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




Making the most of college

April in Portland is always such an interesting month. The weather is so changeable from moment to moment that you never know what to expect. In April, spring doesn’t seem quite ready to commit to us yet. There are signs that spring wants to be fully sprung, as it were – trees are in leaf again, flowers are blooming, and when the sun is shining, people are out and about in shorts and flip-flops, and the optimistic among us begin to think about what tomatoes to plant in the garden this year.

But then we’ll get a bout of rain or hail and a shot of cold air, and everything will be gray for awhile longer.

It occurs to me that Portland’s ultra-variable weather in April aptly mirrors the emotional state of high school seniors trying to make up their minds about college before that May 1 deadline.

Many students alternate between feeling sunny and optimistic about the future, and nervous and unsettled about their next steps. They are happy that the college admissions process is behind them, but also a little sad and nostalgic about the fact that their time in high school is coming to an end. They are excited about the opportunities that college will bring, but they also look at the academic and social transition from high school to college with some trepidation. Most are enthusiastic about being in a new environment and meeting new people, but they also wonder if and how they will maintain their high school friendships. And some have lingering doubts about whether or not they made the right decision.

But as April edges toward May and things settle down on the meteorological and emotional fronts (we hope!) most seniors start to focus their thoughts on college. As this year’s seniors prepare to head off into the wide world, I want to share an article about how to launch a successful college career.

Over a decade ago, Dr. Richard Light, a professor at Harvard, studied the factors that influenced student learning and overall success and happiness in college. His research yielded a number of simple yet effective strategies. These include suggestions like: “Meet the faculty,” “study in groups,” and “write, write, write.”  These suggestions are easy to implement and have a pronounced impact on student success, yet are often overlooked by students.

A summary of Dr. Light’s advice appears in this article from the New York Times.  (The article dates from April 2001, but the advice remains sound all these years later.)

Although most seniors still have their eyes fixed firmly on the immediate future (how many days till graduation?) and may not be interested in this advice right now, this is a good article to have them bookmark on their computers or tuck in their backpacks for later reading.


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:


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?

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.

Deconstructing “college”

As I have followed stories about higher education over the past few months, I have noticed that certain topics are gaining traction across a broad range of media outlets. These topics are: MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the impact they have on traditional models of college education; the escalation of college costs and correspondingly high levels of education-related debt incurred by students; whether the benefits of a college education justify the costs; advocacy for skipping college altogether.

These articles jogged my thinking about the ways in which our society regards a college education, and the literal and symbolic value college carries.

More recently, I picked up Madeline Levine’s 2012 book, “Teach Your Children Well.”

Teach Your Children Well

Her call to “embrace a healthier and radically different way of thinking about success” really resonated with me, and I’m very interested in the fact that Levine cites admission to a top-tier or prestigious college as one of the inadequate and misleading “metrics” our society uses to define success. She offers numerous and compelling examples of how this “metric” has been harmful and disruptive to the students and families she sees in her clinical practice – if anyone out there needs persuasive cautionary tales to relate to parents with whom you are working, this book offers plenty.

Here is an excerpt from the book that encapsulates the argument Levine pursues throughout the book:

“We need to harness our fears about our children’s futures and understand that the extraordinary focus on metrics that has come to define success today – high grades, trophies, and selective school acceptances from preschools to graduate schools – is a partial and frequently deceptive definition. At its best, it encourages academic success for a small group of students but gives short shrift to the known factors that are necessary for success later in life. It makes the false assumption that high academic success early in life is a harbinger of competence is many spheres, including interpersonal relations and sense of self. Sometimes this is the case; often it is not. Perhaps of even greater concern, because it involves far more kids, is the fact that our limited definition of success fails to acknowledge those students whose potential contributions are not easily measurable.” (page xv)

Maybe this is synchronicity in action, but not long after I began Levine’s book, the topic of the metrics we use to evaluate people came up again, in a different context. As part of a series of articles about leadership and management, the New York Times carried an interesting interview with Lazlo Bock, a human resources professional (specifically, a “senior vice president of people operations”) at Google. These comments especially caught my eye:

“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless – no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation…What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.”

As I pulled the strands together, these various readings made me wonder if we are on the verge of a tipping point when it comes to our thinking about college, what a college degree means, and the way prestige factors into the equation of college preference.

Up till now, it has seemed to me that prestige was a variable that outweighed most others when many students and parents assessed the literal and figurative costs and benefits of college choice. Over the years, I have worked with many parents who promised their children: “If you get into an Ivy League school, we’ll find a way to pay for it.” On the flip side, I’ve also worked with parents who told their children that they will only “shell out for a private college if you get into a school with a big name – otherwise, you can go to our state university.”

I consider myself lucky, however, that I never had a conversation like one Levine recounts in her book, in which a father, upon hearing his son mention Harvard as a school he might want to apply to, said: “Now there’s a school I would give my left testicle to get my son into.” (p.4)

Whether they state it that graphically or not, we know that many parents have heretofore been willing to sacrifice a great deal in order for their children to attend a prestigious, “top tier” college.

So I am really intrigued by the increasingly persistent call, from a variety of sources, for us to re-evaluate our definitions of success and to think again about the traditional model of a four-year college education, its costs, and the value added (if any) by attending a prestigious institution. As I play around with these ideas, it seems to me that the slow pace of economic recovery in the US, combined with the steady increase in college costs, is accelerating this re-evaluation process, and decreasing the importance of prestige as a factor in the college selection process, even for those who can afford the tuition without making significant financial sacrifices. I work with a small group of students, so I don’t have the data to support a generalization at this point. However, I would love to hear from colleagues in the college admissions world who are seeing a change in the role that prestige plays as students make final college choices. Please leave comments on the site, or email me at:

Other, and very significant, changes in the terrain of higher education are already upon us. The idea that a college degree is not a necessary component of success got a big boost from Peter Thiel’s fellowship program.  Started in 2010, the program offers successful applicants $100,000 apiece to skip college and pursue “their work, their research, and their self-education.”  Check out the “UnCollege” website  for another approach to skipping college and “hacking your education,” as founder Dale Stephens puts it. And to dip into the world of MOOC’s, have a look at the edX and Coursera  websites.

It’s hard to say what the world(s) of higher education will look like in the next five years or so, and I can only guess at how the nature and substance of college counseling will evolve as options for higher education multiply. It will be fascinating to see how institutions and individuals react to these changes.

Brave new world’s a-comin’, that’s for sure.

Previewing “CA4,” the new Common Application

Well, May just flashed by, and a number of projects and events took me away from blogging for several weeks. Apologies for the extended silence in AdmissionsCafe, and thank you for your patience!

Now that things have mostly quieted down for the class of 2013 and current seniors have made their college choices for fall, juniors (and their parents) are revving up for coming marathon of the 2013-2014 admissions cycle. With “CA4,” (the latest version of the Common Application) on the horizon, the months ahead are sure to be interesting.

Members of the Class of 2014 won’t have to worry about the changes in the Common App, of course – CA4 will simply be what they know as the Common App. College counselors and college admissions personnel who have been through earlier iterations of the Common App will be the ones making comparisons, and beginning sentences with phrases like: “well, last year it worked like this…” From what I’ve seen so far, (kudos, by the way, to the Common App board and to all those who worked on the many aspects of the new version!) CA4 looks like a very effective and user-friendly revision. I’m especially enthusiastic about the changes to the writing section, and am eager to see how students respond to the new essay prompts.  

When changes to the writing section were announced last fall, I commented on the hue and cry over the disappearance of the “topic of your choice” prompt. (See post of 12 October 2012) I’m happy to see that it hasn’t returned, and I think the new prompts encourage essays that offer self-reflection. This is a big improvement – I felt that the previous prompts were written in such a way as to discourage reflection. The previous prompts led with the invitation to describe a person, event, or issue of importance. The request for reflection, to “tell us why this is important to you,” tacked onto the end of the prompt, led many students to think that this was of less importance to readers.

In addition, the new prompts, by giving students well-defined and specific topics to which they can react, provide structure for the responses that I think they will find helpful. We’ll have to see how things go as students begin to craft their responses, but my hunch is these prompts will do a better job of eliciting useful information about applicants for admissions officers.

I have mixed feelings about the 650 word limit on the essay, and I will be interested to see how students respond to it. In combination with the new prompts, the word limit should certainly cut down on the number of recycled class assignment essays that applicants submit, which will be a boon for admissions officers. And the 650 word limit for the essay is not out of line with length restrictions that versions of the University of California application, for example, have contained. I am eager to see how the word limit will be perceived by students, though. Will there be any characteristics common to the respondents who feel that 650 words is too few? Will there be characteristics shared by those who feel that 650 words is way too many? Will there be a pattern of differences emerging between the two camps? I do like the fact that a variety of opinion on this matter has been anticipated in the Common App instructions: I smiled when I read that “650 words is your limit, not your goal.”

Looking at another area of CA4, the ability to create “alternate versions” of the Common Application still seems like an existential oxymoron to me. (Also, each time a student wants to create an alternate version of the Common App, I’m reminded of Calvin’s “duplicator” machine in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Click here and here to see two of those cartoons.) However, I understand the genuine motivations for, as well as the superstitions and anxieties that provoke students to create alternate versions of the application. I’d love to know the reasoning behind the decision to allow “unlimited” edits to all parts of the application except the essay, though, and to know why the number of essay revisions was capped at three. I understand the rationale about balancing the need for students to make corrections and updates to sections of the application with the philosophy of a “common” application, as one of the Common App explanatory notes says. But why three essay versions? Why not two or four? Is there a dry, technical reason for this, or did the discussions about this limit veer into the realm of philosophy? (In the latter case, I wonder if we can look forward to earnest, if esoteric, conference presentations about the nature of the essential self, as seen through the lens of the Common Application…)

In any event, one of the great things about working in college admissions is that the scene is always changing. No two years are ever exactly alike, despite overall similarities in the cycle as a whole. Clearly, the changes embodied in CA4 and the ways in which students respond to the new version will keep things lively this fall. So all hail CA4! Here’s hoping the August 1 launch goes smoothly.

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.

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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.

Invisible Gorilla, part the second…

In which Lady Catherine De Bourgh encounters aforementioned gorilla

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 31: Conversation between Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Colonel Fitzwilliam

“What is it that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.”

“We are speaking of music, Madam,” said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

“Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine, 1995credit:

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine, 1995

Readers may smile at Lady Catherine’s steadfast belief in her untried musical talent, without recognizing that the illusion under which she labors (called the “illusion of potential” by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons) can affect us all.

In their 2010 book “The Invisible Gorilla,” Chabris and Simons wrote:  “The illusion of potential leads us to think that vast reservoirs of untapped mental ability exist in our brains, just waiting to be accessed…”   As they describe it, this illusion rests on a belief that “beneath the surface, the human mind and brain harbor the potential to perform at much higher levels, in a wide range of situations and contexts, than they typically do,” and moreover, that this hidden potential can be released with minimal effort.  (pgs. 186 and 210)

College counselors and admissions officers know that this illusion of potential thrives among high school students. It’s one of the factors underlying a student’s proclamation that “my academic record isn’t a true reflection of my real ability.” 

The illusion of untapped potential influences not only a student’s thinking about his or her performance in high school; the illusion is also operative in the broader context of the college application process. In “high school world,”  there is a corollary belief that individual potential, (though yet undemonstrated) will be recognized and rewarded when a student applies to college.  This accounts for the fact that students often submit applications to colleges for which they are academically under-qualified.

But because students are sometimes offered admission to colleges for which they appear underqualified, these incidents are taken as evidence that admissions committees do recognize hidden potential. For students (sometimes encouraged by parents caught up in their own wishful thinking), those rare incidents become the tiny acorns of example from which the mighty oaks of illusion grow. And because those outside the committee room rarely know the full context in which an admissions decision is made, students, parents, and college counselors don’t have hard information with which to dispute the theory that their hope rests in the unseen.

(Further complicating the issue is the fact that some people are inclined to disregard hard data when it supports an outcome they don’t want to contemplate. This characteristic isn’t limited to college applicants and their parents: remember the Republican bigwigs who, despite the significant and consistent polling information that forecast a win for Obama, chartered planes and flew to Massachusetts on election day, anticipating the victory party for Romney?)

The persistence of the illusion of potential within the admissions process doesn’t rest solely with applicants and their families, however. Other factors combine to maintain the illusion that it’s possible for undemonstrated potential to outweigh documented performance when admissions decisions are made.

First, it isn’t in any college’s best interest to discourage students – academically qualified or not – from applying. As long as selectivity remains an important aspect of a college’s reputation and bond rating, institutions have every incentive to generate as many applications as possible.

Second, the selection process is genuinely difficult to describe. It’s complex, institutionally specific, and subject to variables and priorities that change from year to year.  Further complicating the problem is that it is somewhat easier to describe what the process isn’t than what it is.  It isn’t completely objective, yet isn’t really subjective; it’s neither art or science; neither random nor rigidly formulaic; not capricious, but not governed by lock-step logic.  Within the field, many seem to have settled on “holistic evaluation” as a way to explain the selection process to prospects and applicants. While a perfectly accurate phrase, it doesn’t, alas, do much to dislodge the illusion of potential.

College admissions is not the only arena in which the illusion of potential operates – Chabris and Simon’s book offers many other examples. I don’t know if it’s possible to diminish the impact of the illusion of potential for the students with whom we work. Some of us may not even find that prospect desirable. It seems as though discouraging the illusion of potential is like trying to untie the Gordian Knot – but there may be an Alexander (or Alexandra) out there who will find this a worthy challenge.