The Kitchen Bar
I am sure that there is a moment in every kid’s life when they regret the fact that their parent has a particular profession. Lots of child-sized thought bubbles like, “Oh. Crap. Why is my mom a doctor? Or in sales? Or a personal trainer?” I can imagine them reading in their room after a conversation or walking to school after a lecture telling their buddies, “Man, I wish my dad was not in consulting. You should have heard what he said last night.”
Well, that moment came to the Clark house recently. My son (a second grader) wanted to apply to be part of “Principal’s Council.” This is a group of student representatives who meet periodically to consider ways to improve the school, communicate important messages more effectively, or provide student insight into current topics, issues, etc. Great concept and I fully support it.
So I asked him, “How many will they pick from each grade?”
“Two,” he replied.
“And how many people are going to apply?”
“I don’t know,” (I thought that answer was not supposed to start so frequently until age 14 or so).
So my head immediately goes to his odds. First, you have to believe that they’re going to select a boy and a girl (figuring that was a fair assumption).
“And how are they going to decide who gets picked?”
He showed me the application. A few short answer questions on ideas you have and why you would be a good representative for your class. Thankfully (for him), it noted that handwriting was not a factor for selection.
I knew that there were 60 students in his grade. Then I checked the roster to find, interestingly, that they’re basically dead split on boys and girls. We lined up 30 items on the kitchen bar to represent each boy in the class, which took a while. We used salt and pepper shakers, fruits and vegetables, spice jars, and a few pistachios. I had to keep him from assigning specific people to the lemons or broccoli (which he calls “the vegetable that shall not be named”).
Then I asked him how many of the boys he thought would apply. Same question from earlier but now with props. (Turns out it was effective, so consider that tactic for future reference.) “Well,” he said, “I know Michael is. And Ryan. And Matthew…” He went on to rattle off another four or five more.
“So, do you think it’s fair to say at least 15 boys will apply?” I asked. Ultimately, we agreed on 14. Not sure why he was unwilling to concede that last tomato but for the point of the exercise, I was good with it.
“Okay. So, why should they pick you?” I asked. Told you there was a point in every kid’s life when they wish their mom or dad did something else. And, while he did not say it, I figured we had to be flirting with it here. I came to this conclusion not based on incredible parental intuition but more so on the audible sigh and pseudo-violent backward thrust of his head.
After he recovered (by eating two of his classmates… I mean jelly beans), it was pretty interesting to hear his responses, as well as to hear him acknowledge how great the other kids in his grade are too. Every time he’d say something about being honest or a good listener, he’d often follow it with, “but so is Jonathan” (or another of this classmates).
In the end, I said, “Listen, I think it’s awesome that you want to do this- — and I think if you’re picked that you would do a great job. But you need to understand that the chances of not getting picked are pretty high.”
He took a long, hard look at the other 13 items still on the bar and got out his pencil sharpener to start his application. The next morning, as we were walking up to the school, I told him I was proud of him for applying. I told him even if he did not get picked there would be tons of other opportunities to contribute and make things around him better. Yes, I know, I was laying it on thick.
“Okay. Dad. Got it.” And he ran off with one of the “apples” from the kitchen bar.
Analyzing Common Data Sets (CDS)
When you are applying to schools you are not going to know absolutely everything about their process or priorities. And you’re not going to know exactly who else is in that year’s applicant pool. But you’re not completely in the dark either. You have the ranges a school provides on their profile; you have last year’s admit rate; you have their mission and purpose,; but you also have the ability to look at public historical information that will provide you additional insight, perspective, and trends if you look at multiple years.
Let’s stick with the 7% number or 1/14 applicants selected. At that rate, we’re talking Princeton or Yale. (See selective admit rates here.) Note: It’s possible both are really somewhere in the 6.x range, but no need to split hairs (or vegetables if you’re using your kitchen bar for this exercise). You can quickly find most school’s CDS online (here is Georgia Tech’s) and use it to provide additional context beyond what’s listed in their marketing materials. Here are the ones for Yale and Princeton. Since these are standardized, you can always go right to Section C for information on freshman admission.
Section C1: Provides applicant breakdown by gender. Is the distribution equal in applicants or admits at the school you’re applying to? Generally, there is some variance. I’d encourage you to look over several years of data to see if there is consistency or a trend. Does the school currently have gender equity in their class? Does it appear from the data or from their messaging or from looking at multiple years that they’re increasing the number of men or women in their class overall?
Section C7: This section outlines what each school places priority on in their admission and decision making process. You’ll find highly selective schools will incorporate far more factors beyond academics here (extra-curricular involvement, geographic origin, first generation students, etc.) and they also convey the level of importance they place on each factor. So expect schools below 20% in admit rate to check off plenty of additional boxes and assign relative importance. This is a somewhat quantitative illustration of a very nuanced holistic review that schools should be discussing on their websites and presentations. Good news: Yale makes this incredibly easy to find, as they have a site entitled: “What Yale Looks For.” (For the record, I think all schools should standardize that naming convention.)
Section C9: This section provides test score information by band. Note: admitted averages are typically higher than enrolling averages (which is what the CDS displays). So it’s safe to assume that the representation for admitted students in the higher bands is greater than these tables display. In other words, if 75+% of enrolling students scored above 700 on each section, it’s likely that the admitted pool was some number above that. And therefore a lower percentage in lower bands.
Section C10: Class Rank. So at Princeton 94% of students finished in the top 10% of their class. At Yale that number was 97%. At Tech it was 87%. While many high schools do not rank, this is still a good frame of reference for understanding the quality of a school’s class. And, let’s be honest, the school may not rank per se, and some may not even provide percentile bands, but you still know where you relatively stand in the class in terms of performance- and how you’ll “read” in an application versus a classmate or someone who may have applied from your high school last year.
Feel free to delve deeper into the CDS of any school you plan to apply to. Other sections will give insight on number of students from in and out of state, detailed information on financial aid, size of classes, and faculty degree attainment information. All of these are more data and information that provide context for the admission process, but they also give you a clearer understanding of who is at each institution. But, we’re going to stop with Section C in an effort to keep this blog under 2000 words.
Unlike my son, you are not going to know 1/3 of the applicants personally. You won’t be able to put their “trustworthiness” or “entrepreneurial acumen” on a Likert Scale. But you can dig a bit deeper than simple ranges or profiles universities often put on home pages. And doing that is critical to help you better understand the competition and review.
- If 92% of the students enrolling at a school were in the top 10% (and a higher percentage still in their admitted pool) and you are not, what will help make you part of that other 8%?
- If a school’s CDS, in addition to their site and materials, is saying they don’t put much value or importance on testing and that is your strongest point within your application, you should be factoring that into “your admit rate” vs. the school’s published number.
- If they report in their CDS that “demonstrated interest” is not part of their process…it’s not. No need to call or email incessantly, or ask others to do so on your behalf.
- And lastly, if you are a valedictorian with a perfect test score are you guaranteed admission to all schools? NO. These numbers are helpful, but they don’t tell the entire story. The CDS provides data that reinforces what these schools will be saying in information sessions and outlining on their publications and websites– far more than academics are taken into account at our nation’s most elite schools.
- Do your homework. Read and research past the first page of a brochure or website. Read about a school’s mission. Check out their CDS. Ask good questions when you are on campus that really help you get to the answers that you need to make a good decision on where to apply, and ultimately where to attend.
- Acknowledge that at highly selective schools the kitchen bar is filled with lots of talent. Lots of far more perfectly ripe vegetables than they can possibly admit. And further, that many factors will be used to make admission decisions, so 100% predictability is impossible.
- Diversify your school set. I’m telling you the same thing I told my son. Go for it. Apply where you really want to go. But understand that you need to have schools on your list with a range of admit rates (7%-16% is not “a range”); schools that put priority on your strengths; and schools where their data and your interests align.
Made the sub-2000 word mark, but barely. Thanks for reading about data over the summer. Now go enjoy the pool.
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