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.

Still waiting around…

In this post, I continue to look at the waiting list and factors that can make this process so stressful for students. Chief among these factors is the mountain of advice available to those in waiting list limbo. A quick Google search this week for “what to do when you’re on a waiting list for college” yielded about 95,000,000 results, and a random look at some of the search results revealed lots of contradictory information. For just about every action advised in the articles I read, it was possible to find other articles telling students NOT to take that action.

I have paraphrased below some of the “point-counterpoint” advice I found across multiple sites:

Be persistent.
Don’t be a pest.

Launch a heavy-duty marketing campaign, and if you have a gimmick you can use to distinguish yourself, use it. It can’t hurt.
Don’t go overboard, and don’t rely on gimmicks. You’ll only look desperate.

Do what the college tells you to do, and nothing more.
Work the system, and use any connections you and your parents have to help make your case for admission.

Visit the campus and ask for an interview.
Stay away from the campus, because being around all the newly-admitted students will just make you feel bad.

With all the contradictory information available to students, it is hard for them to discern which information matters and which does not. (An engineer might look at this situation and say that the “signal to noise ratio” is way out of whack.) Things are further complicated because procedures for students on the waiting list are not standardized: there are multiple “signals” that students must pick out from the surrounding “noise.”  So around and around we go…often with the result that much time and effort is expended by students, parents, and college counselors in pursuit of an outcome which may be highly unlikely.

Another quirk of this process is that no matter how unlikely the possibility of being admitted from a given waiting list may be, students often feel that the school where they are waitlisted is somehow superior to the school or schools where they hold offers of admission. Sometimes the reason for this is clear – when the school where the student has been waitlisted is more well-known than the schools where the student has been admitted, or when the waitlisted school is in a more desirable location, for example. There are lots of times, though, when a student’s reasons for preferring a school where s/he hasn’t been admitted remain obscure. (Even to the student him or herself.) There’s an “X factor” at work: it seems that there is just something about the possibility of admission which makes it more compelling than an actual offer of admission.

That “X factor” may be linked to the dopamine reward system in the brain. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here, but will borrow economist Robert Shiller’s summary of several neuroscientific studies on this subject. Shiller writes: “…uncertainty that takes the form of a chance of a future reward is itself stimulative. Nature has built into our brains a tendency to savor the possibility of future rewards…the mere presence of uncertainty in a positive direction creates a pleasurable sensation, so the reward system creates an incentive to take on risky positive bets.” (For more, see Shiller’s book, Finance and the Good Society, chapters six and twenty-one. These quotes come from pages 139-140.)

Viewed through the lens provided by these research findings, it’s easy to see how behaviors related to the waiting list can escalate so quickly. If actions taken in the service of a possible future reward elicit a pleasant neuro-chemical response , it’s not surprising that some students (and parents) pull out all the stops on receipt of a waiting list offer, and spend the month of April trying every tactic they can think of to make that “WL” morph into an “Admit.” The pursuit becomes an end in itself, and the neuro-chemical fun is in the chase, not the outcome. This, come to think of it, may explain why a student will fervently pursue a waiting list spot at a college, receive an offer of admission from that school…and then turn it down.

There are, of course, lots of other plausible reasons why students pursue waiting list offers: some feel that the school where they’ve been waitlisted is truly the only place they will be happy; some feel insulted by being placed on a waiting list, and hope to recover their pride with an eventual admit decision; some students are “trophy hunters,” trying to rack up as many admit offers as they can before the cycle ends; some face pressure from parents, friends, and others in their social group to try to convert the WL to A. The neuroscientific perspective adds another layer of interest to a discussion of waiting list behavior, though, and is intriguing to consider.

The craziness that the waiting list period incurs, regardless of its source, makes this time challenging for students, parents, and college counselors.  On days when things seem bleak, though, it’s reassuring to remember that things turn out well in the end for the majority of students.

In the New York Times “Choice” blog on April 8, Marie Bigham related an interesting anecdote. She cited a college that surveyed its students as entering freshmen, only to find that a significant number said the school was not their first choice. However, by the time those same students were re-surveyed as juniors, a majority asserted that the college was their first choice as freshmen. What a difference those two years made!  I’m sure that many college counselors can share similar stories of students who (anywhere from a few weeks to a few years after the admissions process has concluded) are 100% happy with their chosen college, and can’t imagine why they ever thought any other school else was the right choice.

These observations should be reassuring to students struggling with their options this month. And though it may be hard for them to believe right now, they’ll ultimately realize that the key to success lies in not in any one particular college, but in themselves and in what they make of the opportunities a college education presents.  As one former student of mine counseled a classmate struggling to make a decision: “You’ll be fine.  You just need to trust the force, Luke!”


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.