Applying to College Isn’t Like The Movies

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This week we welcome current Admission Digital Media Student Assistant Sarah Engel to the blog. Welcome, Sarah!

This admission blog has long been written by experts in application evaluation, the admission counselors themselves. But they’ve always hoped you would seek out additional voices in your college admission experience as well—students who can share the culture and community of their colleges as they experience it every day, who can provide been-there-done-that support and encouragement as you navigate the college admission experience. And truly, as a current college student, and the first to write on this blog (no pressure!) I can echo the importance of those lived perspectives. I know first hand that when you’re actually in the midst of gathering your materials, writing your essays, and sending them off to colleges with the click of a button, it can all seem a little…surreal and disconnected. Not only do you have academic and social pressures from your friends and family, you likely have your own, internal expectations and media driven perceptions that hover over you like a dark storm cloud. 

Press Play

Growing up, I recall seeing countless teen rom coms and dramas in which the protagonist is somehow accepted into a prestigious university. Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl being admitted to Brown University despite never attending class? Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls getting into Northwestern despite not understanding calculus? And, of course, the entire cast of High School Musical committing to Ivy Leagues, Juilliard, Stanford, and UC Berkeley? Not once did I see them studying between musical numbers in the gymnasium!

Disney family singalong: Zac Efron joins 'High School Musical' reunion

Now, in the age of social media, we are constantly exposed to “Reacting to my College Decisions” videos of shrieking students surrounded by family members, deserving student stories on Good Morning America being posted across Twitter, and congratulatory Instagram posts for friends committing to universities. As exciting as these seem, I know from experience how they can affect one’s mental health. The neverending stream of collegiate content across the internet, film, and television puts an invisible weight on the shoulders of students to perform well. Audiences (myself included) love the satisfaction of a loveable character embarking on a new, happy journey. But how realistic is the journey really? And what does this fascination with college in the media mean for real students applying to real schools?

Take a Pause

Spoiler alert: life isn’t always like it is in the movies (seriously, how do characters have so much time to hang out before they go to work and school in the morning?) and social media isn’t all that realistic either. When your admission experience looks different from everyone’s social media highlight reel, and Disney’s happily-ever-afters, that can feel a little lonely. But you’re not alone. My hope for you is that you’ll be kind to yourself. Check in on your friends, check in on yourself, have honest conversations with each other, and set boundaries. Hey, I work with digital media in our office, and while we hope to provide helpful content to students, I know that muting and stepping away from the screen can absolutely be an act of self-care. Taking breaks isn’t just healthy, it’s necessary.

Fast Forward 

Let’s look beyond the admission decisions: a fast forward through time for you, a rewind in time for me. Though it feels recent, I applied to college over three years ago (how is that possible?!). I remember dreading meetings with my college counselor, stressing over standardized test scores, reading my essays over and over, asking for recommendation letters, and that agonizing waiting period after applying. But then came the spring of 2019, and I was perfectly calm. Excited for the future, researching classes and clubs, planning out my dorm room decorations, and connecting with future classmates on social media. So much has changed for me since then! What hasn’t changed, however, is this truth: that, after the dust settles and the whirlwind of admission hype and headlines is behind you, what’s in front of you is an opportunity that’s yours to embrace. The keyword here is embrace. You may receive many admission decisions in the months ahead, ranging from exciting and surprising, to disappointing and… “you mean to tell me I have to send them more information?!”  The admission decisions themselves may not be yours to make, but choosing how you move forward, is. 

When I was a freshman in high school, I dreamed of going to a liberal arts college in the northeast. Perhaps Yale University, like Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), or NYU, like Lara Jean Covey (To All The Boys I Loved Before). I thought, with my grades and extracurriculars, I’d be able to get in anywhere and everywhere, that I would live out the dark academia aesthetic of my dreams (a la Harry Potter). But by the time I was touring and applying to colleges, that fantasy seemed so far away. I had to face a reality check somewhere around junior year. I realized I wasn’t getting many scholarships at private, out-of-state schools. I also came to understand that I didn’t want to be all that far from my family. That I could always revisit the liberal arts school dream for graduate school. 

As colleges prepare to release decisions in the coming weeks and months, I hope you take away at least this message: it works out. Everything will be okay. Your admission decisions might not be the fairytale ending you first imagined, but that’s because they were never really an ending at all…just the opportunity to embrace a new storyline, whatever it may be. Don’t be discouraged if your fictional hero or heroine is accepted to every school they apply to, or if your best friend got a better scholarship than you. Remember that you are the protagonist of your own story on your own path. It might not be easy, but try your best, and believe me, #ItWorksOut.

Sarah Engel is a third-year LMC major from Dunwoody, Georgia. Her involvements have included the North Avenue Review Magazine, LMC CoLab, Excel Program, German National Honor Society, and FASET. Now, she works as the digital media assistant for the Office of Undergraduate Admission. 

Launching Your College Application

This week we welcome the Director of Communications for Enrollment Management, Becky Tankersley, to the blog. 

In early September, you may have noticed a change in Georgia Tech’s Undergraduate Admission website. After (many!) months of talking, planning, building, and testing, the new admission website was ready for action!

From a user’s perspective, the new website simply appeared one day. But from a development perspective, the site came to fruition after more than a year of research, planning, testing, and development.

As the launch date approached, Rick noted, “You know, I bet there’s a blog you could write about that.” As I reflected on the process and the outcome, I can see the parallels between launching a website and launching a college application. Neither process happens quickly… yet each ultimately comes to life with a quick click of a button.

As you work to prepare to launch your college applications, here are a few tips on how to plan ahead for success.

Build your team.

Website creation involves a lot of communication, and a tight-knit team to make it happen. Our team includes a Web Developer (with knowledge in coding, servers, and security); a Marketing Specialist (who researched analytics and organized content based on user navigation and data); and a Graphic Designer (who creates imagery and ensures we’re in line with brand standards). My job was to keep us all organized, creating timelines and paving the path forward through conversations with all the other people invested in the project (including admission leadership, Institute Communications, and web hosting).

Each role is different, yet each is critical to the ultimate outcome of the project.

Your action item:

Who is on your team? This is likely your first (and perhaps only) time going through the college application process. It’s critical to have a close team around you to help along the way. Your team may include a parent/guardian, high school counselor, and another trusted adult like a teacher or coach.

Talk with your team, listen to their guidance, and lean on their experience as you go through the process. Most important, be sure this is a team you can trust. There will be moments when you can’t lean on your own knowledge to find a solution, so be sure you have a good team to support you through the process.

Do your research.

Building a website isn’t as simple as creating content and hitting “upload.” We first did our research. We talked with admission leadership about what they wanted in their new website. We talked with Tech’s web team to learn about differences in platforms and servers. We did a deep dive into data, using analytics to learn which pages were used often and which ones weren’t. This data also enabled us see user paths, revealing areas where users were getting lost when trying to navigate from one point on the site to another. We completed a competitor review to determine the best practices in our industry and see what else we could implement (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?).

Your action item:

We’ve said it many times, but it’s worth saying again: do your research before submitting a college application! Here are a few places to begin:

  • Dive into data. Explore the Common Data Set (CDS) for the schools on your list. The CDS allows you to look at public historical information, providing insight, perspective, and trends by looking at multiple years. Check out our previous blog on how to analyze this data on your own.
  • Review mission statements. University mission statements aren’t just flowery verbiage to put on the “about us” page. Mission statements (and strategic plans), drive institutions toward their enrollment goals. Institutional missions matter, so review these statements to ensure your values align with the values of the colleges where you apply.
  • Understand application plans. Early action? Early decision? Regular decision? Rolling admission? Application plans vary from college to college. Check out our podcast for insight into how these plans work.
  • Know the outcomes. Some admission decisions are simply “admit” or “deny.” But in many cases, it isn’t that clear cut. Understand the variety of admission decisions you may receive from each school on your list. For example, Tech admits first-year students to both the fall and the summer terms, yet each year we talk to students are caught off guard. Doing your research now can save confusion down the road.

Create a plan.

When you’re on the cusp of a huge project, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and wonder how you’ll get from Point A to Point B (much less Points C, D, or E). Before starting the work, first create a plan—and begin with the end in mind.

We knew the admission site needed to launch the first week of September. Once we identified the completion date, we created deadlines for our tasks and goals. We then shared that timeline with other groups who would play a role in the site launch. Creating a plan made it simpler to stay on target and keep everyone on the same page.

Your action item:

Look at your research (you didn’t skip that step, right?) and write down all of your application deadlines and due dates. You may need to add in additional dates, such as when to take the SAT or ACT, or when a recommendation is due. Put these dates on your calendar, and just as important, make sure your team has those dates as well!

Don’t allow a lack of planning on your part to create stress and panic for someone else in your circle. Mistakes do happen, but if you fail to meet a deadline because you a) didn’t plan for it, or b) didn’t tell someone else about it, then that responsibility falls on you.

Check Your Progress

Once the plan was in motion, our team met on a weekly basis to check in on our progress. Each week we had new action items to complete in order to keep the project on track. Inevitably, we came across unexpected (and unplanned!) challenges. Weekly meetings enabled us to address problems and/or issues quickly, as well as keep each other accountable on our progress.

Your action item:

Schedule regular check-ins with your team to make sure you’re all on track. There may be times you need to meet more, or less, often, so adjust accordingly.

Inside tip: As you get ready to hit “submit,” be sure you aren’t doing so at the last possible minute! As application deadlines approach, we see a tremendous increase in website traffic along with phone call and email volume from panicked students. Even if you do everything right on your end, expect the unexpected! Real-life examples (that, yes, I have actually seen happen!) include power outages, Common App glitches, internet issues, natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes or wildfires), and unexpected sinus infections that keep you stuck in bed for a day or two.

Take our advice: don’t wait until the last minute!

Follow up.

The morning of the site launch, our web developer did some coding magic and poof! The new admission website was live. But, was the project really complete? No!

Once the site was live there was a list of follow up items to complete, such as addressing 404 errors, helping people find new links, updating email templates, and notifying our division, campus partners, and campus communicators that the site launched and to update their information accordingly.

When a project is nearing completion, I can hear the voice of one of my mentors in my head: “What does ‘done’ really mean, Becky?” It makes me think twice before declaring a project complete, as there are always a handful of follow up items to address.

Your action item:

“What does ‘done’ really mean, (insert your name here)?” Although you may have hit “submit,” you’re not really done!

Access your applicant portals once you have access to do so. Check your email for any messages regarding your application (and READ them)! Allow time for all of your documents to find their way to your application, and monitor your applicant portal for updates. In some cases, an application that is marked as “complete” is later marked “incomplete” if an application reviewer determines more information is needed. Check out my previous blog for tips on what to do while you wait for your admission decision.

Lastly, once you’ve hit submit, celebrate! It sounds cheesy, but take a moment to reflect upon the goal you just accomplished. Applying to college is no small feat—well done! And be sure you to let your team know you’ve submitted your applications, too. Better yet, let them know by saying THANK YOU.

After all, it’s a team effort!

How Does the Admission Review Timeline Work?

This week we welcome Assistant Director of Digital Media, Samantha Rose-Sinclair to the blog. Welcome back, Sammy!

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Have you ever wondered how the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade works? Or how sneezing works? What about the Manhattan Grid? One of my favorite podcasts (besides ours, cough cough) has got you covered. Stuff You Should Know indulges your curiosities about the stuff you didn’t know that you didn’t know. But, in over 1600 episodes, it seems there’s one question they still haven’t answered:

How does the college admission review timeline really work?

To be fair, that’s probably far too specific of a question for Josh and Chuck to answer. Luckily, I know a guy who knows a guy who met someone once that can answer it instead. (It’s me. I’m that someone.)

You may be curious “what’s actually going to happen with my application?” and then later wonder “what’s taking so dang long?!” Sure, submitting a college application can feel like shouting into a void, or putting something into a black box and waiting to see what comes out the other side. The truth is that “black box” of admission review is a highly coordinated and active effort among admission reviewers. So, while I can throw some advice at you to “keep perspective and live in the now!” or “control what you can control!” or any other number of bumper sticker slogans, I also get that some may find comfort peeking into that black box.

Disclaimer: While there is a fair amount of similarity in holistic admission practices between schools, there are also many logistical differences. Different schedules, admission team sizes, application pools, and different priorities… you get the idea. For that reason, we’ll primarily speak for ourselves here and use Georgia Tech as an example.

Initial Review

After your application and required documents have been received and matched in admission databases, your file is complete and ready to review. You’ll see plenty of variability here. Most colleges group their application reviews either by geographic area or by academic colleges, some have team based initial reviews, while others have individual counselors perform a full initial review. Regardless, this all takes time.

In our office, the majority of time (roughly two-thirds) between an application deadline and decision notification is spent on this initial, in-depth reviews of files. However, there’s not an absolute goal for files per day, or minutes per file. Last year, our team fluctuated anywhere between 500-1,300 combined files reviewed in a day. (The varying schedules of our part-time readers also contribute to that fluctuation.)

Our admission office utilizes the team-based approach mentioned above. Prior to Covid we used something called Committee Based Evaluation, but given our readers’ variations in schedules due to the pandemic, we moved to a Linear Application Review Process.

Yes, we call it LARP. No, not that kind of LARP.

This is the same collaborative approach, shifted to a sequential instead of synchronous process. Some of the team members are reviewers who are familiar with the applicant’s geographic region and can contribute knowledge of the territory and the school to the review. (This is where it becomes especially helpful to review all complete applicants from the same school at once!) In addition, the applicant will receive a review from another reader who specializes in reviewing the content of the application: honors, activities, essays, and so on. The combination of those reviews will give a sense of the student, their environment, and their fit to the Institution.

Committee

In some admission review processes, it’s clear within first review whether applicants are a fit or not, and applicants will come out of those first reviews with a preliminary admission decision. For other offices, they’ll review some students again, or all students again, in committee once they’ve completed a critical mass of first reviews and have a better understanding of the pool.

My understanding of admission committee growing up was based entirely on a scene out of Legally Blonde: a dozen men in blazers in a dark room with furrowed brows and rejection stamps in their hands. Rest assured this is not reality, especially in virtual environments last year where committee review took place at home on a video call and with a blanket, my cat, and (ideally) Cheez-its.

In committee, admission counselors have conversations about the initial reviews on the files, discussions around shaping the class, and exchanges on how applicants may fit with the institution and its priorities. Admission counselors may also receive feedback from their school’s administration, deans, and stakeholders about priorities and enrollment targets/goals for that year.

In our case, the territory manager will remain in these conversations, along with other staff members who can provide new and additional perspectives to the review of the application. Last year we spent about two weeks in committee per application round, give or take a few days depending on the volume of applicants. Our team utilizes a lot of smaller committees, while you’ll find that other schools may use one or two larger committees. For our process, this means that every member of our small committees (2-3 people each) has a voice and a role in the conversation. It also means that while we’ll come pretty close to our final decisions, there are a lot of decisions happening in several committees at once, and we won’t hit the exact number of students we intend to give admission offers. Therefore, the last week or two prior to decisions being released is spent making final adjustments.

So now you know!

That’s the black box. Why does it take so long?

  • It takes several months to have thorough, purposeful conversations thousands of times over. There’s no Excel formula, magic eight ball, roll of the dice, or throwing darts at applications to see who we land on, which is for the best. My dart throwing skills are abysmal.
  • We’re shaping a class: At selective institutions using holistic review, we can’t make one student’s decision and then immediately spit it back out. It takes months of adjustments while reviewing the whole pool to come to our collective final decisions. That means that no single applicant’s decision is ready until they’re all ready.

Again, admission review is similar in many aspects from school to school, but it can also vary in many ways. As you read colleges’ websites and attend information sessions or talk to their admission counselors, you can likely get some insight into those differences. And as always, ask questions!

How the Olympics Explain College Admission– Part 2

Listen to “How the Olympics Explain Admission – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

In Part 1, we looked at the two fundamental ways American colleges make admission decisions. Now that you know how colleges review applications, it’s time to look at three important ways you should approach your college admission experience like an Olympian.   

1) Train For Event – Not The Result. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the actual Olympic competitions: games, races, individual feats of strength, speed, and skill. But I am also a sucker for human-interest stories. It is incredible to see the athletes’ families, hometowns, the stringent training regimens, immense sacrifices, and longevity of focus which led to their Olympic moment. 

Whether it be in emails, phone calls, or during information sessions and presentations, students constantly ask “What do I need to do to get in?” Hey, it’s a valid question, and I understand where it comes from. Too often in our culture this is the mentality. What do I need to do to get: the grade? the date? the raise? the car? and so on. As Americans in particular, we are results oriented.  

However, I would assert Olympic athletes do not think this way. Sure. They want to win. They understand scores, times, or skills will come into play, but during the majority of training, their focus is on making the Olympic team and putting forth their best personal effort. In fact, sports psychologists constantly talk about envisioning actions, rather than obsessing about results. In other words, it’s not helpful to say, “picture yourself wearing a gold medal.” Instead, the message is, “Focus on executing. Imagine yourself running your best race or performing your best routine/dive/shot, etc. The results will take care of themselves.”  

And that is my hope for you. Your job is to “train” for being a successful college student. Don’t picture yourself being a student at a certain place, which you absolutely cannot control. Instead, “practice” what will make you great regardless of where you end up. Simply put- BE A GOOD HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT. 

Work hard each day in the classroom.  

Push and challenge yourself academically.  

Learn to create a functional base of knowledge– and be curious about what you don’t know.  

Contribute to your school, family, and community.  

College admission reps will use a lot of words – A LOT – to say all of this, but essentially a good college applicant is a good high school student. Colleges are looking for students who will be desperately missed by the people they leave behind in their school, community, neighborhood.  

Applying an Olympic mentality means worrying less about the medal, the podium, the anthem, and instead committing to your day- to-day training. YOU GOT THIS!  

2) Respect The Competition. TV coverage only brought us a fraction of the action. This year there were 33  sports, 46 disciplines, and 339 total medal events with over 11,500 athletes competing. In the Paralympic Games, which just started this week, another 4,400 athletes will take part. However, unless you had some super- secret Gold Combo #4 cable package you only saw a tiny percentage of those athletes or competitions.  

As a high school student, this is one of the biggest challenges in the college admission experience- understanding the skills, strength, and potential of other applicants you never get to see or know. Colleges do a good job (often in a pretentious and boasting fashion) of describing how many applicants they received in the prior year, or their overall admit rate.  

However, since you are not in the room where files are received and reviewed, it’s impossible to appreciate the talent of this set of students. If you are applying to a college or university with “Olympic” level admit rates, no GPA or test average will adequately convey the depth of their applicant pool. Sure, they will have some percentage of Eddie the Eagle applicants who are not competitive or “in profile,” but those are the outliers.  

Talk to most college admission deans or counselors and they will marvel at the ability of students (hundreds or thousands) who do not end up “on their podium.” If you choose to apply to schools who are denying more students than they admit (sometimes by a wide margin), there is no guarantee. Yes, you have great grades, test scores, letters of rec, essays, and all the things. But so too do the other Olympians showing up at the Games. Again, this is why you need to build a college list with a range of selectivity.  

I expound on the value of seeing or visualizing other applicants in Lessons and Hopes for High School Seniors, but if you are trying to decrease screen time or save your thumbs from scrolling, the take home message is basically covered in the conclusion of our last blog: “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.”     

3) Check Your Ego and Be Patient. Dang. Even writing this sounds like some sick combination of harsh and unrealistic. Welcome to the Olympics! Clearly, you cannot talk about the Tokyo Games without mentioning Simone Biles. The truth is an entire blog would not cover the lessons learned from the GOAT. But I think the 2021 Olympic experience of MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey are more relevant to you anyway. Jade came to Tokyo as an individual, rather than part of the four-person team. MyKayla was literally about to fly back to the US when she got the text to come back to compete. Both left Tokyo with medals and unpredictable opportunities.  

Olympians are used to the emotional roller coaster. If you listened to many of the interviews from Tokyo, you heard athletes from every sport and nation relay stories of “almost quitting” or “wanting to walk away,” because of the physical or mental toll of competing.  

Good news- your admission experience is not going to be so physically taxing (unless you’re trying to type your essay while on the Peloton). However, you can expect some ups and downs, possible setbacks, and a timeline you will not dictate. You may get deferred, denied, or waitlisted. You may be an alternate for a scholarship or just miss being named valedictorian, NHS, Top 10%, or some other distinction you have been working for and focused on achieving. When this happens (and it will happen), remember Jade and MyKayla- get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward. There will always be another opportunity, an open door, or an expected route to your goals.  

Whether you are a senior about to apply to college or an underclassman just starting to explore possible options, I hope you will learn these critical lessons from the Olympics: Train for the event- not the result; respect the competition; and check your ego and be patient.  

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.