Admissions officers fear the tech

I just returned from the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admissions Counseling conference (PCACAC – yes, you sound a like chicken pronouncing the acronym). That’s the regional branch, covering DC, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia, of the national group (NACAC) that came out today with a study saying that colleges are increasingly using social networking (duh) and that they are increasingly using search engines to check up on applicants. While NACAC had 26% percent of respondents say they were using search engines, they didn’t have anyone report they were doing so routinely, and some said specifically it was only to check on high profile scholarship applicants and other select students.
While NACAC was conducting a survey of some schools, also known as, “university admissions staff with so much time on their hands they can idly surf the net while reviewing applications,” back here on planet earth I listened in on a well attended session led by folks from Zinch on university use of technology in the recruitment and admissions process. Unlike NACAC, Zinch’s survey of some colleges and universities, also known as, “really hard working schools, although not working so hard they can’t find time to fill out a lengthy survey from a vendor,” found that no schools were reviewing social networking sites/using search engines in the admissions process.
I’ve written before that I think it’s pretty unlikely schools are doing much of this, and I think schools that do are a) risking liability, or at the very least foolishness, since they have no idea of the veracity of the information that might be found and b) pretty creepy. Add to that that most of the admissions officers in the session I attended seemed pretty clueless about web use and very nervous about using those new fangled computer things to try to get around that fad they keep hearing about, “the internet.”
At they same time many of them seem very excited to be using twitter. I suspect this is because a) twitter trends to a much older demographic and b) they like saying, “I tweeted”. I tweeted regularly during the conference, which gives you an idea of how entirely engaged in the proceedings one had to be to follow the rapid fire dialogue.
Mostly admissions officers whined that you (being students and parents) were getting your information from various nefarious places on “the web”. They cited college confidential and wikipedia as the virtual street corners where you all are getting much misinformation. I want to state unequivocal support for these sentiments as I feel strongly that you should only get your misinformation from the source, our own university websites, which have been lovingly crafted to be nearly unnavigable and filled with exactly the information you tend not to be seeking. Be seeing you.


The week before May 1 – stress and marketing

You may not realize it, but this is, for most admissions deans and directors, the most stressful weekend of the year. It’s the last weekend before the May 1st national reply date – that arbitrary day we’ve pretty much all agreed is the day by which our admitted students have to let us know whether or not they have selected our school. This seems only fair – after all, we’ve been making applicants sweat for months, so not it’s our turn to wait.

Of course, we don’t want EVERYONE we admit to pick our school. We use a whole slew of statistical analysis to determine which students will, which won’t and which might…then we use that to determine how many students to admit…a number much larger than the number of spaces in our class. How much larger varies by your statistical analysis, but it may be double, triple, or even four times the number of spaces.

At the same time we know how disastrous it can be for our institutions if we admit too few and under enroll. Whether being over or under is worse depends on the institution’s budget, capacity, and whole slew of other factors.

Even though the decisions have mostly been made, there is still plenty to think about. I’ve been working on final efforts all day: content for last minute emails, phone calls, text and even Facebook messages. We’ve pretty much communicated with all of our admitted students constantly for months, so what is left to say? Do we repeat all the vast benefits of a Mason education, highlight the incredible residence life, tout the raw charisma of the dean? So many choices…

The schools with the most sophisticated and elaborate marketing plans and systems will do it all – trying various messages to various populations (although usually targeting, not testing, but that’s a tale for another day). Most schools, however, will just take their best guess as to what’s going to work best. Then we wait and we stress. Also, we take a vast amount of anti-acids. Even those of us (like me) with deposits that look very strong, close to our projections, everything going along fine (of course it is – Mason is where EVERYONE wants to be!), still don’t know how it will really look for sure by the end of the week. So if you received an admission letter from me, this would be a great time to go ahead and submit your enrollment confirmation. Now if I can just find the right text for my email…Be seeing you.

Size doesn’t really matter (yes, I said it).

I periodically scan the Washington Post blog Admissions 101, and recently came across a ridiculous debate about school size. The author, my longtime acquaintance Jay Matthews, asserted that large schools offer more options, then noted that he received a ton of feed back that smaller schools do an even better job of helping students look at options.
That’s just hooey (that’s a technical term). I have worked and consulted for small and large schools, attended a medium sized school for my undergraduate and masters, and a very large school for my PhD. The reality is that there are very large schools where students can have very limited options, either because they have such structured programs that it is hard to explore more than one possibility, or because their programs are so “siloed” and slow to change that many are outdated – interestingly, you can find small schools with exactly the same problems. Of course, there are also large schools that give every bit of the depth and range of options Jay describes, but in fairness there are smaller institutions that give nearly as much if not more. The assumption many make is that smaller schools give more personal attention. That is surely true of many, but there are also plenty that fail thoroughly in that respect, just as there are large schools that do exceptionally well at giving personal attention.
Bottom line – the idea that the volume of students attending a school is the best indicator of options or attention is entirely misleading, a glaring logical misconception. The culture, programs, atmosphere, and policies of institutions are the source of attention (or inattention), as well as array of options (or lack thereof). Of course, Mason is the perfect example of the best of both worlds – giving personal service with a phenomenal range of options and cutting edge programs. All right…I may be just WEE bit biased. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Best Admitted Student Event – EVER – and Mason declared GREATEST UNIVERSITY ON EARTH

Finally have a chance to fill you in on the admitted student event we held on Sunday. We have about 1700 students in attendance – with their families that brought us to shy of 4,000, our largest admissions event ever. A massive distinction for the Mason events is the spectacular support we get from faculty who turn out in droves for this program every year, despite it being a Sunday and despite the wide range of other things they could be doing here in the D.C. area. And yes, the tours of the new housing and the great student groups performances were terrific.
But what REALLY made it great was the opening session. With such a large group we need the Patriot Center, our basketball/concert arena as our starting venue. This can be difficult in the spring since the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus does a series of shows there, usually about the same time we want to hold this event. Fortunately, the incredible folks from Feld Entertainment and Ringling/Barnum were wonderfully accommodating. They let us launch the program while they set up for their show that day, and I got to do the welcome speech from the center ring of the circus. Even better, their incredible Ringmaster, Chuck Wagner, opened the event, in full ringmaster regalia, with, “Ladies and Gentlemen and Students of All Ages, Welcome to the GREATEST UNIVERSITY ON EARTH!” The he introduced me – so I was introduced by the Ringmaster at the circus…how incredibly cool is that? And I got to hang out back stage. Met some clowns – talked to the dog trainer (the very cute chihuahua was having eye problems, poor thing). Are you starting to see why I love my job? Be seeing you!

Is it unethical to double deposit?

There’s a common mantra among admissions officers and guidance counselors alike that admissions is NOTHING like any commercial process, so any comparison to a commercial process is immediately viewed with great derision. Among these the ultimate sin is to compare the admissions process to making a purchase, like buying a car or a house. Many of my colleagues, upon hearing such a grievous comparison, will launch into a round of invective worthy of politicians.

The discourse gets particularly strident this time of year as we approach the national May 1st deadline for students to submit their enrollment commitments. Admissions officers weeks ago began lamenting on their various listservs all the ways in which students try to manipulate this process, and trading suggestions for how we can discourage or even prevent students from depositing at more than one institution.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it would be delightful if you only pick one institution at which to deposit (especially if that choice is Mason, of course). There are many good reasons for the May 1 system, many of which are intended to protect applicants and their families. It should, theoretically, keep colleges from pressuring you to make a decision before May 1, since schools aren’t SUPPOSED to promise better housing/schedules/social life if you deposit sooner. It also theoretically allows universities to offer space to others if you’re NOT going to enroll, and for institutions to plan what kinds of courses to offer to meet your needs, how many orientation sessions to run, and how many bunk beds they have to squeeze into one room this year.

While all that’s well and good, I suspect many families (maybe even you) really couldn’t care less about making things more convenient for the colleges, and just maybe also don’t care much about whether some other student gets a space. This is partially because we are a society that likes the whole free market theory and are driven by self interest, and partially because families sense that these reasons are a big load of manure. They know about said manure because they read all the news reports that say that applicants are double depositing in ever increasing numbers, yet students continue to be admitted, faculty to be hired, etc.

I really like when the argument gets all fired up as a debate on “ethics”. It seems particularly charming that the same universities that are sending massively manipulative marketing materials (oh how I love alliteration!) and providing entirely opaque information on scholarship and financial aid policies, which they maneuver behind the scenes, then call students unethical for not being able to make up their minds by May 1 so deciding to lose hundreds of dollars on deposits just to have more time. I know I’ll catch a lot (A LOT) of flack for this, but it isn’t unethical, it’s a purchasing decision (let the flack begin!). You can place deposits on any number of items (say a car, just to draw the comparison most likely to inflame my colleagues), and decide NOT to make that purchase without being in the least unethical, can’t you?

Let’s face reality – colleges already know that you might have been waitlisted somewhere else and committed to that waitlist. As a result, many of you will deposit at a place knowing that, should the place that wailisted you make an offer, you’re going to ditch the place you deposited. We also know that the number of students double depositing has been increasing rapidly (shhhh – what we don’t mention is that there’s really nothing we can do about that – other than keep your deposit).

Here’s my radical suggestion: justfor fun and giggles, how about all the colleges and universities decide that double depositing is NOT unethical, in fact it’s so acceptable we’d prefer you TELL US!!! I know, this sounds crazy – I mean, who wants to inject HONESTY into a system that’s working SO WELL (as the sarcasm drips from my keyboard)? Most of us already have models where we predict how many students that deposited won’t ever enroll – wouldn’t it be better to have actual student responses to help those models work?

Once again, I’m sure most of my colleagues will disagree and see this as expanding the marketing and confusion period well into the summer, but here’s a news flash – we’re already there!! So I say to you high school seniors, in these final days before May 1, I don’t consider double depositing unethical – I can even understand it and think we should have a system that embraces it! In the meantime, just to be safe, maybe you should only deposit at Mason. And by safe I mean, of course, safe for me. Be seeing you.

The Importance of Senior Year

Somehow a large number of you (and by you I mean, “high school students,” also known as, “Facebook users that find anyone over 25 on Facebook pretty creepy”) are either hitting the homestretch of your senior year, or you are in midst of selecting your senior year classes (or just picked them, or about to pick them – whatever, don’t quibble). A smaller portion of you (and by smaller portion I mean, “a lot” and you I mean, “people who believe that Coke and Coke Zero staff really have a serious rivalry going”) are under the bizarre and entirely mistaken impression that senior year is unimportant. In my ongoing quest to reduce cluelessness, I will hereby eradicate this myth once and for all.

But before I get around to the eradication, I’ll admit there are cases where it’s at least close to true. For some colleges and universities where your scores and grades are WAY above their average, the senior year may play very little role in the admission process, at least initially. Your performance through junior year may be sufficient for a decision.

For most of you, however, the admissions counselors/committee/computer will want additional data, and that data is most likely to be found in your senior year. That may mean, for you early action/decision types, looking at what courses you decided to take. For most, it will mean actually seeing your grades in senior year.

There are even those of you where the senior year is your chance to change things to a large degree. My hardest admission decisions usually follow that pattern. I had two this year that found their way to my desk after review by the admissions committee. Both had truly heart-wrenching stories behind them. Let me share that after 20 years in admissions it takes quite a bit to even nudge my heart, let along wrench it, and to have it happen twice in a season is fairly exceptional. In one case grades were terrible up until late in junior year. Then, suddenly, the student had spectacular grades, all the while in a very rigorous schedule. I waited to see most of senior year, and the grades held strong – clearly the student had moved past the awful experiences and found a way to succeed. The other student had a weaker schedule. Like student A, grades started to improve, but senior year was much less rigorous (no math or science courses), and the grades weren’t as strong. So student A was admitted, while I’m working directly with student B to find some other options – each decision based almost entirely on senior year performance.

Finally, and I hope most of you knew this was coming, even if we admit you, we still want to see your final grades. In most cases we only act on a pretty severe drop in grades, but there are exceptions. Enrollment has gotten harder and harder to predict as students apply to more and more schools, and that’s especially true with all the uncertainty about the economy. Many schools are saying they will admit more students, thinking fewer will accept their offer. If those schools are WRONG, they may end up with more students than they want. Not be a buzz kill, but if you are admitted to a school that ends up with way more students than they want, and your senior year grades go down at the end, that may be an excuse for that school to, and I yes I realize this is unfortunate choice of language, thin the herd.

So, senior year important. Take a lot of challenging courses, and do well in them – all the way to the end of the year. And you should also floss – it won’t help with admissions, but dental health is just plain important. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Mason Speech Team number 2 in nation

Mason is lucky to have one of the most amazing Forensic teams in the U.S. (that’s Forensics as in speeches, not forensics like “C.S.I.”, although Archie Kao is a Mason graduate and former student body president who stars on C.S.I., but that’s another story). The team is led by director Peter Pober, whose teams are consistently in the top ten (even before he came to Mason) and who runs a phenomenal summer academy for high school students interested in forensics. Now the team has been ranked the 2nd best in the nation . Yeah, they’re just that good.