It seems we’ve stood and talked like this, before…

One of the interesting and frustrating things about working in college admissions is the way the cycle repeats each year. The broad outlines remain the same (a new group of students enters the process, searches for, applies to, hears from and decides which colleges to attend) but the particulars vary with regard to a range of factors specific to each college, or each high school class. I’ve written about the “Groundhog Day” aspects of the admissions process before, (see post from September 21, 2012) but at that time, I wasn’t thinking about media coverage of the admissions cycle, and how it repeats, as well.

Two articles about college admissions that appeared this spring in the New York Times had me thinking “déjà vu all over again,” as the authors discussed issues that were apparently new to them – but are old hat (ancient hat, really) to anyone who has worked in college admissions for more than a few years.

The first article, by David Leonhardt, focused on the shocking revelations (!!OMG!!) that many colleges are actively recruiting international students, and that “top colleges are admitting fewer American students than they did a generation ago. Colleges have globalized over that time, deliberately increasing the share of their student bodies that come from overseas and leaving fewer slots for applicants from the United States.”

I am sure I was not alone in receiving a flurry of phone calls from parents of rising seniors after that article appeared. Any article talking about the hyper-competitive nature of the admissions process at selective colleges always gets a lot of play ( I note that this one had almost 500 comments from NYT readers) and ramps up the admissions anxiety quotient.

In all fairness, Leonhardt’s article has more to it than the insight that the competition to get into college is quite stiff – he’s a thoughtful writer, and his points about the benefits of diversity are all good. However, those comments come later in the article, and I worry that many readers didn’t and won’t get past the early message that yes, it really IS harder – much harder! – to get into a selective college these days.

In the second article, Frank Bruni, who seems to have adopted college admissions as a topic of special interest, focused on the shocking revelation (!!OMG again!!) that some students choose inappropriate and/or overly revealing topics for their application essays.

Pondering the reasons why students might submit essays that offer TMI, Bruni notes that the application “essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet…” and he regrets that many students feel they have to go to great lengths to get the attention of admissions officers.

Fair points, but not unique to the current admissions scene.

I started out in the admissions field in the early 1980’s, and I can recall many essays over the years about topics that were inappropriate at best, and just plain disgusting, at worst.  I won’t elaborate, but trust me – my years of reading applications have left me with plenty of examples of essays that did not advance the author’s candidacy, to put it mildly.

To Bruni’s point about students doing “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out” in an applicant pool, I have come to think that the standardized format of the online college application also pushes students toward riskier essay topics. If you can’t make your application stand out by writing your essay in crayon, for example, I suppose it makes sense (kind of!) to try to grab a reader’s attention with your topic.

I was never a fan of “stunt applications,” in which students submitted stuff ranging from balloons to baked goods to hand-tied fishing flies, among other things, to try to appeal to admissions officers.   However, I have to admit, I do remember with a smile a few essays that were “creatively” formatted, back in the days when paper applications were the norm.   I received one essay that was written backwards – but the author (thoughtfully) enclosed a mirror, so that I didn’t have to run and find one before reading it.  I also remember one essay that was written on paper cut into the shape of a foot. (To further illustrate the point that a journey of a hundred miles begins with a single step, of course!)

I don’t bemoan the demise of paper applications – there were a zillion problems connected with processing and reading those, too! – but we said goodbye to a particular and quirky dimension of the application process when things moved online.

But I digress!

My point is that whether we like it or not, in the admissions world, everything old is new each year. It will remain so as subsequent generations of journalists (or content-providers, if we want to be all-inclusive) encounter admissions topics for the first time. While the best of these journalists do acknowledge that the current admissions “frenzy” isn’t sane or healthy, their articles unfortunately add to the frenzy they try to explain.

And therein lies the rub.  Alas.

But…right now, it’s summer! Time to relax and recoup strength for the next admissions cycle.

And for me, time to finish work on two book projects. I will have a short e-book about writing college application essays out this fall, as well as a longer book for students and parents looking for a saner and less stressful way to approach the college search and application process. Please stay tuned to this site for further details! (Regular posts will resume in the fall.)

Meantime, thanks for reading this cycle’s posts at admissions cafe. I appreciate your email, comments, and recommendations.

Have a great summer!

 

Sunrise June

 

 

 

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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?

Confronting uncertainty

“The line that separates my mind from the Internet is getting blurry,” wrote psychologist Daniel Wegner in an article for the New York Times.  “This has been happening ever since I realized how often it feels as though I know something just because I can find it with Google.”

Indeed, with Google-enabled “knowing” and computer-enabled advances in “Big Data” collection and analysis, we now possess an unprecedented ability to access knowledge and to predict outcomes in many spheres.

And yet, as H.L. Mencken noted in Minority Report (1956): “Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.”

One of the places in which the unknowable resolutely sits is the college admissions process. The whole process is rife with the unknowable, with uncertainty. Who will be admitted where? What’s the right college for me? How many students will choose to enroll in my institution’s incoming class? And this year’s big mystery: will the Common Application ever achieve full, error-free functionality?

Uncertainty is unsettling, to state the obvious.

Uncertainty is also the engine that drives much of the industry around college rankings, ratings and surveys of the undergraduate experience. The choice of a college (or to go to college at all) is significant, and laden with consequences both personal and financial. The quest for more information about colleges and about the admissions process (in general, and at specific schools) is at heart a quest for greater prediction and control of options and outcomes. Students (and their parents) want to make the right choices. When making an investment in a college education, they want some assurance about the return. As Jeffrey Selingo put it in his book College Unbound (2013):

 “Students need to know what they will get in terms of skills, knowledge, and employment prospects if they pick College A over College B.” (p. 141)

Unfortunately, all the information in the world won’t resolve the uncertainty involved when a student chooses College A over College B. No matter how much research you do beforehand, you won’t be able to predict, much less guarantee, the exact outcome.

I was reminded of this recently when talking to a parent with two children attending the same college. When Child #2 made the decision to enroll there, the family had as much information about the college as one could hope for – all the rankings, ratings, and surveys of undergraduate experience they had reviewed before Child #1 enrolled, (and updated during Child #2’s search) plus the insider’s view” of the academic and social life they garnered through the first child’s very positive experience. Child #2 had visited the campus many times, stayed overnight, and attended classes with Child #1. And yet, Child #2’s experience of the college has turned out to be nothing like Child #1’s. Child #2 is hoping to transfer.

Students and parents involved in the college admissions process today have access to more (and more complete) information about individual colleges than ever before. Numerous websites offer volumes of subjective information about student experiences at individual colleges. Toward the more objective end of the college information spectrum, there is no shortage of resources, either. Selingo’s book takes a balanced look at a variety of college assessment tools, from the US News rankings to the Collegiate Learning Assessment and National Survey of Student Engagement as well as recent studies of graduates’ earnings by college and by major. An article in the New York Times this summer also surveys online tools that have been created to help students “make informed decisions about whether it’s worth paying a premium for a certain college or degree.” And of course, the federal government’s “College Scorecard”  and the “College Navigator” website run by the National Center for Education Statistics provide a wealth of data, too. The determined student (or parent) can spend hours combing through this information in an attempt to discover “what they will get” if they pick a certain college.

I am not arguing against careful research and data collection as one explores colleges. And I don’t dispute that this information can assuage some of the uncertainty involved in the process of applying to and choosing a college to attend. But too many students focus on data collection at the expense of data contextualization. Collecting the data – assembling the picture of a college – is the easy part. Contextualizing that information – locating yourself within that picture – is the hard part.

Much of the discussion around the topic of assessing colleges and outcomes upon graduation tends to take the individual out of the picture. In some accounts, it seems that the key to success lies simply in gaining admission to a top-ranked college that posts top results on surveys of student learning. Once enrolled, you choose a major that posts the best starting salaries for graduates (or best lifetime return on investment, if you prefer) and you’re set for life. The path to success is already well-marked. All a student has to do is follow it.

It strikes me that attempts to predict the college experience and its outcomes through surveys, rankings, and ratings of colleges may undermine an individual student’s sense of responsibility and agency in the admissions process. Some students I’ve talked to seem to feel that decisions about which colleges are “best” have already been made, independent of their input, and that their task is simply to apply to the schools topping the various rankings and surveys. They feel as though their options are limited, and that choices contravening the status quo aren’t well received by parents and peers.

I also wonder if, by so actively trying to diminish uncertainty in the college admissions process, we are unintentionally encouraging students to “cease to believe in the unknowable,” and in its partners, chance and serendipity? That would be a great shame.

So many un-quantifiable and often serendipitous events influence a student’s experience on a campus: Do you get along with your roommate? Did you discover a topic or project that really fascinates you? Did a staff or faculty member become a mentor to you? Being open to the “known unknowns,” and being willing to take the “road less traveled” can make all the difference to a student while enrolled, and in the years after graduation.

I’m all for due diligence, and all in favor of using available data to guide the college selection process. It’s important, though to acknowledge the limits of the data one collects, to carve out space for oneself in the picture, and to allow for the “unknowable.” The college admissions process provides a unique opportunity to teach students how to use the information they collect, and to help them learn if, when, and how that data applies – or does not apply – to their specific situations. It offers a great opportunity to learn that data can mask the uncertainty inherent in this process, and that ultimately, (with apologies to Shakespeare) the outcome, dear Brutus, lies not in the data, but in ourselves.

Here we go again. . .

…launched once more into another school year and a new college admissions cycle.

For me, each new academic year and new college admissions cycle feels like being a solo contender at the top of a luge run.

Why the luge?

In this event, it’s you and your sled (on a luge, it’s you in the open: you don’t have even the minimal protection that a bobsled provides) hurtling down the track. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead, and no matter how many times you’ve been down the course before, each run brings a new set of variables and unpredictable circumstances that can change the outcome. The big question: when you reach the finish line, will you still be in one piece, and on top of the sled, or will the sled be on top of you?

In the months ahead, I plan to look at some of the variables and circumstances that will affect this year’s luge run. On the radar currently:

Money:   As I mentioned in my June 21 post, the cost of college now has more traction across a variety of media than it has in the past. In the past few weeks, I have followed several reports comparing salaries of college graduates – by major, and by institution. I will take a look at the ongoing discussion of “is college worth it?”

Metrics:   I spent some time this summer reading about measurement and statistics (really, it was more fun than it sounds), and I looked at a variety of college rankings, reviews, and ratings. I’m fascinated by the many ways in which we attempt to quantify and rank aspects of higher education, and by the ways in which we attempt to offer general and supposedly objective information about what is essentially an individual and subjective experience.

Technology:   Also on the reading list this summer was “Alone Together,” by Dr. Sherry Turkle. This is the third book in a research trilogy examining the ways in which technology influences our conceptions of self, community, and privacy. “Alone Together” provides lots of food for thought about the ways in which technology and our “networked” culture is changing the ways in which high school students approach the college admissions process.

Grades and Grit:   And other factors that may predict individual success…or not.

These are a few of the topics that I will write about during the 2013-2014 academic year. My plan is to offer one post per month, covering fewer topics this year, but in more depth. As always, your suggestions for other topics are appreciated and welcomed.

Onward to the luge run, and here’s hoping that we’re all still on top of our sleds when we cross the finish line in June, 2014.

Déjà vu or déjà new?

College counselors and admissions officers are in an interesting position relative to that of the students with whom they work. Those in the admissions profession see the recruitment and enrollment cycle repeat each year, while the vast majority of students go through the process only once, and experience each phase of the cycle as brand new.

For admissions officers, the cycle goes something like this: recruit, review, enroll, repeat. Staff members master a basic narrative about the academic and social opportunities, and the fundamentals of cost and financial aid at their institutions, and they’re on their way. The recruitment season then involves providing this information over and over again, in a variety of contexts: during visits to high schools, at information sessions with groups large or small, on campus or in a designated recruiting territory, through interviews, and by phone and email. Each day and each venue brings a new set of students (and sometimes parents or others) usually starting from the ground up as they learn about the institution. Given the annual timetable, the fall recruitment season predictably morphs into the applicant review season, and then into the “encourage admitted students to enroll” season. At each step along the way, experienced admissions officers are veteran guides with a group of new explorers. After weathering a cycle or two, it becomes possible for the guides to anticipate which questions will arise and when, as the explorers traverse the landscape.

Though their view of the landscape is different, college counselors also serve as guides for successive groups of novices who enter the college admissions process. Each year students discover colleges anew, they agonize about choosing topics for and writing application essays, they suffer the stress of waiting for decisions, and they make their choices each April. All along the way, students have reactions, responses and insights which are novel to them, but which are often predictable from the perspective of the experienced college counselor.

The cyclic, repetitive nature of the admissions process can seem like the higher ed version of the movie “Groundhog Day” for college counselors and admissions officers.

The tricky thing about college admissions, though, is that the repeating cycles never repeat exactly.

In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil the weatherman could count on seeing Ned the insurance salesman at the same time and place each day, and he knew the precise moment at which the little boy would fall from the tree day after day. While Phil’s days were completely predictable, in college admissions, the outlines of the cycle remain the same, but each year is a new iteration of the one before.

This can be a difficult concept to grasp. The outward similarities in each admissions cycle (timetable, testing requirements, application procedures) can create the impression that the process and outcomes are more predictable than they really are.

And therein lies the rub, felt keenly by those on both sides of the admissions desk.

Admissions officers must constantly take account of internal (campus-based) changes, and external changes (things like revisions to federal financial aid policies or budget cutbacks affecting high school academic programs in a particular recruitment territory) that will have an impact on their ability to recruit and enroll an incoming class of the desired size and with the desired characteristics. College counselors must similarly perform their own annual multi-variable calculus, weighing student academic profiles, individual preferences, and parental input as they help students apply to a group of colleges which (they hope) will result in good outcomes in the spring.

It’s a delicate balancing act for admissions officers and college counselors, especially when their constituents, be they anxious college administrators or anxious students and parents, lack the experience or perspective to see through the appearance of “Groundhog Day” predictability and regularity in the admissions cycle.

It’s more appropriate to say that admissions officers and college counselors live in the shadow of what scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb has labeled a “Black Swan” event.  In his book (The Black Swan), he characterizes such an event as something that “lies outside the realm of regular expectations,” “carries extreme impact,” and has “retroactive (though not prospective) predictability.”

Cover of "The Black Swan: The Impact of t...

Cover via Amazon

In the context of college admissions, a “Black Swan” event might be large or small in scope. It could be something cataclysmic like a Hurricane Katrina, something specific to a particular campus that affects the way it is perceived (for better or for worse) by prospective students, or something occurring within a high school that provokes a change in application behavior. Whatever it is, it will have a significant influence on the recruitment, selection, or enrollment decisions of applicants.

It’s a weird place to work, out there in the space between “Groundhog Day” and the “Black Swan.” But fascinating, nonetheless.