College Admission "Festivus"

12/28/2017 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2017

Written by: Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling at The Derryfield School, an independent day school in Manchester, New Hampshire and Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Georgia Tech, a public research university in Atlanta Georgia. Together these educators, friends and fathers of young children seek to bring sanity and meaning to the college admission experience.

College counselors who work in secondary schools, and college admission officers who represent universities, are by and large affable people. We are in this field not because we revel in being “gatekeepers,” but because we love students and deeply value education and the opportunities it brings. Conversations at professional conferences are typically wide-ranging, entertaining and passionate; from football to politics; from travels to cooking; from The Simpsons to Stranger Things.

However, there are times when we disagree or simply dislike the way the other operates. And since our nation has too many poor public examples of finding understanding and middle-ground, we owe it to our students to model honesty and open communication. Unfortunately, as in all industries, there are some deeply entrenched patterns and phrases that can be divisive. Perhaps the biggest culprit in our profession is the notion that we are working on opposing “sides of the desk.” “Sides” fortifies our two roles and connotes division and intractable positions. The mere suggestion of a “desk” is also problematic in its formality- an austere, unbridgeable chasm.

So, in the spirit of the Holiday Season and the New Year, we’ve decided not only to resolve to stay open but also to turn a phrase and sit “side by side.” And what better way to do that than to borrow from a deeply loved tradition: Festivus. If you’re not familiar with this Seinfeld-created holiday, it’s essentially an airing of grievances. Here are some of our gripes along with rebuttals to each other’s objections:

High School Grievance #1:

Instilling Panic. Imagine this: you pay a tax preparer to handle your finances and they file your yearly return on April 10th. On April 15th the IRS starts sending you emails saying that they have not received all of your materials and that you will be penalized with late fees, when they simply have not processed everything yet. What is your reaction? Likely, you call your tax preparer ready for war and claiming malpractice. This is what plays out each year in our college counseling offices. Students submit their applications before the deadline and immediately your systems begin flooding them with notifications of missing high school transcripts and recommendations. In turn students and parents storm our offices demanding an explanation. Of course we have already submitted materials well before the deadline and they are in limbo at your admission office waiting to be processed. Must we create more uncertainty during an already anxious time? This holiday season, give us the gift of time and sanity.

Yeah, but…

We do provide content on our websites and explanations in our post- submission emails informing families there will be a waiting period around deadlines especially. When ⅔ of applicants apply on the day of or the day before a deadline, they’re already anxious. (And for the record, we did not cause that. Our applications open months in advance of deadlines) It’s not uncommon to have a student submit an application at midnight and then receive a call from a parent (sometimes admitting their identity, and sometimes disguising their voices as teenagers while confusing their pronouns) wanting to confirm receipt of all documents. “Yes, ma'am. We did receive the application. Yes. You should have an email confirming this and providing you a timeline…. What? Oh, I see. You read that but just wanted to hear me say it.”

Applicant tip: First, how about shocking us all and applying two weeks before the deadline? That would be great. Second, colleges want students to complete their application. We are attempting to communicate with thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of families. Around deadlines we need your patience and we hope you’ll extend that to your college counselors as well. I’ll be the first to admit that we can always do a better job communicating when supporting materials are due, but flooding us with calls and emails (and your college counselor with the full court press) in the first week after you submit your application is not going to expedite anything but everyone’s blood pressure.

High School Grievance #2:

Teasers. How about celebrating Festivus by reigning in destructive marketing strategies! Consider this scenario. I call you during dinner to tell you that if you attend my seminar about the new condos I am selling, you will be eligible to win a free Caribbean cruise. The following Saturday you show up to hear my pitch and your excitement builds. Then after three hours and heightened expectations, I tell you that you must be able to pay $250,000 in cash upfront and that your credit score doesn’t meet our requirements to win the trip. You guessed it, this is a window into how students feel when they pay to take the SAT/ACT and then colleges buy names and addresses from the testing agency to market to them. When many of these students get their hopes up that your college wants them to apply, they are set up for disappointment. We get it, you have a bottom line and need to meet application and enrollment goals, but at what expense? How about this idea, if you want to buy names, pay the Special Olympics or Boys’ and Girls’ Club for names of volunteers and market to these students with clear guidelines for academic qualifications...everybody wins, you get applicants committed to the common good, students have a clear understanding for both selectivity and what your institution values and these noble organizations get increased funding.

I hear you, but...

First, let me get this straight. You begin by getting me worried about taxes and then tease me with a Caribbean mirage? Festivus is rough.

But you need to know that we also often buy names of sophomores or first semester juniors who score lower than our ultimate competitive ranges, because we presume an increase by the time they apply. That’s not nefarious-- that’s based in statistics. You also need to know that we acquire names from other organizations based on courses students are taking and self-reported grades and extracurricular interests. We also have students visiting our campuses, filling out online forms, coming to our tables at college fairs, and having their data fed to us by loving parents or uncles who want them to consider us, even when that may not be a reasonable academic match. All of these names end up in our general communication flow, so in many cases students are hearing from us because either they’ve “raised their hand” or because we sourced them outside of test scores-- pointing again to a holistic process that is increasingly less test score driven. But clearly there are some bad actors in this space. No Festivus cake for them!

Applicant tip: Be realistic. We are not saying sell yourself short. We are not saying don’t aspire. We are just saying that if you play recreational basketball and the Lakers put out an advertisement for open tryouts, you have three options: 1- Get mad at them for getting your hopes up. 2- Go into it like, “#yolo!” I have other options if this does not pan out. 3- Objectively assess your jump shot and perhaps spend those two hours watching (or rewatching) the new Star Wars movie instead. You control you.

High School Grievance #3:

Semantics. “Passion” Please stop saying this. It is such a loaded term and can stop even the most confident and self-reflective young person in their tracks. Did you know what you wanted to do with your life when you were seventeen? Were you willing to dedicate yourself to the pursuit of one or two interests at the level that many colleges are asking? I sure wasn’t. Take an already uncertain process at a unstable time of life and ask a teenager to demonstrate passion for something and it is paralyzing. No wonder levels of adolescent anxiety are rising and counseling centers on your campuses are overwhelmed with mental health issues. We need to step back and ask ourselves what messages we are sending about unrealistic expectations that drive life choices in high school. We want kids to learn for learning’s sake and explore widely, but then we tell them that they didn’t have a hook in the admission process and as a result they (and their parents) are driven to “package” themselves for an acceptance. Okay...tirade over...Happy Festivus!

Fair enough. But know this…

When you are talking about highly-selective schools, 80%+ of applicants are smart, talented, and impressive. You might be surprised to know this but as we get closer to releasing admission decisions, after our committee work I usually have to move applicants from our admit bin over to defer/waitlist/deny. Our admission staff want to admit at least 1.5 to 2 times the number of students we have room to offer admission. How does that feel? Crappy, actually. Thanks. But this is a simple matter of economics: supply and demand. And while I’d love to make a few more kids happy, I normally choose keeping my job and hitting our established enrollment targets. So, yes, in order to differentiate, we are rewarding depth, commitment, established excellence and even the noun-that-shall-not-be-named.

Applicant tip: Your job is to apply to a group of schools with varying selectivity where you know you’ll be happy if admitted. That way if you are denied to your first choice Early Decision school, your response is not finger pointing or second guessing, but rather an ability to move on to another great choice about which you are excited. Too idealistic? Ok. Create a list of the ten most “successful” people you know. Guarantee that at least half of them went to schools outside the Top 25 and admit rates closer to 50% than 5%. If you do that exercise and find my prognostication way off, you need to meet more people or read Frank Bruni’s book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”

College Admissions Grievance #1:

Grade Inflation: We deny “one of your best students” and you say, “didn’t you see all of those A’s? He’s taking many of our toughest courses.” Yes, we did. But we also basically never see a C anymore, and Bs seem to be going the way of the video arcade. We read too many school reports where there are 109 students in the class, and this applicant is ranked number three, but 21 share that rank. In the short term, inflating grades sets students up to be very disappointed when deferred, denied, or waitlisted. And when they arrive on a college campus and get a 63 on their first test or paper, they don’t know how to cope. So, yeah, Merry Festivus! I gotta problem with that.

Yeah but…

Selective college admission has vilified anything less than an A. True, many high schools have become like Lake Wobegone, “where all the kids are above average.” This is because our faculty fear that a B is the new C and they have gotten the message that one average grade will close down a student’s college options. Teachers are just as discouraged by grade inflation, but do not want to be the reason an applicant is denied. Perhaps if colleges stopped expecting perfection, we could recenter our nation’s grading systems. I have had too many conversations with admission officers where they point to one or two grades below the A standard as justification for the denial pile. So, fa, la la la la, la la la la.

Applicant tip:

We know it can be intimidating to look at the numbers that college admission offices publish about average GPA and rank of their accepted students. We also know that you have no control over whether your high school inflates grades or skews class rank. What you do have control over is your learning and preparation for college. If you only fixate on getting the easy A, you rob yourself of the opportunity to seek challenge and arrive on a college campus with the proper skills to be successful.

College Admissions Grievance #2:

You want us to be holistic, but you’re taking everything away. We get criticized for using test scores. You take away numeric grades that help us differentiate and inflate everyone to As. You remove rank from transcripts and then “package” kids so it’s tough to tell “amazing” from “just plain nice.” You tell us to trust you. You tell us to read your recommendations and put stock in your insight and perspective, but even when kids have major discipline or behavior issues we are more apt to see it on the news than in your report. C’mon, man.

I hear you, but...

So wait, you can be holistic in your review, but we cannot be holistic in our pedagogy of educating curious, collaborative, young people? Have you considered that the reason we eliminate class rank is because college admission has turned high school into the Hunger Game and rather than have students compete to be in the top 10% of their class, we would prefer that they engage thoughtfully with each other. As for numeric grades, are you looking for kids who can play the game or students who have mastered a subject and have the skills and desire to excel in college and life? You cannot have it all. We are not trying to eliminate every means for you to review applicants, rather we are trying to refocus a system of quantification that has spiraled out of control, reinforcing the wrong values. Yes, we do ask that you trust us and our recommendations. As for discipline, we get it, you don’t want felons. We are all dedicated to safe educational communities with academic integrity. Know this, if we feel safe having students in our community, then you should too. If we don’t support their actions or ability to learn from their mistakes, then we would have kicked them out. However, when you ask us to disclose every last issue, it begs the question, do you really care if they are caught smoking or were out after curfew at boarding school. Are you just searching for reasons to deny?

Applicant tip:

Be honest in every aspect of your application. Do not try to game this experience, despite the mixed messages you may get from the adults in your lives. Applications require that you disclose any disciplinary violations. Please know that more often than not, colleges learn about discipline issues from local alumni and other sources, even when they are not looking. By being straightforward and addressing any indiscretions directly you show responsibility and ownership, which can speak volumes. By giving your counselors permission to disclose this information, you allow them to advocate on your behalf. The less grey area in college applications, the better. As for “packaging,” college admission staff can see right through the over packaged applicant, so be authentic.

College Admissions Grievance #3:

Standardized Tests. You don’t want us to look at test scores, until you want us to look at test scores. In our conversations and your recommendation letters, you implore us to view students in a holistic manner. You praise schools that go test optional and urge us to focus on four years of grades more than four hours on a test. But then we deny your student with a 1570 and you are incensed. Yes. I did realize that was the two-part SAT. No, I am not saying she’s not smart or competitive. I am just saying that in our pool, and in an holistic process, she’s not compelling. So, there!

Fair enough. But know this…

Hmmmm...sounds familiar. You tell us to ignore the rankings until your institution is ranked #1 or Top 10 and then you plaster it where anyone will look. Sometimes numbers do not tell the whole story but when you chose to make testing part of your process, it sends the message that it matters. Then when you tell us that it doesn’t matter for this kid but it does for another, we scratch our heads and try to figure out what holistic really means. Is it truly just a buzzword for “we can make any justification for the decisions we make and hide behind the cloak of holism”? I guess we all want our holiday cake and to eat it too.

Applicant tip:

For some institutions, testing is a necessary evil of their admission review. There are also an increasing number of colleges that have test optional plans. It is important to work with your counselors to understand the requirements and priorities of different colleges and universities and match those with your profile, interests and strengths. Some schools will look holistically at many aspects of your application and others will rely primarily on numbers. This may not come as a surprise, but it is an imperfect system and the professional educators shepherding you through this experience are doing their best to balance many competing interests while creating opportunity.

Grievances aired. Still friends. It does feel better to sit side by side. Here’s to a year filled with learning, listening, collaboration, sanity, and peace. Merry Festivus, Brennan. Merry Festivus, Rick.

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