Selective College Admission is March Madness

Have you ever had one of those moments when you see someone in a totally different way, or realize something that has been right in front of you for years?  

In my life, a few of these include- noticing the clock on the iPhone has a second hand, seeing both a duck and a rabbit in this picture, and well… my wife—it only took me seven years of friendship to recognize she was “the one.”

Watching the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Basketball Tournament this month I was embarrassed to realize that in almost seven years of writing this blog, I’ve never recognized the many parallels between The Big Dance and selective college admission. 

Selection 

GPA/Winning Percentage: In both the men’s and women’s tournaments, 68 of the over 350 Division 1 teams are chosen to participate. “The committee” evaluates and selects teams based on win-loss record, strength of schedule, i.e., rigor of competition, as well as a variety of other statistics. Like holistic admission review there is no predetermined formula for making at-large “bids” and awarding a slot.

In other words, your high school grades, like a team’s season record, matter. However, each year many teams with the same (or even better records) are not invited to the tourney, just as some students with the same, or even higher GPAs may not be admitted. On the men’s side this year, a good example is the University of Michigan (17-14, 56% winning percentage) receiving a #11 seed, while University of Florida (19-13 59% winning percentage) is left out entirely. While many people will call, email, or show up in person to argue that a 3.8 or 4.7 should have “been good enough” to “make it,” the bottom line in a selective process, is colleges (like the selection committee) don’t put GPAs into a spreadsheet, plug in a formula, and make offers of admission.  

Rigor of Curriculum/Strength of Schedule 

Listen to any admission representative from a selective college articulate what they are looking for academically, and they will inevitably talk far more about the rigor of your course choice than your actual GPA. When a reader opens your application, the first question is, “Where does this student go to school?” Their goal, as they read your school profile and understand your curriculum, is to understand what courses you could have taken versus what you chose to take. Ultimately, the selection committee wants to bring teams to the tournament who have been challenged and are prepared to play at the highest level. With college admission—same, same. 

Some spots are held

Yes. There are 68 spots available each year in the tournament. But… not exactly. 32 Conference Champions are automatically included, leaving 36 “at-large.” The same is true for colleges.

  • At Georgia Tech, for instance, 60% of our class comes from Georgia, even though only 17% of applicants are from the state.
  • Schools account for the number of recruited athletes who will be part of their class.
  • Some colleges have special programs for artists or other specific talents– and the overall applicant pool is simply not going to be considered in the same manner for those positions.

  • If  young Candler Woodruff (whose actual blood type is Coca Cola) applies to any Atlanta college, you can believe that spot is taken. Same for Leland Stanford VII applying to The Farm in Palo Alto. Two years ago, much ado (yes, I largely wrote this blog to use that phrase) was made about Gap Year students “taking spots.”
  • At Georgia Tech, we guarantee admission to valedictorians and salutations of in-state high schools. Go ahead and lump all of these examples into “conference champions” or held spots or a reduced class size.

Call it what you want. Colleges like the NCAA Tournament are going to create a diverse mix, but they do not go about this in a completely uniform (no pun intended) way. Fair? Perhaps not. But this is the Big Dance, friends. It exists for a purpose. It has a mission—and like colleges, it is a business. Not a conference champ? Get over it and play.  

The Waitlist… aka Play-In Games 

This year, in the NCAA Women’s tournament, Dayton, Howard, Missouri State, and Longwood all advanced to the first round, after having to win their play-in games. Each of them could have made an argument for why they should have received a higher seed, and another 20 teams could have contested they deserved the play-in slot. The parallels continue between holistic admission and the NCAA Tournament.

If you are currently on a waitlist, you have a decision to make. You can opt- out, cancel your application, deposit at another school, buy the t-shirt, and get ready to lace ’em up for that college in the fall. That’s not a bad or wrong decision, as long as you are fully committed to it. 

Or you can claim your spot on the waitlist (we have covered this before, friends). You are not just on the list typically, so read your email closely- and do what it says. While there is no guarantee you will “advance” (see Florida State, Incarnate Word, DePaul, Mount St. Mary’s), the magic of March Madness starts on the opening tip of the first play-in game… but you have to show up to shoot your shot. In other words, if a college you really want to attend offers you spot on the waitlist, don’t let your ego or criticism of the committee selection process hold you back.

Make the most of your opportunity 

The pandemic has shown a bright light on the power of deciding how we show up each day. Regardless of the circumstances around us, we put our feet on the floor in the morning and make a choice about our attitude, our investment, and our goals. You may not have been admitted to your “first choice,” or you may receive a financial aid package that makes your “dream school” financially unaffordable.

If this is the case, I’d invoke the now holy name of St. Peter’s, who became the first #15 seed in NCAA Men’s Tournament history to advance to the Elite 8. Along the way they knocked off #2 Kentucky, #7 Murray State, and #3 Purdue along the way. Some will call them a “Cinderella.” I say they made the most of the opportunity they were given.  

If you are a senior, it’s my sincere hope that in the weeks and months ahead, as you receive admission decisions and weigh your college options, you won’t concern yourself with the committee selection process, or what someone else “got” that you feel you deserved. Instead, embrace the opportunities you have been afforded. Lace ‘em up, keep your eyes forward not backward, and head into the fall ready to embrace your “One Shining Moment!”  

 

Tell Yourself a Different (College Admission) Story

Last week I received an email entitled “Admission Fears.” The title struck me immediately, but what saddened me was it was sent from an 8th grader.  Her note was only three sentences and did include a very sweet P.S., but it left me asking a host of questions about how we got here as a society, my role in tweens sending “Admission Fears” emails, whether now might be a good time to open a bike shop/ bar on the beach, and many more. Ultimately, her question was, “I was wondering what you were looking for in a student, so that I may know what I have to offer to your prestigious school.”  If you’d rather not read my reply, here’s the original Twitter thread.

Dear Liza,  

Thanks so much for your email. I am sorry for not replying earlier and hope your year is going well. It sounds like you are a very diligent and focused student who is already thinking about college after high school. That’s awesome!   

I was thinking a lot about your email this weekend. Based on your title and question I’m assuming you have heard it is really hard to get into college, or that you are concerned you will not be/have what colleges “are looking for in a student.” Because this narrative and anxiety is so prevalent, we write a blog and produce a podcast about these topics at Georgia Tech.  I even wrote an entire book geared toward helping students and families keep perspective during the admission experience. But you don’t need to worry about any of that right now.

The truth is our country is in a negative loop when it comes to its view on and discussion around college and college admission. There is too much misinformation, disinformation, and limited information in this space, which often emanates from people with loud megaphones or big platforms who often make/charge lots of money to incite the type of fear you referenced in your note. 

So, as you move into and through high school, I want to encourage you to tell yourself a different story about college and college admission. This starts by replacing fear with hope. 

First, a confession. Your note struck me because my son is your age. So while I’m emailing you back, I’m also thinking about him, and other kids in high school (Oh… and I also turned this into a blog. Don’t worry- I changed your name). 

Admission Hopes 

My biggest hope is during most of high school you will not think about college too often. Instead, just focus on being a good high school student. Go to class. Learn how to take notes and study efficiently. Listen and ask good questions. Participate in your classroom discussions and do personal research on some of the topics you cover in school on your own, so you can dig deeper and get as big and broad of an understanding on issues and information as possible. Outside the classroom, get involved in the things you enjoy and find fun, interesting, or broadening. Invest in your school and local community and seek to positively impact the people around you.  

Ultimately, that is what colleges are looking for. We want to build a community of people who are interested in learning and challenging themselves academically, and who are committed to impacting and influencing people around them-both inside & outside the classroom.  

In other words, don’t worry about college admission committee rooms you will never enter. Instead, focus on the rooms and spaces you walk into every day. Your living room, classroom, place of worship, or job. Be a good classmate, friend, daughter, sibling. Ultimately, nobody can promise you that if you take certain classes, make particular grades, or participate in specific activities you will “get in” to a certain college. If anyone does try to tell you that—let them know they sit on a throne of lies-or just run. Here’s what I can promise you—if you will simply focus on being a good high school student, you are going to have lots of college choices and options when you are finishing high school, because the bottom line is that’s what colleges are looking for—good high school students.  

And that leads me to my next hope. Too many students and parents talk about and think about college and college admission from a scarcity standpoint. I’m not going to delve too much into an economics lesson at this point, but I hope you will look at this from an abundance perspective.  

Particularly, around this time of year, there are many articles published, news reports broadcast, or social media posts leading people to believe it’s impossible to get into college, and that the competition is increasing every year. This is fundamentally false– and increasingly so. The average admit rate for four-year universities in our country is 67%. In other words, most colleges admit most applicants. The pandemic has increased your options not reduced them. Colleges need students- now more than ever! As a result, good students (as we just discussed) who apply to a wide range of schools (listen to your counselor and keep an open mind) will not only have a variety of admission offers but will also find financially affordable options in the years ahead. So, I’m imploring you to not listen to anyone who uses words of scarcity and attempts to breed fear or desperation into your view of college or college admission.  Tell yourself the abundance story.

Third Hope- I understand you may be tired of hearing words like “pivot,” “resilient,” or “disrupted.” Over the last two years, it’s been hard to go a week without hearing each of these repeated multiple times. However, one blessing of the pandemic is it forced students to flex these muscles of adaptability, flexibility, and resilience in unprecedented (another Covid bingo word) ways. As a result, you have figured out at an early age how to learn in different environments, build or maintain relationships despite time/space obstacles, and adjust to constantly shifting information.  

What does that have to do with college and college admission? Absolutely everything. College people (yes, like me) often talk about finding a good college fit, as if students are square (pick your favorite shape) pegs (pick your favorite object), and your job is to carefully search and find a school where you seamlessly enter. Total BS.  

Don’t listen to anyone (even if they live in your house) who leads you to believe there is only one college, one type of college, one particular setting, or one major/academic area in which you can thrive. YOU are adaptable, dynamic, and capable of excelling in a wide variety of places. You are more like a Swiss Army Knife than a singular key. Tell yourself that story and you will breathe, enjoy, and see a very big path to college, rather than one that feels limited, confining, burdensome, or fear filled. 

You asked me what you have to offer a college. Here’s my answer…  

What do you have to offer?  

The truth is college admission should not be about what you can offer. I’m earnestly hopeful you won’t spend your high school years trying to figure that out. Don’t attempt to play some box-checking, soul-crushing game. Instead, when the time comes, the real question will be: what do they have to offer you? And the only way you are going to know that is if you invest time getting to know yourself honestly and authentically. My hope is your high school years will be about learning, growing, thinking, exploring, and most of all enjoying.  

Please write me back in a few years. I would love to hear from you.  

Sincerely, 

Rick