Learning Points -- Beyond the numbers -- Personalizing the college application
Although the “formal” college application process doesn’t really begin until the late fall or early winter of the junior year, remember that the “footprint” that college admission officers will consider as they review a student’s candidacy really does begin with the ninth-grade academic transcript.
There are exceptions. Popular schools including the University of Michigan exclude ninth-grade performance and only take into account the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade academic profile. Let’s again look at what constitutes the “academic profile.”
For the most part, it focuses on the tangible and quantifiable as they impact the admissions decision: grade point average, rank in class and standardized test scores on the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests and Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate examinations.
Actually, for the majority of schools that students will consider and ultimately apply to, that’s a given and constitutes the majority of factors that impact the admissions decision. The sad reality is that – especially for large public institutions – numbers do drive the process. Rarely does a state university ask students to write two or three essays of any length or require or even offer an interview with an admissions officer as part of the selection process.
The size of the admissions staff, the depth and breadth of their responsibilities and the volume of applications received makes these “personal” touches virtually impossible. The process is, for all intents and purposes, formulaic.
Even when one explores practices followed by private colleges and universities, there’s a growing tendency to rely on numbers. In the fall of 2011, I had a conversation with an admissions director at a highly regarded small Midwestern liberal-arts college. As she shared the astounding growth of applications – up 19 percent from the previous year – I asked if there had been a commensurate increase in her staff. Sadly, she replied, her staff had actually been reduced.
The case of this institution is not an isolated one. It’s not necessary to employ higher math to conclude that fewer officers handling more applications get to spend less time on each applicant’s body of work and rely on the quantifiable to narrow the number of applications that they will be able to give appropriate attention to.
It’s also fair to say that the kind of relationship that a high-school guidance office or a private college counselor is able to develop and maintain with an admissions office is made more difficult by the sheer volume of work that the college admissions office is called upon to do and by the incredible turnover in staffing in those offices.
While senior members of the typical admissions office staff may remain in place over time, the representatives that visit the local high-school often change from year to year. The face-to-face or even phone-to-phone relationship that might allow a high-school counselor to plead the case for a student whose numbers don’t tell the whole story is thus more difficult to establish and maintain.
But opportunities to personalize the process and get each student’s individual odyssey up for consideration by an admissions office do exist – particularly at smaller and more selective/competitive institutions of higher learning. Students who apply to these schools tend to “self-select,” meaning that they look at past profiles of admitted students to particular institutions and rarely apply “outside the numbers” range.
Several years ago, the dean of admissions at Harvard was taken to task for suggesting that she could have scattered the more than 21,000 applications received that year on a huge table and randomly picked the 1,100-plus students admitted from that pool and that the probability of those students being successful at her institution would have paralleled the success of the students actually admitted via the arduous screening process employed in the hallowed halls of Cambridge.
So how does a student get an institution to look “beyond the numbers”? Let me suggest a number of opportunities and how to take advantage of them.
Even at the “big schools” – the in-state universities and the public out-of-state institutions – admissions officers are assigned to territories. Find out who your actual admissions rep is – the information is usually accessible on the school’s Web site – and develop a relationship with that person. Email them real questions – substantive questions – about a school’s salient features, signature programs or service or policies.
Schools value students who demonstrate “product knowledge” and who have thought and researched beyond the view book. Affirm your sincere interest in attending – if, in fact, that’s the case. Let them know they are your first choice if they don’t have an early-decision or early-action policy. Visit more than once, if you can.
Schools keep track of “hits” – the number of times a student actually makes contact with the university – since they believe that the more times the student contacts them, the greater the chance they will accept an admissions offer. Schools, at least those that care about their U.S. News and World Report rankings, want to keep their “yield” – the percentage of students who accept an offer of admission – high.
If you know what you’re going to major in or have a special talent or interest, reach out to that department or coach or drama or choral director, and introduce yourself. They can be valuable allies in advocating for you with the admissions office.
If the school asks for letters of recommendation, be sure to ask people who know you “beyond the numbers” to write them for you. Just because you got an A in junior English doesn’t mean the teacher you earned it from is the “best” person to write in your behalf. Students and parents do not give enough thought to this as they pursue the goal of admission at a particular school.
I’ve had parents ask me if a teacher who graduated from the institution a student is applying to is a better choice for a recommendation-writer than someone who does not have that linkage. Other things being equal – and there are lots of other things – the answer is generally yes, especially if she or he is an active alumnus.
At the smaller schools – which often tend to be the more competitive and selective ones – the role of the interview and the personal statement becomes more critical, as schools use the data gleaned from these “contacts” in helping inform the admissions decision.
Remember that many of the applicants to those schools mirror one another in terms of the statistical data they present. Difference-makers become more critical, and how a person “comes across” in an interview or the depth of understanding candidates provide a school about their core values or special interests, abilities and talents in an essay often tip the balance in favor of Candidate A as opposed to Candidate B.
I cannot say enough about students taking maximum advantage of the interview and essay as an opportunity to “state their case” for admission. The personal statement might be the most important, “high stakes,” piece of prose that the applicant has written to that point in their life.
College admissions officers at school where the essay really matters — the smaller, more competitive colleges and universities — read literally hundreds of essays, and a candidate truly needs his or her work to be noteworthy and memorable to have a positive impact on an admissions decision.
The same is true of the interview, whether it be conducted by an admissions officer, an alumnus or a junior or senior working in the admissions office. Be prepared to market yourself. Ask informed questions about the institution you are interviewing with. Demonstrate product knowledge. Dress appropriately! Schedule your interview well in advance of a visit you might be making to the campus, if that’s in your plans.
One of the many services I provide to students and families I work with is to provide help with the interview and essays. I don’t ghost-write on your behalf. I do help you find a topic, develop your ideas, make the document interesting and engaging, and promote technical perfection. Interview preparation is another topic that demands careful attention and “mock” interviews are a wonderful preparation for the “real” thing.
Getting a college or university to “look beyond your numbers” is no easy task, given the realities of the 21st century admissions process. The suggestions offered above will, hopefully, provide some direction in that endeavor.
Lawrence Mayer’s career as an educator spans 47 years as a teacher and administrator in high-performing secondary schools in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. For the three years prior to his retirement in 2008, he served as vice-principal of guidance services and director of college counseling at Tenafly High School in northern New Jersey. He is vice-president of Winning Education Inc., an educational consulting firm, and is a private college counselor. Mayer lives in Ocean View and may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
This year’s series of columns in the Coastal Point will focus on the critical objectives that present juniors need to accomplish and important challenges that they face as the begin the “formal” college selection-application process.