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Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 3 of 3)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Holistic Admission

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I know it’s unsettling to read or hear that in holistic review there is little to no certainty. And I realize that uncertainty is one reason anxiety surrounding college admission exists. I don’t have the remedy for eradicating all stress but I do have some tips:

As you work on your applications, or as you research schools to apply to, you should be thinking about what differentiates one school from another in ethos and mission. While they may all have websites with happy smiling students under trees with professors or sunny days and brick buildings, there are fundamental differences. At Tech you will see a good deal of reference to our motto of “Progress and Service.” We are looking for evidence within a student’s background that is in line with this concept. A student who exhibits and embodies these characteristics, while potentially 40 points less on a section of the SAT or .2 lower in GPA than another student or the normal profile is more compelling since data will show those numbers have no predictive difference in determining college academic success. What does a school discuss online or in their print materials? Is your background or goals in alignment? How can you highlight or tailor your writing, course choice, experience to bolster your candidacy?

Tell your full story. Or as one of my colleagues says, “I want to see that they’re hungry (typically not hard for high school students).” Translation: do not let your numbers or stats deter you or leave you complacent. Every year we hear from students or parents after being deferred or denied asking why. Here’s a common lead into that query: “Didn’t you see I have a 35 ACT?” or “Don’t you know our school is the best in the state?” or “But I took more AP courses than your average…” As we unpack the process and the particular application, however, we often find there were many activities or anecdotes the student could have included but did not because they felt their academics would be sufficient. When a student at or below profile applies they know they have to do a great job on every part of the application and put their best effort in as a result. Students above profile applying to schools with low admit rates have to ignore the ranges or averages and do the exact same thing.

Don’t bother with “Chance Me” conversations online or in person and skip to the next item.

Be sure your essays and short answer questions broaden our understanding of who you are—not simply what you’ve done. We can pick up your accomplishments from your transcripts or extracurricular record. We want to hear your voice and deepen our understanding of “why and how” you would thrive on our campus or contribute to the dynamics. More on essays here.

Keep admission decisions in perspective. These are not value judgments or character decisions. Your future, value, and worth is not hinged to what a school decides in admission. So please do not blur those lines. The existence of a holistic admission process means by nature that highly qualified, supremely talented students will not be offered admission. If you choose to apply to a school that utilizes a holistic process, you are also stating that you are willing to accept an admission decision without an “admission explanation” you can fully understand, especially through the filter of numbers alone.

Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 2 of 3)

Formula vs… well, no Formula

If you are applying to Georgia Tech or schools with a similar or lower admit rate, you are being reviewed under a holistic admission process. Many of you have heard this term before but what does it really mean? Essentially, there are two types of admission review. The first is a formulaic process, which is what I described yesterday. Most less-selective schools utilize this process, and for many public schools in Georgia it is called a “Freshman Index.” You can literally plug in a GPA, test scores, and sometimes (though often not) factors for rigor of courses to determine admission. The upside here is that when you apply to a school like this you basically know your decision before you even apply. I always equate it to running track. There is a hurdle set at a certain height and you either clear it or crash into it. Formulaic admission is clean, clear, black and white, and pretty simple.

The easiest way to explain a holistic file review process (other than the video link I included above) is to say it’s exactly the opposite. It’s very much gray, and it’s not clean or clear or easy to predict. All of the certainty you get in a formulaic admission process essentially goes out the window with holistic review.

Tangent (Skip this section if you don’t want to join me on a personal diatribe)

And that’s why the whole “Chance me” thread from College Confidential is basically pointless. College Confidential is an online forum where students discuss the admission process, pose questions to other commenters, and share their experiences with particular schools. There are some helpful threads on subjects and occasional experts who provide facilitation of topical discussion. But largely, at least at this time of year, there are long exchanges between students and parents that have come to be known as “chance me.” In these threads parents, I mean students… well, let’s call a spade a spade, parents pretending to be students, post stats such as GPA, test scores, extracurricular involvement, essay topics, and other demographic descriptors. Then other forum members provide their thoughts, speculation, and odds of that person being admitted to a particular school. In reading those strings, I am reminded of the quote “most advice is sound- but it’s rarely sound advice.”

And, We’re Back

Nearly 600 of our denied students had either a 35-36 ACT or 1500-1600 SAT (CR+M). The vast majority of students who were denied or deferred have taken AP Calculus or higher and are in the top 10% of their class and taking the toughest curriculum in that context. In other words, numbers are by no means the whole story. Holistic admission is going to look at every single element of an application and weigh that overall file in comparison not only with the applicant pool, but also with institutional priorities. This is where you start to hear words like “fit” and “match.” Ultimately, colleges are attempting to enroll classes that are in line with the goals of the institution.

Competitive vs. Compelling

In admission committee, we often see notes or hear verbal summaries that include this distinction. A student may be extremely strong from a pure academic standpoint but fails to truly distinguish him or herself when it comes to evidence of fit or match overall. Here’s how this plays out: two schools have essentially the same academic profile but are worlds apart when it comes to the type of student that excels in that environment, or who will add value to their campus culture. Take Brown University and Cal Tech as examples. When you read their websites, hear their admission representatives speak, or walk around their campuses, you know there is a fundamental dichotomy. However, the academic profile of the two is not disparate. A student who applies to these two institution may have completely different admission results based not on numbers but rather on personal attributes or background, and how that either complements or fails to add distinct value to the rest of the student population or overall mission.

Tune in tomorrow for the final post in this 3-part series… my tips on how to handle the uncertainty of a holistic admission process.

Holistic Admission – The Struggle is Real (Part 1 of 3)

Buzz starred in the Hobsons videos for the December and January emails sent to prospective freshmen.

What the…?

Last weekend, Georgia Tech’s Early Action admission decisions were released. Like most schools, we provide a profile of our admitted group to give applicants, as well as campus and external constituents a sense of the class. This year, 30 percent of applicants were admitted in the early round. On average they had 11 AP/IB/college courses prior to graduating from high school and a 33 ACT/1453 SAT (CR+M). (Note: We no longer publish a GPA because schools have such varying ranges. Some schools are on a 4.0 non-weighted scale, some are on a 5.0 or 12.0 weighted scale, some have numerical only ranges to 100 or 80 or 120. The landscape is vast and non-standardized, so giving numbers has become pointless. For example, if you are a student on a 5.0 scale and a published GPA is 3.8, you’re thinking, “Sweet. My Bs and Cs are really paying off!”).

My wife’s comment upon seeing the numbers was “I didn’t know they even offered 11 AP classes.” And this is a woman who has two master’s degrees and smoked me on both her testing and academic performance, so granted, the word “average” and those stats should not even be in the same sentence.

Formulaic Process

This year we received nearly 15,000 applications for early action. Last year that number was 3,000 less, and in 2012 we did not have that many during the entire application cycle. See a trend line here. When I came to Tech in 2003 (ahem, at age 15…) we were receiving under 10,000 applications and admitting 65 percent of applicants. Life was easy. We calculated a GPA, downloaded test scores, ran the excel tables, plugged some codes into the system, and BAM! Change the toner a few times, grab a coffee, lick some stamps, and call it a year. Effectively, that formulaic process worked for us based on the admit rate, quality and size of applicant pool, and overall goals of the Institute.

But because our undergraduate population is not growing, our admit rate has plummeted based on supply and demand alone. The exciting part of this is that we are ultimately enrolling an incredibly talented and diverse class but it also means a lot of essays to read, copious amounts of caffeine, long days away from family during file review season, and the fact that we are not able to offer admission to many phenomenal students who will go on to literally change the world. And let me be clear—it was a lot more fun admitting two out of every three students than denying two out of every three.

Click here to read part 2 of 3, where I explain the “holistic admission” process, and what that really means when we sit down to review applications.

Same Boat, Different Missions

Last weekend our daughter spent the night out, which meant our 11-year-old got to pick the movie without having to compromise (the first three syllable word he was forced to learn).

He immediately began scrolling through superhero movies and ultimately landed on Captain America- The Winter Soldier. Highlights include seeing Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson share the screen, as well as a few truly incredible chase and fight scenes. The trade-off is you end up having to explain to a rising 5th grader that winning WWII took a lot more than an amazing ricocheting shield.

Photo credit: Microsoft.com

In one of the first scenes, Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) are sent to free hostages aboard a ship. During the battle, Rogers realizes Romanoff has diverged to complete another mission– extracting data onto a jump drive from the ship’s computers for S.H.I.E.L.D boss, Nick Fury.

This scene not only sets the stage for the entire plot (and encapsulates the complex relationship between Rogers and Romanoff), but also illustrates the differing missions and motivations of high school counselors and college admission officers. Let me explain…

High school counselors are Captain America.

If you know Steve Rogers’ background, you’ll recall he volunteered to give his life and body to his country. He was transformed through an experiment into a super soldier. His quest is always to serve, protect, and advocate. There is no second mission or ulterior motive. He’s always going to choose and focus on people.

The same is true for high school counselors. This is why they spend countless hours at school, wear far too many hats for too little pay, and still find, or make, time to go to games, dances, performances, and graduation celebrations. Like Captain America they are uniquely made and fully committed.

Admission officers, deans, and directors are Black Widow.

Still a super hero… but it gets complicated.  They care about people. They want students to be happy, healthy, and successful, and they spend a lot of time in Hampton Inns eating extremely questionable breakfasts to prove it. Their direction comes from S.H.I.E.L.D. (read: an institution). They are not independent agents. Their measurement of success and ultimate objective is getting that jump drive. Save as many people as  you can along the way, but the data and numbers are the supreme mission.

For many years, people have described admission officers and school counselors as working on either “side of the desk.” Frankly, I think it’s time to Marvelize the dynamic to “same boat: different missions.”

Over the last two years, I’ve co-authored a book to guide families through the college admission experience with my friend and colleague Brennan Barnard, a school counselor who is also the college admission program manager for Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project. As a result, we talk regularly about various components of this intersection between high school and college, and have written before on the varying perspectives on our field and work. He has helped me appreciate and consider how admission messages, decisions, and policies play out “on the ground” in school communities.

To Serve and Protect

He may not wield a shield, but you can hear his Captain America serve and protect mentality in our email exchange about UVA’s recent announcement to reinstate a binding Early Decision application plan with a deadline of October 15.

“October 15th for a seventeen-year-old student to decide where they want to go to college? I feel the same way about this as I do about back to school sales at the end of June, snow blowers for sale in August,” (he’s from New Hampshire, so this one was kind of lost on me), “or Halloween decorations in stores before Labor Day.”

When the UVA made their announcement, he talked at length about issues surrounding access and equity, rightly pointing out that under-resourced students often do not know about early deadlines, nor do they have the ability to visit multiple colleges to appropriately weigh their options.

He also pointed out the anxiety he and his colleagues on the secondary side observe in their schools and how he sees the move to earlier applications as part of the problem. Frankly, he’s a better writer than me, so I’m just going to hand it off here:

“It is no secret that mental health is a huge concern on college campuses and in high schools as well. In a recent NPR interview, the authors of “The Stressed Years of the Lives” identify college admission as one of the primary stressors for young people. It aligns with evidence found at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project about achievement pressure and concern for others and the common good in college admission. While Early Decision is not the singular cause of stress, it certainly contributes to the arms race and students feeling that they need to game the process.

Increasingly students are asking “where” they will go to college before they even answer “why” they are going, because they know the reality of acceptance rates. All we have been learning about brain development and decision-making suggests that, if anything, we should be giving them more time! We need further national research on retention rates, freshman year GPAs, mental health struggles and other indicators, split out by students who came in through early and regular application, including demographic information.

Early Decision has the unintended consequence of pushing everything earlier in high school and is rendering the senior year impotent. Not only do we see students obsessing over college in 9th and 10th grades, but the second half of senior year looks really different when more than half a class is already into college by December.”

Same Boat, Different Mission

As an admission director (aka Black Widow), I join in his concern about equity, stress, and senioritis. I absolutely care. My colleagues on other college campuses care as well. We want to save everyone on the boat. But ultimately S.H.I.E.L.D. is telling us to get that jump drive. Our job is to bring in a class of students who will succeed academically, proliferate the brand of the college, and ensure the revenue generated by tuition is in line with the overall budget.

Note guy in back right. Told you someone always has an eye on the data.

This is an unprecedented time in college admission (and I’m not referring to the Varsity Blues scandal). As author Jeff Selingo discusses in “How the Great Recession Changed Higher Education Forever,” state appropriations for public universities have continually been reduced. As a result, publics with the regional and national brand to attract non-residents made up for their budget shortfall by looking out of state for more students. The population is declining and will continue to do so in the Midwest and New England. In response, population dense California now has almost 200 representatives from institutions outside the state who live and recruit there, including regional admission directors.

A growing number of colleges are closing their doors or re-examining their mission and viability. In “The Higher Education Apocalypse,” Lauren Camera outlines these challenges and highlights specific cases. She also cites Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who predicts that as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.

One way to protect your class (and tuition revenue) is to install a binding ED plan. Is it a perfect or fair solution? No. Are there sometimes other motivations for having an ED process? Yes, of course. It can serve to lower admit rate, increase yield, and could have implications for some of the methodology within US News rankings. (Why do all of those caveats feel like the end of a commercial for pills combating the other type of ED?)

Is UVA in danger of closing? No. They have a different challenge. Since 2008 applications for first-year admission have more than doubled. You know what hasn’t mirrored that growth? Their staff size. As the director of admission at Georgia Tech, I can relate, because over the last decade our story has been similar.

Running a holistic admission process demands time, and a lot of it. Understanding the differences between school grading scales and curriculum takes time. Reading essays and understanding how a student’s high school experience has prepared them for college takes time. If we were just plugging test scores and GPAs into a formula, we could turn decisions around in a day. But, in a simplistic example, that would mean a student with a 1400 and no demonstrated impact on his community edges out the team captain, hospital volunteer, all-around good person with a 1390. Nobody wants that (except the uninvolved 1400 kid).

Ultimately, we set a deadline. Whether that be November 15 or October 15, basically nobody applies until three days before that date. In fact, there are typically more applications submitted four hours before the deadline than four days ahead of it. Once those applications are in, we are on the clock. Financial Aid is breathing down our neck so they can package students. Academic departments want to contact students. And there is a constant concern (particularly among the board, administration, or boisterous alumni) that other institutions are moving faster, releasing decisions more quickly, and taking our applicants.

If staff size is not changing, and application volume is increasing, what can we change? The timeline. Spread out the submission of applications. One solution is to move the deadline up. One solution is to employ ED. In the case of UVA, it was both.

Do I see the challenges this may present? Absolutely. As an institution with an October 15 deadline, I hear them every year.

Agree to Disagree

Brennan’s take is this, “Let’s face it, early deadlines for college admission really are designed to benefit colleges not students. Sure, it is nice for some kids to know early in their senior year that they have a college acceptance locked in. But that nicety is far outweighed by the myriad reasons why the creep of early applications is detrimental–Early Decision being the worst of these evils.” (He expounds on our conversation in Forbes.)

My response?

Black Widow: The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.

Captain AmericaThat’s a tough way to live.

Black WidowIt’s a good way not to die, though.

I told you it was complicated.

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The Discipline of College Admission

Listen to the audio version here.

If you are not one for imposed holidays, you’re in the right place. Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote about how love and admission have a lot in common. This V-week we are going full contrarian and talking about school discipline.

Most applications ask students to report discipline/behavior history, including suspension, expulsion, and arrests. In acceptance letters colleges discuss both the need to keep your grades up, as well as your responsibility to inform them if you have some form of school or community discipline incident after you’ve been admitted.

I’ve had several questions about this topic on college panels recently, so this is my attempt to address those and provide broader insight. As always, I’m writing generally and do not claim to speak on behalf of all colleges. If, after reading this, you have specific questions, call or contact the particular school you are interested in (don’t worry–you won’t be the first to disguise your voice or indicate you are “asking for a friend”).

The short answer: schools use the same individualized, holistic process for reviewing a student’s discipline history that they do for reviewing academic or extra-curricular background.

Here’s the long answer.

Context. Typically, the first question admission counselors ask when they open an application is “where does this student live and go to school?” The goal is to understand who you are, where you are from, and what your family, academic, social, and community background looks like. Admission counselors are charged with gaining perspective on your high school setting and experience in order to understand both the options available to you and the choices you made, both inside and outside the classroom.

Moved three times in high school? Had a two-hour commute each day? Saw mom and dad go through an ugly divorce? Suffered a concussion or another illness that caused a prolonged absence? In college application review, context matters. Context is critical. Therefore context is always considered.

The same is true of our review of your disciplinary background. I once read the application of a student who was arrested for being in a dumpster behind his school. Why? Because his mother was working a double shift and had not left him a key to their apartment, so he was looking for warmth and shelter. Another student was arrested for being in a dumpster after spray painting the school with graffiti and slurs (the dumpster was simply where the police found him and his friends hiding). As you can see, context matters—and context will always be considered.

Timing. In their academic review, many colleges separate a student’s 9th grade GPA from their 10th-12th grade academic performance. This does not mean grades in Geography or Geometry in freshman year don’t matter, but rather indicates we recognize they’re not as predictive of academic success in college as grades in higher level courses (this is also why committees look at grade trends in a holistic review process).

Timing is also one of the factors admission counselors consider when reviewing a student’s discipline record. No, we don’t love your sophomore year suspension, but if there are not additional infractions, we are likely to exercise grace, consider it an isolated incident, and trust you learned a valuable lesson. The bottom line: holistic review = human review. Admission deans, directors, counselors may look polished or established now, but we’ve all made plenty of mistakes (I likely up the overall average). It is important you know we bring our ability to make judgment calls into our review of transcripts, test scores, family background, non-academic impact, and yes, disciplinary infractions as well.

Process. The admission “process” is not just for students. Colleges also have an entire process, including one for review of all elements of an application. In most admission offices, there are initial guidelines for discipline/behavior/criminal review. Most of the questions relate to severity, timing, the school’s action, and the implications that incident had on other students. If the situation warrants additional review, staff members escalate it to an Associate Director, Dean, Director, or an official review committee. At this point, 99% of cases are cleared without further action. However, if the case requires another layer of review, schools will involve partners from around the university for insight and areas of expertise, e.g. Dean of Students, General Counsel, and perhaps Chief of Police or other security representatives.

Having participated in many of these layers, I am always encouraged by how thoroughly and thoughtfully questions are asked and facts are gathered. One of the most difficult things about living in this beautiful but broken world is coming to the realization that as much as we may desire it, there are few things that are 100% good or bad; 100% right or wrong; 100% black or white.

Ownership.  Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. It is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances.

“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined and bagged them at the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off? We’re listening.

Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation.

A Final Note to Seniors

Your final semester is supposed to be fun. You have lots to celebrate and enjoy: games, productions, awards ceremonies, spring break, prom– tradition upon tradition, and last upon last. I get it.

I ask you to please hit pause when you find yourself in certain situations or when a “great idea” gets proposed in these next few months. Each year we see incredibly smart and talented kids do

FYI- Wow. What a diversity of Google images you get when you search for “seniors.”

indescribably dumb stuff that has lasting implications or consequences. So before you get behind the wheel; before you go to (or throw) that party; before someone brings out another bottle; when “everyone” is going to jump off that bridge naked in the dark into water at an untested depth; when cramming 12 people into a hearse to go blow up the principal’s mailbox gets suggested as a senior prank; before you post pictures or gossip or antagonizing content on social media, I hope you will thoughtfully consider your beliefs, character, and goals. (If all of that sounds too specific to be made up, well…).

I implore you not to rationalize with phrases like “everyone else is” or “she told me to” or “someone said it was okay.” Have the maturity and vision to say no or walk away or stand up or defuse the situation or speak calmly in frenetic moments.

I encourage you to read your offers of admission from colleges closely. They are promises of a future community. They are based on your academic potential but also upon their belief you have and will continue to enrich those around you.

I said there would be no cheesy Valentine’s sap here, and I’m sticking to my promise. True love is not capable of being boxed up and forced into one day. It can’t be captured in a card. Instead, it is both shown and proven over time. My hope is you will look around you this week (and every week between now and graduation). Be reminded of how much your friends, family, class and teammates love and respect you– not for what you do or don’t do (or will or won’t do) in a certain moment on a particular night– but for who you are consistently.

Above all else, my hope is you will have the composure and confidence to lead yourself and others with character in these final months of high school. Finish well.

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