…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.