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College Decisions 2012: Business As Usual

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Panicked parents of next year's high school seniors are anticipating a rough ride when it comes to applying to colleges in the fall, and when you ask them why, they point to what happened in college admissions this past year.

Record high applications led to record low acceptance rates at colleges throughout the country, and strong students who expected a bushel basket of acceptance letters often ended up with a peck of yeses and a pound of wait-list offers, or maybes.

The first college application deadline is months away for the Class of 2013, but after seeing what happened to this year's applicants, two big questions loom large for the parents of next year's college hopefuls. What does it all mean, and why is college admissions such a mystery?

The answer to the second question is easy. It isn't a mystery.

I know, I know -- college admissions officials say they aren't looking for a minimum test score or grade point average, not everyone has to do community service, and essays and interviews may or may not strengthen a student's application file.

But just because that answer doesn't produce a formula predicting a student's chances for admission, it doesn't mean the process is a mystery. In fact, it is a process very familiar to anyone in the business world.

Consider this. An executive picks up a ringing phone and hears someone sobbing on the line. "I don't understand" the voice says, choking back tears, "I had superb scores, my letters were impeccable, and you yourself said my interview was great. What went wrong?"

This certainly is the conversation hundreds of college admissions executives recently had with students who didn't get admitted to college, but it's also the conversation thousands of business executives have had with applicants who didn't get the administrative assistant's job at their company.

An applicant had wonderful reference letters, did stellar work on the typing test, and showed great timing with the joke they made in the interview, but they still didn't get the job.

Anyone on a hiring committee knows how awkward these calls can be, because nothing you say is all that comforting -- even the truth. "We were very impressed by your energy and your skills, and it was really a tough decision. But we were flooded with more applicants than ever before, and while you would have been very successful here, we simply didn't have room to accommodate every strong candidate."

Read that to the nearest high school senior, and see if it rings a bell.

Comparisons between the business world and college admissions have their limits, especially when it comes to measuring success.

Still, anyone who's ever had to look a bright young face in the eye and say "What would you bring to this company?" should be able to relate to the messy mix of college admissions decisions in a heartbeat and respect it for what it is; an effort to make the best decision for an applicant, using qualities that can and can't be measured, while meeting the ever-changing needs of the institution itself.

Champions of the campaign to make schools more like businesses, take note. The college admissions office long ago took a page from your human resources playbook -- and unlike HR, they get calls from parents of unsuccessful applicants. That alone deserves some recognition.

Finally, it's interesting to note most of the prolonged head scratching and chest-thumping that happened this year came from the parents of high school seniors, and not the students themselves. The students who received the bad news have already fallen in love with another college they wisely applied to last fall, and they are looking forward to building a bright future there come this September.

That right there should tell you what it all really means for next year's aspiring applicants.