Piranha 3-D and Admissions Myths

I get easily frustrated with people who force complex interpretations of everything. This is particularly true at certain universities where professors appear to worship complexity. As much as I appreciate a really substantive cerebral experience, I also realize that Piranha-3D doesn’t have an elaborate subtext to illustrate the perils of the socio-industrial complex’s influence on the global environment. It’s about a bunch of really mean fish that eat, purely for audience entertainment purposes, really attractive people.

One of the reasons I started writing about admissions (the other, of course, is the chance to brag about Mason) is that at times it seems everyone who writes on the topic has an attitude consistent with those colleges that seem to pride themselves on their disconnect from the “real world”. So-called admissions experts appear determined to make the topic seem complex, defying understanding by anyone without decades of experience in the field. This leads to the obvious conclusion that an applicant needs enormous expertise to have any chance of success.

I disagree.

Shameless Plug: Unlike most institutions, Mason is especially well known for our real world connections, in fact our professors are in the news all the time. If you don’t believe me, Google it. In case you’re too busy to Google, you can just check out one of our most often quoted faculty members interviewed on the Scholastic website about ways teachers can help develop curiosity in students, or follow my Twitter account for regular updates.

Those efforts to make obscure the relatively simple led to the Great Myths of College Admissions
• Admissions is fair
• Admissions is predictable
• Admissions is complicated

In reality, admissions decisions often give unfair advantages, are unpredictable to the point of often appearing random, yet are based on a system that is simple to the point of absurdity.

The biggest myth of all, however, is that there is a SECRET to admissions. People believe there is some special trick, gimmick, or schtick which, if only they had knowledge of it, would all but guarantee admission to some particular college or university.


These bogus stunts often include some special essay topic or some special club you can join – or worst of all- some company that charges a fortune for claims of inside advantages. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than that story about somebody who got in at some point by writing that essay, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this):

It’s (nearly, mostly, almost completely) all about your grades.

Better grades are the BEST way to increase your chances of admission. That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record: the high school you attend, the quality/rigor of your courses, the trends of your grades up or down (up, of course, if better), and the comparison of you to other students and applicants from your school. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That simple, clear-cut, transparent evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

I’ll get into more detail about how all of those issues factor into academic records in the admission process in some future posts, but in the meantime here is a really simple piece of advice that is sure to help you in any admission process: get good grades. Also, when you go swimming, watch out of the piranha. Especially if you’re particularly attractive.

Be seeing you.

How to live your life – what you want versus what we might

I’m at the Washington Journalism and Media Conference blogging on my new iPad. Last night I did my usual speech on college admissions, and even after giving it for 20 years, I’m still amazed at the insane factors high school students consider in the admissions process. A few examples:

How will college consider the quality or ranking of my high school?
Why would anyone care? Apart from the reality that it probably makes next to no difference at all, are you really going to consider changing schools? If not, how does knowing help you at all? It doesn’t– It only adds unnecessary stress.

What classes should I take to increase my chances of admission?
I have a longer post somewhere about AP/IB/dual enrolment, but this question always makes me really sad. Unless you are doing something entirely nutty, like substituting study hall for AP physics, and assuming your course load is reasonably competitive, you have no way to know how your course choices will impact your admission. What you DO know is that some courses interest you more than others and that challenging yourself is important. Isn’t that enough to guide your choices?

I know this sounds naĂŻve, but students and families give us WAY too much power over their life decisions. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities, and there are probably dozens that could be wonderful for you. Out of those, many will admit you simply FOR DOING THE THINGS THAT ARE BEST FOR YOU. Read: That’s what’s best for you, not for admission.

Shameless plug: clearly what the best for many of you was attending the WJMC. If you are a great student and interested in the environment, check out the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment starting in 9 days.

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!

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.

Why the SAT’s aren’t “all that”

I was interviewed this week by a reporter for Voice of America (kind of weird thinking about how my humor might be perceived in Pakistan, where the interview is scheduled to broadcast). She had a slew of questions about standardized tests, especially the SAT. As usual for the press, parents, and a plethora of people claiming to be admissions experts (despite zero experience reviewing applications), she assumed that the SAT’s (or ACT’s) were at least as important, if not more so, than academic record in the admission process.


Before I get into all the reasons why standardized tests aren’t that important, let me concede why they ARE somewhat important. It’s crazy to think that admissions officers don’t use them – we do. In a few cases we use them because it tells us something useful about a student – more on that later. But first, time to admit the REAL reason most schools can’t break the BIG TEST habit:
1) it saves time (and therefore money)
2) marketing

These are pretty easy to understand. Colleges get thousands of applications. You all know that there are teachers in your school that give our high grades for minimal effort, and I’m sure you also have at least one dreaded teacher that glories in seeing just how miserable students can become when having almost no chance to get a decent grade. It’s reasonably possible that such teachers might even teach the same subject, and either by device or chance your GPA can be wildly different depending on which you get. Now multiply that effect across every school. Now add in different grading scales, grade calculation policies, and different opportunities/competitive levels within schools. In other words, it’s a hot mess.

Admissions offices get all these grades and do the best job possible of trying to tease out from all that information a reasonable level of comparison on academic record. That, however, can be time consuming and requires a large amount of data and experience.

Scores, on the other hand, are easy. They may not be telling us much, but hey – it’s a number we can easily understand.

So scores save time for admissions officers – LOTS of time. Unfortunately, prospective students also like to use scores to save time. If you look at most of the college rankings you’ll find they rely heavily on average SAT and/or ACT scores, and the number one question college representatives get at college fairs is “what’s your average SAT/ACT score”. In other words, you use scores to judge schools.

Of course, that makes no sense. You know that the scores don’t have much to do with who YOU are, so how can they possibly have much to do with how right a college or university might be for you. However, since colleges KNOW you’re going to ask the question and use the rankings, we tend to be over-concerned about the scores of our incoming students. To put it simply, the higher your scores the better we look, so magically through the power of the marketplace, scores have gained their own intrinsic value, even though independently they tell us very little about students. This is a great boost to the testing industry (motto: Tests are good – don’t think about it, just take them again).

Now that you know why we use them, next up a dose of reality about HOW we use them…which is a lot less than you think, despite the reasons above. Be seeing you.

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.

Admissions: it’s all about the grades

While published last year, this post got a slew of views and a few comments, so back to the top it goes:

As an admissions officer, I love hearing about all the SECRET WAYS TO GET INTO COLLEGE. These generally focus on some lame way to send your application, or some special club you can join, or worst of all some company that you pay a fortune. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than a story about somebody who got in at some point by sending in their application that way, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this): It’s all about your grades.

That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record. To start with, colleges are much more interested in grades in your core academic courses: Math, science, English, social studies, and/or foreign language. Every time I say that someone asks, “but what about band.” I usually say, yeah, maybe, if you’re seeking admission to a music conservatory…but mostly it’s the core academic courses. Usually the same kid (or more often, parent) jumps up and says, “but it’s HONORS band!” Yes, I get it, and no I’m not picking on band, since the question is just as often about debate, art, or a few dozen other courses that I’m sure are very rewarding and interesting. What they aren’t is your core academic courses, which is what admissions offices use. (Updated note: when I originally posted this I got some nifty hate mail from band members – that’s not the term I used, but whatever. For the record – I was in bands, lots of bands. Played the drums. Marched in the Macy’s Parade, won some trophies. Clearly, I’m not hating on band – but, also for the record, that doesn’t mean I don’t think having classes in Band labled “Honors” – and even worse given extra weighting on the grading scale – isn’t silly. Let the new round of messages from angry band members begin!)

To get an idea of your overall academic potential, still generally focusing on those core subjects, we look at trends in your grades (up is better, although best of course is to have stayed up all the way through), the quality of your courses, where you rank, the quality of your high school, etc. etc. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

Of course we know that not all grades/high schools/courses are the same, so I’ll go into detail about that in a few days (or so). Be seeing you.