College Admission and Discipline Review

It is Spring Break week for many school systems across the country. I know this because my family headed south on I-75 this Saturday morning. Within about 3 miles on the highway we hit stop-and-go traffic. My daughter began counting the number of different state license plates (which was particularly easy at seven to nine miles per hour) and my son started Googling spring break weeks in the US. I kept my right foot swiveling between break and gas, and the usual 3.5-hour trip to the state line took nearly double that. Yes, it was as painful as it sounds, so let’s move on. 

Yesterday I received a text from a friend. “Soooo…let’s hypothetically imagine your son gets in trouble on Spring Break. What does that mean for college admission?”  I’ll save you the series of .gif I sent to answer this question, as well as his quips and creative emoji responses, although there were a few absolute gems to be sure.

I don’t have data on this, but for some reason April and May seem to be big months for the topic of discipline/behavior, so this is a redux of a piece I wrote a few years ago that attempts to provide some broad insight and advice.

As always, a huge asterisk that I do not speak on behalf of all colleges. If, after reading this, you have specific questions, call or contact the school you are interested in (don’t worry–you won’t be the first to disguise your voice or indicate you are “asking for a friend”). 

The short answer: schools use the same individualized, holistic process for reviewing a student’s discipline history that they do for reviewing academic or extra-curricular background. 

Here’s the long answer. 

Context. Typically, the first question admission counselors ask when they open an application is “where does this student live and go to school?” The goal is to understand who you are, where you are from, and what your family, academic, social, and community background looks like. Admission counselors are charged with gaining perspective on your high school setting and experience in order to understand both the options available to you and the choices you made, both inside and outside the classroom. 

Moved three times in high school? Had a two-hour commute each day? Saw mom and dad go through an ugly divorce? Suffered a concussion or another illness that caused a prolonged absence? In college application review, context matters. Context is critical. Therefore, context is always considered.

The same is true of our review of your disciplinary background. I once read the application of a student who was arrested for being in a dumpster behind his school. Why? Because his mother was working a double shift and had not left him a key to their apartment, he was looking for warmth and shelter. Another student was arrested for being in a dumpster after spray painting the school with graffiti and slurs (the dumpster was simply where the police found him and his friends hiding). As you can see, context matters—and context will always be considered. 

Timing. In their academic review, many colleges separate a student’s 9th grade GPA from their 10th-12th grade academic performance. This does not mean grades in Geography or Geometry in freshman year don’t matter, but rather indicates we recognize they’re not as predictive of academic success in college as grades in higher level courses (this is also why committees look at grade trends in a holistic review process). 

Timing is also one of the factors admission counselors consider when reviewing a student’s discipline record. No, we don’t love your sophomore year suspension, but if there are not additional infractions, we are likely to exercise grace, consider it an isolated incident, and trust you learned a valuable lesson. The bottom line: holistic review = human review. Admission deans, directors, counselors may look polished or established now, but we’ve all made plenty of mistakes (I likely up the overall average). It is important you know we bring our ability to make judgment calls into our review of transcripts, test scores, family background, non-academic impact, and yes, disciplinary infractions as well. 

Process. The admission “process” is not just for students. Colleges also have an entire process, including one for review of all elements of an application. In most admission offices, there are initial guidelines for discipline/behavior/criminal review. Most of the questions relate to severity, timing, the school’s action, and the implications that incident had on other students. If the situation warrants additional review, staff members escalate it to an Associate Director, Dean, Director, or an official review committee. At this point, 99% of cases are cleared without further action. However, if the case requires another layer of review, schools will involve partners from around the university for insight and areas of expertise, e.g., Dean of Students, General Counsel, and perhaps Chief of Police or other security representatives. 

Having participated in many of these layers, I am always encouraged by how thoroughly and thoughtfully questions are asked and facts are gathered. One of the most difficult things about living in this beautiful but broken world is coming to the realization that as much as we may desire it, there are few things that are 100% good or bad; 100% right or wrong; 100% black or white. 

Ownership.  Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. It is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances. 

“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined up and bagged them on the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off? We’re listening. 

Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation. 

A Final Note to Seniors 

Your final semester is supposed to be fun. You have lots to celebrate and enjoy: games, productions, awards ceremonies, spring break, prom– tradition upon tradition, and last upon last. I get it. 

I ask you to please hit pause when you find yourself in certain situations or when a “great idea” gets proposed in these next few months. Each year we see incredibly smart and talented kids do indescribably dumb stuff that has lasting implications or consequences. So before you get behind the wheel; before you go to (or throw) that party; before someone brings out another bottle; when “everyone” is going to jump off that bridge naked in the dark into water at an untested depth; when cramming 12 people into a hearse to go blow up the principal’s mailbox gets suggested as a senior prank; before you post pictures or gossip or antagonizing content on social media, I hope you will thoughtfully consider your beliefs, character, and goals. (If all of that sounds too specific to be made up, well…). 

I implore you not to rationalize with phrases like “everyone else is” or “she told me to” or “someone said it was okay.” Have the maturity and vision to say no or walk away or stand up or defuse the situation or speak calmly in frenetic moments. 

I encourage you to read your offers of admission from colleges closely. They are promises of a future community. They are based on your academic potential but also upon their belief you have and will continue to enrich those around you. Ultimately, my hope is you will have the composure and confidence to lead yourself and others with character in these final months of high school. Finish well. 

The Two Most Important Letters in College Admission

I loved watching Family Feud when I was a kid. The need to think quickly on the first showdown, the spontaneous family dynamics, and playing along at home with anyone who would join me. Over its 40+ year history, guests and gimmicks and hosts and networks have changed, and there have been some dark, quiet years when the show was scrapped, but today it is as lively and fun as ever.  

 If you have never watched the show…who are you? And what kind of incomplete life have you been living? Scratch that- if you have never watched Family Feud, you can check it out on ABC, Hulu, download the Feud Live app or view some priceless clips on YouTube.

 As a quick refresher, the game starts with a prompt: “We asked 100 people (insert a random prompt here).” The contestants attempt to name something that they believe would receive the most mentions.

Let’s give it a shot.  

“We asked 100 people what the most important letters in college admission are…” 

In this case, I think the “number one answer on the board” would be GPA. Trying to think like the majority my next response would be SAT and ACT. The odds are those three would account for 70%+ of the answers. 

But if you changed the initial prompt to: “We asked 100 admission officers what the most important letters in college admission are…” the number one answer on the board would undoubtedly be —IPs. Internet Protocol address? Uhh…no. IPs are Institutional Priorities.

IPs, Institutional Priorities.

The outward-facing Mission and Vision Statements schools publish on their sites are lofty, well-crafted, broad, and aspirational. Institutional Priorities connect to mission, but they are more functional, specific, and quantifiable.  As an admission dean/director, IPs influence the entire funnel – from prospects to enrolling students.

Prospects/Recruitment: In recent years, as an example, many states and regions of the country have been losing population. They know that to achieve the most basic of all IPs– a certain class size– they need to grow their college’s brand beyond their geographic area, create new markets, and bolster enrollment from feeder schools or cities. This is one reason you see so many regional recruiters from the Midwest and Northeast living in Atlanta, Dallas, California, etc. Why do some colleges consistently visit some states twice a year and yet have not physically been to others in decades? Number one answer on the board—IPs.

A new Provost is hired at Sample College. She looks at the undergraduate enrollment and sees that in recent years the population has been becoming increasingly female- a general trend in higher education. While ten years ago, the school was 55% women, it is now over 60%. In the Provost’s interviews, discussions with faculty, and conversations with employers, she’s learned that re-establishing more gender equity is a goal. Voila. An IP is born and you can bet in her first few conversations with her admission dean, she is asking for a list of actions for how they will accomplish this institutional priority.

Suddenly, Sam gets a postcard in the mail from Sample College, while his fraternal twin Samantha does not—even though she competed Sample’s sample online interest form and cheers for the Sample Salmons every Saturday.

Marketing: Let’s say Example University (Home of the Fighting Ex’s) adds a Nursing major and hires a new ambitious business school dean charged with significantly growing the B school. You can bet EU is investing in publications, digital marketing campaigns, texts, social media efforts, and other resources to achieve those goals. Why do you think you’ve started seeing “Example Means Business” pop-ups on your screen and feed lately? Do I think Example should put a picture of a kid in a suit and briefcase having his blood drawn? No. But trust- Instagram takeovers will show plenty of pictures of EKG machines and stock market graphs in the year ahead.

Admission deans have been hired and fired based on their ability to meet specific institutional priorities: raise our standardized test score average, decrease our admit rate, eat into the market share of our biggest rival. As I said before, IPs are functional, specific, and quantifiable. On average, I get one or two job postings for admission/enrollment jobs each week. IPs are a significant piece of those job profile summaries.

Admission Decisions. At the beginning of the year, all admission deans are given a target number of students to enroll: 500, 5000, etc. Right on the heels of that information are subgoals…the numbers within the numbers…the IPs.

My alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, is legislated to enroll 82% of its students from North Carolina. Since the majority of applicants don’t hail from the Old North State, it is absolutely easier to get into UNC from Concord, NC than Concord, NH. This is true at Georgia Tech as well. Our Georgia admit rate this year will be four times that of non-Peach Staters.

If you are a senior awaiting an admission decision from a more selective school, this means your test score, GPA, number of AP courses, or any other purely academic metric is not going to be the entire basis for your admission decision. Yes, holistic admission means more than the academic numbers, but it also means other numbers play in, i.e. IPs. This is what admission deans mean when they say they are looking to “select” or “shape” a class. If Admissions was a language on Google Translate, “shaping a class” would convert to “IPs drive our process.”

How do you know what a particular school’s institutional priorities are?

When I bring up IPs on panels or in conversation, the first question is always, “How do I know what a school’s IPs are? ” At that point, I shift from the most important letters to the most commonly used phrase in college admission… It Depends.

Sometimes these will be overtly stated in webinars or presentations. A few years ago, I was on a panel in Denver with a dean from the northeast and he literally said, “We are trying to increase the number of students from Colorado. Why do you think I’m here?”

Sometimes you will see IPs reflected on websites. If a school is using a sliding scale that correlates the amount of financial aid dollars (i.e. scholarship/merit money) with test scores, it is clear increasing their SAT/ACT average is a goal.

Sometimes you can just ask. Now, if the response is they want Chemistry majors from Nebraska, their response may not help, but admission officers welcome questions in virtual sessions or while you are on campus. “What are your goals for the next class?” “What are you trying to grow or improve here?” Put your own spin on it, but just know you can absolutely ask this type of question.

Sometimes you won’t know. If an enrollment manager has been instructed to reduce the discount rate, enroll fewer students from your state, or decrease the number of students with first and last names that both start with M…Well, sorry Matthew Martin, you’ll just be left to think it was the fact that you didn’t take AP World Geography.

So What?

If you are a junior, obviously I’m telling you to move to Nebraska and indicate Chemistry as an intended major. Secondly, spend copious amounts of time analyzing the last decade of Common Data Sets for the colleges you are considering in order to determine their strategies and trends. No- please don’t go down those speculative rabbit holes. All of what I’ve said over the years holds- your job is to understand your goals, your interests, and your priorities, and apply to colleges where you would be excited to attend. I could write another few thousand words about this, but since I already wrote a book and blog for the last seven years, I’ll let my body of work stand.

If you are a senior, many colleges will release decisions in March. If you are denied from a selective college, my hope is you won’t question your academic ability or lose sleep trying to figure out what was “wrong” with you or what you “could or should have done differently.” IPs mean admission decisions do not translate to “We don’t think you are smart” or “You could not be successful here.”

I didn’t ask 100 admission deans what words they would use to describe students they were forced to deny based on supply and demand and IPs, but here are my top three answers:

Smart

Talented

Impressive

You won’t see all of that in deny letters. You won’t really hear the voice of the dean/director whose signature is in your portal. But even in disappointment, my hope is you will know all of this is true. Instead of second-guessing or dwelling on things outside of your control, focus on the places where you are admitted. They clearly saw the same match and fit you did when you applied. They probably did not use the words “Institutional Priority” in their letter, but you are one. And that is something to celebrate and be excited about.

 

 

2023 Admission Predictions…and Hopes

Last week I had the opportunity to answer this prompt in a Higher Ed Dive article, along with a few friends and colleagues around the country: In 150-200 words, what is one admissions trend you expect to see in 2023?  

Here was my take: 

In the year ahead, due to the emergence and prevalence of artificial intelligence software such as ChatGPT, I expect more colleges to either drop their admission essay altogether or expand the format through which students can convey their voice and demonstrate their ability to articulate their opinions and interest. 

This could take the form of proctored writing samples, graded essays from their high school, a rise in the use of unscripted interviews, or various mediums and platforms for students and their supporters to submit information, i.e. voice recorded recommendations or video elevator pitches. 

Removing barriers to apply and simplifying the application process in general will be particularly important due to the pending Supreme Court case on affirmative action, and the desire of colleges and universities to preserve a diverse applicant pool. To that end, expect more colleges to make announcements ending legacy preferences and launching transfer pathway programs geared toward historically underrepresented students. 

The first half of my response (AI, essays, broader submission mediums) elicited a number of emails and social media messages which fell into one of two camps: A: You are wrong.  B: I hope you are wrong. The good news for those of you who disagree is that you don’t have to look far back on this very blog to see my many errant prognostications.  

Normally, I don’t mind being wrong, but in this case I hope I’m not. Here’s why- and here’s what I hope we will see. 

Ask most admission counselors what they’re looking for in an application essay and you will get some version of “we just want to hear the student’s voice.” Well, let’s solve for that? The truth is that many of these essays are already overly sanitized or professionally tailored/ tampered with already. I hope the Common Application and Coalition Application will modernize their platforms and integrate technology that allows us to more directly hear and/or see students, and the adults that support them.  

Allowing for voice recorded responses, or short video clips, is the student’s voice. Yes, I understand this would mean parameters and controls, so another cottage industry does not emerge but stick with me for a moment. Changing the medium of delivery to audio/video – or at least providing it as an option- gives a much better sense of how a student would engage in the classroom or on campus than the essay. Importantly, if these are limited to a minute or so, it does not add time to review for colleges- and could be a welcome reprieve for the tired eyes of admission readers. (Companies like Initial View are offering this for students).  

Same for school counselors or teachers. While they could still send written recommendations, if that was their preference (and use AI at will), the truth is most American students attend public schools where counselor: student ratios are an utter travesty at several hundred to one. My hope is we can make it easier for these folks by allowing them to advocate for their students in mediums they are comfortable with in 2023, i.e., voice/video. I don’t want a student’s boss from Subway having to login and submit a rec letter, but I think there would be value in hearing them say, “she’s the only person outside of my family who I allow to have the keys to the store.” 

Several folks who messaged me “could not see colleges doing away with the essay.” Maybe you are right. Maybe higher ed really moves that slowly and the essays will persist in current form a good bit longer. But AI is here, and students will be using it during their K12 and college admission experience. As a result, I agree with the notion that ChatGPT and others will move students more to editing mode than author mode. Ultimately, if a student wants to use AI to create their prompt responses, that’s their choice.  

With that said, while my prediction is some schools will drop the conventional admission essay altogether, my hope Common Application and Coalition Application will at least install software that screens for AI use and displays that result to students prior to submission. This will give students a chance to decide if they want to edit further or proceed, especially since colleges maintaining essays could very well run similar scans on their side post-submission.  

My biggest hope is the Supreme Court will not overturn decades of national precedent and will continue to allow colleges to responsibly use race as “one of many factors” to recruit students, make admission decisions, award scholarships, and more. (More on why providing more data not less is important in holistic review from my Fisher vs. Texas blog).

However, my prediction is SCOTUS will make affirmative action illegal and we will see a downturn in underrepresented undergradaute student enrollments, particularly at state flagships and selective privates- the American higher education experience will be further devalued as a result. And even with the reduced percentages of black and brown students on many college campuses, we won’t see a reduction in the number of entitled, privileged people complaining about not getting into Stanvard each April.   

Agree, disagree, forward, or delete—I appreciate you reading. An exchange with people from various backgrounds showing up to listen, respect, and learn from one another is how we add value and make progress…. I just hope the Supreme Court agrees.  

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.

Top 3 Reasons NOT to Trust Rankings

This week the US News and World Report rankings of colleges came out. Over the years, I have written extensively  about this topic, in order to put them in perspective and point away from the list and more toward the methodology, i.e. how they are formulated.

Here is what I know.

  • Your time is limited. Between friends, school, work, practice, studying, and the basics of eating and sleeping, you are busy.
  • College- and college admission can feel overwhelming. Lots of colleges, lots of opinions, lots of money. Lots.
  • Rankings simplify things. On some level, we all desire this, right? Amidst the swirl of sources, the deluge of data, and the whirlwind of words around college, a list is refreshing. A clean, easy, simple cascading enumeration is like a healing balm.

I get it. I hear you. You’re not crazy. But it is ironic at best and hypocritical at worst to put any stock in the rankings, because it’s the opposite of how you want colleges to consider your applications—or for the overall admission process to be conducted.

In no particular order, here’s how I see it.

  1. More than a number (cue The Drifters). As a college applicant, you expect the colleges will not see you purely as a number. You don’t want them to boil your high school experience down to a cell on a spreadsheet, draw a hard cut off line on SATs, or assume your GPA absolutely defines you. Instead, you expect schools will use context and nuance as they review your application. As a senior, that’s why you are drafting, second guessing, and asking for opinions about your essay right now, isn’t it? (Yes. I see you.) You want them to see you in full. Return the favor.

When you draw hard lines and only visit or apply to schools in the Top X or Y from a list, or select a college simply because it’s ranked higher than another one to which you have been admitted, it gives way too much credit to the methodology on which these numbers are derived, and artificially distills countless qualitative factors and dynamics. As I have said before, good college applicants think like good college students and dig into any number, percentage, or statistic they find to understand the source, and determine it’s validity.

  1. Gameable. It’s been a few years since Varsity Blues (aka The Admission Scandal), and we’ve endured a global pandemic since then, so it may be fuzzy in your mind. Ultimately, what made the public so upset about this situation was that wealthy, connected parents were gaming the system in order to get their kids into particular schools. It was not fair. It was not ethical. As an applicant, you expect other students will not hack into the admission database, bribe admission officers, or influence college administrators in order to change their result in the process.

And you don’t want this to occur on a systemic level either. I know this because whether I’m in Georgia, California, abroad or anywhere in between, students and families are consistently worried “the school down the street” is inflating grades or getting an advantage because of some misperception of quality.

To put it gently, the rankings are very gameable at the micro and macro level. Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, The Lord of the Rankings, in which he details the work of Dr. Kelly McConville and her team of statisticians who enumerate specific tactics colleges employ to increase their position through strategic decisions. The truth is they don’t scratch the surface of the myriad ways ways to implement slight adjustments in class sizes, course naming conventions, faculty pay, or even the way you report and categorize numbers around the fringes, i.e. clinical changes, which have no bearing on the actual student experience.

In my career, I have personally known numerous admission deans who have been hired and fired based on their willingness, or lack thereof, to organize their operations (and their actual admission decisions) to boost a university’s spot. It’s one thing to have game, my friend. Gamey and Gaming- also different. The rankings are gameable. They are actively being gamed.

  1. Opinions vs. stats. Imagine you walked into class on the first day of school and Mrs. Bertha Ormse begins passing out the course syllabus. Slowly and repeatedly pulling and pinching her chin, she announces in her gravely voice, “On page 1-2, you can see what we will be learning this fall in US History 1800-1910.”

    Anoushka Buch | Daily Trojan,https://dailytrojan.com/2021/09/24/we-should-not-fret-about-college-rankings/

Scanning quickly you pick up the high points: Western expansion, War of 1812, Missouri Compromise, Monroe Doctrine, rise of railroads, Trail of Tears, Civil War, Reconstruction, Industrial Revolutoin. Nodding in agreement you think, “Makes sense. I’ve heard of most of this.”

Interrupting your ruminations, she continues matter-of-factly, “Page 3 outlines how you will be graded.”

Quizzes, homework, tests, projects = 80% of final grade.

“Ok. Ormse. I see you. I mean, I may have weighted quizzes a little less, but…” And then… “No. Certainly not. Wait… the final 20% of my grade is based on… opinion of other students.” 20%?!

That’s right. Your fellow students, who have a vested interest in their own scores and ultimate position in the class, will make up 1/5 of your final grade.

You start looking around anxiously and suddenly your mind shifts into overdrive.

Who is that kid in the second row? I’ve never seen him in my life.

Oh, no. Zach. He has always hated me ever since that thing with the guy at the place back in third grade.

Crap. Sarah. Everyone loves her. She’s…she’s…she’s…all the things I’m not. But does that make her better at history? Does that make her better than me in general?

Well…when the opinion of others accounts for 20% of the grade—probably.

And that’s how it goes for colleges with the rankings. 20% is based on the opinions of others. Others in the same game. Others in the same class. Others with vested interests in their own results and position.

Raise your hand if you’d like 20% of your admission decision to be based on the other applicants opinions of you. Ok. You can put your hand back down now. Oh, and to be clear, in most cases they’ve never met you, seen you, or have anything concrete to go on except where you are from and a vague recollection that a few years ago someone they met said you were “Ok.”

Bottom line: I earnestly think you are smarter than the gamemakers at US News. And I know you know you better than they ever could.  So is it crazy to suggest you creating your own ranking system? More on that here.

Rank the Rankings

Colleges want you to apply because you have done your homework and believe you match up well academically and beyond the classroom. They send you brochures, email you invitations to come to campus, and even travel to your town or high school in hopes they can tell you a full story about their history, mission, offerings, and ethos. You apply to colleges expecting them to look beyond your name or test score. Holistic review is time intensive and deeply human. It’s not perfect, but it strives to be comprehensive. I’m just asking the same from you in your consideration of the rankings.