Admissions deadlines, reckless drivers, and fire ants


The New York Times recently posted an article about high school students anxiously waiting by their computers for the “Common Application” to go live so that they could IMMEDIATELY submit their applications and be THE FIRST to be received by their university of choice.

Yikes.

I’m sure that these are probably the same people who gun their engines on the highway to get in front of me and then immediately slow to a snail’s pace afterwards. In my perfect world everyone would have a special apparatus that gives drivers the ability to launch a platoon of fire ants directly into the car of such individuals. No. Wait. First you would shoot honey at them, then the ants. And I digress, but I think you get the idea.

So I started thinking, maybe the people who send in their applications in the middle of summer have the same idea (about getting in front, not, I assume, about fire ants). Possibly they imagine their applications mercilessly cutting right in front of other applicants. Perhaps they picture the application entering into the admissions office with appropriate fanfare: trumpets heralding the arrival of the first application as choirs sing their praises and skyrockets explode triumphantly overhead.

Or not.

In reality, few offices actually check the dates on the applications; that is as long as it meets the deadline. Applying by early admission and (the evil, awful) early decision deadlines may give some advantages in the decision process, but it’s unlikely that being much earlier has any influence.

There are, perhaps, some admissions officers and/or committees that carefully check the arrival date of each application, but that date is usually an overall COMPLETION date (the date when everything needed for your application is received). In fact, many high schools will send transcripts out in batches, often well after these obsessive summer submitters post their applications. As a result, there’s a good chance that the admissions committee will have no idea who submitted the first application.

The moral of the story is that you can take all the time you want to turn in your applications. Until, that is, the deadline for the college or university of your choice– then you’d better hurry up and get your application submitted.

Shameless plug: in the unlikely event you don’t believe me, and desperately need to get your application to Mason in RIGHT NOW (since we’re surely your school of choice), the application is fully available, including our first of its kind option to submit video essays through YouTube with your application!

So relax…go back to squeezing the last juice out of your summer while you obsessively visit colleges, explore college web sites, stress out about your senior year, and recklessly pull in front of traffic and then slow down…we’ll have your fire ants waiting.

Be seeing you.

Hurry up and waitlist


A long time ago, when the admissions process was young, colleges and universities realized that the sooner they could get a student to commit to absolutely, positively coming to their school, the sooner they could:

  1. Help the student make a smooth academic and social transition into the community of scholars, and
  2. Begin spending that student’s tuition.

There was a time, or so I’m told, when institutions would try to get students to commit earlier and earlier, sometimes using positive incentives (“commit now and you’ll get the best housing, the best classes, and we’ll give you a puppy!”) or even threats (“commit now or we’ll stick you in the worst housing on campus, give you the worst class schedule, and we’ll kick this puppy”).  This led to the GREAT TREATY OF ADMISSIONS where all the colleges and universities agreed to give students until May 1 to make their decisions and not use incentives or threats (except in cases where they can be sneaky enough to get away with it).

 Apart from there not actually being any such treaty*, giving admitted students time to make up their mind about which school to attend seems like a very reasonable and prudent thing for colleges and universities to do.  That all goes out the window, however, for students on a wait list.

 A high school counselor launched a heated online debate recently when she complained about a college admitting one of her students from waitlist and then requiring an IMMEDIATE commitment.  Factions quickly formed on the subject.

 Team A (motto: college would be a lot more fun for us if it wasn’t for all these pesky students) noted that most colleges and universities require students to respond to waitlist offers with an agreement that, should the applicant be admitted from the waitlist, he or she will celebrate joyously and immediately commit, so the requirement for immediate response shouldn’t be a surprise.

 Team B (motto: students rule, college drool) argued that even students with the best of intentions have to do some soul searching once admissions offers are received and that teenagers may have trouble making up their minds quickly (SHOCKING!).  Later, more savvy members of team B noted that most waitlisted students go ahead and confirm somewhere else while waiting to hear from the school(s) that waitlisted them and might be waitlisted by more than one school.  As a result, a well-meaning student can find him or herself committed to one school and admitted from waitlisted at one (or two or three) others. 

 From my seat (it’s a nice seat – lots of lumbar support), this is a tough call. On the one hand, if I’m going to make offers to students on our waitlist, I need to know about their commitments as soon as possible so that I can decide whether to offer the opportunity to others.  On the other hand, it seems terribly unrealistic to encourage students (by only offering waitlist) to commit to other institutions, give them time to accept that decision and even get excited about it, and then give them only hours or days to shift gears.

 While we’re on the subject, the growth of waitlists themselves is particularly troubling, with many schools keeping well over a thousand applicants on the hook until well into summer – more on that soon.  Be seeing you.

 *Note – the May 1 deadline, however it was decided, is part of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling Principals of Good Practice.  This bears a lot of similarities to modern treaties as it is really complicated and, since it’s pretty much unenforceable, relies on the goodwill of the colleges and universities that are members for compliance.

May 1 – commitment and tantrums


Like most admissions deans and directors, I spent most of the day yesterday, the May 1st national enrollment confirmation day, tracking student commitments to my institution. For many years, May 1 marked the end of admissions officers’ anxiety; at that point, we pretty much knew who was (and who wasn’t) coming to our colleges and universities.

Not any more.

Admissions e-lists are filled this time of year talking about “melt,” which describes the number of students who commit to our institutions but never enroll. That number used to fairly small and consisted largely of students who had major changes in their circumstances, mostly health- or wealth-related.  Each year, however, more students are willing to commit to more than one institution. Admissions officers whine about this, calling such students unethical, and rely on guidance counselors to police the issue.

Around this time last year I suggested that colleges and universities accept, and even embrace, this “double-depositing” and pretty much got flamed by a number of colleagues for such a shocking concept. Here’s a sample of what I wrote:

“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!)…then call students unethical for not being able to make up their minds by May 1 … it isn’t unethical, it’s a purchasing decision…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?”

I was right, this unhinged people, although not one actually gave any reasonable argument for saying it’s about ethics.  Still, I recognize that simply accepting multiple deposits from students is unlikely to be embraced. So instead, a few new suggestions:

To make this all more open and honest, here’s some radical thinking. Perhaps the May 1 deposit deadline could go be a date for half-refunds. June 1 could become the new final deposit date. Between the dates, colleges and universities can openly do all the things they try to do on the sly now – renegotiate aid packages without academic or fiscal justification; promise better housing/orientation/classes to those who commit sooner; threaten to kick, scream, and hold their breath if the applicant goes elsewhere, etc.

Admissions officers will, I’m sure, cry that June 1 is far too late and blah blah blah about all the ways this would become the wild west instead of a carefully considered process of helping students find best “fit.” New flash – melt is growing because of OUR practices more than any change in ethics among students and families. If we can’t clean up those practices (and recent history says we either can’t or won’t) then let’s at least try to make the process more transparent.

At the same time, and I know how unpopular this will be, colleges and universities should significantly raise deposit fees (many have been at the same level for over a decade while tuition has skyrocketed). With deposits being such a small percentage of tuition, some families see an economic percentage in double depositing.  Remember, these deposits get used toward tuition and housing bills, so the only students who would pay more as a result are those that double deposit. 

In the meantime, my thanks and congratulations to all of you who decided to commit to Mason. You made the right decision. Now you’d better stick to it, because MY tantrums are REALLY loud.

Be seeing you.

Last minute application advice…just in case you need it


The end of the year (and the decade) always lead to a plethora of top ten lists, and since that terminus falls right in the midst of many application deadlines, my own top ten list of things to keep in mind for your last minute applications follows.

1. Advocate (within reason) – Many applicants have already learned that it’s not all that difficult to contact admissions offices to find out which lucky counselor is reviewing the applications for any particular high school. From there, it’s a short leap to trying to “friend” that same admissions officer in hopes that he or she will look more favorably upon applicants that said admissions officer remembers/knows/enjoys learning about through status updates. There is, however, a reasonable version of this – trying to (briefly!) meet the appropriate admissions counselor when you visit campus or maybe sending a personal note about how much you REALLY want to go that school. Maybe even friend them IF you are very very (very very) careful about your privacy settings and have some confidence that your knuckle-headed friends won’t post something problematic. This week I reached a new level of invasiveness when I received a call from an anxious mother AT HOME. Apparently, and I learn something new every day, I am more accessible than I thought. Bear in mind, there is a fine line between advocacy and stalking – and many of you have already crossed that line and are now flailing in the deep canyon beyond. Yes, I mean you.

2. Quality over quantity – Since you’re already bumping up against the deadline, I’m sure you’ll be happy to be reminded that you are not judged by how MUCH you submit with your application. Actually, in many admissions offices, submitting an over-abundance of support materials is considered a negative. Better one or two really good recommendations, for instance, than a dozen form letters, no matter how impressive the signers.

3. Timing can be everything – Don’t miss the deadline! Get your application in even if other materials are on the way. Admissions offices are used to mail delays, and you may be at some disadvantage if materials are delayed too long, but you can most significantly decrease your admission potential by missing the deadline (Shameless plug: don’t forget – Mason’s deadline is January 15!)

4. Make your list and check it twice (or even three times) – No matter how silly the questions may seem, answer all of them. Every bit as important, EDIT your responses. If the system will let you save an application in process, save it before you submit and get a really good proofreader to look over your work. (Shameless plug – a holiday shout out to Brydin, my tireless, chipper elf who is saddled with editing my musings for this blog – thanks B!).

5. Explanations and not excuses – If your record shows some period of weak performance, explain what happened, but take responsibility for your actions and let the admissions office know why they should believe you will do better. By the way, the worst excuse possible is that the teacher hated you. It leads, even if only in the back of our minds, to the suspicion that the teacher may be right.

6. Still time to show improvement – The best way to show that you can do better is…to do better! If you think you are on an upward trajectory, whether you think your next quarter/semester grades will be much better or your next take of the SAT/ACT is far improved, mention those issues in your application. Ask them to wait for updated records. Many schools do so routinely in any event – so now is the time to REALLY shine.

7. When to stand out and when to sit down – Some of the more bizarre advice I find in other (clearly less honest/accurate) blogs and web sites is that applicants should try to make themselves “stand out.” Have we learned nothing from the geniuses that brought us “High School Musical?” Of course, anyone in high school can tell you that the only safe reason to stand out is some kind of incredible sports or arts success. Standing out for anything else is likely to get your stuffed in a locker, or worse. The same can be said for the admissions process. If you have to TRY to be funny, get noticed, do something outrageously different with your application, you are just as likely to hurt your chances of admission as you are to help. There’s just no way to know if the person reviewing your application has any sense of humor at all (or taste, good judgment, fashion sense…you get the idea). Unless you’re trying to get into a school you consider a total long shot, I’d consider whether standing out is as outstanding as it sounds.

8. Make it personal – Don’t forget to mention how much you want to enroll at the school to which you apply. If that college or university is your first choice, by all means make sure you let them know. Even better, personalize your essay/supplemental statement to tell them (briefly!) why you think you would be a great match at that institution. Be careful, however, when cutting and pasting. As in previous years I have already gotten a couple of applicants with essays detailing how very much they want to go to Cornell University – you can imagine my reaction to such information.

9. But don’t take it personally – Even as I advise you to personalize your reasons for wanted to enroll, try to keep your perspective on the process. The people reading your application probably never met you, and if they did, they barely know you. Their evaluation will largely be based on the materials you submit but mostly your academic record. Once you realize that it’s not about YOU, that the process is designed to focus on a bunch of materials, you may, I hope, be able to take some of the stress out of waiting for the results.

10. Oh the places you’ll go – Most importantly is that the admissions process does NOT, no matter what may hear from admissions officers emails, letters, texts and Facebook pages, determine your success. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, and the evidence says which one you attend has very little to do with how successful you will be. Wherever you are admitted and eventually enroll, it is your talent and effort that will determine your future success.

Finally, my New Years/holiday wish for all of you: I hope you get in everywhere you apply, I hope you get every scholarship you want…and I hope you come to Mason (Shameless plug – application deadline still January 15!!!). Be seeing you!

More humbug – admit letters CAUSE stress


Most of you probably assume that getting your applications submitted and receiving your admission letters will relieve all that overwhelming stress you’ve been feeling. That’s definitely the way it should be (and I’m sure is, if you were lucky enough to be admitted to Mason). Unfortunately an increasing number of colleges have found new and inventive ways to screw that up. To explain, a holiday parable:

Once upon a time, college and university admissions officers had a great idea. These wonderful caring individuals thought students should have the crucial information they need to make up their minds about which college or university to attend before any decision deadline. These fine, upstanding admissions leaders felt that those students should have a reasonable amount of time to do so, and should be able to do so without risking losing money or the best dorm room or being threatened by letters that sound like they were drafted by former mafia goons who have gone to work for creditor services.

And so, in a fit of compassion and reason, the colleges and universities agreed on the May 1 deadline – an agreement that, no matter when colleges and univeristies admitted freshmen, the students would have until May 1 to make up their minds. This was particularly important since most colleges and universities can’t get out financial aid information until late March or early April, and a month seemed fair.

Ah, the good old days. Then…or so the story goes…a few admissions officers had an idea. They had an awful idea. (With respect to Dr. Seuss) They had a wonderful, awful idea. The colleges and universities would SAY that students could use the May 1 deadline, but at the same time send very threatening letters. These sneaky admissions officers would claim that they just MIGHT not have ENOUGH space so that they just HAVE to force students to choose sooner. Sure, they know that this is especially unfair to the students inexperienced with the process, with the lowest income and overcoming the most challenges – but hey, they have budgets to meet. So off they went, asking students to commit earlier and earlier, and then refusing to refund deposits when they were sent in haste in response to their threats.

They’d even, I suspect, keep the last can of Who Hash.

Yes, I’m calling them Grinches. Too subtle?

Here’s where I send out a challenge. I’m sticking to the May 1 deadline. I’m so convinced that Mason is the right place for a lot of you and that you can make a good decision given time and good information that I’m willing to take that risk. Some colleges will send you an admit letter that reads like a chain letter, “you’d better send us money RIGHT NOW or else bad things will happen…Elmira Jones of Paducah, Kentucky failed to send in her deposit. She ended up with no room on campus, early Friday morning classes, and her cat died the next day. Don’t let this happen to you.” If you follow my logic, institutions that put on this pressure probably, while I can’t be one hundred percent sure, suck. They suck the life right out of you. That’s right – colleges that break the May 1 deadline could, just possibly, be entirely populated by soulless vampires. I realize that will be incredibly appealing to the Twi-hards in the audience.

For the rest of you, however, I encourage you to stand up for yourselves. If and when a college puts on this kind of pressure, push back. Tell them you want to be guaranteed you won’t lose a good spot if you wait for May 1 to get a chance to compare your options and see your aid packages. And if they won’t, tell them their hearts must be, at least, two sizes too small. And then come to Mason. Be seeing you.

Urgent deadlines and other holiday humbug


I realize that the holiday time should be filled with good cheer, but somehow marketing efforts during this period always manage to Grinch up my mood. I’m already, for instance, completely sick of the Best Buy ad with holiday carolers singing some wretched holiday ditty with the words replaced by excruciatingly cheery descriptions of the wonderful bargains available.

College and university recruitment are sadly not immune to this vandalization of holiday sentiment. Most of you will likely receive scads (a technical term meaning, “lots”) of holiday cards, postcards, emails, text, voicemails, and, possibly, carrier pigeons letting you know how very very deeply XYZ college and ABC University feel about you having a merry outlook.

Bah.

Of course, to make sure you know just where our thoughts REALLY are, nearly all of these lovely missives (technical term meaning, “junk mail”) will remind you of an UPCOMING APPLICATION DEADLINE that YOU SHOULD NOT MISS. Also, BE VERY AFRAID of missing THIS URGENT DEADLINE because all of your friends, enemies, frenemies, and acquaintances have already applied because everyone (EVERYONE) wants to come to OUR school and you may be missing your ONLY CHANCE if you don’t ACT NOW.

Humbug.

Not that deadlines aren’t important…they are. And yes, I’ll insert the requisite shameless plug here that Mason’s final application deadline is January 15th. It’s not the deadline reminders that snuff my menorah – it’s the constant effort to elicit some level of panic in a process already chock full (technical term for, “very full”) of stress.

This is supported by media stories with bizarre statements like, “the admissions landscape is more unsure than ever before,” or, “competition for space will be tougher than ever this year.” In twenty years in admissions I have yet to get through this season without seeing these phrases used over and over again. I have no idea what the “admissions landscape” is (I picture a nice pastoral print), but I can tell you that competition is pretty much what it is every year – competition at many schools, less so others, and really easy at a bunch. Of course, you may not know which one is which, but why spoil all of the surprises?

In the spirit of the season, I’m going to try to forgive all my colleagues in admissions and the media who feed this frenzy, even the ones that send out really annoying holiday cards. In the meantime, I’m headed to Best Buy – I hear they have a great deal on Festivus poles, and I NEED to air my grievances…possibly while I’m in the store, and potentially in the form of a rewritten holiday carol. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. Be seeing you.

Thanks and the SAT Rap


Happy Thanksgiving! You know what this holiday means, of course…that’s right, college application deadlines. Most of the country is busy trying to re-create the quality intellectual experience of Big Brother by gathering numerous family members into the same small space for extended periods, offering endless opportunities for nerve fraying drama. High school seniors, however, know that the emotional impact of these interactions pales compared to the stress of trying to get your essays drafted and your applications submitted in between answering endless questions from grandma about, “what you’re going to do with your life.”

Shameless plug: As your stress levels mount, don’t forget that December 1 is Mason’s deadline for application submission if you want to be considered for our Honors program and/or scholarships!

Before I give in to a turkey induced semi-comatose state, from which I plan to awaken only to eat pie and grumble about some sports team, I wanted to pass along my annual reminders for the season to try to keep the stress in check, and to give thanks to the people helping you through this process.

High school guidance and college counselors, take very little time to enjoy the holiday. They are busy making lists and checking the twice – for transcript submission, for letters of recommendation, and for dozens and dozens of forms that must be submitted, all with various deadlines. No matter their caseload or their school, they work long hours, generally with little recognition from the school or students as to how crucial their role is in the process. Please – let them know how much you appreciate what they are doing for you…and, of course, there’s no better time to suck up to the people who are writing your recommendations…

My other holiday wish for all of you is to keep this process in perspective. Don’t let the cranky deans of admission grinch up your holiday season. Just keep reminding yourself that there are LOTS of wonderful colleges and universities, and LOTS of paths to success. This process, despite the messages often conveyed by our marketing, does NOT decide the rest of your life – you do.

A post to the national admissions e-list reminded me of both why I so appreciate my colleagues on the high school side, and that this process works best when not taken TOO seriously. The students of Williamsburg Charter High School in Brookyln, NY have produced their own rap video about the SAT…among my least favorite parts of the process, and the one that unreasonably causes the most stress. Give it a listen, let them know what you think of it…then go back in, tell grandma you’re going to be a huge success, and have another helping of family, friends, and food. Be seeing you.