Admissions officers: keeping the process clear as mud

In a few of the threads you’ll find a number of readers asking how a particular combination of GPA and SAT score, or a GPA from a particularly hard (or easy) high school, or grades in some particular course are likely to impact admission. Most of all they want to know if they will be admitted, some to a particular school (often Mason, which at least shows good taste). Unfortunately my answer is nearly always: It depends. This is a standard answer for admissions officers. If you read the guidebooks, admissions sections of catalogs, or transcripts of any presentation by a particular college you tend to find VERY little useful information. I’ve heard parents and students suggest that perhaps this is intentional, perhaps there is a massive conspiracy of admissions officers all seeking to keep information on admission standards as obscure as possible as part of their evil scheme to take over the world!

Well, they’re right. Not about the take over the world part (which I thought of while watching an old rerun of Pinky and the Brain with my son this morning), at least not most of us, and maybe not strictly a conspiracy, but no doubt about the obscurity. Three big reasons.

The nicest view of this shortage of detail is…honesty. As I keep saying over and over and over (and over) again, admissions isn’t just about a particular GPA and score. It can be VERY numeric, but those numbers are very complex, involving looking at particular courses, schools, etc. The more competitive the school, the more likely you are to have other factors, from the need for oboe players to essay quality confound these numeric factors.

A less nice reason is the marketing aspect. Admissions officers not only select students, we also recruit them. Details on admissions standards make this job much harder. Let’s say, for example, that I explain that my school is really looking for a particular GPA and a specific test score. If you have below this score, you may be less likely to apply, even if you are just the kind of special case we might want to stretch to admit, since it turns out your dad is prepared to donate enough to have his name splashed all over some buildings and you can hit the jump shot from way out in three point range. Even worse, if you have a higher score you might decide you’re WAY too smart for that school. By being vague we at least have the chance to recruit both students. That’s why you tend to hear, “We’re very competitive and looking for students with great grades. We also look at test scores, but those are less important, because you are more than a number.”

This leads to reason for obscurity number three: Colleges and universities don’t want to be a number any more than you do. Despite a great deal of logic to the contrary, admissions officers like to believe that each and every one of their schools is truly unique, offering you UNRIVALED opportunity to ACHIEVE YOUR POTENTIAL. (This is, of course, true about Mason, but some of our competitors are clearly delusional). Anyhow, savvy admissions officers learned long ago that the minute you share a specific GPA and test score students and parents pretty much stop listening to everything else. Never mind the phenomenal location just outside Washington, D.C. or the incredible residence halls or that President Obama started his campaign on campus AND delivered his first major economic address here as well – that’s just not interesting once those numbers have been stated.

This combination, honesty, marketing, and a nutty desire to avoid being “just a number”, keeps admissions officers fully participatory in the “conspiracy.” It also leads us to over-use words like, “holistic review.” If you don’t believe me, just ask an admissions officer. I’m confident in their ability to impress you with an array of amazing information while nimbly dodging your question. Be seeing you.


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