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Colleges and universities today flood the mailboxes of high school students with materials about their offerings — and some students take that as a message that the school has identified them as someone who they want to admit. That’s entirely wrong, but it’s just one thing that schools say or do that students misunderstand.

In this post, two college admissions experts detail specific areas of disconnect between what schools say and students take in. In some cases, the gaps are huge. This was written by Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Derryfield School, an independent day school in Manchester, N.H.; and Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech, a public research university in Atlanta.

They say they approach their jobs as educators and fathers of young children who seek to bring sanity and meaning to the college admission experience.

 

By Brennan Barnard and Rick Clark

Any parent knows the powerful phenomenon of selective hearing. We say, “You can watch television after you clean your room,” and our children hear, “You can watch television.” The “kid filter” effectively gathers the information that they want to hear and disregards what in parents’ eyes is the intent of the message.

It seems that discussions surrounding college admission elicit a similar filter for young people and their families.

In our combined decades of guiding students through the application experience from both sides of the admission desk, we have watched as the messages we offer get lost in translation. As professionals and educators, we need to be more clear about our communication, and students must also acknowledge their filter and listen more intently and critically.

Here we offer some frequent misinterpretations:

Colleges say:  “Our college has a 10 percent admit rate”

Students hear:  “I have a 1 in 10 chance of being accepted”

One in ten seems like good odds, no? If only it were so. Admit rates can be deceptive.  Yes the admit rate might be 10 percent, but all applicants are not created equally. After athletes, legacy students and other institutional priorities are accounted for, the actual admit rate for an “unhooked” applicant is much lower.

Examine the data more fully. Are there variances by geography or major? Admit rates can vary widely between Early Decision and Regular Decision. Are these numbers published? If not, ask the admission office. You will find that they will normally provide you with that data.

Counselors say: “We recommend you add a few more colleges to your list where it will be likely you will be admitted.”

Students hear: “I am not good enough and my counselor doesn’t believe in me.”

A colleague at a high school has a sign hanging in his guidance office that jokingly reads, “College Counseling Office … where dreams go to die.”

Our role as counselors is to help students aspire to greatness, but with a healthy dose of reality. College admission can often feel like a referendum on one’s self worth and a college application list can be a thing of pride or shame for students who feel judged based on the schools to which they are applying.

It is hard for students not to compare themselves to their peers and when a counselor or parent questions this list, it can be personal, disappointing and deflating. Lists are suggestions. Lists are options. Go talk to a few friends who are now in college. Many of them are not at places they thought they would be when they were juniors or seniors. And yet you’ll find them happy and thriving.

List additions are options, opportunities and choices. This is a good thing.

Colleges say:  “The most competitive applicants will have challenged themselves in a rigorous course program.”

Students hear:  “I need to take every AP and honors class at my high school.”

Selective colleges and universities want to admit students who have earned strong grades in demanding classes.

Contrary to popular belief, admission officers do not simply count Advanced Placement courses, nor is there a magic number of honors or AP or International Baccalaureate courses that will guarantee an acceptance. Students are reviewed within the context of their high school and the offerings available. Increasingly schools have opted to develop their own advanced curriculum in lieu of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Too often students overload their academic schedules to the detriment of extracurricular involvement, sleep, balance and joy. Don’t forget why you are taking these courses. It’s not about “getting in” but rather about “getting ready” so that you have a foundation of knowledge you can build on once you arrive on campus.

Counselors say:  “Don’t get caught up in name and reputation. Just find the college that is the best fit.”

Students hear:  “There is a school out there that will be perfect.”

“Fit” is a word that the college admission profession tosses around freely to encourage students to look beyond surface reputation and assumptions of quality. Unfortunately, this term can have unintended consequences for many students. It suggests the false postulation that one college will be tailored perfectly to meet every need and hope.

A college education is not like Cinderella’s glass slipper. Rather than search for the perfect school (it doesn’t exist), instead look for an institution that has the resources, programs, flexibility and culture that will match the college experience you anticipate.  Acknowledge the reality of imperfection and be willing to adjust the fit as you engage in campus living and learning.

Colleges say: “Our college reviews applications holistically. Test scores are only one small part of the equation.”

Students hear: “Even though the college’s average SAT score is 1400 and I earned 1100, I still have a chance of being admitted.”

Perhaps you saw the classic cinematic piece “Dumb and Dumber” in which Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) asks hopefully, “What are my chances?” and Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly) responds, “One in a million.” After pausing, he replies with excitement, “So, you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

Unless a college is “test optional” or you have some significant hook (talent, background, etc.), a standardized test score below a school’s average for accepted students can be a huge hurdle.  Admission presentations, information sessions and marketing materials may suggest that testing does not rule the day, but for the majority of applicants low scores will present a challenge.

College admission professionals are in the difficult place of balancing access for underserved populations and the anxiety of the “overserved.”  An admission officer does not want to discourage a potential applicant, who because of background or resources has low scores. However, the average student from a more privileged environment with ample opportunity is mistaken to think that they have a strong chance of being admitted with scores that fall in the bottom quarter of the class. This is not to say you should not apply, but certainly to temper expectations, especially if your grades, courses, extracurricular involvement and writing are not in the top 10 percent of that college’s applicant pool.

Colleges say: “Our college is ranked one of the ten best in the country”

Students hear: “This school must be prestigious. I should want to go there.”

Whether U.S. News and World Report, Niche, Princeton Review or any other of the publications looking to make a buck on college admission angst, you must do your homework before allowing them to tell you what is good for you.

Highly ranked schools are well-known and well-regarded for a reason. But it is false to believe there is a measurable quality difference between schools 10 spots apart. Your interest in a college should not be directly correlated to their ranking. In fact, most students do not know how rankings are formulated — the methodology. With other things in their lives, they rely and look closely at reviews and ratings by peers, i.e. Yelp, FourSquare, etc. The rankings are essentially the business owner’s review of themselves.

So dig a little deeper. Don’t let a simple number be overly compelling or the extent of your assessment.

Colleges say: “You are invited to apply with our special application.”

Students hear: “I have a good chance of being admitted.”

“VIP,” “Dean’s Select,” “Priority,” “Pioneer” — colleges have different names for these “fast” or  “snap” applications. It goes like this: students receive an email from the admission office encouraging them to apply, often waiving the application fee or streamlining the application by removing required essays. Some solicitations even promise priority consideration for scholarships or housing (but read the fine print).  Of course it feels good to be wanted, but these offers can be deceptive, as high school seniors perceive that they are a select few.  More often than not they are one of thousands receiving these nudges, while colleges seek to increase application numbers and influence college rankings, as mandated by their Board of Trustees.

Counselors say: “Colleges want students who have demonstrated leadership.”

Students hear: “If I am not president of a club or captain of a team, I am doomed!”

Leadership takes many forms, the most public of which is a named or elected position that carries specific responsibilities and inherent characteristics.  A sports captain will by default be the individual who speaks to the referee in representing his teammates.  The secretary general of the Model U.N. club has a defined role that is dictated by the organizational structure.

While these are certainly positive ways to show initiative and ability to manage one’s peers, leadership is not limited to high-profile, outgoing, verbal governance.  The student who quietly cleans up the bus after his teammates have gone home or the young person who — without fanfare — sticks up for the underdog is equally a leader.  Often the acts that do not demand recognition are the best indicators of character and willingness to help build a healthy community.

Colleges want to see impact and influence. Sometimes that is quantifiable and comes in the form of a title. But readers at selective institutions are savvy and nuanced enough in their evaluation to glean traits and character that may not show up as a line in the yearbook.

Colleges say: “Congratulations! You have been awarded the Dean’s (insert high administrator title here) Scholarship.”

Students hear: “I got a scholarship. I should go there, because they want me.”

Many schools will discount tuition under the gentle euphemism “scholarship.” This is not to diminish your qualifications or accomplishments, but don’t be overly compelled by a reduction in cost. Sometimes known as “cocktail scholarships” these certainly stroke egos and allow families to boast of the award, but they can also cloud decision-making. Often families will choose the school that provided the “scholarship” over another school who does not match, even if the bottom-line cost is equivalent or even lower at the latter.

Colleges say: “We don’t expect applicants to have a laundry list of resume-building activities, we just want students who have followed their passion.”

Students hear: “I need to find one thing that I really love and have excelled in.”

“Passion” is another word that has been neutered by college admission and can quickly stifle the most dynamic applicants.

True, colleges are not looking for human “doers,” but rather human “beings.” Admission officers are not simply counting the quantity of extracurricular involvement, but are instead concerned with quality and therefore review candidates for how they engage in their interests. In fact, some schools, such as MIT, have limited the number of activities that a student can list on an application to combat this resume-padding approach to involvement.

This does not, however, mean that young people must feel pressured to identify a singular pursuit that will define them.  Passion can feel so confining and should be a constant process of revelation not a narrow approach to personal growth.