On Saturday night I was at a party. In these settings, when I am talking to people I don’t know very well, I find they generally broach a few central topics with me- sports/running, my kids/their school, and college/college admission- not always in that order.
While it may surprise you based on this blog or our podcast, my goal is always to move as quickly away from the college admission discussion as possible, especially when people start breaking out their daughter’s transcript. I’m still working on how to smoothly segueway to different subjects, and admittedly, some are smoother than others. To this point, I’ve only had to resort to my nuclear options (pretend like my phone is ringing or fake a coughing fit) twice.
Saturday night I pulled an amazing transition that took us from a spiraling commentary on standardized test scores to reminiscing about the prevalence of “stereogram” posters in college dorm rooms in the 90s. For those of you born after I graduated college, a stereogram is an image that gives a three-dimensional representation of another object. While I do not have the sales data for my time at UNC, I’d put stereogram posters just below Air Jordan, but decidedly ahead of album covers or motivational quotes on landscapes.
The trick to seeing the hidden 3D objects is not to focus on the poster itself, but instead to allow your eyes to see “into” the colors and let the real image take shape. In some cases, you need to close your eyes and reset, change positions, or step away momentarily to see beyond what your eyes are naturally trained to recognize. Try a few for yourself here.
January and February are extremely common times for high schools to host programs for juniors. “College Kick Off,” “Starting the College Conversation,” and “Admission 101” are a few of the panel titles I’ve seen recently. Often, the moderator will ask, “What is one thing you would like to leave folks with before we conclude?” Over the years, I’ve had a variety of responses, but one of the most important is- focus on what really matters to you, rather than being distracted by many of the initial or obvious components of the college admission search. Like a stereogram, look into what you see. And more importantly, look beyond what you see.
Applications are not the REAL picture. Many colleges around the country had final deadlines in early January. Invariably, they will produce a myriad of press releases, infographics, and social media posts about “record numbers” of applications or comparisons to prior years; journalists write articles about application increases and decreases by sector or geographic region; educational companies create tables to compare app numbers across universities; and university boards will either tout or bemoan this specific metric. As a student considering colleges, I’m encouraging you not to focus on application numbers- and definitely not to use this as a comparative tool between schools.
Why? Because application counts are not apples: apples. Many people will equate the number of applications a school receives as some barometer for popularity or value. The truth is colleges often count and publicize their total applications even if they are not “actionable.” As an example, this year Georgia Tech received over 52,000 applications. That is a lot. And it’s a lot more than last year or five years ago. It’s also more than some schools and less than others (I know. You are here for the mind-blowing data). Georgia Tech, however, at the direction of our state system, requires test scores. Currently, 4500 of our applicants have not submitted a test score. Still, when asked about app totals we will report over 52,000 received, because some portion of that 4500 will ultimately become “complete.” Other schools have multiple steps and stages in their application process. If you only complete Part One of four, the odds are they are counting you in their reports, even though you were not ultimately a viable candidate for admission.
Admit rates are blurry. I get it. They seem straightforward. You see an admit rate in a column on some online table or presentation and think, “Got it.” Nope. See, that’s exactly how people felt back in the day walking into college dorm rooms. “Nice poster, man. I like all the random colors and swirling lines.”
Look closer. Step away if you need to. Admit rates vary within the same institution. Where you are applying from, when you are applying, and sometimes what you are applying to study all enhance the swirl and blur of the stereogram. For instance, if you are applying to a school with Early Decision, it’s important to ask questions and do your homework to determine any gaps or variance between applying under that plan vs. Early Action or Regular Decision or some other acronym, date, or plan they may offer. If you are applying to a public school, ask about admit rates for students from in-state or out-of-state, or even students from “my state” or region of the country.
For far too long colleges have boasted about (and people have assigned disproportionate value to) the number of students a school turns away. My hope is you will be more interested in determining the type of people who are actually on campus, rather than who or how many did not end up there.
The Real Image
Rankings, number of benches on campus, student: squirrel/deer ratio…. I could list many other numbers that people tout or hold up as signs of quality or importance. As this new year begins, I am hopeful you will treat your college admission experience like a stereogram. Numbers, percentages, and many of the other statistics are where people too often start and focus. I’m not saying you should completely ignore all admission data, but beginning by quantifying, especially now knowing how jacked up some of this data really is, can prevent you from seeing all of your choices and options. And they often create a blurry, swirling, initial picture that distracts you from focusing on the true image—YOU.
As a junior, start by asking yourself questions that have nothing to do with numbers. Why do I want to go to college? What type of people bring out my best? What environments bring out my best as a person and a learner? What are my short- and long-term goals? If you will invest your time honestly considering what you really care about and what you want; if you will periodically step back, close your eyes, and re-focus, then you’ll find plenty of colleges that align with your answers. College admission is a stereogram– have the patience and perspective to allow it to emerge and take shape like a 3D image.