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.

Spinning plates and forecasting the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Juking the stats”

It’s happened again.  Another well-known educational institution has owned up to errors in the data it supplied to the US News & World Report for the purposes of computing college rankings.  This time, it’s George Washington University, which, for more than a decade, according to an article in the Washington Post, inflated a “key measure of the academic credentials of its incoming freshmen.”

As a fan of the TV series “The Wire,” this latest incident of erroneous data reporting put me in mind of the episode in Season 4 (“Know Your Place”) where Pryzbylewski (a police officer turned middle-school teacher) has a memorable exchange about “juking the stats.”

The news about GW also caused me to reflect on a recent article in Slate by Seth Stevenson, who wrote about experimenting with the purchase of “zombie” followers for his Twitter account.

Whether it’s for the purpose of improving an institution’s position in the USNWR rankings, posting a positive change in test results for middle-schoolers, or increasing one’s visibility among the “Twitterati,” we’re talking about the same thing: the misuse and misapplication of data to enhance recognition and popularity, or to give the appearance of success — substituting dubious short-cuts for bona fide progress toward a goal.

Seth Stevenson explained why Tweeters might be moved to purchase zombie followers.  “So why do people do this?  I assume it’s in part to create an illusion of success that people hope will be self-perpetuating.  It’s like showing up to a date in a rented Mercedes drop-top when in real life you drive a dinged-up Kia.  To the casual observer, your numerous fake Twitter followers suggest you’re a social media powerhouse — a person of influence not to be ignored.  It also seems like fake followers might beget more real followers.  I noticed that after I’d bought my zombie followers, the rate at which new, nonzombie people followed me seemed to rapidly accelerate.”

I think this explanation, though specific to life in the Twitter-verse, has equal resonance for colleges and universities that manipulate data to increase visibility in the rankings sweepstakes.  And so does Stevenson’s warning:  “you might be embarrassingly busted.”

I don’t want to get into the issues of who, how, when, and which erroneous data has been reported to the USNWR — really, this is nothing new.

There are two points I want to make, though.  First, a sad aspect of data manipulation for the USNWR isn’t just that it happens at all.  The bigger loss is that colleges and universities consistently fail to use their “bully pulpits” to educate prospective students about how to evaluate the glut of objective and subjective information available about the institutions they are considering.  Admissions officers are missing teachable moments, when guidance about how to assess the sources, reliability, validity and personal relevance of information could be offered to prospects and their parents.  One might respond that this task is the province of, or better left to, teachers and college counselors on the high school side of the admissions desk.  In my experience, though, guidance of this type, were it to be offered by college admissions officers, would be a valuable and well-received supplement to the guidance provided in high schools. (For now, we’ll leave aside the issue that fewer and fewer high schools have the resources and staff to provide this guidance in the first place.)   We all know that information provided by those holding the prizes (in this case, offers of admission) will be taken more seriously than those on the “supplicant’s” side of the admissions process.

Second, as a culture, we have arrived at a point where indicators of popularity and visibility are widely interpreted as hallmarks of quality.  Just as the Tweeter with more followers is seen as someone whose opinion is worth noting, a university with high name recognition, more applicants, and more applicants turned away, is seen as outstanding and desirable.  Popularity and quality are not mutually exclusive, by any means — but neither are they completely synonymous.

I understand the circumstances that give rise to this confusion.  I’ve written before about the difficulty that too much information (TMI) and too many choices (TMC) create for students.  Faced with TMI and TMC, it’s not surprising that students (and their parents) look for shortcuts as they research college options.  It’s much easier to find and use the opinions of others (via the number of Twitter followers, “likes” on a Facebook page, or a spot in a college ranking) than to do the research and self-examination necessary to develop one’s own opinion.  It’s a harder and more time-consuming process to evaluate a specific institution’s appropriateness for a specific individual than to assess an institution’s visibility and popularity.

Still, we have to acknowledge that we reap what we sow.  Institutions that decry the rankings on one hand but then turn around and promote the heck out of a top-ten appearance in one ranking or another teach prospective students that this measure has value.  Prospective students and parents who focus on measures of visibility and popularity when assessing colleges encourage institutions to seek and promote those measures to an extent which is undesirable.  What we’re left with is the college admissions twist on Newton’s third law of motion.  In the interactions between colleges and prospective students, we don’t find an action in one camp causing an equal and opposite reaction in the other camp.  Instead, we find that every action causes an equal and amplified reaction from the opposite cohort.

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


“It ain’t nothing till I call it”

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

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

The article continued with Fish’s commentary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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