Shepherds at the Gates: College Admission Deans “Walking the Talk”

April is here and that means the majority of college bound seniors have received their admission decisions, culminating last week with notification from many of the most selective colleges and universities in the country.  It also means that over the next few weeks we will read story after story about the students who “won” in the college admission “game.” We might be presented with the essay that “got an applicant in” or learn about the wiz kid who was admitted to five, ten, maybe even twenty of the “best” universities.  We will read stories of admit rates in the single digits and reports of application numbers that have soared for another consecutive year.  From new testing policies, to financial aid, to international student issues, we will hear about all the factors that contribute to a hyper-selective college admission climate.  Articles will unpack “creative” enrollment strategies, like spring admit programs and guaranteed transfer offers that improve a college’s position in the all important rankings, while allowing them to take students below profile.  Undoubtedly we will learn about colleges utilizing waitlists to manage their “yield” and maybe even read stories about the NCAA men’s basketball champions over enrolling their incoming class because everyone wants to be part of the dream.  

Much less discussed are the the exceptional people who are emerging bleary-eyed from application-induced hibernation and weeks of admission committee work—the college admission deans. Behind the celebrated “winners” in the college admission lottery are these worker bees, tireless and dedicated.  The last year of their lives has been spent traveling, recruiting, hosting, interviewing, reading and advocating for the hundreds of thousands of young people applying to college. They have skillfully been crafting the class of 2022 for their employers and their job is not done. For the next month, college admission staff will be in an all out sprint trying to enroll newly admitted students.  In addition to on-campus events and regional gatherings, admission officers will be calling, texting, emailing and taking to social media in an effort to convince students to attend their institution. Suddenly their role is less one of the “gatekeeper” and more that of shepherd, guiding the admitted to their new home.

It is easy to criticize college admission for its  flaws and inconsistencies. We can question intentions while decrying decisions that seem arbitrary at best and unfair at worst.  From the influence of athletics, to legacy admission to affirmative action, we would be hard pressed to find someone (inside and outside of higher education) who doesn’t have a bone to pick with college admission. After all, higher education is a business with a bottom line and the business model requires decisions based on institutional priorities and financial sustainability that can be unpopular, especially when students are caught in the middle.  Admission deans—the gatekeepers—are often implicated as the villains of this imperfect process, as if they joined the profession to create false hope and to deny access. But just the opposite is true, and as this admission cycle comes to a close, it provides an opportunity to celebrate the conflicted educators who care deeply about their noble work and the young lives they impact.

As we race towards the May 1st National Candidate Reply Date—essentially the final exam for admission offices—let us acknowledge the professionals who are “walking the talk,” dedicated to the value of higher education and to the unique missions of their schools.  Among many others, I am referring to Erik DeAngelis and Logan Powell at Brown University whose thoughtful and personal approach to highly selective admission is not lost on the first-generation college students who are inspired by their care.  I am also speaking of Justin Fahey and Whitney Soule at Bowdoin College who are intentional advocates for young people dedicated to “cooperation for common ends.”  Or, Gary Clark at The University of California, Los Angeles who works with his staff to make applying to a large public research university as personal as possible, while building a diverse class.  And, Rick Clark (not related) at Georgia Tech who brings sanity and humor to the college search for students and their families. Not to mention Courtney Roach and Angel Pérez at Trinity College who recognize the importance of character in creating healthy campus culture.  I am also referring to the names we don’t yet know who will be future leaders in this important field.  They say they promote access and affordability, and they do. They say kindness matters, and it does. They say they are looking for “human beings” not “human doers,” and they are.  The say they review applications holistically, and it happens. While they celebrate the students they were able to admit, they also viscerally feel the disappointment of those that they had to deny.  This is a note of appreciation for the thousands of admission personnel who are expected to please everyone and often feel as if they are pleasing no one. Your work is valuable. Your work is meaningful. Because ultimately you do change and improve lives. Thank you.



From Parkland to Wakanda: Heroic Lessons

What does it mean to be a hero? This is one of many questions triggered by recent events. While we mourn the horror of Parkland, Florida, we learn of the heroes, young and old, who gave their lives protecting others. We also watch as the teenage survivors demonstrate heroic behavior—speaking truth to power over gun policy. Meanwhile, Black Panther and the fictional African nation of Wakanda are joyfully dominating my social media feeds, at a time when we could all use a little good news. It is inspiring to see the proud and emboldened faces of young children of color who have found encouragement and connection in fictional role models who are non-white.   As such I find myself pondering identity, empowerment and how I can make a difference even with decidedly average powers.

Working with high school students in pursuit of higher education, I find myself asking more questions than providing answers. Together we explore sweeping issues of why they want to go to college and what they love or value, while also considering the kind of weather they can endure and what subjects they want to study. Some of the best exchanges arise from my playful yet serious question: “what superpower would do you want?”

This approach is disarming, but the answers are telling. Responses range from telepathy to invisibility, and everything in between. Sometimes their answers are off the cuff or sarcastic, but more often the reasoning behind their paranormal desires uncover elaborate, well thought out schemes. While there are always those who want self-serving abilities—like teleportation so they don’t have to rise early for school—It is refreshing to hear how many young people want use their powers for the greater good. One student wishes for time travel so that she can go back and effect positive change. Another selflessly yearns for the power to grant infinite wishes in order to bring joy to others.

And it’s just as helpful to think of my own “superpowers” and identity, as proposed to me by my witty and insightful students. “Mindful Man,” they suggest, with the ability to find inner peace at a moment’s notice (clearly my lectures on the need to approach life with intention and non-judgmental awareness are not falling on deaf ears). Their speculations provide a window into how I am perceived by others, and it is interesting to consider what they assign to my character as a result. If I could adopt a superhero identity it would be closer to “The Consensus Kid,” an acknowledgment of both my Quaker heritage and my hope to embody childlike joy. Using this power, I would unite disparate groups, building connection and collaboration for the common good. From the United Nations and the halls of Congress to the streets of my town and the hallways of my school, I would harness my abilities to inspire kindness and combat polarization. I know, perhaps an ambitious goal, but what do we have if not heroic aspirations. What power would you choose? What does it say about you?

Among my many heroes are well-known fearless leaders, from Harriet Tubman and Mother Teresa to Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama. Then there are the hero leaders within my profession who despite an imperfect and anxiety producing selective admission climate are willing to speak up in support for student activists, DACA students, and those committed to the common good. Stu Schmill (MIT), Whitney Soule (Bowdoin College), Rick Clark (Georgia Tech), Deb Shaver (Smith College) Lee Coffin (Dartmouth College), Angel Perez (Trinity College), Jon Boeckenstedt (DePaul University) and countless others use their relative “powers” to reinforce values of equity, caring and ethical engagement in young people. Who are your heros? Who speaks to your identity?

Whether you are applying to college or pursuing a life well lived, these heroic lessons provide an opportunity to consider identity and meaning. You need not be a royal superhero trying to save your nation from a Killmonger. Nor must you risk your life in the face of tragedy. There is living proof that heroes are all around us who don’t possess supernatural powers, but rather a dedication to positive change and the common good. What heroic gesture will you make today and how will it reinforce your identity and display true character? If you live your truth, that is heroic in itself.


College Admission: The Love Connection

Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching and while lovers scramble to honor this “Hallmark holiday” with flowers, chocolates and other expressions of affection, I am naturally thinking about college admission. This is the season when high school juniors head out on college tours, looking to fall in love. While the hopeless romantic in me wants to believe this is a good approach to the college search, the pragmatist and counselor in me says otherwise. My own experiences with love have proven that when one has a forced goal of enchantment, connection or attraction, one is unlikely to find it. After all, love can’t be manufactured or willed—it is a more organic emotion that evolves over time or perhaps strikes us when we least expect it.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, when I began my college search, I vowed not to attend college in Pennsylvania, or in any state that touched Pennsylvania. I had visited schools with my older brother when he applied and was convinced that I knew what I wanted—I just needed to find that “perfect” out-of-state college. When my mother suggested that I sign up for a “practice interview” at a school an hour away, I scoffed at the idea but went along under duress. You can probably see where this is headed…I loved it. The setting, the opportunities, the people—it felt right. Reluctantly admitting that mother knows best, I widened my search and found other colleges near and far that gave me the same sense of place and purpose. I applied and was accepted to a handful of schools (and denied from a few as well). Then came the hard part, choosing—I re-visited, made lists of pros and cons and sought the input of anyone who would offer an opinion. While I would like to report that my final decision was based on an exceptional understanding of self and my life’s trajectory, the reality is a cute girl in my class had already chosen the college that I now am proud to call my alma mater (yes…the one my mother had suggested). Once again, love strikes unwittingly, and while nothing came to fruition with my classmate, I did have a fulfilling collegiate experience.

The art of finding the right romantic connection is a lot like the art of finding the right college. Think of our questions when we begin to date: Do we share the same values? Are our interests compatible? Are we able to accept the other’s imperfections? Do our life goals align? Is this someone we can grow with? All good, rational questions but they are hardly the only ones. Just as in a relationship, these are not attributes you can engineer in a college. Rather than begin with who or where you love, instead consider beginning with what, how and why you love, then use this awareness to inform your search. If a school’s mission, location, or community do not resonate or correspond with the experience you aspire to have, then in the immortal lyrics of Johnny Lee, you are “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

My point? Forced attraction is futile, but staying open to love will allow for opportunities that are both unexpected and rewarding. Unfortunately, young people can feel pressured to know what the future holds—they perceive that they must pinpoint their “passion” and dedicate themselves to one true love.   Resist the fallacy of future, the notion that all seventeen year-olds know indefinitely that they will be an engineer, doctor, financial advisor or lawyer. Do not go looking for a school to which you can apply Early Decision because it offers “certainty”. Often love is uncertain and setting an intention to immediately fall in love at first sight is at best an exercise in frustration. Allow love to guide you but don’t permit it to confine you. Ask yourself, what do you love right now? What do you value? What do you enjoy? What that you do or learn brings a sense of wonder? When do you feel most alive? As you visit college campuses, consider whether those things could grow at this school? There are thousands of colleges that offer diverse experiences, some at a distance and others just down the road. Keep an open mind and heart, listen to your mother and don’t count on the cute classmate to inform your decision. Instead, as you visit colleges, ask yourself, “could this be mine?”



A Goundhog’s Guide to College Admission

For the groundhog, timing is everything. Emerge to a clear day and a shadow, and it could mean six more weeks of hiding from the world. Pop out on a cloudy day and voila, the fresh start of spring is close at hand. Turns out, we humans are not so different from our furry marmot friends. This is abundantly clear as I read Daniel Pink’s new book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” It is a fascinating study of how the ways we schedule our daily routines, make choices and organize our lives can impact outcomes and future success.

As a school counselor guiding young people to college, I emphasize Aristotle’s aphorism of “well begun is half done,” and at last he and I have some vindication and hard evidence to back our assertions. Pink points to research on everything from school start times to college graduate cohorts to support his argument that, “the recipe is straightforward. In most endeavors, we should be awake to the power of beginnings and aim to make a strong start” He effectively outlines how the failure to do so could lead to everything from impaired heath to restricted opportunity.

To truly appreciate the depth and validity of his research, you must read the book in its entirety. In the meantime, here are a few takeaways from his writing that can inform the college search and application experience:

  • The “early bird gets the worm”: There are some aspects that college applicants cannot control, like what time of day an admission officer reviews your application—Pink cites research into judicial decision-making which suggests that the beginning of the day or after a break is ideal. Other factors, however, are within an applicant’s power. For instance, scheduling a college interview for the first available appointment of the day will increase the chances of making a positive and lasting impression. Also, applying early action at most colleges has a statistically significant advantage.   Likewise if a college or university has rolling admission, it behooves you to submit while those evaluating applications are still fresh.
  • Give me a break: Pink explains that given teenagers’ “chronobiology” we really should be administering standardized tests in the late morning or early afternoon. Unfortunately the College Board and ACT do not see it this way, but science tells us that even small “micro-breaks” can make a significant difference. Some controlled breathing before or during the SAT/ACT could make all the difference. The rest of us should not discount the benefits of a power nap or afternoon walk break. His research offers all the evidence needed to justify these time-outs.
  • Sleep for success: This will not come as a huge surprise but getting sufficient rest is paramount to protecting against anxiety and depression and ensuring an optimal immune system. Often in the achievement culture of highly selective admission, young people sacrifice sleep to pack in more activities and overload on classes and homework. While studies show that educators could facilitate a healthier schedule by starting the academic day later, students can do their part and get sufficient sleep to perform at their best.
  • A fresh start: One of the best ways to preserve family harmony is to limit conversations about college admission to one day of the week and research suggests that the best day to do so is likely at the beginning of the week. Pink cites a study from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business to advocate for using Monday’s or other “temporal landmarks” (like the first day back from vacation or holidays) to benefit from the “fresh start effect” of productivity and goal setting. Spend a half an hour at the beginning of the week looking at the big picture of the college search as a family—more will get done and everyone is more likely to stay sane.
  • Recognize your “trough”: Searching for and applying to college is a marathon not a sprint. It requires sustained engagement and an understanding of one’s self and how one best operates. Pink explains that the science of timing demonstrates a three-stage rhythm of peaks, troughs and rebounds.   By identifying the time periods when you are most effective, you can coordinate your experience visiting and applying to colleges in a balanced manner that synchronizes with your energy and productivity. Pink offers some helpful tips to determining whether you are a “lark” or “owl” with peak performance in the morning hours or later in the day.
  • The write way to college: Often students leave the process of writing their college essay until last, agonizing over what to write about and employing a litany of editors. Here is an idea…try starting with the essay and letting that inform your search. On the final page of his book, Pink describes writing as “an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.” In its most perfect form, the experience of applying to college should begin with this discovery, then allowing your values and beliefs to guide you to the right match.

This book is a must read, whether you are applying for admission, looking for a job or trying to decide when it is best to exercise (the morning to burn fat) or safest to have heart surgery (not in the afternoon or the month of July). Pink does an exceptional job of unpacking diverse research about beginnings, endings and the time between. If you are a high school junior, don’t make your parents or teachers drag you out of your den like a reluctant Punxsutawney Phil. It is high time to emerge from your burrow and come out from the shadows. Your college forecast is bright and the time is now.