I have been struck by the admission news trickling out in the past few weeks, particularly the stats from schools that offer only an Early Decision (ED or EDII – binding) or Regular Decision (RD – non-binding) application pathway. This news, coupled with Adam Grant's ideas "rethinking what we know," (you can listen here) resonated with me. What struck me wasn't the contrast between 1995 and now, but the pace at which college admissions have changed in three short years. I've also been thinking about what information is being offered to students and families to help them get up to speed and keep up with what to expect.
It would be easy to blame the media, with its continued focus on a select group of colleges often referred to as the elites, top schools, or "the highly rejective schools," for providing a skewed view of college admissions, but there are plenty of experts providing students and families reliable information. Deciphering what it all means can still leave students thinking that even though they are surrounded by a vast pool of available options, aka 3000+ colleges, many will remain concerned that they won't get into college. With this continued uncertainty in the nuances of college admissions, an overarching part of the equation is understanding the math of college admissions.
Understanding the math runs from knowing that there are a finite set of seats at the table at even the large public universities, that the number of athletes that play on teams at a particular college may impact admissions, and that an increasingly large number of applicants are vying for those places. Understanding that when 98% of an accepted admitted class has a 3.75 GPA or higher (read 4.0 GPA or higher), it also tells you that only 2% of admitted students have less than a 3.75 GPA. This command of the math can help students assess how likely they are to be admitted, and how to balance the effort to apply against the chance of being accepted. Applying to more colleges equals more work and does not necessarily increase a student's chances of acceptance, therefore it needs to be measured against the value of a student's time. Paying attention to the big picture math can also help you rethink what you know about potential enrollment impacts, whether that takes the form of learning about the * latest UC Berkeley news limiting enrollment for this upcoming year, thinking through what fewer admit offers could mean and how that will roll forward across the other UCs and U.S. colleges, or learning when colleges like University of Denver become a R1 school, Northeastern expands its campuses and learning pathways, or the University of Vermont adds an Early Decision application option.
…the uncertainty principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be predicted from initial conditions, and vice versa." Heisenberg Theory
The other side of the college admission equation is its unpredictable nature. This, of course, seems at odds with the predictability that accompanies "math," but is tied to each college's mission. A familiar example is if a college needs a tuba player as part of its mission and enrollment goals. While it is difficult to know that, and even more difficult to become a tuba player overnight, if you do happen to be a tuba player, you may have an edge for admission to that school during that specific admission cycle. Unfortunately, students have little control over this part of the equation. While not a tidy example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the pace of change and uncertainty over the last three-plus years has seemed to increase exponentially, and keeping track of all the changes can seem elusive. And even the Heisenberg theory, regularly taught to college students, is not as certain as previously understood Common Interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Is Proved False - another example of the power of "rethinking".
This means that a balanced list of colleges continues to be even more critical for students, and underscores why students need to look beyond the familiar school names attended by friends and family or schools with highly publicized sports programs. It also means incorporating multiple data sources, exploring a range of colleges and the costs to attend each school, and adopting a flexible application strategy, all of which will support building a best-fit college list. Sticking with what's important to you and how to meet your goals may require a step back to learn what is new in admissions and to rethink what you know when it's time to apply to college.
As you learn more about college admissions, take a breath and be open to rethinking how the shifts in this year's application cycle, e.g., waitlists, test-optional pathways, or expanded programs at colleges, impact students. Combining realistic expectations with aspirations and a strategy based on what you know has always been necessary, but that concept may need to be said out loud more often. Figuring out your personal math equation means distilling the numbers down from the approximately 3000+ colleges to the handful or so of schools you will apply to, and ultimately, the one college you will attend.
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