2012: predicting the end of the world or admissions: whichever comes first


The web (and even Southpark) seems abuzz with “news”, based very scientifically on the promotional efforts of the movie, 2012, that the Mayans predicted the end of the world. I realize this seems rather gloomy news for Thanksgiving week, but fortunately I don’t believe that it’s all that easy to predict the future. I get reminded of this every year when I hear from educators and families convinced that they KNOW who will get into particular colleges.

Horse. Hockey.

The belief that admissions is predictable is just one of the three great myths of the college admissions process (I covered the other two, that admissions is fair and that admissions is simple a while back), but it may be the most persistent.

One of the main sources of this confusion is that there is a ton of data you can find that LOOKS like it will help you predict admission. This is true to some degree – it’s unlikely you’ll be getting into the most competitive school with failing grades and lousy scores. The data, however, is often misleading, suggesting that you can make very specific correlations between particular grades and/or scores and admission decisions. Unfortunately, you won’t ever have all of the information you need. Colleges don’t explain, in any useful way for predictive purposes, how they weigh grades, compare scores with grades, weigh essays and recommendations, etc. If you just see a range of grades, for instance, you don’t know how those compare to scores (did the one low score correspond with a valedictorian level GPA; was the low GPA tied to a perfect score?). And then, of course, there are different schools, different courses, different grading scales…and colleges just don’t tell you how they handle any of that.

Of course even if you did have all of that data on how any institution handled those matters in prior years, you still wouldn’t have everything you need to predict admission. You don’t know which of their applicants were children of alumni, had their family name on a building, or were athletes, class leaders, or world class dancers.

Speaking of dance, shameless plug time. Despite my tremendous lack of artistic talent I periodically get invited to parties with our arts faculty, who I presume invite me largely out of pity (I’ll take it). As a result, on Saturday I went to a fabulous party hosted by Mason faculty member Susan Shields, one of my all time favorite dance/choreographers. Her husband is now one of my all time favorite cooks, but that’s beside the point. At the event I met another Mason faculty member, Boris Willis. Boris teaches in the dance department AND our program in computer Game Design (what a combination!) and blogged a dance a day last year. I think he and I could be friends if it wasn’t for this blinding jealousy that threatens to consume my soul…

So where was I?
Even if you did know all the ways colleges use admissions data AND knew which applicants were special cases, you also have to bear in mind that the needs of institutions change from year-to-year. I might really need more players of double-reeded instruments, more women in my engineering program, or more students from the west coast. Those issues aren’t published anywhere, but are critical aspects of how colleges shape their classes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, applications are evaluated by people. This may come as a shock to those of you who assumed that admissions offices were populated by soulless demons intent on your personal misery, but mostly these are people who care a great deal about students. These very caring individuals will each have their own perspectives, ideas, quirks, and, possibly, mental instabilities, so naturally their interpretations of your scholastic record, not to mention your essays, may vary widely.

This lack of predictability is, I suspect, one of the main reasons why students submit so many more applications now then they did just a couple of years ago, which makes admission rates look lower, which makes students apply to more colleges, which lowers admissions rates, which…well, you get the picture.

I realize that this uncertainty causes more stress. The best advice I can give hasn’t changed much in all the time I’ve been writing this blog – don’t take this process personally, and don’t get too focused on one school (unless, of course, it’s Mason). There are lots of great schools out there for you (some almost as great as Mason) and your success will depend much more on how you do in school than which one you attend. Try not to worry about the Mayans’ predictions either – just relax and have another helping of turkey. Be seeing you.

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3 Responses

  1. “unless, of course, it’s Mason.”

    –your friendly word, grammar, and punctuation nerd.

  2. Thanks, John! You’re hired as my new editor!

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by College ific, College ific. College ific said: http://notjustadmissions.com/2009/11/24/2012-predicting-the-end-of-the-world-or-admissions-whichever-comes-first/ […]

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