Spinning plates and forecasting the future

No matter which side of the admissions desk you are on, January is a particularly challenging month. Though each part of the admissions cycle brings its own tasks and stresses, January is the month when these jobs seem most similar to the plate-spinning act on the old Ed Sullivan show. So many things to keep in motion at the same time!

Counselors on the high school side, recovering from the frenetic activity of the fall (running all sorts of workshops and programs for seniors and their parents, shepherding the application processes of their students, writing letters of recommendation, and hosting college visitors) are dealing with the aftermath (good, bad, or deferred) from the early decision/early action rounds, talking with seniors and their parents who are concerned about the content and timing of first-semester grade reports being sent to colleges, and then, shifting perspectives entirely, gearing up in their work with juniors (and sometimes sophomores, too) who see college on their horizons in a more immediate way this semester.

On the college side, counselors who just finished a crazy run of travel, followed by early application reading and notifications, are consumed by the sprint to spring, during which the bulk of applications must be reviewed and “decisioned,” plans for spring travel and on-campus yield programs must be finalized, and prospects for the incoming class of 2014 must be attended to. And all while concurrently checking incoming enrollment deposits and performing the calculus involved with hitting their institutional enrollment targets.

On both sides of the admission desk, the activity devoted to assessing lives and contemplating future possibilities for those lives is intense.

Coincidentally, the topic of assessing lives and contemplating future possibilities is getting a fair amount of media attention right now, with the release of “56 Up,” the latest installment in the wonderful documentary series directed by Michael Apted. In preparation for viewing “56,” I recently re-watched the earlier films in the series. For those who aren’t familiar with the so-called “Seven Up” saga, the quick summary is that Apted has followed the same group of British men and women since they were children, interviewing them and producing a new film at roughly seven-year intervals. The original premise was linked to an exploration of the class system in Britain, and took as its starting point the maxim: “Give me a child when he is seven, and I will show you the man.” For more background, there is an overview of the films and an interview with Apted in this segment which aired Jan. 6 on the CBS Sunday Morning program. Spoiler alert: this segment samples from all of the “Up” films, so if you’d rather let the individual life stories unfold in sequence and maintain the suspense, watch the films (all available on Netflix) before you see this.

It has been fascinating to see the many and often unexpected twists and turns in the lives of the participants throughout the films. Character often remains consistent, as do patterns in professional pursuits across time, but the series, with its now decades-long perspective, clearly and beautifully demonstrates how lives unfold over time in unpredictable ways.

That’s not an earth-shaking insight, but it is something we often forget when we are consumed by the college admissions frenzy. The application and admissions process is all about assessing an applicant based on information from a short period in his or her life, and making a prediction about whether that applicant will thrive during the narrow frame of time he or she spends at a particular college. It’s outside the scope of the application review task – and certainly beyond anyone’s capabilities – to predict how a life will transpire across the years. And yet, as I mentioned in my previous post, we’re often tempted to read more into an offer of admission that we should; to see it as a validation of a student’s accomplishments and sure-fire prediction of success for the future.

When our vision is constrained by the short-term competitive drama of the admissions process, we lose the long view. We forget the fact (so capably demonstrated in the “Up” films) that the range of a life extends further than we can see at any one time. Moreover, we lose sight of the fact that the interval of applying to, being admitted to, and attending a particular college is only a small marker on the landscape of that life.

Apropos of this, the “Up” films point to an interesting cultural difference between the US and UK. Of the fourteen original participants in the “Up” films, six completed university degrees. One of the others started university and but left before earning a degree, and the rest never attended university. Yet all of the participants report that they are happy and satisfied overall with their lives, and none of them talk about the university experience or lack thereof as being a significant influence on their happiness. And regardless of social background and financial situation, the participants don’t focus on university attendance as a “must” for their children. Granted, the films were never intended to be a rigorous social scientific study, so one has to issue the usual caveats about small and unrepresentative sample size, the fact that the films have been edited with an eye toward a particular narrative arc, etc., but it is interesting that the topic of university admissions is so absent from the filmed interviews.

For that reason, among many others, I think anyone in the college admissions field will find the entire “Up” series makes engrossing (though lengthy!) viewing. Those of you with lots of applications to read in the coming weeks may want to defer the viewing till spring, though – once you start the series, it’s difficult to stop.

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