…and then something else

Well, now it’s April, and this year’s college admissions cycle is moving into the final phase. Good luck to those students fortunate to have more than one offer of admission, as they try to decide which college to attend!

While the paucity (SAT word!) of my blog posts this year suggests otherwise, I have in fact been busy writing.  I am pleased to announce that the centerpiece volume in my series of books about college admissions is now available as an e-book, (at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) with a print edition to follow in the coming few weeks.

My book, “College Admissions Without the Crazy” isn’t a traditional how-to/task-oriented guide to the admissions process.  Instead, it is student-oriented, and aims to help students understand why they get stuck as they search for, apply to, and choose a college to attend.  It offers the tools and detailed practical advice students need to get unstuck.  “College Admissions Without the Crazy” also offers advice for parents who want to learn how to best assist their children through this educational, social, and developmental rite of passage — and still be on speaking terms with those children when the process concludes.  I hope you will check it out!

What with one thing and another…

…somehow it got to be November, and I’m just posting my first blog entry of this admissions cycle.  Yikes.

On the bright side, one of the projects that had me otherwise occupied this fall has come to fruition.  I am pleased to announce that my e-book, “College Application Essays Without the Crazy” is now available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and other e-book retailers.

“College Application Essays Without the Crazy” helps students cut to the chase and focus on exactly what they need to know in order to write a terrific college application essay.  It is one in a planned series of books — the centerpiece of the series, “College Admissions Without the Crazy,” will be available in print and electronically in the spring of 2015.

 

 

A few more thoughts on winning, losing, and how we talk about the game

Although I don’t really follow football, it was impossible to escape the pre-game media coverage of the February 2 “Superb Owl,” as Stephen Colbert called it.  Still in the mode of thinking about competition narratives, I tuned into the chatter as various commentators previewed the big game.

By all accounts, this match-up was to be an epic struggle. Praise was heaped on both teams for their performance in the regular season. The big game was billed as a contest between the team with the best offense in the nation (Denver) vs. the team with the best defense in the nation (Seattle). With opponents so well matched, many commentators were at a loss when called upon to predict who would win…let alone what the point spread would be. Even the master statistician and prognosticator Nate Silver (author of The Signal and the Noise, and creator of the FiveThirtyEight blog) wouldn’t venture a prediction.

As game day approached, it seemed to me that when pushed, commentators leaned a little bit toward Denver, citing quarterback Peyton Manning’s greater experience as a tip factor for the win. Frank Bruni’s column “Maturity’s Victories” nicely sums up that line of thought. Moreover, Manning has a compelling comeback story, and I think this made some commentators feel that Denver deserved to win.

Be that as it may, the message from the majority of commentators was this: both teams were extremely strong, and this would be A VERY CLOSE GAME.

Which, of course, it wasn’t. Final score: Seattle 43, Denver 8.

This upset led to really entertaining post-game commentary, in which pretty much every sportscaster was forced to account for the unthinkable, the completely unforeseen, the utter “who’d a thunk it” nature of the outcome.

When listening to the post-game rationales, it occurred to me that those covering the event were in a position similar to one that college counselors sometimes find themselves in when admissions decisions are delivered. Sportscasters were talking about the very talented Peyton Manning in the way that college counselors talk about that outstanding kid in the senior class who looked likely to be admitted to several highly selective colleges…but somehow came up short. The kid had everything going for him – every possible qualification that a college could ask for – and yet, inexplicably, was turned down by the schools you’d think would open their doors for such an accomplished fellow.

I had great sympathy for those sportscasters who struggled to explain why Manning and the Broncos were unable to make headway against Seattle. True, Seattle played a great game, but nothing in the Broncos recent performance predicted that they would be so overwhelmed by the Seahawks that day. But with airtime to fill and audiences wanting to know what the heck happened, the pundits scrambled to make sense of the outcome.

On the other hand, I did not have sympathy for the sportscasters who quickly jumped on the “this ruins everything” bandwagon. Those who floated the idea that this particular loss tarnished the Broncos entire season and ruined Manning’s legacy as a player seemed laughably short-sighted to me. Yes, this was one major (and unfortunately really high profile) loss, but this blow-out didn’t diminish the previous achievements of Manning or the Broncos.

For me, the pre-game and post-game coverage drove home three thorny truths of college counseling, sportscasting, and other professions in which the forecasting of future events plays a part:

1. Unexpected outcomes make us uncomfortable. 

2. We hate being uncomfortable, and we want quick explanations of unexpected events – regardless of the fact that the reliability of the explanation frequently varies inversely with the speed with which it is offered. 

3. When the unexpected outcome occurs, it can trigger what I call a “cognitive eclipse.” This is a situation in which the light of common sense is temporarily obscured by the shock of the outcome. Depending on the event and the magnitude of the shock, it will take a greater or lesser amount of time for participants, commentators and the audience to see the light again and recover a sense of perspective. 

For Peyton Manning, who has had lots of experience winning and losing in the public eye, perspective should be restored pretty quickly.  For that outstanding high school senior, less accustomed to dealing with disappointment in a public forum, it will take longer to regain equilibrium.

Since we’re just about to head into decision season for this year’s admissions cycle, it’s worth noting that the single Super Bowl result doesn’t tarnish Manning’s legacy as a quarterback or mean he’s washed up as an athlete. Similarly, being turned down by a college (or colleges) doesn’t eradicate the previous achievements of that outstanding senior or render him a failure.  Sooner or later, the cognitive eclipse and frantic post-outcome commentary that accompany an unexpected outcome will pass.   Inevitably, today’s headline becomes tomorrow’s footnote.

So although it’s understandable to feel like this when the unexpected (and disappointing) outcome occurs:

Picture from "Motivation" in Allie Brosh's great book: Hyperbole and a Half

Picture from “Motivation” in Allie Brosh’s  book:
Hyperbole and a Half

The best plan is to:

Keep-calm-and-carry-on

And the winner is…

Have you noticed how much competition is going on around us right now? From the Rose Bowl to the pro football playoffs in January we segue to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in early February. Meanwhile, a new season of “American Idol” is getting underway, and a cavalcade of entertainment award shows — Golden Globes, SAG Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and Grammys, are here to prime our anticipation (or not) for the Oscars in March.

I’m less interested in the outcomes of these various competitions than I am in the way we discuss the competitions themselves. With athletic and artistic contests so prominent these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between those two types of competition narratives.

Here’s what occurs to me: in a traditional narrative of (non-pharmaceutically enhanced) athletic competition, the individual is acknowledged to have primary control over his or her performance. The disciplined athlete who prepares thoroughly (physically and psychologically) for the event is regarded as the agent of his or her success. In addition, narratives of athletic competition are rife with episodes of the triumph of the human spirit – episodes in which an athlete falling behind is able to “dig deep,” make a supreme effort, and emerge a winner. The essence of the athletic competition narrative is that the individual’s combination of ability (sometimes labeled as talent honed by practice) and effort (sometimes labeled as character or, most commonly right now, “grit”) wins the day. In a contest of equals, the athletic narrative also often refers to the winner as the one who “wants it more,” who has the “eye of the tiger,” and is able to put aside all other commitments in order to attain the prize. The film “Rocky” is a great example of a classic athletic competition narrative.

Ability and effort also matter a great deal in artistic competitions like auditions or award contests, but this realm, it is widely acknowledged that the outcome is quite likely to be subject to factors outside the artist’s control. An actor can “kill” at an audition, but not get the part for any number of reasons. Casting agent Amy Berman discusses this in a blog post titled “26 Reasons Why You Didn’t Get the Part.” Here are a few examples:

* You’re too tall

* You’re too short

* You were the first one to read that day

* You were the last one to read that day

* You look too much like the lead

* You remind the producer of his sister, and he hates his sister

When we stop to think about it, we understand that different types of competition exist and that they have different governing narratives.

Sometimes, though, the nature of a particular competition is unclear. Sometimes, participants enter a contest thinking it is of the athletic, “I’m the agent of my success” type, when in fact the contest is of the artistic, “my ability may be a secondary factor in the outcome” variety.

I thought about this “narrative confusion” recently, as I watched the documentary film “20 Feet from Stardom.” The film (which I highly recommend) looks at the lives of backup singers and the challenges of making the journey from singing backup to being the lead.

Merry Clayton, one of the profiled singers, seemed a sure bet for solo success. She had everything going for her – a fabulous voice, a contract with a top record company, and an outstanding producer who had guided many singers to stardom. She also had a keen desire to be a star – as Darlene Love (another profiled singer) put it: “I think you do, number one, have to have the kill spirit, to really want it. Merry Clayton got the kill spirit.”

And yet, Love continued, “I don’t know why she wasn’t a superstar.”

No one interviewed in the film can say why solo success eluded Merry Clayton. Clayton said that her producer and her record company did a great job promoting her solo albums, and her producer (Lou Adler) echoed this, saying “we did everything possible and it just didn’t take.” There is moment of pathos when Clayton says : “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

As portrayed in the film, Clayton’s story illustrates a collision between athletic and artistic competition narratives. It seems as though Clayton entered the artistic contest thinking that the athletic narrative applied – she expected that her own talent, effort, and desire would propel her to success. To succeed in an artistic competition, though, you need all that – and more.

As Sting says, a bit later in the film: “It’s not a level playing field, it never is a level playing field…It’s not about fairness, it’s not really about talent. It’s circumstance, it’s luck, it’s destiny – I don’t know what it is.”

Clayton’s lack of success as a solo artist is as inexplicable as a superbly talented student’s “deny” decision from a selective college, and a similar confusion about the nature of the competition applies in each case.

The college admissions process is framed as an arena in which the most critical elements are individual ability and effort, with the result that students enter the process thinking they will have more control over the outcomes than they do. They expect that the path from input (all the elements of the application) to outcome will be as straightforward as an athletic competition.  In fact, the admissions process often resembles more closely an artistic competition, in which the outcome is much less clearly related to the visible input.

That’s a tricky thing to explain, though. Individual ability, effort, and desire surely do have an impact on admissions decisions. But so do many factors beyond the applicant’s control. The admissions process (especially at selective and highly selective colleges) is an odd hybrid of a race and an audition.  This is an especially important point to keep in mind when decisions are received.  Students who, despite their outstanding ability and effort (not to mention an abundance of the “kill spirit”) receive waitlist or deny decisions often feel they have lost the race because of some personal failure.  If they can be encouraged to see the admissions process as more of an audition that didn’t go their way for reasons they couldn’t control, it could save them a measure of heartache.    

As I work with families approaching the college admissions process, I try different ways to help them understand the nature of the competition.  So far, portraying the process partly as a race and partly as an audition has been useful. People seem to relate to those tropes.

With that in mind, the advice Berman offers to actors can be equally relevant for college applicants. Swap the ‘audition and casting’ language for ‘application and assembling a freshman class’ language, and see what you think.  

What you must understand is that your only job in an audition is to do your best work. Everything else is not up to you. The role you are reading for is one piece of an entire jigsaw puzzle. It must fit with the rest of the puzzle or the puzzle won’t work. The casting director, producer, and director are fitting pieces of the puzzle together all day long. Your only job is to be the best “piece” you can be. Whether your edges fit in the slot for that piece is not up to you.

Just go to your audition. Do your best and let it go.”

The “tethered child” applies to college

It’s not new to wonder and worry about the impact that parents have on a child’s college application process. (A whole blog in itself could be devoted to the topic of parental infringement in this area.) But after reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I reconsidered the various tasks (literal and developmental, if you will) involved with the college process and the ways in which they are influenced by the technological “tethering” between children and parents, to use Dr. Turkle’s phrase.

Dr. Turkle, a professor at MIT, has spent the last several decades studying people’s relationships with technology. In Alone Together, the third book in her series, she looks at the way our use of computers, mobile devices and social networking influences our notions of self, privacy, and community. Turkle’s observations, though not focused on the ways in which use of technology influences teenagers working through the college admissions process, are highly relevant.

Turkle believes that our “networked” culture has incurred a shift in our ideas about psychological autonomy. Commenting on behaviors she sees in her students – such as texting parents multiple times each day for input and advice about even the smallest of issues – she notes that this lack of separation from the parents would have appeared as a pathology twenty years ago, but now isn’t perceived as at all unusual. (p. 178-79)

Dr. Turkle cites many examples of the ways in which technology has transformed the process through which children separate from their parents and develop a sense of independence. In a chapter called “Growing up Tethered,” Turkle offers this illustration of the way in which possession of a cell phone alters that process: “there used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment, when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cell phone buffers this moment.” (p. 173)

She continues: “In the traditional variant, the child internalizes the adults in his or her world before crossing the threshold of independence. In the modern, technologically tethered variant, parents can be brought along in an intermediate space, such as that created by the cell phone, where everyone important is on speed dial…adolescents don’t face the same pressure to develop the independence we have associated with moving forward into young adulthood.” (p. 173)

It’s often very easy to see “tethering” in practice as a student searches for and applies to colleges, and to see how it reduces a child’s independence. I bet many college counselors have had experiences similar to this: You have a face-to-face meeting with a student to go over some aspect of the college process and answer a question. Within three minutes after the student leaves your office, your phone rings, or a new email arrives. It’s one of the student’s parents, checking in to confirm, ask for clarification, or to refute what you just told the student. In an instant, the parent materialized from the “intermediate space created by the cell phone,” and now you’re dealing with a “we” applying to college, instead of an “I.”

Similarly, filling out and submitting college applications used to be an exercise in the development of independence and self-agency for students. Now, however, the tethered child experiences it as a joint activity, and finds that (though often with the best intentions) parents and others have intervened in ways that undermine his or her ownership of the process. As Turkle observed in other areas of life, technology has abetted this change as well, and has helped to shift the completion and submission of college applications from a solo to a collaborative effort.

Parental over-involvement in the college process predates the technology that enables parents and their children to be in constant contact, but I think our “networked culture” is making this joint participation in the college process a “new normal.” And, as with many technological transformations, it’s a “normal” that we adopted without much consideration of the pros and cons. (Much in the way I upgraded the operating system on my computer before I realized that there were elements of the presentation and functionality of the old system that I strongly preferred!)

By increments, and aided by technology in ways we didn’t necessarily anticipate, I think we’re losing the developmental opportunities that the admissions process presents for students. I view the admissions process as a rite of passage – one that offers lessons in independence, self-confidence, resilience and time management, among other things. Does the technologically “tethered child” still have the opportunity to experience and learn from it in the way previous generations of teenagers did? What is lost when students are increasingly “buffered” from that experience? And what, if anything, can or should we as college admissions professionals do to promote discussion of and reflection on these changes?

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.

Dealing with data

In two recent columns in the New York Times, David Brooks explores “data-ism,” which he describes as the “rising philosophy of the day.” In the February 4 column, he writes: “We now have the ability to gather huge amounts of data. This ability seems to carry with it certain cultural assumptions – that everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology; that data will help us do remarkable things – like foretell the future.” Brooks has an open mind about the benefits and limitations of “data-ism,” and while acknowledging that “the data revolution is giving us wonderful ways to understand the present and the past,” he concludes that the jury is still out on whether the data revolution will “transform our ability to predict and make decisions about the future.”

That “ability to predict and make decisions about the future” is at the heart of the college admissions process, revealed in questions such as: how should I choose which colleges to apply to, what college should I attend, what factors influence a student’s choice to enroll at a particular institution, how many admitted applicants will enroll this year. The field seems to be in a state of flux now, with all parties – prospects and applicants, parents, school counselors, admissions staffs, and the high school and college personnel these latter two groups report to – struggling to come to terms with the flood of data available. Beyond the question of which data to collect lie other, equally important, questions. For example, how does one evaluate the reliability and validity of the data selected? Does our capacity to collect more data mean that we can make better predictions about outcomes? Is it always better to collect more information, or does there come a point at which more information hinders our ability to function effectively?

Brooks’s second column, “What Data Can’t Do,” offers responses to a few of those questions.  He rightly points out that “as we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we’re trying to understand a situation. Falsity grows exponentially the more data we collect.” (Less elegantly, one might say: “Mo’ data, mo’ problems.” ) Brooks also points out that “data obscures values…it’s always structured according to one’s predispositions…” This is an excellent point which should incline us to look closely at the sources of the data we use.

I like the way in which Brooks calls out central concerns in our use of Big Data. As I look at these concerns in the context of college admissions, though, I think it’s important to take a step beyond the data itself. Yes, one should question the underlying “predispositions” or agendas of the individuals or agencies supplying the data we and our students use. However, it is equally important to consider the impact of the filters each of us uses to evaluate that data. All the data in the world won’t necessarily help one make a good decision (or prediction about the future) if one focuses only on those data points which validate a pre-existing conclusion.

Given the masses of information out there, it’s very easy to pick and choose among data available to support one’s desired choice or outcome. Consider the situation Karl Rove found himself in on election night 2012, when he disputed the Fox Network’s pronouncement that Obama would carry Ohio, and thus win the presidency. In what will surely be a classic TV moment, Fox anchorperson Megyn Kelly called him on his selective use of data, asking: “Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”

It’s a tricky thing: as we collect and use data (however imperfectly) to make decisions, we believe ourselves to be acting rationally. However, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out, the way in which we tend to make decisions is not rational at all, but in fact, “predictably irrational.” Ariely’s work demonstrates the ways in which the sub-conscious filters we apply, and the circumstances that surround us when we’re looking at the data, can skew our decisions.

photo 2-001

Ariely has studied the way in which people make decisions about a variety of topics, and his research gives us a useful framework within which to view the ways in which students make choices and decisions about which colleges to apply to, and which to attend.

For example, Ariely highlights the impact of “relativity” on decision making, pointing out that our minds are wired so that “we’re always looking at the things around is in relation to others.” (p. 7) To paraphrase, we need “comparables” in order to make judgments about objects or opportunities. (You can’t, for example, definitively say how good a particular brand of peanut butter is unless you have sampled more than one brand. ) So far, so good.

But here’s the rub: not only do “we look at decisions in a relative way,” but, as Ariely’s work demonstrates, we tend to compare our options “locally.” That is, we make comparisons to other objects or opportunities that are within our immediate sphere of attention. This accounts for the “herding behavior” college counselors so often see as high school students draw up their lists of colleges to apply to. Successive groups of students use the colleges popular with their peers as “local comparators,” and thus have a hard time evaluating a college that none of their friends has heard of. (The “illusion of attention” I wrote about in a previous post comes into play here, as well, further complicating the process.)

At the other end of the college choice timeline, Ariely’s research helps us understand why students with several college options have such difficulty making up their minds. His studies have shown that “we cannot stand the idea of closing the doors on our alternatives.” We dislike the idea of loss so much that we will devote a lot of energy to keeping options open – and that we often overlook the cost (in time and energy, among other things) of trying to maintain multiple opportunities. The cost of pursuing multiple opportunities is something worth discussing with seniors fortunate enough to have several offers of admission (along with a few wait list opportunities they can’t bear to part with) this spring.

As Brooks’s columns and Ariely’s research show, we (and the students with whom we work) will benefit from cultivating more awareness about the data we collect, and more self-awareness about the ways our own “filters” influence our use of that data as we make decisions. Neither we nor our students will be able to avoid completely the psychological cul-de-sacs of irrationality as we make decisions, but if we develop a general understanding of the factors that can lead us astray, we can decrease the number of post-decision “d’oh!” moments we experience.

The invisible gorilla and the college search

In the late 1990’s, two cognitive psychologists – Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons – conducted a study of visual attentiveness that has since become a landmark in the field. They set a simple task for study participants: watch a short film of people playing with basketballs, and count the number of passes made by the players wearing white.

Try it for yourself before reading further:

 

This study has been replicated many times since it was originally run, under many different conditions, and researchers have found that the results are largely the same. About half of the people who watch the film don’t notice the gorilla.

Chabris and Simon write about this perceptual error, called “inattentional blindness” in their 2010 book, The Invisible Gorilla. Expanding on the results of their study, they conclude:

“we vividly experience some aspects of our world, particularly those that are the focus of our attention. But this rich experience inevitably leads to the erroneous belief that we process all of the detailed information around us. In essence, we know how vividly we see some aspects of our world, but we are completely unaware of those aspects of our world that fall outside that current focus of attention.” (p.7)

The invisible gorilla study has a lot of relevance for the college search process, I believe. Just as selective attention (or inattentional blindness) hinders viewers from seeing the gorilla in the film, inattentional blindness can also hinder students from seeing great college options.

As students begin to get serious about the college search process, most start out with a group of colleges already in mind. They are schools that for one reason or another are already in the student’s field of awareness; they already have the student’s attention. These may be schools that their friends or relatives attend or have attended, or schools that have athletic teams the student follows, for example. As a student begins the college search, one might say that one of the college counselor’s jobs is to expand that student’s field of awareness – to direct his or her attention to other colleges which might be of interest, and to become aware of colleges that previously have been “invisible.”

A college counselor isn’t the only one who can do this, obviously. There are many people and resources in a student’s world to point out previously unnoticed college options. Once a student is in “search mode,” mailings from the Student Search Service, advice from friends, and information gleaned from time spent online (among other resources) can call a student’s attention to a college of which he or she was previously unaware. (Finding a reliable means of securing student attention is an ongoing challenge for college admission offices, never more so than now. That’s a topic for a future post.)

But, here’s where things can become sticky – some students (and parents) are more receptive to broadening their horizons than others. Some families enjoy exploring new options, and when a college they are not familiar with is suggested by a college counselor or discovered through another means, they eagerly follow up and check it out. On the other hand, those who believe a college with a name they don’t recognize isn’t a “good school,” will disregard those suggestions and limit the student’s college search. Those who fall prey to what I call the “familiar = good/unfamiliar = bad” response narrow the field before the exploration has really begun.

Of course, it may reasonably be argued that declining to consider colleges one hasn’t heard of by the time one reaches the junior year in high school won’t harm a student. Sticking with familiar schools is a viable and sometimes desirable option for students and families. Time available for research, financial considerations, and a variety of other factors may make the “tried and true” colleges the best choices for students.

For those who have the desire to (and luxury of) launching a broad college search, though, the process presents a significant learning opportunity. Moving beyond the criteria of familiarity and name recognition in the college search allows students the chance to develop research, comparison, and decision-making skills, and to broaden their self-knowledge. This is an ongoing theme of my blog, so for now, it will suffice to say that being open to the “invisible gorillas” in the college process (I know, not the best image…) can bring positive results.

Once our attention has been called to options outside our usual sphere of awareness, we often find that what was previously an unfamiliar name regularly resurfaces in our world. It happened just that way for student I worked with a few years ago. He told me about his experience, saying that he had never heard of (X) college before I suggested it to him, but once he started looking into it, the name kept coming up over and over. He’d hear references to it at family gatherings, see it mentioned in news articles, and discover that several people in his extended circle of friends and acquaintances had some connection to it.  This previously “invisible” college was out there all the time – it was just a matter of bringing it to his attention.

The work of Chabris and Simon demonstrates the limits of our attention, and their research shows that there “may be important things right in front of you that you aren’t noticing…” They make a strong point that bringing those things into view can help one make better decisions. (p. 241)

Their findings and advice are very apt for the college search process. Allowing room for the unexpected and unfamiliar can broaden and deepen a student’s research in useful ways. And sometimes that invisible gorilla can point the way to a terrific opportunity.

Application essays: the voyage begins

Now that October has arrived, Early Action and Early Decision application deadlines are creeping into view and students are focusing their attention on application essays and supplements.

Over almost thirty years in admissions and college counseling, I estimate that I have read upward of 80,000 individual application essays. As an admissions dean, I worked closely with my staffs at different colleges to create essay prompts that would be interesting to students and useful to us in the evaluation process, and then eagerly awaited the responses. As a college counselor, I helped students decipher those “interesting” prompts, saw them wrestle with ideas for their essays, and encouraged them as they worked through various drafts.

My experience on both sides of the admissions desk confirmed my long-held belief that high school students and college admissions personnel exist in parallel universes.

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

Though everyone works on the same process with the same application materials, the perspective of each world is, to some extent, self-limiting. This creates a significant communications gap between the two universes. The “what was asked or said” vs. “what was heard” discrepancy between “Admissions Officer World” and “High School Student World” can be seen pretty clearly through the lens of the application essay.

Broadly speaking, I’ve observed that:

In “Admissions Officer World,” the application is seen as a uniform structure or framework that prompts students to represent themselves clearly, authentically, and in some detail…while in “High School Student World,” students tend to view the application as a constraint, into which truncated information about their lives must be squashed.

Inhabitants of “AO World” think of the application essay as a vehicle for self-introduction (“tell us about yourself”)…while inhabitants of “HSS World” often look at the essays and ask “what do the colleges want to hear?”

Admissions personnel hope the essay will elicit self-reflection on the applicant’s part…while students often see the essay as a means of reporting or describing events, and worry that discussing the personal significance of those events will seem trite, formulaic, or, worst of all, uninteresting.

Admissions personnel at colleges that use institution-specific applications or that request supplements to the Common Application work hard to create interesting essay prompts…which are often viewed by students as contrived (at best) or downright baffling (at worst).

So essay questions are frequently as open-ended questions as possible…which can be frustrating for students who tend to wish for more direction and specificity.

Overall, I think much of the confusion about application essays stems from the fact that students tend to focus on the task itself (“I just need to write the essay”) while college admissions personnel tend to focus on the goal (how does the essay enhance the picture of yourself that is created through the application.) The gulf between what college admissions officers say about application essays and what students hear is widened and muddied by the amount and variety of (frequently contradictory) information available to students from multiple sources, not all of which are reliable. We may not be able to do much to turn down that noise in the system, but those on both sides of the admissions desk can help students as they craft their essays.

In an effort to avoid a further “War of the Worlds,” I offer these suggestions to facilitate reconciliation of the parallel universes:

For college admissions officers:

Offer more information about the context and purpose of the application essays, to let students know how the essays fit into the application as a whole. Over the last decade or so, I’ve listened to a number of admissions reps describe the application process to prospective students, and very few offer “big picture” information to their audiences. It’s obvious to admissions officers that the essay supplements and enhances the information about the applicant that is elsewhere in the application, but students aren’t always able to think about the essays in that broader context. It’s task vs. goal orientation again, and admissions officers could provide more information about the overall goal of the application. I know that not every college or high school can offer “case study” sessions, in which students have the opportunity to review complete sample applications, but these are so useful. Seeing a whole application that is not your own helps one understand how the individual pieces work together.

If you want essays that are less narrative and more reflective, rephrase the prompts. As written, most essay prompts lead with the invitation for students to describe an event, a person, or an issue – and then conclude with a short phrase asking for some reflection. As a result, students often feel they should focus their essays on the event, person, or issue, and include just a sentence or two about what the event means to them. If you’d rather learn more about how the student processes his or her experience rather than how he or she reports it, use the question to direct the response. Flip the standard phrasing and try something like: Please reflect on an event or person important in your life. We don’t need to know a lot about the event or the person you choose – but we’d like to know why either was significant for you, and/or how you have changed as a result of that experience or from knowing that person.

For students:

Before you begin the application, think about the personal qualities you want to present to the admissions officers who will read your application. Take a step back and think carefully about the information each piece of the application will provide about you: the transcript and test scores say something, teacher and counselor recommendations say something – what do you want admissions officers to know that won’t be covered elsewhere? Once you’ve decided what you want to present, then look at the essay prompts and see which one gives you the best opportunity to illustrate the points you want to make about yourself.  When you are submitting multiple essays or supplements with an application, make sure each response complements the others, and adds new information about you to the application.

Detail will win the day. Many essays fall flat because the writers don’t offer sufficient examples to illustrate the points they want to make. Details make individual essays vivid and are unique to each writer. So don’t just say that you learned a lot from working for the Parks Department last summer – let the reader know, specifically, what you learned or how the experience changed you. Don’t leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – if you don’t illustrate your points, the conclusions drawn by readers may not be the ones you intend.

Quality of output is proportionate to quality of input. I know that some students feel they do their best work under pressure, with a deadline only hours away. I also know that the best essays I’ve read are NOT first drafts. Trust me on this. Your essays will improve if you allow yourself the time to brainstorm, try out a few different ideas, and revise. And revise again. An ancillary bonus to getting an early start on your essays is that it will make your parents happy, and let them know they don’t have to hound you about deadlines.

Good luck to all as we boldly go into this next phase of the admissions cycle!

Photo credit: “Star Walk” app, Picture of the day

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