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.

Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 2 of 3)

Formula vs… well, no Formula

If you are applying to Georgia Tech or schools with a similar or lower admit rate, you are being reviewed under a holistic admission process. Many of you have heard this term before but what does it really mean? Essentially, there are two types of admission review. The first is a formulaic process, which is what I described yesterday. Most less-selective schools utilize this process, and for many public schools in Georgia it is called a “Freshman Index.” You can literally plug in a GPA, test scores, and sometimes (though often not) factors for rigor of courses to determine admission. The upside here is that when you apply to a school like this you basically know your decision before you even apply. I always equate it to running track. There is a hurdle set at a certain height and you either clear it or crash into it. Formulaic admission is clean, clear, black and white, and pretty simple.

The easiest way to explain a holistic file review process (other than the video link I included above) is to say it’s exactly the opposite. It’s very much gray, and it’s not clean or clear or easy to predict. All of the certainty you get in a formulaic admission process essentially goes out the window with holistic review.

Tangent (Skip this section if you don’t want to join me on a personal diatribe)

And that’s why the whole “Chance me” thread from College Confidential is basically pointless. College Confidential is an online forum where students discuss the admission process, pose questions to other commenters, and share their experiences with particular schools. There are some helpful threads on subjects and occasional experts who provide facilitation of topical discussion. But largely, at least at this time of year, there are long exchanges between students and parents that have come to be known as “chance me.” In these threads parents, I mean students… well, let’s call a spade a spade, parents pretending to be students, post stats such as GPA, test scores, extracurricular involvement, essay topics, and other demographic descriptors. Then other forum members provide their thoughts, speculation, and odds of that person being admitted to a particular school. In reading those strings, I am reminded of the quote “most advice is sound- but it’s rarely sound advice.”

And, We’re Back

Nearly 600 of our denied students had either a 35-36 ACT or 1500-1600 SAT (CR+M). The vast majority of students who were denied or deferred have taken AP Calculus or higher and are in the top 10% of their class and taking the toughest curriculum in that context. In other words, numbers are by no means the whole story. Holistic admission is going to look at every single element of an application and weigh that overall file in comparison not only with the applicant pool, but also with institutional priorities. This is where you start to hear words like “fit” and “match.” Ultimately, colleges are attempting to enroll classes that are in line with the goals of the institution.

Competitive vs. Compelling

In admission committee, we often see notes or hear verbal summaries that include this distinction. A student may be extremely strong from a pure academic standpoint but fails to truly distinguish him or herself when it comes to evidence of fit or match overall. Here’s how this plays out: two schools have essentially the same academic profile but are worlds apart when it comes to the type of student that excels in that environment, or who will add value to their campus culture. Take Brown University and Cal Tech as examples. When you read their websites, hear their admission representatives speak, or walk around their campuses, you know there is a fundamental dichotomy. However, the academic profile of the two is not disparate. A student who applies to these two institution may have completely different admission results based not on numbers but rather on personal attributes or background, and how that either complements or fails to add distinct value to the rest of the student population or overall mission.

Tune in tomorrow for the final post in this 3-part series… my tips on how to handle the uncertainty of a holistic admission process.

Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 1 of 3)

Buzz starred in the Hobsons videos for the December and January emails sent to prospective freshmen.

What the…?

Last weekend, Georgia Tech’s Early Action admission decisions were released. Like most schools, we provide a profile of our admitted group to give applicants, as well as campus and external constituents a sense of the class. This year, 30 percent of applicants were admitted in the early round. On average they had 11 AP/IB/college courses prior to graduating from high school and a 33 ACT/1453 SAT (CR+M). (Note: We no longer publish a GPA because schools have such varying ranges. Some schools are on a 4.0 non-weighted scale, some are on a 5.0 or 12.0 weighted scale, some have numerical only ranges to 100 or 80 or 120. The landscape is vast and non-standardized, so giving numbers has become pointless. For example, if you are a student on a 5.0 scale and a published GPA is 3.8, you’re thinking, “Sweet. My Bs and Cs are really paying off!”).

My wife’s comment upon seeing the numbers was “I didn’t know they even offered 11 AP classes.” And this is a woman who has two master’s degrees and smoked me on both her testing and academic performance, so granted, the word “average” and those stats should not even be in the same sentence.

Formulaic Process

This year we received nearly 15,000 applications for early action. Last year that number was 3,000 less, and in 2012 we did not have that many during the entire application cycle. See a trend line here. When I came to Tech in 2003 (ahem, at age 15…) we were receiving under 10,000 applications and admitting 65 percent of applicants. Life was easy. We calculated a GPA, downloaded test scores, ran the excel tables, plugged some codes into the system, and BAM! Change the toner a few times, grab a coffee, lick some stamps, and call it a year. Effectively, that formulaic process worked for us based on the admit rate, quality and size of applicant pool, and overall goals of the Institute.

But because our undergraduate population is not growing, our admit rate has plummeted based on supply and demand alone. The exciting part of this is that we are ultimately enrolling an incredibly talented and diverse class but it also means a lot of essays to read, copious amounts of caffeine, long days away from family during file review season, and the fact that we are not able to offer admission to many phenomenal students who will go on to literally change the world. And let me be clear—it was a lot more fun admitting two out of every three students than denying two out of every three.

Click here to read part 2 of 3, where I explain the “holistic admission” process, and what that really means when we sit down to review applications.

A Championship (Admission) Season

A few years ago our staff started a Fantasy Football league. Developing careers, having kids, going to grad school, and life in general have spread our group across Georgia Tech’s campus and to other institutions including Harvard, Columbus State, Duke, the University of Texas, and beyond.

Amidst our trash talking and complaints of injured players, we often note the similarities and differences that exist between college admission and fantasy football. As we approach decision releases for Early Action and Early Decision (and Fantasy Football playoffs draw imminently closer), here are a few observations.

It’s never about one thing.

In Fantasy Football, you may have a quarterback or wide receiver score massive points, but if your tight end and defense lay eggs, you’re going to have problems in cumulative point total.

Similarly, you may have incredible test scores and a fabulous essay. But if your extra-curricular involvement and course choice/GPA are relatively unimpressive, it’s highly doubtful you’ll be admitted to a selective college or university. Holistic admission by definition means your entire application balances out to be both compelling and a good fit for an institution.

Everyone needs a kicker.

Your Fantasy Football team cannot be made up exclusively of players from a certain position ( i.e. all running backs or wide receivers). The best teams are strong across the board. A kicker is not the most glamorous player you have. He will not touch the ball a lot or make headlines very often, but his contributions are critical to the team.

In much the same way, colleges with very large applicant pools are shaping a class that has a wide range of interests; is geographically diverse; and draws students with different passions from all cultures and backgrounds. Shaping a class means schools admit students based on a variety of factors to determine impact, success, or best fit on campus. It’s helpful to understand this goal when you think about admission decisions, because complementary talent cannot be quantified by only one or two measures.

It’s not about the W’s or L’s.

Too many students and parents see the admission process as a game, and this is where fantasy football and admission diverge completely. If you are not admitted to a school, it’s not a “loss.” And conversely, if you are offered admission, it’s certainly not a “win.” Ultimately, the college admission process is exactly that: a process. It’s not a record or a point total of admission offers or scholarships.

Believing you are fundamentally a better person because you are admitted to a college is as ludicrous as thinking the same of a fantasy football win. Neither are judgments of your worth, future, or character.

Playoffs?!! Playoffs?!!!

Fantasy Football, for anyone who’s serious about it, knows the real reason you compete is for the playoffs and the ultimate championship. Winning most of your games across a regular season may have some level of satisfaction (as might compiling a good GPA or test score, or getting in to a specific school). Your regular season is your high school preparation and college search and selection process. Don’t lose sight and begin to think “getting in” is the championship. Playoffs start after you are into a college- and a deep run and championship season are defined by how well you’ve prepared to thrive there and in life beyond.

Commissioner’s Note:

In this season you will have times you feel winless, and others you feel undefeated. Ultimately, if you keep the admission process and your high school experience in perspective, you can take the tough break-ups, the failed quizzes, the meaningless denial letters and the awkward prom dates, and turn them into an inspiring Championship run!

Mediocre Advice:

My favorite Fantasy Football podcast is ESPNs Fantasy Focus. Matthew Berry, Field Yates and company frequently proclaim they proliferate “mediocre fantasy advice.” But if you are looking for an entertaining listen and some occasional life and love advice too, check them out.