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.