cutting back on stress AND getting admitted

I was presenting to parents of high school juniors last night at Yorktown High School in Arlington, VA. They were a great crowd (meaning, they laughed at my jokes – clearly a mark of an intelligent and discerning group), but MAN were they STRESSED. I closed with my favorite two pieces of advice about the admissions process:

1) Don’t take this process personally. I mean, seriously, we don’t know you. I realize that every school you visit claims they won’t treat you like a number, and they want to know the “real” you, and they have come to care deeply about you (no, not just your parents checkbook. No. Really.). Even so, when they’re reading two bazillion (that’s a very high number – you’ll learn about it in your very advanced math classes) applications, things will kinda run together. So you need to know – whether you get admitted or denied – it’s not really about YOU. It’s about that bunch of stuff you sent: your grades and courses and scores and maybe some stuff you wrote and a couple of other people wrote about you. Before you get your admission decisions, put all that stuff together and take a look for yourself. Is that you? Of course not! Admissions officers aren’t your parents, your teachers, or your friends. We’re not even that guy you periodically see lurking near your school (at least, I hope not). It’s a bunch of people, maybe one or two of whom you might have met once or twice, who are going to read your application. If they deny you, they’re denying that application, not you. You they don’t know. You are still the same very cool person you were before us boneheads made our decision.

2) So if all that’s true, then don’t get all caught up in any one school (except maybe Mason. No not really. Ok, maybe a little). Apply to a few that are in your range, any of which will be great for you. And bear in mind, most schools will be great for you. That’s what colleges and universities do. We’ve had years and years of figuring out how to educate you while still allowing you to have a reasonably good time. Let’s face it – there really aren’t all that many schools that totally suck.

So – don’t take it personal, and don’t get hung up. Also, try to find some fun in this process. There is fun to be had – more about that later. In the meantime, relax – you’re going to be fine. Be seeing you.

PS – One of my colleagues sent a note last night after I posted asking if I really believed that decisions were NEVER personal. Good point! It’s true that many admissions officers will have that one student they met on the road, saw at a fair, or met on campus, who they really want to admit, and will stretch for them. I suspect it’s rare, but surely possible, that some really mean nasty admission officers decide they just don’t like some applicant and try to sink their chances. From my perspective, that still leaves you, the applicant, in the same boat. Whether your skilled sucking up makes you a counsellor’s pet, or leaves them filled with loathing, it’s still about someone they likely met just briefly.

Now there are even rarer exceptions, such as when someone you really do know is an admissions officer, maybe even a family member. Fair enough, then it’s going to feel pretty darn personal. At that point, should they deny you, I would definately take them off your holiday card list. Unless, of course, you’re a really awful student. In that case, give them a break – you probably don’t want anybody to risk their job over your past performance. But why should I bother writing about that? No reader of THIS blog has a weak academic record…right?


10 Responses

  1. As the aforementioned colleague who asked if you thought admissions decisions were NEVER personal, I’m going to continue to disagree with you. (Shock.) I would argue that sometimes, if admissions officers don’t like a student, said student may not get an offer of admission to their school. And that’s not just because we’re big fat meanies who are bitter about reading applications on a Friday night.

    The admissions process is a human process. If an admissions officer dislikes a student, oftentimes there is a reason. Just because the feeling might be based initially in limited personal contact (an interview, a HS visit, etc.) doesn’t mean it is not a legitimate dislike. Chances are, those feelings are going to be supported by what’s in the application. I’ll give an unextreme example: every admissions officer has read an application from a student met on the road. The interview, which at some schools will last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, showed that the student was smug and arrogant regarding his accomplishments, his curriculum, his opporunities to travel, his perfect hair, whatever…resulting in said admissions officer disliking student and wishing for the half hour of her life back.

    Flashforward to reading season: the officer is reading the same student’s folder. The essays exhibit a character who clearly feels that he is so much better than everyone else because he is smart/athletic/musical/whatever/good at playing the bagpipes/whatever. Said student also has an awesome GPA and standardized test scores, and was the president of this and the proconsul of that. Is the student admissible? Absolutely. Yet, denying that student isn’t being mean and awful; it’s not offering him a place because his exhibited attitude doesn’t fit in with what the officer’s school wants in a new member of its community. The admissions officer dislikes the student’s displayed attitude, and may make a judgement accordingly. Long story short: decisions oftentimes are personal.

    Yes, one can make the argument that the place of the university is to expose students to new ideas, cultures, etc. which will, ideally, open their mind/world and make them take a look at themselves and their fellow man blah blah blah, but quite frankly (and you know this) it’s not always worth it. Students need to be aware that admissions officers are also looking at them as people; academics are always a priority, but do we want bigoted students walking around campus? No, of course not. Do we want students so caught up in themselves that they ignore what’s going on around them, whether in the classroom or the world at large? No again. Personality does matter; if kids are coming across so negatively in an interview, at a high school fair, etc. that we actually do remember them and their bad attitude, then that may very well say something about the student.

    Yes, meetings might be fleeting, but in this as in all things, impressions matter. This doesn’t mean students should suck up. (That can get weird and creepy…although chocolates and flowers are always welcome.) However, it does mean that students should be themselves and also be cognizant of their behavior and attitude. Of course, that’s something that can be said about all people at all times.

  2. So much talk about the decision not being personal. I can’t help but feel that the decision is based solely on numbers because that is SOME admissions departments personal preference. Come on Andy, you would not want a great kid who is a late bloomer screwing up your numbers!! That is really how you “personally” feel. Admit it!! (Seriously, do you receive any Christmas cards?)

  3. Hey Andy….so much talk about the decision being personal and the academic record. It seems that you are personally making decisions based soley on academic record. Wake up son. It’s not all about numbers. GMU…YOU…..descriminate against kids from NoVa. Your real smooth when you spoke at my high school. But honestly, you are full of s***. GMU is doomed to have a nondiverse academic student body. Face it, all admitted students have the SAME profile. Oh wait, I mean strong academic record!

  4. Oh anonymous and andykidz, what color are the skies in your world? Of course colleges look for students with similar profiles – academically speaking. If we knew who the late bloomers were, as opposed to the students who were just slackers, that would be delightful, but sadly our crystal balls were not granted sufficient mystical power. Also, while not denying the very real amount of s*** of which I am full, diversity is not solely represented by academic profile. I will say that we do not “descriminate” against northern Virginia, although we do, in fact, have some hesitation with students that are of a lower academic profile. Perhaps you can suggest another model? One which totally advantages northern Virginia students and students who have performed badly academically but will bloom in the future? Now, what do you think that would do to our profile, and then the school reputation, and how fair would that process be?

    Fortunately, Mason has a great option for late bloomers – go to the one of the best community colleges in the nation, right down the street, PROVE you are a late bloomer with an outstanding academic performance, and THEN we’ll admit you. Even if you’re from northern Virginia. Even if you call me Andy.

    As for Kellycolleen’s comments – she’s right on the money. On the other hand, no matter how little regard you might have for any applicant, if the student is WAY above the academic performance of other applicants (and/or a legacy whose parents have a building named after them and who can hit the three-point shot from outside the line), you’re pretty unlikely to deny regardless of your personal feelings. On the other hand, the really lousy student probably won’t get in even if you’re feeling the love. But sure ly correct that if you’re on the borderline and you’re among the few students that made an impression, particularly a negative one, things may get a bit too personal before the decision letters are mailed.

    Also, I do get Christmas cards. I also get Channukah cards. We have a very diverse household – depsite our similar profiles. Be seeing you.

  5. But sure ly correct that if you’re on the borderline and you’re among the few students that made an impression, particularly a negative one, things may get a bit too personal before the decision letters are mailed.

    Andy, How can an applicant send YOU a negative message in the application process? What is a negative impression and how is it made? Please explain.

  6. Dear Andy, Based on your blogs, you have a very high opinion of yourself. Should I decline my acceptance to GMU based on my personal opinion that the Dean of Admission is full of himself? After all, you are selling GMU. Arn’t applicants marketing themselves to you as well? Applicants are around 18 years of age. Perhaps you could be more specific as how 18 year olds who have enjoyed success in high school should convey that to “readers”? Are their buzz words to avoid like “creepy”? It is confusing because at first you say the decision is not personal, but then you go on to explain how it is personal. Thanks, Andy. It can be so confusing!

  7. If you take anything away from my random musings, I hope it’s that you should make your decision on which college to attend on things that matter most to you. Hopefully the attitude/personality (or lack thereof) of an admissions officer has very little to do with that.

    I agree completely that applicants are trying to market themselves. To clarify, I think by and large the decisions are VERY impersonal given the massive volume of applications that institutions receive. I have no doubt that there are exceptions where personal impressions play a larger role, particularly in the case of students “on the bubble.” My difficulty in answering is in no way intended to confuse the issue. Realistically, however, there is no way to know how any individual admissions officer or admissions committee members may respond to tone or language in an application. This is the real basis for my encouragement to avoid taking the process personally. It’s not that the process isn’t prone to personal judgements – but that those personal judgements are only about the “reader’s” impressions from the application materials, or in rare cases from brief meetings with an applicant. It is unlikely that an admissions officer will really know who you are, or be able to predict the amazing things you can accomplish, from those limited materials. All they can do is try to make some determination of which are the most competitive applications (note applications, the packages, not applicants).

    So yes, it both personal (in that the admissions officer will bring his or her own bias, preference, and impressions to the evaluation) and impersonal (in that the admissions committee has only limited knowledge about the applicant on which to make their determination).

    There are some obvious guidelines. Telling a university that you definitely want to go to another institution, for instance, is pretty universally negative. There’s a rather extensive post from a couple of months ago with a list that was submitted to the admissions counseling list serv of the mistakes that most bother admissions officers. I’ll repost it asap.

    In the meantime, my advice remains to not get sucked in by our marketing hype and propaganda, and recognize that there are likely a number of outstanding universities for each student. And yes, not to take the process, if possible, too personally. And no, I don’t recommend making your decision based on the ego of the dean of admissions, no matter how large (some might say titanic) or small. Be seeing you.

  8. “In the meantime, my advice remains to not get sucked in by our marketing hype and propaganda, and recognize that there are likely a number of outstanding universities for each student. And yes, not to take the process, if possible, too personally. And no, I don’t recommend making your decision based on the ego of the dean of admissions, no matter how large (some might say titanic) or small. Be seeing you.”

    Thank you for your honesty. It would have been good to know that you were using “marketing hype and propaganda” when you spoke at my high school. You downplayed the role of SAT and GPA as a major factor in the admission decision at Mason. Particularly the SAT. As it turns out, that is not the case at all.

    It would be less confusing if you were more forthcoming with how the actual process works when you speak to groups of high school students. High school kids are acutely aware of numbers. They are part of the largest population of kids applying to college. They have been part of this large population during their entire academic lives. They know what numbers mean. To downplay them to high school students is less than honest. It may get more applications coming into your school and enable you to reject more kids (enhancing your rating). When (and if) you get invited back to speak to anxiety ridden high school kids, it might be a good idea to respect the process. Thanks again. It is good for high school students to be aware that the marketing process goes both ways!

  9. It seems I’ve caused new confusion. Hopefully I can manage to clarify and redeem my reputation, such as it is.

    I entirely stand by my comment that SATs, and standardized tests in general, are a MUCH smaller part of the admissions process in general, and at Mason in particular, than most applicants believe. This is as compared to your academic record, which remains by far the most important factor in the decision process. That is not to say that the scores don’t count at all, especially when they are markedly disparate from grades – just that the grades, courses, and school are FAR more important.

    I don’t believe I ever downplayed the role of grade point average, although it is very important to know that GPA gets placed, at least for admission purposes, in the context of school and courses. My apologies if this was not entirely clear when I said, and I’m pretty sure I said it since I start every speech with this line, that nothing is as important in the admission process as your grades.

    The marketing hype I try to warn you against is when schools try to convince you that there is ONLY ONE RIGHT PLACE TO GO, and therefore that you need to invest vast amounts of your emotion/energy/karma into getting into one specific school. Your generation more than any other should be able to see right through this hooey, but over and over again I talk to students who have applied to just one school, or are convinced there is only one place to go, and get devastated at a denial…even when they receive admission to some pretty fanatstic instiutions. I’m not just talking Mason here – I worked with a student two years ago who had her heart set on one particular Ivy League school. She got admitted to two others, a pretty amazing feat, but got denied to her “first choice”. She was completely grief stricken!

    So – yes academic record is the most important thing. Yes, scores matter, but not NEARLY as much as academic record. You can do your best to use the essay, recommendations, etc to try to maximize your chances, but you really need the grades first. In any event, you have many many outstanding options. By no means am I attempting to be less than honest – in fact, if anything I’m going for brutal honesty. This isn’t about YOU, it’s about the limited stuff the admissions officers know about you.

  10. Dean Flagel–

    I can’t believe I missed out on your blog, but I’m in the know now! Way to tell it like it is. : )

    All the best,


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