College Admissions and Service Work

A recent blog in the New York Times’ Education section (, raises interesting questions about the way in which high school students may actually be choosing to do volunteer work (or any other activity, for that matter) purely for college admissions sake.  Indeed, given the emphasis that college applications place on things like community service, it seems logical to assume that many kids do in fact sign up for all sorts of activities with their applications in mind.  But even if this is true, does it really matter?  What are the consequences of such pragmatism?  This is an important and thorny question, and certainly one with which I have often wrestled, as an admission officer, as a private consultant, and as a parent.

I do in fact believe that many students, consciously or otherwise, opt to do community service with their college applications in mind.  And I equally believe it is silly to spend hours doing something after school you care little about.  (Whatever activity a student is doing, keep in mind that countless others are doing the same thing for the same reason, making it unlikely that the activity in itself will impress the admission officer who has, I fear, seen it before!) But I don’t think it is silly to encourage students to see service to, and engagement with, their communities as an important part of passing on their privilege.

So perhaps the answer is that we encourage students to do community service, but we also urge them to be aware and thoughtful about finding the service opportunities that speak most to their own interests.  After all, why feel compelled to dig latrines in another country if you would rather clean up the beach where you surf every day; why think that your job refiling books in the library must have less value than becoming president of the service club at school?

Students can then achieve several crucial things.  They will hopefully learn that good citizenship extends beyond their college applications.  They will also move towards that marvelous and transformative moment when they can see the connection between what they learn from books and what they see in the world around them.  In that sense, they will be well ahead of many others that may only begin to get a glimmer of that in college, if ever.  And pragmatically, students who can show and articulate a critical awareness of how the different elements of their young lives are integrating even at seventeen – intellectually, politically, socially – are the ones with the most interesting applications in the end.

A wise college bound student says thank you often

I came across the article, below, recently and thought how appropriate it is for students — you can’t say ‘thank you’ too often!

Students sometimes forget how much effort others have put into their college search and application process.  Their parents, of course, have invested hours of time and no doubt hundreds or thousands of dollars on campus visits, counseling guidance, test preparation programs . . . so much!  Teachers and counselors support is also immeasurable.  Appreciation and expressions of thanks are always well-received!  There is a saying, ‘Gratitude greases the wheel of life’.

Remember, also, that there are ‘real people’ there at the colleges to whom you apply, and when you do receive your acceptances, and especially those Early Decision acceptances, it would be entirely appropriate for you to write or email a joyful, thankful message to any admissions officer you have met or with whom you have spoken or exchanged emails at ‘your ‘ college.  And when you arrive in the Fall, it is nice to follow-up and go to meet with that person who shepherded your application through the Admissions’ Committee.

Of course, if you were interviewed by an alum. of your school, or by a current undergraduate, be sure to let them know the results of your application and your appreciation for their time and support.  Generous, gracious words can only benefit you.  Someday, hopefully, you will be interviewing for your college!

Joyce Reed

by Julie Manhan, writer — from the Seattle College Bound Examiner, December 14,   4:44 AM

Most college bound students are in one of two places at this time of the year: finished with all applications and ready for some serious relaxation or gearing up for that final push to finish up those applications due in January. Whichever place you are in, there is one thing you need to do before you pack up your backpack for the holidays– you need to say thank you.

You need to say thank you to the counselor who has gotten your transcripts off to the colleges you are applying to, written recommendations for you, made sure you have enough credits to graduate, or even chased you down for things you forgot to turn in. You need to show some appreciation for the late nights and weekends they have spent composing a letter to help you get into college and for the days of their vacation they will spend making sure everything gets submitted on time. You need to acknowledge all the times they have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help you get into college.

While you’re considering whom you should thank, let’s not forget the teachers who added writing a fabulous letter of recommendation for you to their already huge list of things to do. There are also those teachers who may have proofread your essays or helped you review math concepts so you might be able to improve your SAT scores. How about those teachers who have challenged and inspired you to do your best?

I’m sure there are other people who have helped you, too. What I am asking you to do is to take a moment to remember who they are and to somehow express your gratitude for their efforts on your behalf. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; a simple thank you note would be fine. The important thing is to let them know that you are appreciative.

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.” ~ Cynthia Ozick (writer)

Dreams Deferred, Part II

What are student to do when deferred?

In my last blog post, I spoke about the reasons why selective colleges may choose to defer a large percentage – in many cases even a majority – of their early applicants.  But the question remained as to what this meant for deferred students who find themselves ecstatic to have the door still slightly ajar at their dream school, but also suspect that they may have to move on to Plan B after all?

Students are right to feel both emotions, because being deferred indeed means that you can still be accepted.  If you are denied, that is the end of the road.  If you are deferred, it means that someone will still have a second look at you in regular decision.  But it also indicates that at the very least, the committee thought it best to wait over and see your application within the larger regular pool.

Schools vary quite a bit in the percentage of deferred students they will eventually accept – for some schools the acceptance rate may be more or less the same as it would be for other students who applied regular decision, and for others, the acceptance rate may be markedly lower.  You should certainly ask schools about this, but don’t be too surprised if the answers are a bit opaque!  And don’t be too hard on the admission officers seemingly doing the spin – they are bombarded with hopeful parents and students who want to parse statistics in order to fix their own chances of admission, when such clarity is virtually impossible.

Meanwhile, you should respond to your deferment with both of these possible outcomes in mind.  If you are still wildly keen for the school in spite of their slightly lukewarm response, then tell the admission officer just that.  Some schools may offer you a form on which to state this, but even if the school does not, write the admission officer a letter telling him or her that in spite of your disappointment, all the reasons why you applied early to that institution – the good fit, the great programs – remain valid.  At the very least, you will momentarily reappear on that reader’s radar screen as he or she reads your letter.

You do not, however, want to sit on the radar screen like an annoying mosquito on a wall.  Irking the reader is the last thing you need, and since they just worked through the Christmas break while New Year saw them hunched over files, that can be relatively easy!  Don’t assume that they made the decision to defer you because they missed some piece of information, and therefore blast them with an excess of repetitive stuff that is already in your file.  Do not run out to bother your senator, a local alumnus you met in a coffeehouse once, or a professor with whom you had a single email exchange, to write you letters of support.  Unless they can add useful new information that will be meaningful (and none of those examples will fall in this category!), you are wasting your energy.  The only thing the admission officer will be interested in, will be new relevant information (you just won some important academic prize or are newly elected to a significant position, for example) and a short and concise statement of your continued interest.  By the time you have raved for several pages about your burning desire to attend, the reader will long have filed the note and moved on.

Having sent off the note or the email, redirect your energy towards Plan B.  You may indeed at the end of the day not get into your dream school, so make sure the rest of your applications are strong.  Be sure to apply only to those schools where you would be very happy to attend – after all, you may even end up at your safety school, so make sure it is one where you will thrive.  By doing so, you will ensure that a few months after arriving at the school that did return your affections and accepted you, you will hardly remember having felt such a passion for that other place.  That post-deferment rejection will remain at most slight rankle in the back of your mind.

Dreams Deferred Part 1

Why do colleges defer students?

Most American colleges and universities these days offer students the opportunity to apply early.  Some schools may demand an early commitment, others may merely wish to gauge interest, but all early programs give students the opportunity to tell a school how much they burn to attend that institution.  But come December and April (when most colleges announce their acceptances), many students will find that their dream school may accept their love, turn them down unceremoniously, or offer an ambivalently mixed message – deferment.

So why do schools defer students, and what can an applicant do about it?  As with so many good intentions gone awry, early programs began as a way for students to express their strong desire to attend one particular school even as dwindling acceptance rates forced them to apply to a growing number of institutions.  For admission officers, it showed which students really, really wanted to attend that school and were therefore likely to commit if they were accepted. (When I worked at Brown, we would sometimes use the shorthand B4B to describe such a student: Burning for Brown).

But over time, this is of course not how things developed.  Now applying early is, for many students, unfortunately part of the gamesmanship with which they feel forced to approach college admission.  For colleges, faced with applicants who now routinely apply to ten or more schools, it has become a way of exerting some control over their matriculation rates.  After all, admission officers spend hours of work to identify the kids they want on their campuses, only to have those kids say no thanks as a more prestigious institution comes calling.  Some schools have responded by taking a large number of students from their early application pool, or by forcing students to make an early commitment.  Schools with merit-based financial aid may even use scholarship dollars to sweeten the early pot for the students they really want.  Other schools (highly desirable schools who may nevertheless, in the strange world of college admission, fall in a tier below the single digit acceptors) may offer students a two-step early program: they can apply early with all the same trimmings, but at a slightly later date – a period often squeezed in between the early notification date and the regular application deadline typical of very selective schools.

Regardless of how schools manage their early application process, they all want to do two things:

  • They want to accept enough reasonably committed students to ensure a high matriculation rate.
  • And they still want to leave space in their freshman class for wonderful students who may not have applied early anywhere (always a sizable number even in these crazy times), or who did not get into that fabulously selective school they dreamed about but are still perfect candidates for their school.

As a result, at the end of the early application period, some very happy students will receive a letter offering them admission to their dream school.  On the other side of the happiness spectrum, a relatively small percentage of students will be flatly denied – those students the school deem to have no chance of admission whatsoever during regular decision.  As an aside, many school counselors and admission officers believe that the percentage of students who are denied early should realistically be far higher than it often is at more selective schools.  (As a colleague of mine used to put it, “You got to rip the band-aid off!”)  It is difficult for schools to do that though, when they also want to acknowledge a student’s hard work, or another student’s very visible leadership role in school, regardless of the final outcome.  Sometimes admission officers may just want to avoid dealing with the unrealistic expectations and demanding ignorance of disappointed parents. I tended to favor letting early applicants down lightly by deferring them rather than denying them.  I believed, and I still do, that after the stress and sheer hassle of applying to their dream school, there is often little to gain by hitting the kid hard with a deny letter in December.  We encourage students to dream, and we should be careful about penalizing them for it.  Of course, I say that knowing some students do need help in redirecting their energy in a more productive direction, and being denied may sometimes do just that.

The vast majority of students to more selective institutions, however, will find themselves in a strange gray zone: neither denied nor admitted, hope kept alive but with a hard dose of reality thrown in.  In a next blog I will discuss what these students are to make of their fate, and whether they can improve their chances of escaping from no-man’s land, through the doors of their chosen paradise.