At this time of year, in the midst of Early Decision and Early Action notification dates, many colleges and universities release memos about their admitted class full of facts and numbers. These pieces usually include the number of applications received, the percentage of students accepted, and other data about the varied academic, geographical, cultural and demographic diversities of the class. Knowing and understanding these figures is necessary in sharing information with our colleagues, partnering with secondary school educators, and informing students about the realities of our process. However, an understanding of a selective admissions process, and its outcomes, which relies only on these data-points would miss much of the deeper complexities of the process of forming a class, especially since there is not one single objective measure or prescription for admission. The quantitative measures of a class fail to capture a deeper understanding about the individual voices that comprise each collective student body. The decision on each candidate matters in its own right, but also contributes to the greater purpose of creating a learning community that collectively is stronger than the sum of its individual parts.
I would like to take this opportunity to inform the narrative around admission statistics, moving away from pieces that only capture the numbers to begin a broader conversation around student choices and experiences. A helpful place to begin this conversation could be by debunking some common misconceptions, or myths, about college admissions. I’m going to address three such myths and attempt to provide a broader perspective on student experience and achievement. This information may help current seniors who are revisiting the final touches on their applications, as well as students who are in their earlier years of secondary school making choices around their academic and personal pursuits.
First, a counselor colleague recently shared that her community sometimes worries that students must be deeply involved in one chosen activity, reaching near-professional mastery, in order to gain admission to the most selective colleges. While, yes, we do often see students who have dedicated themselves to one activity to this degree, we also celebrate those students who have pursued a wider path, who have become involved – but not masters – in a variety of pursuits. We recognize that their impact might be wide rather than deep as they continue to explore. For students, we hope that your achievements will stem from the effort you invest because you care about the outcome, the subject, or the cause. Alongside your accomplishments, we hope to find growth, openness to new ideas and intellectual curiosity. These qualities can take many different shapes and forms. The impact you have on your school, your community, your family and your neighborhood can and should be unique to you, your interests, and your aspirations. Sometimes this impact can take an unconventional or unexpected form, and we find evidence of these qualities not only in the formal “activities list,” but also in recommendation letters, personal narratives, alumni interviews and supplemental materials. But, a word of caution: this advice is not simply about filling up lines on an application form. Rather, it is about giving yourself the space to explore in order to make informed choices about your interests and how you choose to be engaged and involved. For seniors, push yourself to convey not only why you chose your areas of involvement, but more importantly, why you continued these pursuits and how they may fit into your future plans.
Second, we know that some students believe that it is a detriment to their application to be “Undecided” in their major, to admit that they haven’t yet decided what they want to study and to embrace the uncertainty and open-mindedness that decision brings. While some academic programs (for example, engineering) do require a course of study to begin immediately, many other programs, particularly those rooted in the liberal arts and sciences, search for those students who come in with an open mind, with broad-ranging curiosities across a variety of disciplines, and with a pure love of learning for learning’s sake. If this is you, own it. Communicate through the admission process the many things you want to learn, and why. Help others to see how those different interests are connected in your brain, and how you want to explore those interests, or find new ones, on a college campus. The power of higher education draws from the connections across the curriculum and the shared learning environment. Allowing yourself the time to explore means you might find your next interest in an unexpected place. For seniors, make sure you are drawing your own connections into the intellectual spaces you envision for yourself in college.
Lastly, we know that many of our applicants have valuable experience with full or part-time employment during the summers or school year, but that sometimes students don’t feel like a job truly qualifies as an “activity.” More broadly, we know that students hold a variety of commitments within their families, schools, neighborhoods and communities, all of which take time and energy, and all of which are important. Instead of narrowly defining what constitutes an “activity,” we celebrate the variety of lived experiences students bring with them to campus. No one commitment is more important than any other. For all students, if it is important to you, it is important to us. As we bring each new class together, it is our hope that the range of educational and life paths traveled by our students will enrich the fabric of our collective community.
As colleges admit each new incoming class, the conversation will include the traditional metrics of student accomplishment that can be easily measured, including grades, test scores, rankings and titles. But accomplishment takes many forms that cannot be measured or that cannot be easily seen upon first glance. Impact can be felt in quieter, unexpected ways. Colleges hope to bring together a community of students who can learn from each other, who might not be afraid to try something new, and who are willing to take a chance with something unexpected. These are the voices celebrated with each incoming class.
Finally, I want to stress that although admissions outcomes are received most personally, in both joy and disappointment, these decisions are hardly the final judgement on all that has been experienced and achieved, in the past and into the future. The students who will join us at Penn, and the students who will find their college journey leading them elsewhere, are far more than the sum of their various statistics, scores and grade point averages. Just as there is not a single prescription for admission, there is not a singular measure of your self-worth.
For all students, you have our utmost respect for the effort you have dedicated to this process and the courage you have displayed in sharing your story.
Listen to The Process on SiriusXM Stars 109 on Friday, December 28th at 1:00 p.m. ET and hear us answer your questions! Leave your message anytime over the next two weeks at 866-993-8267 or email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dean Furda will be joined by his co-host Eileen Cunningham Feikens from The Dwight Englewood School and David Charlow from Access Applied, answering your financial aid questions.