As the college admissions season starts to wrap up, I wanted to share some observations from another very interesting year:
I sat on a number of college admissions panels this past year (seminars and workshops for applicants and their parents), and one exchange in particular stood out for me.
As we were discussing school visits and the best ways to go about picking a college, one mom raised her hand and launched into a discussion about her son's grand passion for rock climbing. She recounted their various school visits in terms of this rock climbing wall and that rock climbing program, and she asked me to weigh in. How should they go about making their decision?
My response: "So you're going to select your son's college education based on a rock climbing wall?"
The room fell dead silent, and then people started laughing (including the mom who had asked the question). I hadn't meant to be sarcastic or snarky, and I don't think they took it that way. I had wanted to find a way to suggest that they might have lost some perspective and that they should take a step back and reassess what their priorities are in a college education.
Sometimes those priorities get lost in the big shuffle of the college application process, especially when schools in recent years have been seducing applicants (and their parents) with bling-bling amenities, gadgets, and facilities. That's less of a problem in this new era of shrinking endowments and budget cuts, but the overall message remains.
In any event, apparently that one-line response did the trick, and now "rock climbing" is my shorthand for asking people to reflect on their priorities in the college search process, whatever their priorities might be.
I also heard an admissions officer from a very competitive liberal arts college give some great advice to a group of high school students. Paraphrasing roughly: Admissions officers are trying to assemble well-rounded classes; they're not necessarily looking for well-rounded people. If you let yourself fall in love with one dream school in the application process, you are setting yourself up for heartbreak, because you have no way of knowing if the admissions team that year is going to be intensely interested in adding a soprano or a fencer or a debater or a trombonist or a Latinist to the mix. And whatever well-roundedness gaps they're looking to fill this year might be different from last year's, so predicting what those gaps will be -- and whom your dream school is going to court -- is difficult.
On a related note, I'm reminded that college admissions heartbreak can come from different sources. Over the years, I've heard from a number of applicants whose hearts were broken by an athletic coach who was courting them hard and making big promises about their likelihood of admission. It's amazing to me how many coaches talk as if admission were a done deal. Sometimes they have that kind of admissions pull, but sometimes they don't. Don't let a coach break your heart; take their promises of admission with a grain of salt.
In talking to many college applicants as well as admissions officers, I've noticed that community service jobs have come to crowd out other kinds of extracurriculars. Service jobs are great, but admissions officers know that many high schools require them, or give out awards and perks for logging a minimum number of hours. As a result, community service has become highly inflated (in terms of resume value), and it can be hard for an applicant to stand out through service activities alone.
One admissions officer also pointed out that it's immediately obvious when applicants haven't really internalized their service experience, because they parrot what some adult has told them to think about the experience. Guess what: teenagers don't observe the world or reflect on it the way grown-ups do. Admissions officers can spot the authentic reflections -- and the parroted ones -- a mile away, and that can sometimes mean the difference between acceptance and rejection at the most competitive schools.
Please share your own experiences and feedback. I'm curious to hear how the season went for you.
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).