the Olympic high jump, anyone who clears the bar advances/ is admitted.  

The truth is there are lots of incredible colleges around the country operating this way. As you are making your college list for visits or applications, I  encourage you to check out your options in this space. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Does my state university system have a publicly available admission formula? If so, does it apply to all universities in my state or only some?  
  • Can I find a college or university in my city/state/region (or one that has mailed me material lately) that uses a formulaic admission review process? 

I’m confident that if you took the time to read and consider your personal rankings after our recent blog (Hint: hyperlinks =  suggested reading), you will be able to find at least one college using formulaic admission that: offers a major that is of interest to you; is located in a town or area you would enjoy going to college; matches with your outside interests; and would offer you admission based on your current grades and scores.   

Holistic Admission Review (aka Gymnastics All-Around) 

In stark contrast to the objective, “clear the bar” process for advancing, you have gymnastics, specifically, the all-around competition. Gymnasts perform vastly different routines with varying levels of rigor and style on multiple elements (just learned that term) — and ultimately receive scores from human judges.  

Through history there have been constant claims of a lack of fairness, evidence of bribing, and consistent complaints from participants, their coaches, and fans about slight differentiations that have made the difference between standing on the podium or not. In the rules book for judges (I skimmed it), you will find references to metrics and guidelines, but also the undeniable presence of nuance and subjectivity. 

I’m guessing this all sounds pretty similar to how you have heard the holistic admission described. The good news, if you apply to colleges using this style of review, is you will not be evaluated solely on your high school grades or test scores. More good news– admission reviewers are trained to use empathy, judgment, trends, and context. Translation: If your vault is not perfect, you can still impress on the beam.  

On the flip side (pun intended), this type of review is gray, and they will be utilizing a variety of qualitative factors that don’t fit neatly into a rubric or published/standardized criteria spreadsheet. Additionally, holistic review signals that in addition to assessing your ability to succeed in the classroom, they also want to enroll students who will enhance their campus community and help fulfill their mission (e.g., institutional priorities). Therefore, it will be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to predict whether you will end up on their particular podium or not.  

If you are like me, you may have felt this way as a spectator of gymnastics this summer. “Oh, WOW!! That was great. Impressive.” Next gymnast performs. “Okay. Also, amazing. Hmmm… I’m not sure. Can we give out more medals?” Answer: NO. Just like the medal podium, holistic review exists because of a supply and demand challenge. In other words, there are more incredible applicants than there are seats/beds/space available. 

Context is everything for colleges using a holistic admission review process. This means when they analyze your transcript, they are not simply going to take the weighted or unweighted GPA at face value. Instead, those humans are going to ask specific, detailed questions to understand your academic and environmental context: What clubs/organizations did you have access to in your high school? What courses did you take and how did you perform in each class, grade, subject area? How did you invest your time outside the classroom? And what impact and influence did you have on your family, community, school, and so on?  What barriers and challenges did you face academically and beyond the classroom? 

Before you ever submit an application to a college using holistic review, take the time to write down or say out loud that you are intentionally competing in gymnastics, rather than the high jump. You are choosing a nuanced, gray, and subjective competition and evaluation, and you are comfortable with the fact that numbers alone will not dictate your results. Promise yourself now that you will not waste time or energy (or precious weeks of your senior year) trying to predict the outcome. And, if you don’t end up on the “podium,” commit to handling your disappointment with class and grace. Is any of that easy? No. But this is Olympic gymnastics! What did you expect?  

Honestly, there are too many parallels…and unevens (Sorry- couldn’t resist) between the Olympics and college admissions to fit into one blog, so look for Part II later this month.

 

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech. He has served on the SACAC Governing Board, the ACT Council, and the College Board Search Advisory Board. He is a current member of a NACAC’s Committee on Leadership in College Admission, and Past Chair of both the national Government Relations Committee and Georgia Tech’s Staff Council. 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 forthcoming book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together. 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