Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 3 of 3)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Holistic Admission

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I know it’s unsettling to read or hear that in holistic review there is little to no certainty. And I realize that uncertainty is one reason anxiety surrounding college admission exists. I don’t have the remedy for eradicating all stress but I do have some tips:

As you work on your applications, or as you research schools to apply to, you should be thinking about what differentiates one school from another in ethos and mission. While they may all have websites with happy smiling students under trees with professors or sunny days and brick buildings, there are fundamental differences. At Tech you will see a good deal of reference to our motto of “Progress and Service.” We are looking for evidence within a student’s background that is in line with this concept. A student who exhibits and embodies these characteristics, while potentially 40 points less on a section of the SAT or .2 lower in GPA than another student or the normal profile is more compelling since data will show those numbers have no predictive difference in determining college academic success. What does a school discuss online or in their print materials? Is your background or goals in alignment? How can you highlight or tailor your writing, course choice, experience to bolster your candidacy?

Tell your full story. Or as one of my colleagues says, “I want to see that they’re hungry (typically not hard for high school students).” Translation: do not let your numbers or stats deter you or leave you complacent. Every year we hear from students or parents after being deferred or denied asking why. Here’s a common lead into that query: “Didn’t you see I have a 35 ACT?” or “Don’t you know our school is the best in the state?” or “But I took more AP courses than your average…” As we unpack the process and the particular application, however, we often find there were many activities or anecdotes the student could have included but did not because they felt their academics would be sufficient. When a student at or below profile applies they know they have to do a great job on every part of the application and put their best effort in as a result. Students above profile applying to schools with low admit rates have to ignore the ranges or averages and do the exact same thing.

Don’t bother with “Chance Me” conversations online or in person and skip to the next item.

Be sure your essays and short answer questions broaden our understanding of who you are—not simply what you’ve done. We can pick up your accomplishments from your transcripts or extracurricular record. We want to hear your voice and deepen our understanding of “why and how” you would thrive on our campus or contribute to the dynamics. More on essays here.

Keep admission decisions in perspective. These are not value judgments or character decisions. Your future, value, and worth is not hinged to what a school decides in admission. So please do not blur those lines. The existence of a holistic admission process means by nature that highly qualified, supremely talented students will not be offered admission. If you choose to apply to a school that utilizes a holistic process, you are also stating that you are willing to accept an admission decision without an “admission explanation” you can fully understand, especially through the filter of numbers alone.

Let it go!

I have little kids, ages 7 and almost 5. This essentially means that, in attempting to raise them, I say the same things a lot, eat the same things a lot, and watch the same things a lot. It means other things too (like leg hugs) but we’ll just focus on the routine, repetitive nature of young humans.

Not unlike a lot of kids, mine love Disney. I think my current movie-viewing count is approximately three gazillion and my song-listening count is double that. Some of these Disney characters, lines, and themes are now forever emblazoned in my mind. They say when you learn another language you start dreaming in it. My wife recently heard me muttering something about a witch and a poison apple, so it seems I am now fluent in Disney.

Over the last year or so, Frozen has been ubiquitous. Interestingly, as Early Action and Early Decision deadlines approach, I think this movie has a lot to say about the admission process.

As you are probably aware, Elsa, the newly crowned queen, flees Arendelle in an attempt to begin a new, freer life for herself. She sings her passionate and cathartic song, “Let It Go,” as she creates an incredibly majestic ice paradise on the North Mountain.

When it comes to writing your college essays this year, I hope you will remember that scene and phrase.

You will hear supposed experts tell you to “be yourself” as you write. I think that is well-intentioned but dreadfully vague advice. To be more specific: Admission counselors want to hear YOUR voice and understand YOUR background.

All her life Elsa had been controlled and suppressed, and it was not until she left Arendelle that she could truly create something unique and beautiful. (Granted [spoiler alert!], she created an even greater masterpiece when she came back later and saved her kingdom and sister, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

You should absolutely ask others for their opinions and editing suggestions but don’t let them steal the power of YOUR story. Neither course choice nor course performance nor test scores nor extracurricular activities (that’s a lot of nors, I realize) convey you as an individual. Those details and attributes may trace a silhouette, but it’s your essay that colors in the full picture of how you are unique from the thousands of other applicants. Since very few schools interview students, think of your essay as an opportunity for the admission reader to really HEAR YOU.

The other lesson we can learn from Elsa about writing college essays is in her song “Let It Go.”

On the back end of the applications, we can see what percentage a student has completed. So when you finish detailing your extracurricular activities and biographical information,  you may be 70 percent or more complete. But year in and year out, applications will sit at 90 percent or so for weeks leading up to a deadline.

My guess is, the angst and uncertainty revealed by this incomplete status emanate from the fact that the essay is the last thing students can control. Your grades are all but set, your testing and scores are likely done, and you either did or did not join that club or play that sport in your sophomore year. But the essay … ahhh, this you can still hold, continue to massage … and perhaps it’s the magic bullet that will tip the scales.

But the truth is the essay alone will not be what gets you in or keeps you out of a school.

So, here is my strong and earnest advice: Choose a topic you care about, draft, write, edit, ask for feedback, refine — and then “Let It Go.”