Around this time every year, journalists on the education beat turn their attention to the drama of college decisions, with the majority of those stories highlighting the anguish of denial rather than the celebration of admission. This is because rejection is more newsworthy than acceptance when well-qualified students are rebuffed for no apparent reason. We're more curious about the world when things don't turn out as expected than when they do.
Despite these stories of random results, how unpredictable, really, is college admissions at selective institutions? To answer this question, it's helpful to begin by distinguishing three kinds of application reviews. One process is formulaic. Many large universities simply admit or deny based on GPA or a combination of GPA and test scores. These data points are usually published somewhere, thus completely demystifying the decision.
A second kind of review process places heavy weight on the talent factor. The two most obvious examples in this regard are recruited athletes and students applying to programs in the fine arts that require an audition or portfolio. For recruited athletes, especially at colleges with NCAA Division I teams, the athletic department pretty much opens the admissions door, provided the student's academic credentials cross a minimum threshold that is nevertheless well below the standard for non-athletes at the same institution. Even at colleges that don't offer athletic scholarships, applicants highly skilled in one sport or another are often admitted over applicants with superior credential. Talent also trumps other application factors for students with a noteworthy ability in the visual or performing arts, where demonstration of developed skill can account for as much as 90 percent of the final admissions decision.
It's only in the third admissions scenario that the decision can be harder to predict (or understand after the fact), but even here - for the unhooked student applying to a more selective college - an experienced counselor can estimate with a high degree of certainty the odds of admission. When the application review centers on a combination of factors, none of which alone dictates the outcome, the process is commonly referred to as a holistic read.
The term 'holistic' refers to the overall impression created by the various parts of an application, including how the candidate communicates routine items on the application, the essay(s), transcript, test scores, recommendations, interview (if offered), supplemental material, as well informal communication between admissions office and applicant (like emails). Out of all of this interrelated material emerges a general sense of the applicant, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
When working with students on their applications, I always remind them to connect the dots for the admissions office, since for an evaluator doing a rapid review of the folder, a thousand and one bits of information floating around in the file will be a meaningless jumble of facts. It's the applicant's job, in other words, to proactively shape all of that material into a coherent design that is at once comprehensible during a 15-minute speed read and compelling.
In a recent interview foregrounding this very point, an admissions officer at an elite college remarked that a particular candidate presented as an impressive candidate but that 'something was missing.' Absent from the application was an emergent quality that, if present, would have triggered an enthusiastic response and moved her status from serious contender to admittee.
When I explain this holistic process to families, they usually want to know the formula for managing the subjective response of a stranger in the admissions office. The answer can be given generally as four basic rules (though the real secret lies in knowing how to apply these principles in helpful ways when actual students are presenting to specific colleges). It's important, first of all, to be authentic since admissions officers are sensitive to the point of paranoia about phoniness in an application. Second, the student must make an effort to accentuate personality in order to put a distinctive face on bland statistics. As part of that effort, furthermore, the applicant should highlight an area of special interest developed to a significant degree over time. If there is no activity of this sort to feature, the student can fall back on a particular quality of character or personality. This point sets up the final rule: anticipate the target college's institutional needs and make sure the application reveals how the student can meet one or more of those needs.
Although the applicant can't dictate the admissions decision, it is possible through active management of the presentation to impact the reader in ways that will trigger a favorable response at colleges potentially open to the student's message in the first place.
Tim Cantrick is an independent college counselor assisting families in Lake Oswego and throughout the greater Portland area. For more information visit www.cantrickcollegeadvising.com .