I have been knee deep in college essays for the past two weeks. My cohort of rising seniors is coming down the home stretch and putting the final touches on their writing. As we embarked on this journey, I was struck by the adjectives that I heard them use to present their ideas after a brainstorming session. The truth of the matter is that most teenagers have excellent instincts about what they should use as their topic. I tell them that their first idea is often the best one. This application round, when I asked students what they wanted to share about themselves with colleges, I heard statements like these:
“Well, I might have an idea…”
“I have a small idea…”
“I was thinking about this, but I am not sure…”
“I have one thought but I don’t know…”
And after these timid statements they would share an idea that was so personal and meaningful that there is no way it would not be a great essay. When I told them that, they were surprised and relieved.
The truth of the matter, is that they are not confident. My take is that they are intimidated to write THE COLLEGE ESSAY and I say nonsense. If you are a senior or have one in your life, here are a few tips to break this down to size and go tell your story with heart and confidence:
This is not really an essay. It is a personal statement.
The personal statement is 650 words. This equates to one page, single spaced.
Use this exercised to think about what you want to tell them: Imagine you step on to an elevator and there is one other person in it. They are wearing a name tag that identifies them as a director of admissions at a school you would like to attend. You have a ninety second elevator ride to tell them something about yourself. What would you share?
An authentic statement told from the heart usually resonates.
Make sure the writing focuses on you.
I tell my kids that you can pay now or pay later but you are going to have to do this so you might as well do it now. There are thousands of test-optional colleges but hardly any are essay-optional, so get write here, write now! I hope you enjoyed your July 4th weekend.
“Our goal is to provide information in a broad scope that will serve
participants regardless of where they apply. “
~Davidson College Admissions Office
Happy June! We are knee deep in graduation season and I am running a tad behind with my June blog post because I am busy getting graduation gifts out to my seniors and starting my juniors with their Common Application and essay writing. If you are the parent of a graduate at any point of the education continuum, congratulations!
One of the objectives of my blog is to share timely and useful information for families on the road to college. I found an amazing resource that I am excited to share. Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina is a small, highly selective liberal arts college with a superb reputation. Their office of admissions has put together a series of online workshops for rising seniors to learn more about college admissions. These presentations cover everything from financial aid to interviews. Some of the sessions are geared to students, some are just for parents and others are for both. And the best part is that they are open to anyone that wants to learn, whether you anticipate applying to Davidson College or not. The workshops start on June 29th and go through June 9th. Check out the link here to learn more about this amazing resource!
And here we are, another spin around the sun and what a year it has been. May 1st is the day that seniors deposit at the college that they will attend in August and it is also the two year anniversary of me opening my sweet little office. It has been a haven in the pandemic and I “sublet” the space during the day to a guy from Wells Fargo. He is easy on the eyes, so it is all working out. The piece below is from two years ago but it rings true and the offer still stands…call me!
“Communities are built like Legos, one brick at a time. There is no hack.”
~Jenny Anderson, Beyond Mindfulness
A friend posted the most beautiful piece on community in March. It was written by Jenny Anderson and it resonated with me. I have been the recipient of support from my community in ways that are too numerous to mention. I have benefited from the small things, like a class mom organizing a holiday event at school and I have literally been picked up and carried by my community when the unthinkable has happened. When I reflect on community, my first thought goes to the town where I live, but really, I have had the fortune to be a member of many communities. I have my SLU community from college, a professional community that I work with every day, a community of moms that I raised my kids alongside, that love my kids like their own, as I do theirs and I have my ADK/ski community, a group like no other. The essence of the article that touched me spoke about how we have to give to really be part of a community. And it made me question if I have given enough. I know I have received, in ways large and small, but have I really given?
I worked hard this past month to open my new office on May 1st, which is a significant date in the college planning world. May 1st is National Decision Day when seniors must decide where they are going to college. I thought it would be a meaningful day to open my doors. And the beautiful article about community gave me an idea for how I can give to my own community.
The whole month of May, I am available to meet with anyone who would like to talk about the college admissions process, free of charge. I am dead serious. Come talk to me for an hour and bring your questions, no strings attached. My real hope is that after an hour, you have enough information that you don’t need any more help. If this sounds unlikely, keep reading.
Several years ago, when I was in the middle of my certificate program at the University of California, Irvine, I heard a local mom lamenting about college admissions. I offered to come over and speak with her children. I met them on a Sunday morning and spent an hour walking them through the steps of finding a good fit for college. Last month, when I posted the news about my office, this parent reached out to me to thank me and update me on where all of their children ended up. Each one of these kids chose a great school, all quite different from each other, but the right fit for the individual student. So, take it from experience, an hour can go a long way.
So if you are stressed or confused, or overwhelmed, or maybe you know someone who is, come talk to me. You can send your child, you can come with your child, or maybe you would like to come alone. Or just come see my office and have a Perrier. My seniors are all settled on their schools and my juniors aren’t in application mode yet, so I have time. Consider it a thank you for all of the times that my community has taken care of and supported me and my family. The article about community is here. I look forward to hearing from you!
I wanted to share an article that was published this spring by NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling). It was written by one of the leaders in college admissions, Jon Boeckenstedt. Jon is the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University. (Go Beavers!) He also two fantastic blogs, Admitting Things and Higher Ed Data Stories. In this article, “8 Things I Wish You Knew About College Admissions”, he provides a concise state of college admissions. He always calls it like he sees it and I hope you find him to be a great resource.
P.S. This is my one hundredth post since I started writing my humble little blog in August of 2016!
THE 8 THINGS I WISH EVERYONE KNEW ABOUT COLLEGE ADMISSION
By Jon Boeckenstedt
Congratulations to the 2020 Muir Award winner, Jon Boeckenstedt, who won for his Admitting Things blog, which is widely respected and seen as a clear, compassionate voice backed up by data. With his finger on the pulse of college admission and enrollment management, his fearless writing insightfully supports our profession and the students we serve. We appreciate him contributing this column.
Perhaps it’s our own fault: We selected this very esoteric profession and we have to put up with the confusion. At least most of us did.
When I started in admission in 1983, it wasn’t an active choice—it was mostly out of necessity. My student loans were coming due and I had to come up with $52.79 every month for the next seven years to repay the $3,500 I had borrowed to get a bachelor’s degree. The economy was tough and I traded one job talking to strangers (selling cable TV door-to-door) for another with a starting salary of $11,000. But at least in this job, the people were interested in talking to me, which makes all the difference for an introvert.
Back then, few people I met or talked to socially seemed to be interested in what I did or even inquired about the facts or the nuances of my job. It was just a job to me and to people who were my friends. They didn’t care about college admission and I didn’t ask about ledgers or legal briefs or journalism.
When admission work—and admission in general—became something else I can’t quite pinpoint. But when our national fascination with the quest for the best came to the forefront, friends and neighbors started asking me a lot of questions, and it was kind of fun to talk about it. What was once just another job became a subject of interest and while I could never fully explain it, I felt it my duty to give it a shot. Looking back, I’m guessing it would take three years of doing the job—the weeks on the road; the file review; the parent, student, and counselor interactions; the same question a thousand times—to have the experience necessary to explain this profession to others.
So, it was interesting and puzzling to me at about that time, to see people who had never done our work start to write about it, opine about it, and make general pronouncements about it.
This has turned out to be considerably less fun than the job I’ve grown to love, because too often, I’ve found, they’re wrong. They might have their facts straight but lack nuance. They might see a few examples and make general pronouncements that don’t hold up under scrutiny. They often make comparisons that seem disparaging or even mean between what we do and what other professions do. They might be victims of their own privileged upbringing, which makes them think their little slice of reality is the only reality.
I’m under no illusions, of course, that a piece in a professional journal will disabuse people of the notions and prejudices they carry with them, but I have a bad habit of, in the words of the late great newspaper columnist Molly Ivins (quoting a politician from Texas), “beating my head against a dead horse.” As someone who almost didn’t go to college at all, I think making a difference in the lives of students is worth it, even if I’ll never know how many–if any–I’ve influenced. And, of course, I think the work we do is special and worth defending. So, here I sit with my keyboard, trying to distill over 35 years into a few thousand words.
To that end, I’ve pulled together a list of the big things people misunderstand or get wrong about what we do for a living, and I’ve added a few thoughts to steer them in the right—excuse me—in my direction. Here goes:
Admission is not a process of skimming the “best” off the top. In the first place, we can’t define “best.” But even if we could, selecting a class of nothing but “the best” would be pretty boring, the process wouldn’t need people to do it, and the outcome wouldn’t be very interesting. With intellectual life at the center of any university, “interesting” is important, but that’s hard to explain. Parents know they don’t always hire the applicant with the most years of experience, or the best GPA, or the one who graduated from the brand-name university, but it’s still hard for them to grasp how admission works, especially at the most selective institutions. In the words of Femi Ogundele at University of California—Berkeley, admission should be looking for “excellence, not perfection.”
Of course we think about money. A colleague once told me, “Without margin, there is no mission.” You can’t run a university on good deeds and goodwill. The electric company wants cash each month; the faculty expect their paychecks will hit their accounts on the last day of the pay period; and test tubes and superconducting nuclear magnetic spectrometers aren’t free. Too many people think “not-for-profit” means “charity.” It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. What makes us different is where we draw the line: Profit is not our motivator.
Graduation rates are inputs, not outputs. Malcolm Gladwell clarified selection effects and treatment effects in his terrific article on college admission in The New Yorker. You don’t become beautiful by going to modeling school; you’re selected because you’re beautiful to start with. That’s a selection effect. You don’t get chosen to become a marine; what happens in basic training makes you one. That’s a treatment effect.
Similarly, if your selection process admits mostly children of wealthy, college-educated parents, who have known since third grade that they’re expected to graduate from college, or if you can provide extraordinary financial assistance to that small group of students who don’t fall into that category, your graduation rates are going to be high. It’s another example of selection effect. Your graduation rate is inversely related to the amount of risk you take in the admission process. If you take few risks in admission, your graduation rates are going to be a lot higher.
We don’t really live in a meritocracy. I once heard University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Harry Brighouse speak about the differences in the US and British education systems and a point he made has stuck with me. In America, he said, we think merit and achievement are the same thing. But no one, he pointed out, gets to achieve anything unless someone invests in them, so students who are the beneficiaries of that investment might have achieved a great deal—but that’s not the same thing as merit. It does explain, however, why people who can invest in their children might equate the two.
It means that wealth looks good on applications when trying to measure “merit” if what you’re really looking for is achievement. And it means, of course, that “merit aid” flows to students who have had the benefit of parental or societal investment, and those students are not always the ones who need it or deserve it. It’s just a way to justify the practice. Instead of being agents of social change, the admission office may be at the heart of the problem of educational inequity, usually, at the behest of the powers in the university.
Standardized tests aren’t academic qualifications. Some parts of the SAT and ACT clearly measure what a student has learned. If that’s all they measured, they’d maybe (big maybe) be useful tools in the admission process. They also—to a greater or lesser degree—measure emotional control, speed processing, and formal preparation and practice, among other things, which may or may not be valuable in college. Choosing the “right” answer from four given might be a skill you’d rather have than not, but good luck applying it in philosophy class.
We have no standardized American high school curriculum, so we’re giving these tests to many students who have never had the opportunity to learn the content, through no fault of their own. The tests don’t measure “aptitude” or “native ability” and never have, despite the monikers once attached to them. And as barriers to the gated communities of academia, they serve merely as minor obstacles to the wealthy, and impenetrable impediments to those without the social, financial, and cultural capital to overcome them. In that sense, they are great tools to use in perpetuating inequality.
Virtually every lawsuit suggesting that admission processes are illegal is based on the premise that “I was more qualified because my test scores were higher.” Pull that premise out from underneath and watch the argument collapse on itself.
There is no such thing as need-blind admission. While it’s true that at many colleges the admission officer can’t see FAFSA data, that would be FAFSA-blind admission.
The fact is that you can see need in almost every line of most applications and you’d have to be willfully ignorant not to recognize it. Put aside for a minute that most colleges don’t have sufficient application volume to even have the luxury of considering ability to pay. Those that do expect successful applicants to have most of the trappings of wealth: the AP classes available at well-resourced schools, great personal statements honed for weeks or months with professionals; high test scores bolstered by months of test prep; letters of recommendation written by teachers who are trained in workshops by the very people reading them; leadership or stellar accomplishments enabled by private lessons or the freedom from after-school jobs; and often college-educated parents who call the institution their alma mater. Only when colleges consider race and ethnicity do lower-income and first-generation students with high need get a chance at a break in the process. That, of course, is the one thing people with all the other advantages like to complain about the most.
We don’t always set the agenda, but we’re expected to carry it out. People who blame the admission office might be right to a point. But the university mission and the strategy to accomplish it, as well as the objectives the dean or director or vice president gets measured against, are set much higher up the food chain. A good admission or financial aid function can and should serve as the nexus between external markets and the internal workings of the academy, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Boards of Trustees are often filled with businesspeople, some of whom don’t understand—and don’t always like—the way colleges run.
Admission isn’t a crap shoot, but it ain’t rocket science either. Very few colleges admit many, if any, unqualified students into their institutions. And while it’s easy to predict how a class will perform, it’s much harder to predict how an individual student will perform. That’s what makes admission so frustrating and so rewarding at the same time. The average GPA of the freshman class after one year is almost pre-ordained; but some superstars will flunk out and some of those students you took a chance on will become stars themselves. The illusion of precision in admission is a fairy tale we tell ourselves.
I couldn’t have imagined when I set out on my first admission trip that I’d still be connected to the profession almost four decades later, and I suppose I couldn’t have believed we’d have to be explaining and defending what we do and how we do it. It’s important, I think, for us to admit when we don’t live up to the expectations we set for ourselves, but it’s also important to defend and provide context for the people who talk about, write about, and legislate for our profession. We’re the ones who live the reality of the work, both the rewards and risks, and at certain times, it’s an 18-hour a day job we all love.
I hope you agree that what we do is worth defending and worth fighting for.
Jon Boeckenstedt is vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.
“Once I’m into a school, I don’t have to worry about showing any interest right? I’ve been flooded with emails about virtual events from XXXXX and XXXXXX.”
~A nervous senior ’21
I am posting this piece on April 1st. Traditionally, by this date, all colleges have released their decisions and students have until May 1st to commit to a school. But this is the class of 2021 and everything is in flux. Some of the most selective schools in the country have pushed back their notification dates after April 1st and like last year, I anticipate that colleges will extend the deadline to submit a deposit for August.
The pendulum swings when colleges have released their admission decisions and they are trying to bring in their freshman class. If you are a senior, up until now, the colleges held all the cards. You were courting them and seeking an an acceptance. Now the dynamic has shifted 180 degrees; the colleges are courting you. Every school wants to yield the best class that they can, so they pepper you with emails about their programs, campus life and graduation outcomes. The student that I quoted above received so many communications that he actually thought that if he did not respond, they might rescind his admission!
So after a long journey in the admission cycle, students hold the power. Enjoy this phase where colleges that have accepted you shower you with love. And take advantage of all the opportunities to learn more about the schools if you are still trying to decide. And if a deadline is approaching and you need more time, you are well within your rights to reach out to colleges and ask for an extension. Congratulations on your acceptances and good luck!
“Some parents feel embarrassed about their lack of savings or feel bad that they do not earn enough to allow their kids to choose among colleges, debt free. Please don’t. The chances are very good that you have done the best you could…Don’t measure yourself against other families, either; nobody really talks about this stuff, and you can’t possibly know which families have generous grandparents…who is pulling six figures from their home equity…or is in five figures of credit card debt.”
The Price You Pay For College by Ron Lieber
Colleges categorize themselves two ways when it comes to financial aid, need-blind or need-aware. The former means that they do not consider whether or not a student needs financial assistance when they make their admission decision. The latter means that they have a fixed amount of financial aid resources and this can impact whether a student is admitted or denied.
In theory, on the other side of the table, I suppose we should have cost-blind and cost-aware families. But I have yet to meet a cost-blind family. Almost every family I work with is cost-aware. Even if they have the resources to comfortably spend more that $300,000 on an undergraduate degree, they question the cost.
If you are entering the the college planning stage of parenthood, and I would say this begins when you have a high school student, and you are wondering how to negotiate the quagmire of financial aid and scholarships, I strongly suggest you pick up Ron Lieber’s book, The Price You Pay For College: An Entirely New RoadMap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. This book is a complete primer on how families are evaluated to determine if they qualify for financial aid, the forms that need to be submitted and how to proceed if you make to much to get any need-based aid but not enough to pay for the full cost.
Lieber writes as a business reporter from The New York Times as well as a parent of college-bound children. He addresses every aspect of this process, from the history of how the system evolved and developed, to the deep emotions that are connected to sending a child to college and paying for it. For $27.99, this book is chock full of useful, hands-on information and I highly recommend it.
In a topsy-turvy year, amidst a global pandemic, college admissions has been dynamic to say the least. As we come down the final stretch for the 2021 application cycle, we enter the most intense part-acceptances and denials for the regular decision round. Up until now students have answers from ED, EA and rolling schools (a primer for the acronyms is here) as well as some colleges that have already released decisions for their regular deadline applicants. But March 1st we enter the final leg of the journey, before the pendulum swings in the other direction. (I will write more about this in April)
If you or your senior is nervously waiting for the decisions that will be released in the next five or so weeks, here are a few of my predictions:
~Full pay students will be coveted. I know this is not fair (see below) but this is reality. Colleges have been hit with the double-whammy of reduced revenue as students make other choices about their education during the pandemic coupled with the soaring costs of testing, contact tracing, PPE and other pandemic related expenses. The truth is that all but the most well-endowed schools need students that can bring economic resources to their colleges.
~The decisions are going to be chaotic and not always make sense. You might see students admitted to reaches, denied at their 50-50 schools and wait listed at their high probability colleges. It is going to be unpredictable.
~The wait list in a regular year is purgatory. Schools often put more students on the wait list than they have in their freshman class. It is fine to pursue a spot on a wait list but I advise students to review their acceptances, commit to one of them and get excited about attending that college.
But this year I think things could be different and here is why. The data so far says that more applications were sent by the same number of students that normally apply. The dramatic increase in applications is not because more students are applying to college, rather the same number of students are applying to more colleges. After the decisions are all released, these students can only accept a spot at one school. And the data analytics that help colleges predict the yield from their applicant pool does not work as well when the applications soar and the colleges do no have the usual information for their algorithms to be accurate. So I think the wait lists will be large this year, but for once, I think they could be active and create a domino effect.
~The next round of decisions will not be fair. Families that are going through this process, but especially in 2021, should not look for “fair” I always tell the adolescents in my life that if they want fair, they should look for a ferris wheel. When the final decisions come down, remember this sentiment which is often cited in the college admissions world-college admission decisions are about the college not the student.
No one in this industry writes better than Rick Clark, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology. If you want to read the perspective of someone on the very frontlines of college admissions, his latest piece is titled “Predicting Yield in 2021: Everyone Shorts It” is here. Enjoy!
Congress made changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in the pandemic relief bill that they passed over the Christmas holidays. The FAFSA is used to determine how much financial aid a student is eligible to receive. I have been reading and researching the changes so I could write a piece to explain the specific differences and how they might impact families. I came across an interview with two leaders in the financial aid world and I realized that just sharing this piece would provide more coherent information than I could ever put together. If you want to get a handle on how these changes could effect you, look no further than this interview with Lynn O’Shaughnessy of The College Solution and Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally-recognized expert on financial aid. I have followed them both for years and I have learned so much from their deep expertise. The link is below. I hope you find this interview as informative as I did.
I am writing this as a follow up to my recent blog, Class of 2021, Fasten Your Seatbelts!. I have a few more points that I want to share. If you have a student that is headed to college in the next year or two, I hope they are useful for you.
~Many colleges have moved their regular decision release dates later in the spring, due to soaring application levels. I think we might see more colleges announcing a new date to allow themselves time to review the voluminous applications that they have received.
~Last spring, as the pandemic imposed so many changes, colleges moved back the traditional May 1st deposit deadline. They did this to allow seniors more time to evaluate their options and make a decision. I anticipate that many schools will offer a later deposit date in 2021.
~The wait list experience could be different this year. Normally I tell students that it is fine to pursue a spot on the wait list of any college that has invited them to do so. But they need to decide where to attend from the colleges that have already accepted them and realize that this is most likely the campus where they will enroll. This year, because students applied to more colleges, and the analytics that colleges use to protect yield do not have the data to predict as accurately as they have in the past, I think that wait lists might be quite active and the summer could be interesting.
~If you are the parent of a senior and your student is making a final decision about where to attend college next August, I would take a long look at two things. First, I would look at the school’s finances, to determine how stable they are. Second, I would investigate if ( almost every school has had to do this) and how they have tightened their belts and what impact this has had on their campuses. Are they laying off professors? Cutting teams? Eliminating departments? You do not want to have your child matriculate to a program that is about to be shut down by the school.
If I come up with any more important points to share, I will be sure to write Post #3!
January 1st is the regular decision deadline for many colleges in this country. Numerous schools publish data about the applications that they have received at this time of year. Below is the information that several colleges have shared about their applicant pools. Take a look and see what you think. I will share my thoughts too.
~Duke University has announced that they received just over 49,500 applications, an increase of almost 10,000 from last year.
~Harvard College received 57,000 applications, a 42% increase over the 40,248 students that applied last year.
~Brown University has an increase in applications of 26%. They had 46,469 students apply, 9,675 more than last year.
~Colgate University went from 8,582 applications to 17,392, an increase of over 100%!
~Amherst College received 13,930 applications in the regular decision round, an increase of 31%.
~Stanford announced that they have moved back their release date for regular decision to April 9th, due to a “notable increase in our application numbers”.
~The University of Vermont has increased their applications this year by 40% over last year.
~Tufts University’s application pool increased by 35%, to 31,190.
~The Ivy League decision day is traditionally on or before April 1st. This year, several members have announced that due to an increase in applications, the date to release admission decisions has been pushed back to April 6th.
Where did all of these applications come from and what does it mean for the class of 2021? I think that there are two core pandemic-related factors driving this increase. The first one is that the majority of colleges in this country were forced to become test-optional due to the pandemic limiting the availability of the ACT and the SAT. Students that had superb academic profiles and nationally recognized extracurriculars and athletics, but did not have the scores that match suddenly were able to consider a whole new range of schools that they might not have applied to if test scores were required.
The second factor driving this boom in applications is that these students were not able to visit campuses in the spring, summer and fall, before they had to apply. Many seniors decided to cast a wide net and apply to more schools, see where they get in and then go visit in the spring of their senior year.
So if you are a senior or the parent of a senior, what does all of this mean? My suggestion is that you fasten your seatbelts because I think this spring admission season is going to be absolutely unpredictable.