Still waiting around…

In this post, I continue to look at the waiting list and factors that can make this process so stressful for students. Chief among these factors is the mountain of advice available to those in waiting list limbo. A quick Google search this week for “what to do when you’re on a waiting list for college” yielded about 95,000,000 results, and a random look at some of the search results revealed lots of contradictory information. For just about every action advised in the articles I read, it was possible to find other articles telling students NOT to take that action.

I have paraphrased below some of the “point-counterpoint” advice I found across multiple sites:

Be persistent.
Don’t be a pest.

Launch a heavy-duty marketing campaign, and if you have a gimmick you can use to distinguish yourself, use it. It can’t hurt.
Don’t go overboard, and don’t rely on gimmicks. You’ll only look desperate.

Do what the college tells you to do, and nothing more.
Work the system, and use any connections you and your parents have to help make your case for admission.

Visit the campus and ask for an interview.
Stay away from the campus, because being around all the newly-admitted students will just make you feel bad.

With all the contradictory information available to students, it is hard for them to discern which information matters and which does not. (An engineer might look at this situation and say that the “signal to noise ratio” is way out of whack.) Things are further complicated because procedures for students on the waiting list are not standardized: there are multiple “signals” that students must pick out from the surrounding “noise.”  So around and around we go…often with the result that much time and effort is expended by students, parents, and college counselors in pursuit of an outcome which may be highly unlikely.

Another quirk of this process is that no matter how unlikely the possibility of being admitted from a given waiting list may be, students often feel that the school where they are waitlisted is somehow superior to the school or schools where they hold offers of admission. Sometimes the reason for this is clear – when the school where the student has been waitlisted is more well-known than the schools where the student has been admitted, or when the waitlisted school is in a more desirable location, for example. There are lots of times, though, when a student’s reasons for preferring a school where s/he hasn’t been admitted remain obscure. (Even to the student him or herself.) There’s an “X factor” at work: it seems that there is just something about the possibility of admission which makes it more compelling than an actual offer of admission.

That “X factor” may be linked to the dopamine reward system in the brain. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here, but will borrow economist Robert Shiller’s summary of several neuroscientific studies on this subject. Shiller writes: “…uncertainty that takes the form of a chance of a future reward is itself stimulative. Nature has built into our brains a tendency to savor the possibility of future rewards…the mere presence of uncertainty in a positive direction creates a pleasurable sensation, so the reward system creates an incentive to take on risky positive bets.” (For more, see Shiller’s book, Finance and the Good Society, chapters six and twenty-one. These quotes come from pages 139-140.)

Viewed through the lens provided by these research findings, it’s easy to see how behaviors related to the waiting list can escalate so quickly. If actions taken in the service of a possible future reward elicit a pleasant neuro-chemical response , it’s not surprising that some students (and parents) pull out all the stops on receipt of a waiting list offer, and spend the month of April trying every tactic they can think of to make that “WL” morph into an “Admit.” The pursuit becomes an end in itself, and the neuro-chemical fun is in the chase, not the outcome. This, come to think of it, may explain why a student will fervently pursue a waiting list spot at a college, receive an offer of admission from that school…and then turn it down.

There are, of course, lots of other plausible reasons why students pursue waiting list offers: some feel that the school where they’ve been waitlisted is truly the only place they will be happy; some feel insulted by being placed on a waiting list, and hope to recover their pride with an eventual admit decision; some students are “trophy hunters,” trying to rack up as many admit offers as they can before the cycle ends; some face pressure from parents, friends, and others in their social group to try to convert the WL to A. The neuroscientific perspective adds another layer of interest to a discussion of waiting list behavior, though, and is intriguing to consider.

The craziness that the waiting list period incurs, regardless of its source, makes this time challenging for students, parents, and college counselors.  On days when things seem bleak, though, it’s reassuring to remember that things turn out well in the end for the majority of students.

In the New York Times “Choice” blog on April 8, Marie Bigham related an interesting anecdote. She cited a college that surveyed its students as entering freshmen, only to find that a significant number said the school was not their first choice. However, by the time those same students were re-surveyed as juniors, a majority asserted that the college was their first choice as freshmen. What a difference those two years made!  I’m sure that many college counselors can share similar stories of students who (anywhere from a few weeks to a few years after the admissions process has concluded) are 100% happy with their chosen college, and can’t imagine why they ever thought any other school else was the right choice.

These observations should be reassuring to students struggling with their options this month. And though it may be hard for them to believe right now, they’ll ultimately realize that the key to success lies in not in any one particular college, but in themselves and in what they make of the opportunities a college education presents.  As one former student of mine counseled a classmate struggling to make a decision: “You’ll be fine.  You just need to trust the force, Luke!”

Luke

It isn’t yes, it isn’t no…what the heck is it?

In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties many students face when making a final decision about which college to attend. In this post, I want to begin to look at issues surrounding the waiting list.

Like the rest of the college admissions process, waiting list protocol has become more complex and confusing over the last several years. Where once a waiting list may simply have been a kind of “enrollment insurance policy” for colleges and carried a straightforward message, “you weren’t quite strong enough to make the first cut, but hold on for a few weeks and we’ll see if space in the entering class becomes available,” the uses and messages a waiting list carries are anything but simple these days.

In addition to that “traditional” waiting list message, here are just a few examples of the meanings that may underlie a waiting list offer:

* You aren’t quite strong enough to admit, but you applied from a high school where we don’t see much activity. We don’t want to turn you down flat and discourage other students from applying in future years.  
* Your academic profile isn’t strong enough to justify admission, but you have a personal quality or some sort of tie to the college which makes a flat deny out of the question.
* You are an admissible student, but we want to test your interest in our college before we say yes.

From college to college, there is little consistency or standardization of waiting list use, meaning, or advice on what (if any) additional steps a student should take to remain on the list. As a result, students are often at a loss when they receive the “limbo letter.” Though many colleges include “waiting list FAQs” that offer helpful information, unfortunately, this often becomes just one piece in the mosaic of (often contradictory) advice students receive about “what to do if you’re wait-listed.”

Not surprisingly, then, student reactions to receiving a waitlist letter are quite varied. Here are a few I’ve observed:

Surprise: I always thought I’d get a yes or a no, not a maybe.
Chagrin: I did all that work on the application, and they can’t even give me a clear decision?
Reciprocal disinterest: The college doesn’t want me, so I’m done with it.
Increased ardor: The college(s) that waitlisted me is/are the only one(s) I really want to attend. I need to follow up with all of them!
Dismay at expanding time horizon: Oh, man, I thought this would all be over by May 1. Now I have to hang on till sometime in the summer?
Confusion: Why did colleges with similar admissions standards give me different decisions?
Confusion: Why will one college accept a lot of additional information about me when I’m on the waiting list, when another college discourages me from sending anything more than a short update?
Confusion: If I’m admitted from the waiting list, why will one college give me ten days to decide and another college ask for a decision within 24 hours?

What I have come to recognize about the waiting list process is that it so completely embodies and elicits the idiosyncrasies, uncertainty, and panic-driven behavior that percolate through the rest of the admissions process, on the college side and on the applicant side.  It offers the single best demonstration of the volatility and unpredictability that are rife in the admissions process…and the single best demonstration of how individuals and institutions respond to those conditions.

The waiting list period provides a vivid illustration of the mutually constitutive nature of the admissions process.  It’s the college admissions twist on Newton’s third law of motion again: every action taken by one cohort creates an amplified reaction in the opposite cohort. As the demographics and other variables changed in ways that made the admissions process more competitive, students began to submit more applications, which made it harder for colleges to gauge student interest in their institutions and to predict yield. In response to that uncertainty, colleges began placing more students on waiting lists, which in turn created more stress and confusion among students wondering what a spot on the waiting list means, and how they should proceed.

More to come about the waiting list in a subsequent post. For now, I’ll offer this video of Jimmy Cliff, in the hopes that it will provide a musical respite for those in waiting list limbo.

Decisions, decisions…

When it comes to describing this late stage in the annual college admissions cycle, TS Eliot got it just right.

“April is the cruellest month” (The Wasteland)

“In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

For me, those two lines perfectly capture the mindset of students trying to make final choices about which college to attend.

The challenge of saying “yes” to one college and “no” to others often takes students by surprise, I’ve found. Most seniors enter the admissions process so focused on figuring out where to and how to apply to college, and so het up about whether they will get in anywhere that they can’t think much beyond submitting their applications. As a result, when April arrives, students fortunate enough to have more than one offer of admission are flabbergasted to discover that making a final choice about which school to attend can be the hardest part of the whole process. This can be true even when one of the admission offers has come from the college long labeled a “first choice.” Oddly, for some students, once several offers of admission are on the table, the offer from that “first choice” college appears less desirable.

Throughout April, many seniors struggle valiantly to compare their options. They make endless “pro” and “con” lists, seek eleventh-hour epiphanies by attending on or off-campus yield events for admitted students, and push the final decision right down to the deadline, creating much angst for themselves in the process.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Dan Ariely’s research on aversion to loss, and how this can prevent us from closing doors on our options: it certainly plays a prominent role as students weigh their college possibilities. (It is especially active in those students who end up double-depositing.) However, I think there is another factor which causes students to struggle with the decision process. I think students hit a wall in the decision process when they find that the “right” answer isn’t the same as the “true” answer.

Stanley Fish explored this distinction between the “right” answer and the “true” answer in a column for the NY Times several years ago. It seems to me that the distinction between the two has relevance for this stage of the admissions process, as well. As students weigh options prior to making a final enrollment decision, they may feel that the “right” choice is the college with the most prestige, or the best financial aid offer, or the one favored by family, friends, or their high school community. Problems arise when the “true” choice, the college they feel is best for them, isn’t the same as the “right” choice.

If the “right” choice and the “true” choice are one in the same, all is well.  But when the “right” choice and the “true” choice are not aligned, students are really in a bind. No one wants to make the wrong decision, especially when the stakes are perceived to be so high. In a time when your choice of college is widely presumed to make or break your future, the pressure is intense.

As I watch students wrestle with their decisions, I often wish there was a magic way to bestow the gift of perspective, to let students look into the future and see that they will be successful no matter which college they choose.  Students on the horns of the “right” vs. “true” dilemma and who are feeling pressure to choose the college with the most prestige, sometimes are relieved to hear about accomplished people who didn’t attend a college or university ranked in the US News “top ten.” Currently, I’m citing Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, who went to Auburn University, and Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, who went to the University of Maryland. I’m also mentioning Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, who has the distinction of having dropped out of two colleges – Northeastern University and UMass at Boston. Conversely, I always like to point out that Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a., the Unabomber) went to Harvard.

Other students find it helpful to read a terrific column that David Brooks published in 2004: “Stressed for Success.” I’ve been referring students to this ever since it was first published, and Brooks’s advice still rings true.  

And if all else fails, I bring out my literary big gun, and offer the quote below from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It resonates especially with those who didn’t receive an offer of admission from a particular college they had fallen in love with. I find that it is helpful on two levels – some students find the message itself reassuring, and other students will force themselves to make a decision just so they don’t have to hear me quote Proust again. But hey, whatever works! May 1 isn’t all that far off.

We do not succeed in changing things according to our desire, but gradually our desire changes. The situation that we hope to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant. We have not managed to surmount the obstacle as we are absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us around it, let us pass it, and then if we turn round to gaze at the road past, we can barely catch sight of it, so imperceptible has it become.