The College Admissions Process

Over the last few months I’ve been visiting university Admissions Offices across the United States. My tour is part of the data-collection phase of ASB’s goal: to create the most relevant and effective Center of College and Career Services in the world of international education.

“We do not judge applicants by the opportunities they have not had; we judge them by what they have done with the opportunities they have had.” This is a direct quote from a conversation I had with a College Admissions Officer, from an Ivy League school, a few weeks ago.  He went on to say, “We realize that not all schools provide the same opportunities for their students. Particularly, when considering applicants from overseas schools where there is such a discrepancy between the types of education and the breadth of offerings from school to school.” Towards the end of the conversation he said, “Not all schools have the same programs, either curricular or co-curricular, therefore it’s ridiculous to approach the selection process as if we were comparing apples to apples when in truth we are often comparing apples to oranges.”

“Ninety percent of all applicants have the same content in their applications,” said an Admissions Officer from another school.  “So,” I asked him, “How do you make choices between applicants whose paperwork is so similar?” And, very carefully, as if his answer would give away some sort of magic formula, he went on to explain that an early phase of their selection process is based on verbs. “When evaluating applications,” he stated, “there are certain verbs that carry more weight than others.” He didn’t mean that these verbs are actually written in the application but more that they are sensed by the evaluator. For instance “participated” is not as powerful as “started.” But it’s not that simple, it’s complicated. Clearly “to participate” in an established club which does important work is more significant than “starting” a frivolous organization. Other verbs that carry weight are: to make, to lead, to expand, to discover, and to change. An application has to exude verbs that speak to “what a student did” rather than what opportunities existed for them.

Two questions I’ve been asking are:

  • What are the most significant differences between the best applications you receive today, in 2015, compared to the best applications a decade ago?
  • And, if you had a magic wand and were able to immediately change or add or evolve “one thing” about the way High Schools approach the college applications process what would it be?

Needless to say, I’ve received some provocative and insightful feedback which I look forward to sharing soon. For now, I want to end with one more quote. The officer at one school said, “You often hear college admissions people tell applicants they need to be interesting. Which is true, but here at XYZ University we expect our applicants to be interested in us and interested in what our university can do for them better than other universities.” She went on to talk about finding the “fit” between applicants and her university. “It’s sort of like a marriage,” she said. “We want the applicant to want us as much and as specifically as we want them.”

I share these thoughts today not just as information for the High School community, but as prompts for all of us, as parents and educators, to ponder. Are our children taking advantage of the opportunities they have? Are we passive bystanders or active participants? And, in the end, are we engaged in an educational journey that will make us both interesting and interested?

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