What do colleges want?

My wife has celiac disease. While many people do not know exactly what that is, they have at least heard of “gluten” and are familiar with the GF or grain symbol on food labels in the grocery store or at restaurants. 20 years ago, however, when she was first diagnosed, that was definitely not the case. In fact, going out to eat was an incredible hassle. “Can you tell me if this is gluten free?” inevitably resulted in a bemused and moderately annoyed manager emerging from the back. Most of the time, despite our best efforts to provide examples, there was more head scratching (disturbing around food) and eyebrow furrowing than recognition or appreciation of the issue. In many cases, to be safe, Amy would just order a salad- sometimes bringing her own dressing to be sure.

One Saturday a month we went to a “Gluten-sensitive support group,” aka GSSG, which was 20 miles from our house in Atlanta. In a city of several million people, there was only one group- giving you an idea of how little known the issue was at that time. During those meetings, people shared advice on which doctors to see, where they had been able to find gluten free products in health food stores (never regular grocery stores), and also exchanged recipes. At the end of each meeting, people shared their latest baked good product or casserole. I looked forward to those meetings the way you look forward to taking an SAT- that is to say- not at all. At best the food tasted like salty cardboard and at worst… well, let’s just say twice in my recollection I had to quickly walk to the bathroom sink to spit out whatever half masticated delicacy I’d partially ingested.

Bottom line is if you had celiac disease, or a significant gluten allergy at that time, there were extremely few choices and options. Even as a spouse, it felt limiting.

Choice and Options

Along with my staff, we have written extensively in the past about “what colleges are looking for.” We’ve covered GPA, rigor of curriculum, activities and involvement, essays, more about essays, plenty of ink spilled and callouses grown writing about writing, teacher recs, interviews, etc. And all of that is accurate, helpful, and worth checking out. But what do colleges really want? Regardless of their size, geographic location, or athletic conference, they want the same thing– Choices and Options. They don’t want to have to “just have a salad” and bring their own dressing. They want a full menu. And their desire- or hunger as it were (really just wrote this entire blog to use that phrase)- for choices and options explains a lot about your college admission experience.

College Search (mail, email, etc.) – If you are a sophomore or junior, you have started to receive more and more email, postcards, and other glossy, shiny solicitations from colleges. Maybe this sounds familiar:

“Dear <<insert name here>>” check out our campus.” Notice all these kids of different ethnicities hanging out together snacking while studying on our super green grass. It just so happens when we took this picture that there were three benches in the background occupied by students engrossed in important discussions about today’s issues.

They say they want you to visit, check out their website, fill out this card, or ultimately apply for admission. Does this mean you will get in? Absolutely not. Does it mean you are competitive for admission at their school? No. So why did they buy your name, spend money on bulk rate postage, or invest copious time debating whether to include a picture of the kid studying abroad in Spain or the one of the students looking closely at a colored liquid in a campus laboratory? Two words (ok, technically three): Choices and Options.

Colleges cast a very wide net to encourage students to check out their school, but they have limited information about you when doing that. Perhaps they have your test score or a sense of what classes you have taken. Maybe they are trying to attract more students from your state or city, or they saw you (or your mom) indicated an interest in Chemistry on a survey or test registration form (hence the lab pic).

Post- Covid (I’m just going to keep saying that ‘til it’s truly a thing) it is tougher to visit high schools during the school day. Traveling is also time intensive and expensive. Sending hundreds of thousands of emails and mailing broadly prospective students- what schools refer to as “student search”- is a big part of their enrollment strategy. Build a big funnel of students, see who is really interested, see who applies, admit those they want, and voila- a class.

What does this mean for you? The good news is contact from a variety of schools helps you see a bigger picture. At times, we all have a tendency to be too narrowly focused. Receiving information from places you have never heard of challenges you to ask bigger questions about what you really want or need- not just default to what you recognize.  On the flipside, too many students believe that the number of times a college contacts them correlates to their odds of being admitted. Nope. Just because a school sends you pithy emails or a lovely fold out poster of their gothic campus nestled just south of the city does not mean the wind is ultimately going to blow you into the admit pool. Take these mailings with a big grain of salt (or a sodium laced circa 2003 gluten-free experiment).

Admission DecisionsIf you are a senior, unless you applied to a college who explicitly stated they are using a formula to make admission decisions, they are not using a formula to make admission decisions. Holistic admission means they draw circles more than lines. When you hear admission reps say, “We are looking for a well-rounded class…” they mean they want choices and options. It’s not just going to be about your test score or number of AP classes. This means a few things.

First, it means you are likely to see a student with lower grades or fewer activities get into a school that denies you. Their decisions are based on goals and mission. They want choices and options. They are trying to “build a class” not just hit ENTER on an Excel sheet to figure out who gets in. Is this fair? NO. But they don’t call it Fair Admissions. They call it Holistic Admission- probably because “Choices and Options Admission” rolls off the tongue like Debbie’s gluten free casserole in the GSSG bathroom.

Second, it means if you are deferred admission, they are not saying you are not smart, or they don’t like you, or that you should have joined the French Club back in sophomore year and that would have done the trick. Instead, they are saying we’d like to see our full set of choices and options. Send us your fall grades or maybe write another supplemental essay (good times!) about why you really want to come.

Fun to wait? Absolutely not. I polled 100 humans recently about their five favorite things to do in life and surprisingly nobody listed “Waiting.” But understanding the WHY matters. Too many students take a deferral as an ego hit. Or they are mad, confused, and feel wronged. Deferrals- and ultimately waitlist decisions- are part of the process. What do colleges want? Choices and Options, people. Choices AND Options.

Lastly, it means you may get into a school with a higher ranking or a lower admit rate than another school that denies or defers you. Each year after we release admission decisions, we get calls or notes starting, “With all due respect… (Note: This is the southern equivalent of “Bless your heart…” and basically should be interpreted as “I’m about to tell you why you are wrong or clueless.”) I think you have made a mistake. See, I was admitted to/ got a scholarship from (insert supposedly better college here), so I’d like you to re-review my application.” First, that’s not a valid appeal. Second, what led to the decision was that particular school’s choices and options based fulfilling their distinct institutional priorities.

As I said earlier, colleges often look the same on their websites or brochures. A picture is worth 1000 words, but when all the pictures are the same, it can seem like all colleges are too. Thankfully, they are not. At the end of the day, they all have different goals, different priorities, and different processes for enrolling our students. What they are “looking for” varies widely, but the one thing all colleges want is Choices and Options.

The good news is you can learn a lot about how to approach your college search and selection experience from understanding how colleges approach building their class. And we’ll cover that next time. Until then, have a great Thanksgiving Break. Eat well, take a nap, read something that’s not been assigned, and as always- Hug your mama.

Selective College Admission is March Madness

Learn more and listen to Q&A about this blog on the College Admission Brief podcast: Spreaker | Apple Podcasts | Spotify

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!”  

Learn more and listen to Q&A about this blog on the College Admission Brief podcast: Spreaker | Apple Podcasts | Spotify