Tips for Making the Final Choice of College
By Peter Van Buskirk on April 08, 2021
This is an abridged transcription of a recent podcast episode where Former Dean of Admission and Strategic Advisor to Scoir, Peter Van Buskirk, talks with Alison Almasian, to have a timely discussion about making your final choice of college, and much more.
Introduction & discussion of recent events – 0:00
PETER: Today, we're going to talk about the steps that students and parents might take in coming to some conclusion about the final choice of a college. After months, if not years of planning, anticipation, now everything is coming to a close as admission decisions are arriving in email boxes for students and there's a new level of excitement, anticipation, and anxiety that comes with that. So welcome, Alison eager to hear what you have to say about these things.
ALISON: Well, thanks, Peter. It's always wonderful to be with you and I look forward to our conversation. This should be a lot of fun.
PETER: [...] What I'd like to do with folks first is just give them a sense of what has been going on for the last three or so months on a College or University campus in the admission office. Applications have arrived, committees have been working...from your recall as a dean of admission, what were your objectives as you tried to work through the dog days of the winter?
ALISON: Sure, and I assume we're going to talk about generally what happens and then perhaps can speak to how covid may have impacted. So typically through December January and February, that's when the heavy, heavy reading of files will take place and every school handles it in their own customizable way...but typically, that will involve the territory manager, the representative who is assigned to your high school, would do the first read of a file...it typically would go to some sort of second reader and then would go into buckets from there. So, if it's someone who is on the line, they may go to a committee review; if they're so amazing there's no question this person is absolutely coming, they may be made an admit it right then; if they're weak enough that counselors feel that there isn't room for that student to be successful they may be taken out of the pool...but generally you end up with a big chunk in the middle, and at that point once everyone has been read once twice or maybe three times, then there comes a time when you have to shape the class...and that is very much dependent upon what the institutional priorities of that school might be.
So it could be a goal to increase diversity that might is often a goal – a very positive goal in my mind – it could be we want academic quality to go up...in a typical year, they might be looking at test scores, maybe not as much this year...they may be looking at grades; some will be looking at trying to understand their net revenue...we have to remember that colleges are running a business and they are a key revenue source for these institutions and they need to pay attention to the bottom line. So all of those elements are going to come into play and often schools will have some sort of predictive model that is going to help them with both the financial aid piece and the admissions piece, predicting how many if we met so many from this group how many will come so that they hopefully will enroll a class that is very "Goldilocks" – not too big not too small but just right – and so that's the general summary.
Understanding how colleges bucket applicants – 3:58
PETER: I'd like to just kind of pull out a couple of thoughts that you mentioned there...You mentioned the students kind of falling into several categories: maybe the slam dunk easy superstar admits, maybe the students who simply are not projecting very well at all academically, and then the large middle group...and I think that it's important to help students who've been in the application process to understand that. In my view, correct me if I'm wrong, most of the students to apply to a given institution will be in either the slam dunk or the competitive category. There's a very small minority who are absolutely not going to be competitive, so when it comes down to making admission decisions whom to admit or not, it's not so much a matter of taking the good ones and letting the bad ones go but it's a matter of saying no to some really good ones.
ALISON: When I talk with my students I know that they are absolutely qualified for every school to which they apply...there's no question in my mind that they can be successful at those institutions. But being qualified doesn't always mean that you'll be competitive.
PETER: Exactly, and when students look at colleges, the first thing they do is look at the profile my scores are like their scores my GPA is like their GP that simply means that you're in the hunt it doesn't mean anything else.
ALISON: Right, exactly and that's the hardest thing. There's so many things about this process that feel uncertain, and particularly in a pandemic here, that is, even more the case...but this piece is a little bit outside of their opportunity to fix except for just putting their very best foot forward and hopefully at this point their apps are in, and they've been as authentic to who they are so that the admissions officer can have a clear good read as three dimensional as possible and then then it will depend on what are the institutional priorities and where does this person fall in the context of those priorities which can change from year to year or month to month sometimes.
Predictive models - 6:00
PETER: [...] SomethingI'm always interested in knowing about is the matter of building a model to try to predict the right number of students to admit. [...] Given the events of the last 12 months, what is your impression of how those models are working this year?
ALISON: Well, whenever I talk with my colleagues on the other side of the desk, besides there just complete and utter exhaustion...and I think it's important to let the listeners know that many highly selective schools saw a huge increase in applications most of those schools were dealing were not allowed to hire extra staff so they were reading twice what they were reading the previous year and doing so often without the benefit of test scores often with a junior spring semester pass-fail, without being able to see them on campus and get to know them so there's so many pieces of the puzzle that we normally rely upon that that admissions officers did not have...When I've asked that with a few people I've asked that they said every predictor is out the window...they said we're doing our best.
There's usually a lot of waitlist activity. I think there will be even more so this year I think colleges are going to hedge their bets and offer more students a waitlist spot.
PETER: In addition to the pandemic, there seems to be the ongoing desire of many institutions to want to prove themselves as being highly selective (which we can get into the discussion about managing enrollment in another conversation) that means the early decision comes into play in the waitlist comes into play those are both what we will call high-yield opportunities for enrollment, whereas the regular decision process is typically a low yield situation, which means that young people who were regular decision candidates this year at many institutions got really crunched.
ALISON: I think that has been a trend that has been growing since I moved over to this side of the desk eight years ago...absolutely I saw a jump this cycle, mostly at my encouragement because I said to students look they don't know how to predict so let them know if it is your top choice [...] I knew schools were going to look to lock in significant portions of their class through ED (early decision) and just to give some numbers for the broader public you know we're still talking usually less than 50% but some schools that used to be 30 or 40 may be creeping up towards 50% coming in through early decision.
Decisions in hand...now what? - 9:54
PETER: So for young people who have started to hear from colleges, maybe have all of the decisions in hand, now they need to make sense of what do I do with this... and maybe the dream school didn't work out, but now there are a group of other schools that have said yes...how do you help students sort of recenter themselves on what's in front of them rather than what kind of things that they can't help anymore?
ALISON: I'm a big believer that the students need to feel the pain... it is a huge disappointment and I get that, and so I usually say take the night, take a day and be sad, scream into a pillow, eat some Ben and Jerrys, process that pain and then we're going to move forward and we're going to meet and we're going to look ahead, here are the wonderful opportunities we have in front of us, let's look at them with this new light...and I'm pretty explicit with them you need to feel it you need to process and then we're moving forward and it's a new day.
PETER: Is it fair to say also what's happened here – the things that have disappointed you – are not a reflection on you, don't let them define you?
ALISON: That is absolutely true, and sometimes hard for students to hear in that moment.[...] And all the research that has been coming out that has backed that up
success in life is tied so much more strongly to what you do on a college campus, what experiences you have, what the mentor relationships you develop...being a bigger fish in a smaller pond, you can really set yourself apart and get all opportunities that you may not have gotten if you were sort of the last in at a more selective place.
My daughter who was a solid student, a good student – but worked very very hard to do that well – she actually fell in love with a likely school for herself and went early decision and her experience at her college she's been dean's list, professors are calling her offering her research opportunities, the Dean of the college invited her to work in her office because they're looking for top students to be the receptionists...things are falling into her lap in a way that I just don't think would have happened elsewhere, and it's been fascinating to see how she has redefined herself as being at the top of the class after being in the middle and how that has changed her mindset and outlook on life...so just you know, I'm not saying everybody is going to fall in love with their likely and apply ED, but I did want to point out I am seeing that element of what you do on the campus is what's going to make your experience meaningful.
PETER: So as your talking now with seniors with decisions in hand and they're saying, well how do I choose, you know, these are all viable options, how do I choose...
ALISON: Sure, and I don't want to leave out the financial piece 'cause that's huge but I'm just going to speak to what you were talking about. One of the things I always want to do with students is start asking the questions again when they made their application list that was over a year ago or a year ago – if Taft is doing its job, and if those students were doing their jobs – hopefully, they've grown and changed...how have you grown and changed and how does that that growth impact how you view your options and so that's one thing I ask them to consider and help them probe that a little bit. I also often talk about the head and the heart and I really believe and students trying to access their gut and that's really you know what feels right and trying to figure out how you can it's oftentimes for a student that will be apples and oranges and makes it more challenging but those are ways to start the conversations.
Scenario 1: which is the best school out of where I've been admitted? – 17:35
PETER: I'd like to throw some scenarios add you just to get some response and the first is the student or the parent who approaches you with the question...shows you the list, these are the schools where the students been admitted...which is the best school?
ALISON: I say there is not a best school...there are goods options for you and there's not only one, there can be multiple...it is about fit it is not about a prize. And again, society has been telling them, you know, it's about the name on the back of the cards, about the prestige, you know, I'm just recalling I had a conversation with actually a junior who was telling me that she couldn't decide which was going to be her top choice – a school that was....I'm not going to use the real number...like number two...that's not the actual number...Business School in the country – and then there was one that was like #5...again not actual numbers...and she's like, well I think I really like #5 better but #3 is higher...and I said wait stop, let's talk about what rankings mean what that's going to mean for when you're actually looking for jobs. No one is going to be saying, no one's going to know what the ranking was in 2021, because they change every year and top 10 is top ten, top 20 is top 20...helping them zoom back and see the bigger picture.
Scenario 2: what can I do to ensure I can transfer to where I want to be after year 1? – 19:44
PETER: I found it sometimes audiences need to be admonished to stop using terms like top or best with regard to colleges here another scenario you probably are talking with students and parents these days probably more the parents who will say Johnny didn't get into the dream school but you know which of the school where he's admitted which is the more likely to provide a good transfer option for him a year or so from now to get into that dream school.
ALISON: I say in those instances – and we and we do have students who are thinking that – some portion of them will actually follow through with a transfer application, but a lot actually end up staying where they started...so I want them to pick the one they like the best of their options I always tell them the way to best position yourself for a transfer application is to engage as fully as possible in your experience at that college because that's going to be the strong grades that's going to get you the faculty recommendation where that professor knows you well and can write on your behalf that's where you're going to leadership opportunities make you a more attractive candidate to other school.
PETER: How do you help families now who are trying to decide upon colleges but the campuses are closed – or the traditional if you will open house comes yes live with us for awhile – all of that's just not happening the same way. What can families do to still get a good sense of the culture in substance of a place is there they're trying to make that final choice?
ALISON: A couple things I would throw out there: obviously colleges are have where we've come a long way in a year in terms of virtual opportunities colleges have done a fantastic job of really upping their game there and so there are good options there. I always recommend if students have a specific academic interest dig deeply on the website you want to go and look what courses are actually offered what are the areas of research of the faculty members in that area do they have student profiles that you can look at I like to look at the home page and see what is college choosing to share about themselves because obviously they're putting their best foot forward, but what do they think is their best foot, but then go more deeply. The other thing I I would say for those who may have family friends former students ask your school counselor people who went to that school and could give you a first hand experience. And then the third thing that – as one who's not particularly good at herself – my students are having tremendous success with social media [...] student newspapers if they can access the student newspaper to see what's happening on that campus I think is another good insight absolutely that's a great idea [...]
Considering financial aid when making your final choice – 24:15
PETER: Now let's let's talk a little bit also about financial aid because you hinted earlier that colleges are businesses. That decision to offer admission and financial aid is a business decision. Now we've gotten the offer of admission and there's a financial aid award letter that maybe doesn't match our expectations based on all the information we've seen before...what next what should we do with this financial aid, is it something we sit on it for awhile see what happens to react immediately what do you think what do you think?
ALISON: I think they should reach out.T he sooner they reach out, the better and I recommend that students...if their aid is not enough...they should appeal that decision and they're going to need to find out how the school handles financial aid appeals, typically it will require a a personal letter explaining why this package does not work, if there were any circumstances that may not have been fully considered anything like that, explaining why they feel this is not enough. I want to be very clear to your listeners that I have no idea if it'll work, maybe 1/3 of the time it will work but you'll get any kind of additional funds, sometimes you get a lot sometimes you get a little, often you'll get nothing, but you never know unless you ask, and so reaching out to do that is the first step.
PETER: Let's take compare and contrast in a different direction. If one is hoping to get the attention of a financial aid officer for an appeal and that appeal is being made at College A, which is the favorite school, but a close second favorite has offered a financial aid award that's better...is that an acceptable submission of information?
ALISON: There are very different schools of thought on this. There are definitely schools who are looking very much to maximize their revenue, and it might be in a tougher situation, and they will be more willing to play that "let me see what the other school gave you" yeah we can come close to that or beat it...and then there are other schools who are just going to "we're only going to offer more aid if there you have proven greater need than we knew"... so it's going to vary from school to school
PETER: Let's say we've got the student who's been put on the waitlist and says, Mrs. Almasian, what can I do to have this changed? Can I appeal the decision?
ALISON: The realities are that, in my I guess, it's it's my 30th year Peter, I can speak to two times where an appeal made a difference (for a waitlisted studetn) so I'm always going to counsel a student, unless there's information that you don't think you provided, then an appeal is not worth your time and effort...if they push back, I'm never going to say you can't, I'm going to say go ahead, but it is extremely unlikely that that it's going to change, and I really recommend that we also look forward to the options we do have and create our plan from there and again with highly selective admissions the bottom line is it comes down to everyones qualified somewhere more competitive in this particular pool and that's not going to change with the letter of appeal.
Scenario 3: is it too late to apply to another school? – 29:25
PETER: Another response you'll get from parents is: we applied to 13 schools – which in my mind is too many but it happens – the 13 we applied to, we only got into two and she doesn't want to go to those schools...but it happens all the time. So two part question can you redirected some energy positive energy toward those two? Or then the next question that family might ask is: is it too late to apply to another school?
ALISON: If I say it once, I say it at least five times to each student: if you do not like this likely, do not apply...that is wasting everybody's time and your parents money there are hundreds of fantastic schools out there that will be likely for you let's find them. I've often said to students: okay you've told me you want these three as you're likely, I want you to explain to me why you think those are good fits for you, and then I can remind them of it you know nine months later when they get those decisions...but all of that said it would depend on this on the situation. If I can redirect and help them to understand the benefits of this and what they can do, great, but if they are just off the rails and really hate everything...yeah, I can call up schools and say would you still take an application from a kid who would be strong in your pool some will but there's generally a list of schools that would still be accepting...but at that point...again, I'm in a very fortunate situation where I had the caseload where I could do this...it would not be a more selective school, it would be a school that would be a likely because the student would need to be at the top of that schools pool to consider a very late application.
[...] You know, if I had a dollar for every time a student left Taft and was kinda bummed not thrilled, coming back six months later, a year later saying it is the best place ever, I can't imagine being anywhere else...it happens all the time and I think a lot of this is about mindset, Peter, and about that there is not a right and wrong, but you take what's in front of you and you mine as much from that experience as you possibly can and keep on moving forward.