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College Admissions Anxieties

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A couple of days ago on my university Blog someone wrote in: "The fact that being admitted into Wesleyan is even more difficult this year is great for Wes, but terrifying for people like me. Even though I applied ED 1 and will know in less than two weeks, it still is terrifying." This is the season for admissions anxiety for students (and their families), who have committed to a first choice through an early decision process (the "ED1" referred to in the posting), as well as for those who are finishing up applications to meet the January deadlines. Given these high levels of concern, Wesleyan recently hosted Admissions Deans from eight selective colleges and universities for a panel discussion sponsored by UNIGO and the Wall Street Journal. The deans fielded questions from both a live audience and thousands of people who logged in from around the world to better understand what has become an increasingly competitive and high-stakes affair.

In the Early Decision process students declare that, if they are admitted to a school, they will definitely attend it. In this way, the student applies early to only a single school, and then finds out in mid-December whether he or she has been successful. At many colleges and universities the odds of being accepted are better in the early decision pool, and so if students really have decided on their first choice, it often makes sense to apply early. Last year, Wesleyan had a big jump in the number of students applying early, and since the pool was so strong, we took a significant percentage of our first-year class in ED1. We are likely to do the same this year. The difficulty for many high school seniors is getting all the information early enough to focus on just one school by November. The benefit is finding out before Christmas if they have been accepted to their first choice, or if they have to activate those backup applications.

The Admissions Deans on the panel all emphasized that many factors are at play in the selection process. The most important numbers are right there in the high school transcript. Colleges and universities want to see not only good grades, but also a challenging, well-rounded course of study. The highly selective schools on the UNIGO-WSJ panel do use SAT scores in their deliberations, but they also are very interested in extra-curricular activities that might indicate the student's own authentic passions and interests. Some schools use interviews only to answer applicants' questions, while others use the interview to evaluate candidates. Wesleyan alumnus Jordan Goldman, the founder and CEO of Unigo who moderated the panel, asked the deans which factors were least important in their deliberations. He didn't get a good answer. The deans weren't willing to discount anything in advance. They are looking for an authentic portrait, a representative mosaic of personality and achievement. There is no secret formula.

Most applications get two readers in an admissions office, and when a decision is unclear, the file "goes to committee." All the deans agreed how difficult the final round of decisions always turns out to be. There are just more qualified applicants than there are places in the class. That's the bad news. The good news is that despite the stress many prospective students feel in aiming at the most selective schools, most report being pretty happy wherever they wind up.

The consistent message from the panel at Wesleyan was that admissions offices are looking for an authentic portrait of a student's achievement and potential. Sure, the deans want to read "personal statements" that are well written (no spelling mistakes, no grammatical errors), but it is also important that these don't have the polish of professional (or parental) editing. When asked how high school students should prepare themselves to be successful applicants, the panel emphasized that young men and women should NOT try to become a "type" of student who they imagine will be successful but rather to develop themselves according to their personal interests and goals. When it's time to apply to college, being able to present your successes and aspirations as genuinely your own is more important than painting yourself into somebody else's stereotype of a successful student.

No secret formula for "terrifying" admissions competition, but pretty good advice all around -- and not just for college admissions.