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.

The “D” Word

I don’t swear a lot. Occasionally, but not that often. Partly that’s because I’m not apt to losing my temper, and I also remember being told that cursing lacks creativity. That always stuck with me, and I think it’s had a lasting impact.

THE ‘S’ WORD

Recently, my seven year old son came home extremely upset because a neighbor kid had used “THE ‘S’ WORD!” Despite being the Holidays I was pretty sure we weren’t talking about Santa, so I immediately started considering how I’d respond. I asked him to tell me more and as he began I started thinking about my advice. Something surrounding how “THE ‘S’ WORD” is not appropriate and you can get in trouble for using it and…. then I heard something that made me pause. “Yea. He was like, ‘that is just plain Ssssssss’… and then you know… and then, ‘Pid.'” Ok. Totally different “S word.” Totally different lecture. Totally different approach. Now we are moving into how that word is insulting, and lazy, and all the other synonyms that are more interesting.

THE ‘D’ WORD

But it got me thinking about college admission. Logically. At this time of year a lot of schools are releasing their EA and ED decisions. I’m already seeing posts on social media and hearing more from friends in our neighborhood talk about their son or daughter. One of the biggest questions surrounds…. “THE D WORD!” Nope… not deny. I suppose that’s kind of like the actual “S WORD.” Pretty clear. If you are denied, it’s frustrating, it’s upsetting, it’s a tough blow. But at least you have a decision and you can move on. I’ll write more about this in a future post, but it’s a lot like breaking up. You know where you stand… and who you won’t be standing next to. Unfortunately, defer and deny both start with the same letter. But their implications are extremely divergent.

If you are deferred admission from a school, it’s important for you to remember three things:

1. You are not denied. If a school did not think you were competitive or a good fit, they would have denied you. This sounds harsh but it’s true. There is a reason you got a different “D Word,” so pay attention because the message is as different as the two “S Words” above.

2. Finish the drill. Getting deferred is not fun. It means being in limbo a while longer. Now you are going to need to send in fall grades, you may need to write an additional essay or tell more about your personal activities. But you are not denied. The school that deferred you wants to see more. They need to understand perhaps how you’ve done in a challenging senior schedule, or if your upward grade trend will continue, or if you can juggle more responsibility outside the classroom with your course load within. And they likely also want to see how you stack up with the entire applicant pool. So defer is a “hold on” or a “maybe” or even a “tell me more.” So do that. If you liked a school enough to apply, you should finish the drill. After all, it’s called an admission process. Sometimes that means more than just one round. See it through by submitting what they request and put your absolute best foot forward. OR cancel your application and be done. But don’t go halfway and stop giving your best effort.

3. Check your ego.  The truth is that you should do this when you are admitted, denied, or deferred. After all, an admission decision is not a value or character decision. Don’t blur the lines. If you are deferred from a college you really want to attend, you need to give them every confidence that you should be admitted in the next round, or even from the wait list. If a school asks for a mid- spring report, or they call your counselor, or they ask you to come in for an interview, you have solid grades and interesting new information to share. Your job as a senior is to finish well.

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A Family Affair, Part 3

“Look Beyond What You See”

If you have ever watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you will remember Kostas “Gus” Portokalos issuing a challenge: “Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek.”  So call me the Gus of college admissions. Here’s a few examples:

What’s the value of college visits?

It’s just like dating… all about getting a good image in your head of what you are or are not looking for- and what will be a good fit for you

Colleges that use demonstrated interest?

It’s like deciding who you’re going to ask to prom. You don’t walk down the hall blindfolded and grab someone (Please. Please. Don’t do this!). You want to get a sense that they may say yes.

Double depositing?

Two-timing.

Okay… so maybe I need to work on some of these a little bit. But the point is there are parallels between everyday life (and love) experience and the college admission process. Hopefully these begin to help clarify what’s often seen as mysterious or veiled.

In an earlier post, we established that I speak Disney. In The Lion King 1 ½ , Rafiki encourages Timon to “look beyond what you see.” Those words really stuck with me because of how tough they are to live out, especially in high school. Even with access to information and connections all over the world, our daily exposure and interactions have incredible influence on the decisions we make and our view of ourselves and of our world.

No matter where you live, there are a group of schools that you regularly hear about on TV or see on bumper stickers in the school parking lot or drive-thru line. If you read national news about college, particular related to rankings and admit rates, the school set is even more limited.  So it’s easy to develop tunnel vision and believe there are only a handful of colleges for you to consider. In truth, there are  more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States alone, and more students are going abroad for college every year.

Look beyond what you see.  I wrote this last year but it bears repeating. “Look at the alma maters of Fortune 100 CEOs and you’ll find as many public or not well known schools as you will Ivy League schools. The pathway to success does not always go through Cambridge or Palo Alto. Does the college you are considering facilitate your ability to continually learn, adapt and think analytically? Many schools do this phenomenally well. Too many families stretch financially for a brand, when the better option may be a college off the beaten path.” 

Students:

As much as you may love cheering for a certain school’s football or basketball team, it does not mean that it’s a good match for your education. You may have a picture of yourself as a baby in a onesie from your mom’s alma mater. Or you may be admitted to the same school as your best friend, or a place with an exceptionally low admit rate. But I urge you, “look beyond what you see.” It’s not easy. It takes the willingness to trust yourself and to diverge from the common route in your community or family. Ultimately, that self-awareness, confidence, and self-reliance will prepare you not only for success in college, but in life well beyond too.

Parents:

Maybe you’ve dreamed about a particular school for your student (remember the picture of them in that cute onesie?). If that dream is driven from your desire to boast of their admittance or attendance, I implore you to take a step back and examine if you really believe it will be a good fit for them. While they may not tell you, your opinion and approval influence them heavily. I know that can be hard to believe based on some of your interactions lately, but I talk to students all the time who say parental pressure is a major reason for their college selection. Too frequently that leads them to make a choice that was not truly right for them.

As you navigate this road, take heart and remember the wise words of Rafiki, “It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all through despair and hope, through faith and love.”

A Family Affair, Part 1

It’s taken me over fifteen years working in college admission to realize a basic human truth:  People love their kids. Profound, right? But it’s an extremely important lesson and a statement I continue to tell myself and our staff each year.

People love their kids. That’s why a mother might call pretending to be her daughter in hopes of receiving a password or an admission decision. That’s why a father will be in the lobby at 7:30 a.m. after his son was deferred admission or waitlisted the day before. People love their kids. You’ve been holding them up literally since they were born and even now at 120 lbs or 250 lbs, you’re figuratively still doing just that.

This is why this excerpt from Jay Mathews’ article in the Washington Post a few years ago is so disconcerting to me: “There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college.”

Now I realize this is hyperbolic journalism. Regardless, nobody wants to be part of an industry that breeds that kind of angst. However each year we see strained family dynamics, so his sentiments are somewhat true.  I believe there is a different solution– a better way forward. So here is a practical tip for helping your family thrive in the admission process, rather than allowing it to be divisive.

Safe place-safe space

Starting in the junior year of high school and gaining momentum in the senior year, the “college conversation” can seem like THE ONLY topic. So whether you are on the way to church or coming home from a tennis match, or driving two states over to visit relatives, the talk is always about college. “Have you considered applying to University X?” “I hear Brandon is really happy at Y College. You remember Brandon, right sweetie?” “Have you finished your essay?” “Where is your friend Sarah going to go for college next year?” And on and on and on…

If this is your pattern, then the quality of the conversation simply cannot be sustained. Nobody can talk about one subject all of the time and expect everyone else to continue to be interested or engaged.

I propose your family set aside two hours on a specified night each week or perhaps on Sunday afternoons and agree that the conversation will be about college. It’s in this time you open college mail, discuss deadlines that are coming up, look over essays to be edited, or discuss upcoming trips and the logistics of all of this. Everybody agrees to come to that meeting open, potentially even smiling (snacks help) with a willingness to ask and answer questions in the spirit of unity.

If this sounds cheesy or utopian or Pollyanna, then good. We all need a bit more of that in life in general, and certainly in the college admission process (Again, your alternative is what Mathews proposes). Also, no cell phones, no petting the cat, no staring longingly out the window. Just a defined period of time and a “safe place” where these necessary (and hopefully now more intentional) conversations can take place. Outside of that time and place, the college conversation is forboden (a great and all too infrequently used word). So if mom asks about a scholarship deadline on Wednesday at 7:30 a.m.- you can simply reply, “Safe place- safe space.”

At the end of the day, people love their kids. Students- remember that when mom and dad are on your case about this. Parents- remember that when your voice raises or when your patience wanes.

Tune in next week for tip 2 of A Family Affair.