On knowing, choosing, and sneaking up on colleges

In August, two separate news items dealing with how we come to know something and how we make choices caught my attention.

In an OpEd piece in the New York Times, psychologist Daniel Wegner wrote that ” it feels as though I know something if I can find it with Google.  Technically, of course, I don’t know it.  But when there’s a smartphone or iPad within reach, I know everything the internet knows.  Or at least, that’s how it feels.”

I thought of the “curious feeling of knowing” Wegner wrote about when I subsequently heard that approximately 10% of people bought a car this past year without first taking it for a test drive.  (That’s up from about 6% of people who did so in the previous year.)  I understand that this would be an appealing option for people who would rather avoid the pressured sales strategies some auto dealers use, but this is also a great example of just what Wegner is talking about — because you research a car online, you come to feel you know it, so a test drive seems unnecessary.

The idea that the wealth of online information gives consumers the sense that they know a car so well that they don’t need the direct experience of a test drive before they buy it hit home for me.  I think this practice of making a decision based largely on information gathered online (I call this making a decision by proxy) can be seen as students choose colleges to apply to.

For the last few years, college admissions officers have commented on the increase of “stealth applicants” in their candidate pools.  With a “stealth applicant,” the admissions office has no previous record of that student requesting information about the college, attending a recruitment event, or visiting the campus, for example.  The application is the first contact between student and school.  Stealth applicants frustrate admissions professionals who track applicant interest to predict a student’s likelihood of enrollment, but the practice makes perfect sense from the student perspective.

High school students, eager and adept denizens of the online world, are often comfortable relying on the information they glean “remotely.”  Many students are stressed and busy during the senior year of high school, so substituting online research for more time-consuming contact with a college admissions representative or a potentially costly (and also time-consuming) visit to a campus, is undeniably efficient.  And as those of us who work with high school students know, the anxiety they feel about the future in general makes them crave the security of a decision — any decision — to give some shape and structure to the great unknown which is life after high school graduation.

It isn’t easy to live with uncertainly, and there are times in all of our lives when any decision can seem better than no decision.  This isn’t one of those times, though.  This can be a “teachable moment” if students can be encouraged to understand that the college search process isn’t just about building “the list” of schools to apply to.  This process is also about becoming discerning users of the many available sources of information as they make decisions, and most importantly, about learning to trust themselves to make a good decision, once all the information has been evaluated.

Here are a few suggestions for high school seniors who are in the midst of the choice process now:

*  Question your sources of information.  Much has been written elsewhere about the limited reliability of the many college discussion websites, where the posted opinions of a disgruntled few can lead one to think that they represent an entire student body.  I won’t rehash the drawbacks inherent in substituting college rankings and ratings for your own research, but I will point out that recent revelations of colleges falsifying the data they submit to the ranking agents further diminish the utility of these rankings.

*  Know when to say when.  More information isn’t necessarily going to make the decision process easier for you.  Psychologist Barry Schwartz has noted that an overload of options and a seemingly endless amount of information about those options can hinder our ability to make thoughtful choices, and lessen our satisfaction with the choices we make.  His book The Paradox of Choice is recommended reading for anyone who wants to pursue those ideas further.

*  Keep yourself in the picture.  When you’re looking at rankings or reading comments about colleges in blogs or on any of the opinion-based college information sites, it’s easy to be swayed by the power of the printed word.  And when your friends and relatives have 1001 opinions about colleges, it can be hard to develop and defend your own ideas about the suitability of a particular choice.  It’s hard to trust your own feelings and conclusions when it’s always possible to find a counter-argument or two.   But when you’ve done some prior thinking about the factors that are most important to you, and your research draws from multiple sources (including direct contact with a college, its students, and/or one of its admissions representatives) you’re ready to make a choice and move on to the next step…filling out the applications.


A shorter and slightly different version of this post appeared as an Op-Ed in the Oregonian newspaper, Sept. 29, 2012



Déjà vu or déjà new?

College counselors and admissions officers are in an interesting position relative to that of the students with whom they work. Those in the admissions profession see the recruitment and enrollment cycle repeat each year, while the vast majority of students go through the process only once, and experience each phase of the cycle as brand new.

For admissions officers, the cycle goes something like this: recruit, review, enroll, repeat. Staff members master a basic narrative about the academic and social opportunities, and the fundamentals of cost and financial aid at their institutions, and they’re on their way. The recruitment season then involves providing this information over and over again, in a variety of contexts: during visits to high schools, at information sessions with groups large or small, on campus or in a designated recruiting territory, through interviews, and by phone and email. Each day and each venue brings a new set of students (and sometimes parents or others) usually starting from the ground up as they learn about the institution. Given the annual timetable, the fall recruitment season predictably morphs into the applicant review season, and then into the “encourage admitted students to enroll” season. At each step along the way, experienced admissions officers are veteran guides with a group of new explorers. After weathering a cycle or two, it becomes possible for the guides to anticipate which questions will arise and when, as the explorers traverse the landscape.

Though their view of the landscape is different, college counselors also serve as guides for successive groups of novices who enter the college admissions process. Each year students discover colleges anew, they agonize about choosing topics for and writing application essays, they suffer the stress of waiting for decisions, and they make their choices each April. All along the way, students have reactions, responses and insights which are novel to them, but which are often predictable from the perspective of the experienced college counselor.

The cyclic, repetitive nature of the admissions process can seem like the higher ed version of the movie “Groundhog Day” for college counselors and admissions officers.

The tricky thing about college admissions, though, is that the repeating cycles never repeat exactly.

In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil the weatherman could count on seeing Ned the insurance salesman at the same time and place each day, and he knew the precise moment at which the little boy would fall from the tree day after day. While Phil’s days were completely predictable, in college admissions, the outlines of the cycle remain the same, but each year is a new iteration of the one before.

This can be a difficult concept to grasp. The outward similarities in each admissions cycle (timetable, testing requirements, application procedures) can create the impression that the process and outcomes are more predictable than they really are.

And therein lies the rub, felt keenly by those on both sides of the admissions desk.

Admissions officers must constantly take account of internal (campus-based) changes, and external changes (things like revisions to federal financial aid policies or budget cutbacks affecting high school academic programs in a particular recruitment territory) that will have an impact on their ability to recruit and enroll an incoming class of the desired size and with the desired characteristics. College counselors must similarly perform their own annual multi-variable calculus, weighing student academic profiles, individual preferences, and parental input as they help students apply to a group of colleges which (they hope) will result in good outcomes in the spring.

It’s a delicate balancing act for admissions officers and college counselors, especially when their constituents, be they anxious college administrators or anxious students and parents, lack the experience or perspective to see through the appearance of “Groundhog Day” predictability and regularity in the admissions cycle.

It’s more appropriate to say that admissions officers and college counselors live in the shadow of what scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb has labeled a “Black Swan” event.  In his book (The Black Swan), he characterizes such an event as something that “lies outside the realm of regular expectations,” “carries extreme impact,” and has “retroactive (though not prospective) predictability.”

Cover of "The Black Swan: The Impact of t...

Cover via Amazon

In the context of college admissions, a “Black Swan” event might be large or small in scope. It could be something cataclysmic like a Hurricane Katrina, something specific to a particular campus that affects the way it is perceived (for better or for worse) by prospective students, or something occurring within a high school that provokes a change in application behavior. Whatever it is, it will have a significant influence on the recruitment, selection, or enrollment decisions of applicants.

It’s a weird place to work, out there in the space between “Groundhog Day” and the “Black Swan.” But fascinating, nonetheless.  

“It ain’t nothing till I call it”

In January of 2003, the New Yorker magazine ran a short piece by Nick Paumgarten in which the scholar Stanley Fish related one of his favorite baseball stories. The central character was a well-known major league umpire named Bill Klem. Here is the story:

“Klem’s behind the plate…the pitcher winds up, throws the ball. The pitch comes. The batter doesn’t swing. Klem for an instant says nothing. The batter turns around and says, ‘OK, so what was it, ball or a strike?’ And Klem says, ‘Sonny, it ain’t nothing ‘till I call it.’”

The article continued with Fish’s commentary:

“What the batter is assuming is that balls and strikes are facts in the world and that the umpire’s job is to accurately say which one each pitch is. But in fact balls and strikes come into being only on the call of an umpire.”

It seems to me that this story and Fish’s remarks have equal relevance for the college admissions process.

At this moment in our culture, most people are inclined to believe that within the universe of colleges, a separate and select subset of good colleges exists, as “facts in the world.” This explains why college counselors continually hear comments like: “I haven’t heard of that school. Is it a good college?” and “I’m not sure which school I want to go to, I just want to be sure it’s a good college.”

There are many problems with the view that a small subset of objectively derived “good colleges” exists, and that we can rely on designated umpires to say which colleges are which. Chief among these is that most people don’t think carefully about who makes the call as to whether a college is “good” or not. Most often, we regress to the lowest common denominator when choosing umpires to assess what is “good.” Familiarity and name recognition are oft-used arbiters when judging colleges, as in “if we haven’t heard of it, it can’t be a good college.” The US News &World Report (USNWR) and other college rankings often serve as umpires in the college quality sweepstakes. (If it’s in the USNWR top twenty, it’s good, or so the thinking goes.) And selectivity (the percentage of students admitted to a college) is frequently cited as a means of identifying a good college, since many people seem to believe that the more students a college turns away, the better it is. It is undeniably quicker and easier to make use of an outside umpire than to put in the time, do the research, and make the call yourself, but that strategy doesn’t pay off in the long run.

In my work with students, a primary goal of the college counseling process is to help each one understand that a college ain’t nothing – good or bad – till he or she calls it. That is, it’s the individual student’s experience at a particular college that makes the college “good” or not. We all know students who have attended well-known colleges and been unhappy with their experiences there. And the world is full of people who went to less well-known or less selective colleges and who had their lives transformed by fabulous teachers, who made terrific friends, and who have gone on to have happy and successful lives. Deciding whether a college is “good” or not is a complex process, and your individual call may change while you are there, and as you reflect on the place in the years after you leave it.

Ideally, in this phase of their lives, students will be able to take control of their college search and application processes and develop the confidence to make the tough calls at the critical moments. Those of us on the sidelines can remind high school seniors that the process of researching and choosing colleges is simply a new context in which to make use of skills they have been using (we hope!) throughout high school. They are gathering information and analyzing and interpreting the results of their research. These days, however, when college admissions is such a hot topic in the media, students can’t help but be deluged with a range of information and opinions about colleges as they move through the admissions cycle. As a result, they often feel overwhelmed and insecure about making their own independent calls. College counselors see this insecurity surface early in the admissions cycle when students just can’t seem to finalize a list of colleges to apply to, and at the end of the cycle, when students fortunate to have multiple offers of admission struggle to make a final choice about which college to attend. At that point (the bottom of the ninth inning, so to speak) we hope that students will be able to look beyond the shorthand measures of popularity, rankings, and selectivity as they weigh options and make their choices.

Because, really, the individual student will make or break his/her experience at any school. That means that every college can be a “good” college, if the student has the skill, strength, and spirit to make it so.

(Need some motivation to get into the game? Here’s a little inspiration from Frank and Gene.)


A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Head-Royce School magazine, Summer 2007.

Are we better off now?

One of the “historical documents” in my files is the May,1989 issue of Money magazine, featuring this cover:

You have to admit that headline “The Sacrifice of the Children” and the cover image are attention-grabbers. So is the title of the main story inside the magazine: “The Agony of College Admissions.”

The college admissions scene was in bad shape then, at least according to Money magazine.   Is it in better shape now?

On the whole, I’d have to say no.  I think the admissions scene is crazier in 2012 than it was in 1989.  Much has changed on the college side of the admissions process in the past 23 years, but the way the process is experienced by students has not.

Several factors have amplified the stress and pressure high school students feel as they apply to college. In a nutshell, these are:

* Demographics: the number of high school graduates in the US remains at an all-time high, and because many colleges and universities now seek students from all around the world, instead of from their home regions, competition for space in the entering classes at many colleges has increased significantly. Application numbers are up, and where colleges have not increased the size of their entering classes, admission rates are down.

* The prevailing view that there is only a small group of “good” colleges out there. From this follows the proposition that you will only be successful if you attend one of those “good” colleges…which leads to the perception of college admissions as a high-stakes contest. This annual drama of “who gets in” has a strong grip on our attention.

* The explosion of “experts” offering advice and opinion about colleges and the admission process. The questions “what’s the “best school” and “what do I have to do to get in” can be hideously compelling to high school students and their parents. Many publications, websites, and individuals have rushed to help students answer those questions. Particularly interesting to me is the rise of the “citizen counselor” — those individuals who don’t have a lot of experience with the admissions process, but who are able to sell their advice and opinions nonetheless.

* Making the private, public. This is obvious, but the ease with which students can share impressions, anxieties, rumors and wild untruths about the application process with each other has ramped up the stress for everyone involved.

I’ll write more about these topics, among others, in future posts.


Welcome to admissions cafe!

This is the début post of admissions cafe, a blog that explores a range of issues in the world of college admissions.  Part commentary, part advice, the blog will take a 360-degree view of the college admissions field.

Most of what one reads or hears about the college admissions process today tends to stoke the admissions frenzy and focus on the competitive aspects of the process.  Who will get in?  How does the process really work?  How can “contestants” gain an advantage and maximize their chances for success?

I get it — this is drama of the type we seem to crave these days, as evidenced by our fondness for reality-based competition TV shows.  OK, so college admissions isn’t exactly “Survivor,” and it isn’t anything like the “Hunger Games,” (though it’s clear that some students and parents feel as though it is “do or die” on the admissions battlefield) but you can see the similarities — each year a new group of contestants begins the quest and encounters many obstacles along the rough road to the goal.

Not so long ago, the rite of passage that is the college admissions process could be experienced and discussed as a teachable moment in a teenager’s life.  It is still the nexus around which all kinds of personal and societal issues collect.  It’s those issues I want to explore.  I think the prevailing trope of college admissions as a contest obscures questions that are far more interesting, such as:

*  Why do we think the choice of a college matters so much?

*  Does the admissions process always have to feel like a students vs. the colleges battle?

*  What are some of the institutional pressures felt by college admissions staffs that play out in recruitment and selection practices?

* Do academic disciplines such as psychology and neuroscience offer insights that can help us understand the college admissions process?

I am starting this blog to raise those questions (and more like them) and to broaden the discussion about the college admissions process.  Hence the tagline of admissions cafe:  Relax.  Reflect.  Reframe.  Or, to put it another way:  Reject the craziness and reclaim some sanity.

Is this crazily idealistic?  Way, way, too optimistic?

Only time will tell!