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:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As early round decisions arrive…

Notifications from the early round of this year’s admissions cycle will be coming out soon…to be followed by the swirling emotional tide of elation, anger, joy, disbelief, disappointment and purgatorial malaise that these admits, denies, and defers incur.

Having been the one who made these decisions, as well as the one who has commiserated, celebrated, or cursed along with the students receiving them, I have long grappled with their essential paradox. Admissions decisions seem like intensely personal judgments, but they aren’t.

An offer of admission isn’t a pronouncement on someone’s character, values, or worth as a person. It isn’t a report card on the parenting that child received. It doesn’t predict an individual’s path through life. All an offer of admission says is that a particular student, within a specific pool of applicants, had qualities that a small group of application readers found compelling. Sure, it’s always nicer to receive a “yes” than a “no,” but the point is, neither response consigns the recipient to a predetermined fate, for good or ill, no matter how much it may seem so at the time.

The following poem by Billy Collins seems especially appropriate as admissions decisions arrive.  “You’re fine just being yourself, you’re loved just for being you, ” is a message that can’t be repeated too often to students who feel as though they are about to receive a very public reckoning of their life’s worth.  So here is the text, followed by a video of Collins reading the poem himself.  (Video excerpted from a longer TED talk which can be found by clicking here.)

To My Favorite 17 Year Old High School Girl

Do you realize that if you had started building the Parthenon
on the day you were born,
you would be all done in only one more year?
Of course, you couldn’t have done that all alone.
So never mind;
you’re fine just being yourself.
You’re loved for just being you.

But did you know that at your age
Judy Garland was pulling down 150,000 dollars a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room –
no wait, I mean he had invented the calculator?

Of course, there will be time for all that
later in your life, after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom,
or at least pick up all your socks.

For some reason I keep remembering
that Lady Jane Grey was queen of England
when she was only 15.
But then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.

A few centuries later,
when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies, four operas
and two complete masses as a youngster.

But of course, that was in Austria
at the height of Romantic lyricism,
not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.

Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you’re special just being you –
playing with your food and staring into space.

By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.