kitchen table math, the sequel: Holistic College Admissions

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Holistic College Admissions

I'll scream if I hear the word "holistic" at a college info session again. What it really means is that the admissions people love their own sensibilities and power. This might be fine if the choice was between two applicants for one open slot, but it's now a choice between 5 or 10 applicants at some colleges. They claim that there is no merit function that they use, but they don't tell you that the intangible factor has now risen to well over 50 percent of the admissions judgment. Since so many students meet some basic level of ability to handle the rigor at the college, one application out of 5 or 10 is selected based on the judgment of admissions people. They don't even turn some of their holistic decisions over to individual departments that know about academic content. They can't tell whether an applicant is at a base camp or a mountain top.

The admissions judgments are based on essays, recommendation letters, and character intangibles rather than academic intangibles. The admissions person we saw yesterday talked about their criteria of whether you would be an interesting person to have a cup of coffee with. They claim that they can see right through all applicants to tell if they are "authentic", "genuine", and "consistent". I think it just means that you have to be less authentic and hire better admissions prep people. They tell us that the essay and letters of recommendation are critical, but do they really think that the people they select did not get professional help? Sure, they can see through some applications, but what about the difference between authentic students who get help and authentic students who do not?

The other problem is that admissions people seem so anti-math and science. I'll scream a second time if I hear another admissions person or tour student tell us that the general education requirements allows you to not have to take another real math class; that there are other classes that will fulfill the requirements (ha ha). These are Ivy League schools. So here is this engaging English major tour guide who appeals to admissions more than a bookish math student who might have qualified for the AIME test.

We talked with a professor of music who said that they don't get audio portfolios of students to evaluate unless there is a final tie-breaking issue. He was having trouble getting a chance to evaluate and comment on an applicant who was a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. The holistic intangibles are closely held by the admissions people. It's OK, however, to select applicants who are clearly at the top of their math career. Then again, the admissions people may not know the difference.

53 comments:

Jo in OKC said...

One of the things I love about my daughter's college is that the final round of admissions decisions are made by a committee that does not include any people from admissions. Instead, it's mainly faculty. :-)

Anonymous said...

It's simply an excuse for the admissions people to do whatever they want, which always seems to lean heavily on "diversity", as defined by a black or Hispanic parent. On the National Review website, a recent entry on the Phi Beta Cons subhead was contributed by a dad. His son and a good (female) friend have lived in the same neighborhood all their lives, their parents are of the same SES, they attended the same private schools, took the same classes,participated in many of the same extracurriculars, had been Homecoming King and Queen together, had almost the same GPA and SAT scores, had been 1-2 in all their classes and final rankings and had applied to many of the same colleges. He was accepted at none of the elite/Ivies and she was accepted at all. The magical, "holistic" difference must have been that her father is black, since they were evenly matched on all their life experiences.

momof4 said...

Academic departments have been shut out of admissions decisions for a long time. A classmate of my very mathy son (HS class of 94) did not get into MIT, even though he was a brilliant math student (clearly in a different league than his classmates, many of whom had 5s on AP calc BC and 800 on the SAT II upper-level math test). Two more "well-rounded", less "math-nerd" classmates were accepted instead, even though neither intended to major in math/physics (both went pre-med) and the math department might have been more interested in the other kid - but the accepted kids were likely more appealing to non-scholarly admission types.

SteveH said...

I've mentioned before that the big thing at MIT Admissions is "hacking". One of the questions on an admissions handout my son got was "Can you think of any good hacks?"

My view is that hacking is either illegal or something you figure out how to do without proper training and knowledge. I don't think departments want hacks for students.

They make a big deal about the police car that was (long ago) put on top of the dome. It's a given that you can handle the work at MIT if you are even considered, but after that (which many qualify for), it's all about whether you match the Admissions Office view of what makes a good MIT student.

Anonymous said...

Steve, there are plenty of super-bright students at pretty much all of the top 200 schools. And probably lots of super-bright kids at the top 500 too. What your son needs to do if he ends up at one of his safety schools is take the time to find them, and take the time to engage with his professors.

cranberry said...

These are Ivy League schools. So here is this engaging English major tour guide who appeals to admissions more than a bookish math student who might have qualified for the AIME test.

Well, yes. On the college level, students can specialize in their areas of strength. High math ability is much more *common* than high verbal ability. Only 77,888 students scored between 700 to 800 on the SAT CR in 2012. In comparison, 118,682 students scored between 700 and 800 on the SAT M. http://media.collegeboard.com/digitalServices/pdf/research/TotalGroup-2012.pdf

According to Wikipedia, 22,764 student sat for AIME in 2006. The Ivies don't need that many math students.

They claim that there is no merit function that they use, but they don't tell you that the intangible factor has now risen to well over 50 percent of the admissions judgment.

The interesting thing is, lots of kids get into multiple Ivy League colleges. Admission is not random. The holistic model does not produce random results.

They tell us that the essay and letters of recommendation are critical, but do they really think that the people they select did not get professional help? Sure, they can see through some applications, but what about the difference between authentic students who get help and authentic students who do not?

Many admissions people have stated in books and articles that they can tell the tone of a teenager from the tone of professional "helper." SteveH, you are the greatest danger to your son's admission to an Ivy League school--if that is what he wants. All these schools will shy away from overly packaged students, whether the packagers are professionals or parents.

The magical, "holistic" difference must have been that her father is black, since they were evenly matched on all their life experiences.

The recommendations are a better place to look. Those were probably not identical. Their interviews were different too. As they were interviewed by the same alums for Harvard and Princeton, they were directly compared. As the email claims their scores were "2100 or above," the friend's SAT score could well have been higher. By the way, tens of thousands of students scored 2100 or better on the SAT.

SteveH said...

"What your son needs to do if he ends up at one of his safety schools is take the time to find them, and take the time to engage with his professors."

This is really not my concern here.

SteveH said...

"Only 77,888 students scored between 700 to 800 on the SAT CR in 2012. In comparison, 118,682 students scored between 700 and 800 on the SAT M."

Scores in this area are a given at all of the top schools. That's my point. Admission people raise intangibles to a much higher level of importance. They don't look beyond the basic GPA and test scores for holistic intangibles in academic areas. They presume that they can determine character from an essay or two and a couple of recommendations from teachers who may or may not write very well.


"Admission is not random. The holistic model does not produce random results."

That's because admissions people are all cut from the same cloth. Students have to learn what they are looking for.


"SteveH, you are the greatest danger to your son's admission to an Ivy League school--if that is what he wants. All these schools will shy away from overly packaged students, whether the packagers are professionals or parents."

Do you think that's what I'm doing? Do you think I'm that stupid? Guess again. The problem is under-packaging. If you are truly genuine and natural, you will never get in. The admissions person told us that the essays and supplemental questions are critical. Do you think that those who get accepted don't get any help in this area? The help is much more careful than stupid packaging. She even told students how to go about asking teachers for the best recommendations. Why should that be necessary?


It's easy to see the problem with over-packaging. The real problem is that you can't be just "authentic" and "genuine". You can't just have a good GPA and SAT scores. You have to know what the game is, and play it well. This does not mean being something you are not. It means that students need a lot of help showing who they really are, but I'll wager that many of the successful essays don't match up with reality.

Colleges could find academic factors (holistic, if necessary) to deal with the increased demand, but that's not what's happening.

SteveH said...

The problem for me is not over-packaging. My problem comes from a realization that non-academic intangibles play a much larger role than I thought. You can't rely on good grades and test scores. You can't rely on academic intangibles or even extra-curricular activities. You can't be shy. This seems to be another area where quiet and self-effacing students are at a disadvantage.


The admissions person told us about the great importance of recommendations, as if kids have that much control over their junior year teachers. She said that you have to tell them that you are applying to a top college and ask them if they can write a really strong recommendation. If they balk at all, then find another teacher. What? You have to advocate for a better recommendation?

Second, ask the teacher to focus on anecdotes that help to describe who you really are. Right. You can't just be the quiet one getting straight A's. You have to be outgoing and memorable. These are not academic anecdotes. These are personality anecdotes.

Can you use non-academic teachers like theater directors or coaches for recommendations? No, even though they would best know who you are and have the best anecdotes. Can you send in extra recommendations? Ugh. They get 30,000+ applications. The thicker the folder, the thicker the student, ha ha. It's holistic as long as they don't have to work too hard. Woe to anyone who doesn't learn the rules of this game. This is not about over-packaging, it's about right-packaging.

This college also asks extra questions, like: "What would you do with a free afternoon?" This has to be answered in 25 words or less. This is supposed to be a simple trap to see if students say stupid things like "I would sit in comfortable chair and read from the complete works of William Shakespeare." Apparently, that's what our admissions person thought to write when she originally applied. She changed it to saying that she would go on a picnic with her friends. Right. And this is critical information they use for their holistic decision?

This reminds me of the no-one-right-answer crowd. Heaven forbid that you quantify your holistic ideas into a merit function even if you have intangible fudge factors with weights. that would require you to come face-to-face with how much your vague sensibilities affect who gets selected. For the top colleges, the scatter plot of accepted GPA vs. SAT is a straight line in the upper right. The sensibilities of the admissions group are everything. If you don't figure out who these people are, then you lower your admission probablitiy for all schools.

froggiemama said...

Sounds like the process is similar to interviewing for a job at a top company. And that is hardly surprising since top colleges serve as a filter for top companies. So the top colleges have just aligned their admissions process to the expectations of their employers.

Anonymous said...

SteveH: "I don't think departments want hacks for students."

The departments don't want hacks for students, but MIT most certainly encourages hacking. Or did 20 years ago when a friend of mine went.

It was common and accepted for the students to learn to pick locks so that they could get access to labs and machine shops after hours. The rule seemed to be: don't screw things up or make a mess without cleaning it up. If "caught" and the student had followed the basic rule, he/she would be subjected to "a stern talking to."

My guess is that a lots of other schools this would be considered breaking-and-entering and charges would be filed.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Steve,

What is the lowest USNWR ranked school that your son is applying to that is *NOT* a safety school? Or, if you are comfortable with it, what schools?

-Mark R.

Anonymous said...

You do realize what the goals of the admissions office are?

1. Filter to ensure that the incoming class can handle the academic expectations of the faculty.
2. Select the students who are most likely to fit with the institution's prevailing culture and who will feel enough loyalty after they graduate to donate large sums of money.

When they speak of the intangibles of "crafting the class" what they really mean is "grooming future donors." The top schools get WAY more money per year in alumni donations than they get in tuition dollars from current students.

(And, as someone who has read thousands of admissions essays, I can *totally* tell which ones were written by the students and which ones were influenced by the meddling parents and their henchmen.)

cranberry said...

Have you read What It Really Takes to Get Into Ivy League and Other Highly Selective Colleges, by Chuck Hughes? Highly selective colleges do use academic criteria beyond grades and test scores. However, they don't only look for academic capacity, apart from a small group of superstars. Many Ivy alums have gone on to success in fields outside of academia. The skills necessary to thrive in politics, business, and media are not the same skills needed to ace academic contests in high school.

I recommend The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, by Jerome Karabel, for a detailed history of how the Ivies developed holistic admissions. It is anything but lazy admissions people.

As far as I know, ALL selective schools use holistic admissions. This is not limited to the Ivies.

The best "professional help" helps students build a college list of likelies--matches--reaches which suit the students' interests. That is worth the money to find someone who can steer a kid toward colleges which might not be on the family's radar screen. It is easier to do well in an interview and essays if you fit the college's culture. This is the sort of help which my public high school guidance counselor provided back in the day. Now, many public high school guidance counselors are overloaded, both in terms of # of students per counselor, and the number of services other than college counseling which they are required to provide.

lgm said...

"Only 77,888 students scored between 700 to 800 on the SAT CR in 2012. In comparison, 118,682 students scored between 700 and 800 on the SAT M."

What would the relationship between CR and M be if the data set was disaggregated into ESL and nonESL?

Portlander said...

RE: "(And, as someone who has read thousands of admissions essays, I can *totally* tell which ones were written by the students and which ones were influenced by the meddling parents and their henchmen.)"

Anon, I assume have you read the now notorious WSJ op-ed? Crafted or authentic?

Portlander said...

Steve H,

You have to ask yourself is your son destined to be an academic or an executive.

If the former, the Ivy's set aside 10% of their slots for academic admits. If your son is +3 to +4 s.d. IQ academically, and at that level of IQ there's no doubt whether he is or isn't, he can get into an Ivy.

If the latter, the competition is in some respects tougher. There are more slots, but there are more students competing for those slots. To succeed here your son has to show 1) he is destined to be a leader 2) he is going to lead in the safe, PC, status-quo the Ivy's work to propagate.

White boys from fly-over country are so greatly discriminated against because they can't be trusted to go along with the PC status-quo. A blue-state kid from a liberal metro, preferably with one or more parents working in a co-dependent profession (law, govt, Fortune 500 company) is a far safer bet.

SteveH said...

"..but MIT most certainly encourages hacking."

I'm just surprised that they now openly use that term. Clearly, it means something to them that it doesn't mean to me. To me, a hacker in programming is someone who is not properly trained, but gets the job done - in a way that is probably filled with bugs and is completely un-supportable.

SteveH said...

"1. Filter to ensure that the incoming class can handle the academic expectations of the faculty."

This still leaves many applications per open slot. That raises intangibles to a much higher level.


"2. Select the students who are most likely to fit with the institution's prevailing culture and who will feel enough loyalty after they graduate to donate large sums of money."

As far as I can see, these colleges have the same culture (MIT is slightly different), and students are not going to turn down Yale if they don't get into Harvard. Students will have loyalty to whichever college they get into.


"And, as someone who has read thousands of admissions essays, I can *totally* tell which ones were written by the students and which ones were influenced by the meddling parents and their henchmen."

You can tell the obvious ones, but, as I said before, how many students who are selected had no outside advice or help? Even the admissions person at Yale was giving students advice on how best to apply and how best to get recommendations. She told a story about how her father suggested that she change one of her short essay answers - to be more genuine.

Katharine Beals said...

"I can *totally* tell which ones were written by the students and which ones were influenced by the meddling parents and their henchmen."

I would guess it's easy to think you can tell, but hard to know for sure... Which raises a question I've been really curious about lately: is there any feedback that channels back to the admissions department about how their decisions play out later on when students enroll, take classes, do extra curriculars, and later graduate and make their mark on the world (or not) or donate lots of money (or not). And is there any accountability for whatever decisions turn out to be have really bad ones--e.g., admitted students who cheat and/or behave badly in other ways, and/or do really poorly and/or drop out? And, if so, is there any refining of admissions decisions based on how well their past decisions pan out?

Or can admissions committees essentially get away with whatever decisions they make?

If anyone has any insight into this, I'd love to learn more!

cranberry said...

Katharine, Robert Sternberg apparently recounts efforts to study the outcome of admissions decisions at Yale and Tufts in College Admissions for the 21st Century. I say "apparently," as I haven't read the book.

http://jalt.org/test/PDF/Newfields12.pdf

cranberry said...

Study of traits of alumni donors: http://community.middlebury.edu/~wunnava/Recent_Papers/Chap8Alumni.pdf

SteveH said...

"The skills necessary to thrive in politics, business, and media are not the same skills needed to ace academic contests in high school."

"Thrive?"

That's a low standard. All of these students will thrive. It really comes down to their own sensibilities based on very little information. Everything has to be codified into one or two essays and a couple of recommendations. The admissions person at MIT said that you could send in extra recommendations, but they might just read the first two. And those recommendations might come from teachers who really don't know much about you. And, they might not be able to rub two sentences together to start a fire.

Admissions people don't want too much stuff to read, so that means that students have to put a lot of effort into making sure that those documents are the best they can be. This is not a task that is "authentic" or "genuine". It requires work and outside advice. They might as well take the top two or three per slot, put them on a wall, and then throw a dart. At least that would be more honest.


"I recommend The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, by Jerome Karabel, for a detailed history of how the Ivies developed holistic admissions. It is anything but lazy admissions people."

Who said anything about "lazy"? I'm saying that they make decisions without enough data. Can they tell which applicants have read this book? Clearly, preparation makes a huge difference. It just has to be the right preparation. My epiphany was to realize how important those things are - not to become something you are not, but to see that under-packaging is just as bad as over-packaging.


"The best "professional help" helps students build a college list of likelies--matches--reaches which suit the students' interests."

Everthing is a reach in the top schools ONLY because of the low acceptance percentage. It has nothing to do with whether the student can handle the courses or whether the student matches the culture or whether the school matches the students' interests. How far down do you have to go before a school is not a reach school? That is a serious question. Is it a 40 percent acceptance rate and you are above the 75 percent level on your scores? Clearly, playing the intangibles game can boost your chances at all levels of colleges.

Admissions people say that they have to reject students who seem to be perfect fits for the school. Matching the culture of a school is not enough. Academics is not enough. Intangibles become all-important, and that requires preparation that is not genuine or authentic. The submitted documents have to be genuine and authentic, but not the process.

SteveH said...

The student academic level is so high for applicants at the top colleges that little has to do with whether students can academically handle the course work, especially if you don't have to state what college you want to apply to. At Tufts, however, you have to provide SAT II's for math and science if you are applying to the School of Engineering.

Since the essays and recommendations are so sanitized, I doubt that admissions can tell whether students have the character and determination (once they are free of home) to succeed. Admissions may be able to pick off the clearly over-produced students (who would probably be fine students except that they pissed off the admissions people), but they still have many applications left over.

I know that one of the biggest intangibles is to look for those things that students do completely on their own, without thinking about adding another award or bullet to their resume. It's a fine idea, but students can make up anything. My son loves to play around in math. He downloaded GeoGebra in 7th grade and has a copy of Mathematica. He spends hours with these programs for fun. He is not a member of the school math team. He could talk about these things on an essay, but it could be completely made up. It also does not necessarily correlate with success. Success can be had by being good at playing the game OR by defining your own game. However, defining your own game can fail because you can't organize a group.

So, beyond the flat line of GPA versus SAT, what do colleges use to compare academic potential? SAT II scores? In what subjects? Even after that sorting process, how many applicants are left per open slot? The 25 percent level for SAT math at Harvard is 710, so it's clear that the point where intangibles take over is far from the top end.

Admissions people are making decisions without enough information. Bring out the dart board. But that's basically the message we are getting. Students can be a perfect match for a school, but still not get in, and it's not really because some other student is a more perfect match. What is the reason why a 25 percent level student gets in versus a 75 percent level student? How much do intangibles trump academics? The message we received, even at MIT, was that they dismiss academic differences between the [25/75] percent SAT levels. It then becomes all intangibles, and that has to be up to 10 applications per slot.

cranberry said...

For an explanation of figuring out an applicant's reaches,matches, etc., I recommend:College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step
Robin Mamlet (Author), Christine VanDeVelde (Author)

Robin Mamlet has been dean of admission at Swarthmore and Stanford.

She sets up the categories as: Solid, probable, possible, and statistical reach. No one has high chances of admission to statistical reaches.

As far as I can see, these colleges have the same culture (MIT is slightly different), and students are not going to turn down Yale if they don't get into Harvard. Students will have loyalty to whichever college they get into.

No, they don't have the same culture. Look more deeply. Harvard uses many lectures, with sections for discussion. MIT has not only the hacker culture, but students have the motto IHTFP. Yale has the residential colleges. Princeton has the eating clubs, and a new system of residential colleges. Columbia has the Core Curriculum, and it's in New York. Duke loves basketball, and has amazing acappella groups. Cornell is very large, and its engineering departments are deep. Brown has the open curriculum.

Intangibles become all-important, and that requires preparation that is not genuine or authentic. The submitted documents have to be genuine and authentic, but not the process.

The trouble is the definition of preparation. Yes, students should have help in building a list of schools which include solids, and a list of schools the family can afford. They should be encouraged to build a list which is not The Ivy League and a backup state college (only). Someone should help the students by proofreading, to catch spelling errors. A parent's idea of what will impress colleges is not necessarily what will actually impress colleges. And, apparently it's really hard to write an original application essay. (Google a bit to see.)

Demonstrated interest matters for colleges which are not statistical reaches. Especially if your test scores, etc. are "high" for that college, the applicant should show the admissions department that he/she is interested in the college as more than a backup. Look up "Tufts effect" and "demonstrated interest" for more information.

On the positive side, there are many colleges which are outside the Golden Circle of Ivy+SM which are amazing. Again, building a good college list is one way professionals can help students whose high schools don't have adequate counseling staff. Naviance is a good tool, but it doesn't flag influential factors such as athletic prowess, legacy, musical talent, etc.

Admissions people are making decisions without enough information.

No, they have information. They know the high schools very well. The high school's history with the college can be very influential. They know if a school grades easily or harshly. That's why most colleges assign reps to regions. They also see all the applications of the entire pool.

So, beyond the flat line of GPA versus SAT, what do colleges use to compare academic potential? SAT II scores? In what subjects? Even after that sorting process, how many applicants are left per open slot? The 25 percent level for SAT math at Harvard is 710, so it's clear that the point where intangibles take over is far from the top end.

Do political science majors need to ace SAT math? Do religion majors? Do French majors? (etc.) The very top schools could fill their classes with the very highest test scores, but they don't. Think of it as test scores and grades proving a student could handle his/her most likely program of study. History majors don't have to equal Physics majors on math exams. Physics majors don't have to win national poetry competitions.

The University of Chicago changed their approach to admissions recently. See this article: http://chronicle.com/article/Application-Inflation/125277/

Anonymous said...

Mark: "..but MIT most certainly encourages hacking."

SteveH: "I'm just surprised that they now openly use that term. Clearly, it means something to them that it doesn't mean to me. To me, a hacker in programming is someone who is not properly trained, but gets the job done - in a way that is probably filled with bugs and is completely un-supportable."

It *does* mean something different at MIT than it means to you.

I'll steal from Wiki.

The public tends to consider hackers as those folks who "accesses a computer system by circumventing its security system" often to vandalize or for criminal reasons. That isn't what MIT means.

I think you are thinking of "hack" as: "a kludge (or often a 'hack') is a solution to a problem, doing a task, or fixing a system that is inefficient, inelegant, or even unfathomable, but which nevertheless (more or less) works." Note the lack of elegance, maintainability and maybe even correctness.

MIT is using the word hacker in the following sense:

"A hacker is someone who loves to program or who enjoys playful cleverness, or a combination of the two ... However the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the *manner* in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful."

Since it appears that the term hacker originated at MIT, it is a bit understandable that they keep using it, even though the common use of the term has changed.

http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/hacker-history/ar01s02.html

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

"No one has high chances of admission to statistical reaches."

That's the problem. How far down do you have to go so that it isn't statistical. But still, attention to intangibles and your message will make an enormous difference. It will give you more schools to choose from.


"they don't have the same culture."

We went to an info session at Yale that showed a film called "Why Choose Yale"? It was ridiculous. Students don't get to "choose" statistical reach colleges. The schools choose you. Does Yale choose you if you show that you are a really big hockey fan? Do you reject Brown, if accepted, because they have an open curriculum? No. The message we are receiving from admissions people is two-faced. One side is some idea that you have to fit their culture and show them lots of love. The other side says that "sheesh", there are lots of good schools out there and you have to figure out how to select a good variety and learn to be happy at any. The intangibles they talk about all sound the same, and it has little to do with fitting their unique culture.


"Look up "Tufts effect" and "demonstrated interest" for more information."

I know about this, thanks. It just makes it worse because as you work your way down to the non-statistical reach schools, they don't believe that you want to go there. Then again, Tufts has the following numbers:

•Percent of Applicants Admitted: 21%

•Test Scores
•SAT Critical Reading: 670 / 760
•SAT Math: 680 / 760
•SAT Writing: 680 / 760

Is 21 percent a non-statistical reach school?


"... the applicant should show the admissions department that he/she is interested in the college as more than a backup."

So a student should lie? Would admissions look at your high GPA and test scores and believe that Tufts is your first or second choice? No, you only ended up there because your non-academic message was not good enough.


"A parent's idea of what will impress colleges is not necessarily what will actually impress colleges."

The same can be said about the student. There is nothing natural about this process and it's much more than "proofreading". I can give my son great advice on how to show who he really is. Left to himself, he would probably come up with what he thinks the school wants to hear.

SteveH said...


"and a backup state college"

Right. Our state university has an average SAT score of 1580.


"On the positive side, there are many colleges which are outside the Golden Circle of Ivy+SM which are amazing."

Of course, but how many of them are below the statistical reach level? How many of them can you "choose"? No. Applying to college has become a statistical process and no matter what level you are at, your choices increase if you work hard at your non-academic message. If you don't, then you will suffer from the Tufts Effect.


"No, they have information."

No they don't. They have some information, but it's incomplete. It might be better to come from a little known school in Florida (offering only 4 AP classes) than Phillips Andover. Our admissions talk person at Yale came from a small, unknown high school in Florida. She was quite engaging (a prized intangible, apparently), but talked about how you can avoid taking a real math class.


"History majors don't have to equal Physics majors on math exams."

How many students have to declare a major on their application? So, if my son gets a 5 on his APUSH exam and a 5 on Calculus BC, he's a lock? No, life doesn't split students into these neat stereotypes. I see only an academic fit cutoff that is very liberal. After that, it's all about intangibles. I don't know where I saw it, but acceptance rates do not go up dramatically as SAT scores goes up. As long as you fit their large bucket, everything else is based on your non-academic message. And they probably still have a 5 to 1 application to slots ratio remaining.

It's one thing to deal with the reality of supply and demand, but it's quite another to believe that this process is not dominated by how well you craft your non-academic message. It's not a matter of just proofreading.

SteveH said...

"Hacking entails some form of excellence..."


The admissions person used as their prized example the placing of the police car on top of the dome. (It was really a brute-force solution.) The car is now enshrined in the Stata Center and clearly pointed out by tour guides. She also talked about turning the Green Building into a large-sized Tetris game. Unfortunately, she failed to mention that it has already been done at Brown. There was also the example of writing an app to text students when their laundry was done.

In that sense, I saw a distinct difference in culture between MIT and the other schools. They do not expect the normal 500 word essay and look for specific intangibles that indicate a hacking mentality. Their admissions people are probably the best at admitting that they turn away many students who are perfect fits, culturally and otherwise, for MIT. However, if you don't craft your non-academic message well, then you could end up at the wrong end of the stick at many colleges.

SteveH said...

"The University of Chicago changed their approach to admissions recently."

Thanks for the link. I've always wondered why colleges strive for so many applications. Still, the importance of intangibles is not clearly defined.


"Chicago assigns a "fit" rating to each applicant, based on holistic measures like intellectual curiosity or evidence that a student applied, say, a favorite subject to his own life."

It would be interesting to see how this worked in practice.

For the U. of Chicago, we have:
•SAT Critical Reading: 700 / 780
•SAT Math: 700 / 790

How much more "intellectual curiosity" do you need at the 700 level than the 780 level?





Anonymous said...

"... the applicant should show the admissions department that he/she is interested in the college as more than a backup."

SteveH: "So a student should lie?"

Yes.

This is also a useful skill for all the non-STEM courses where your grade depends on how well you can make the teacher believe that you agree with him/her on political issues.

Please tell me that you are not surprised that one is supposed to lie on these sorts of forms ...

-Mark Roulo

cranberry said...

Is 21 percent a non-statistical reach school?

Where do your scores fall in their SAT score range? Have other students from your high school attended Tufts? How many apply, and how many get in--from your high school. (Naviance helps gauge chances.) If a college likes your high school, and you are strong in the pool, and you interview well, your chances may be higher than 21%.

So a student should lie? Would admissions look at your high GPA and test scores and believe that Tufts is your first or second choice? No, you only ended up there because your non-academic message was not good enough.

No, you don't have to lie. You should visit campus. You should open email from that college. (They can tell if you opened the email.) Sign up for the college's mailings. Get your name on the lists. Show up for regional events. Meet the regional admissions rep. Ask that rep questions about details specific to that college. For Tufts, "So, why an elephant?" (This may be answered on the website. Read the website.) Show interest in the college which goes beyond sending in a Common App.

Mind you, I think I read Tufts claims it has moved beyond the Tufts effect. However, Tufts scheduled Open Houses this past fall on--wait for it--Monday mornings!!! Guess what? My college senior had school on that day. As a high school student might apply to 10+ colleges, it would not be possible to attend college Open Houses on random weekdays. I assume attending weekday Open Houses would count as Mega Demonstrated Interest. For us, it moved the university off of the lists of schools I (as a parent) felt were playing "fairly" with us.

If you apply to a college, visit the campus, unless it is so far away that a visit would be really difficult.

As to the "non-academic message," you're better off finding a school which fits you than trying to predict what will appeal to your image of admissions officers.

Take a look at the colleges' applications. Every school on my kid's list had supplemental essays. They all used the Common Application, but they all had supplements. I am afraid when you start talking of "statistics" with college admissions that you will fall into the trap of encouraging your son to apply to many colleges. The trouble is it is much harder to convince 20 colleges that you would be a good fit for them than 10 colleges. The time commitment involved in writing 20 different supplemental essays would be staggering. (That is, essays in addition to the Common App's essays.)

This is the University of Chicago's supplemental essays for 2012-13: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/pdfs/uchicago-fy-supp-2012-13.pdf

Tufts: http://admissions.tufts.edu/apply/essay-questions/

Williams: http://admission.williams.edu/files/2010/08/common_application_supplement.pdf

Amherst: http://tinyurl.com/amherst-supplement

Harvey Mudd: http://www.hmc.edu/files/admissionsfiles/firstyearforms/SupptoCommonApp_2.pdf

Dickinson: http://www.dickinson.edu/uploadedFiles/admissions/apply/dickinsonsup2013.pdf

Etc. I hope you see the problem. If you look at the links, and other colleges' supplements as well, you'll see that it would be extremely difficult to write all those essays at an impressive level. The answer, "why Tufts?" is not the same answer as "why the University of Chicago?"

cranberry said...

Is 21 percent a non-statistical reach school?

Where do your scores fall in their SAT score range? Have other students from your high school attended Tufts? How many apply, and how many get in--from your high school. (Naviance helps gauge chances.) If a college likes your high school, and you are strong in the pool, and you interview well, your chances may be higher than 21%.

So a student should lie? Would admissions look at your high GPA and test scores and believe that Tufts is your first or second choice? No, you only ended up there because your non-academic message was not good enough.

No, you don't have to lie. You should visit campus. You should open email from that college. (They can tell if you opened the email.) Sign up for the college's mailings. Get your name on the lists. Show up for regional events. Meet the regional admissions rep. Ask that rep questions about details specific to that college. For Tufts, "So, why an elephant?" (This may be answered on the website. Read the website.) Show interest in the college which goes beyond sending in a Common App.

Mind you, I think I read Tufts claims it has moved beyond the Tufts effect. However, Tufts scheduled Open Houses this past fall on--wait for it--Monday mornings!!! Guess what? My college senior had school on that day. As a high school student might apply to 10+ colleges, it would not be possible to attend college Open Houses on random weekdays. I assume attending weekday Open Houses would count as Mega Demonstrated Interest. For us, it moved the university off of the lists of schools I (as a parent) felt were playing "fairly" with us.

If you apply to a college, visit the campus, unless it is so far away that a visit would be really difficult.

As to the "non-academic message," you're better off finding a school which fits you than trying to predict what will appeal to your image of admissions officers.

Take a look at the colleges' applications. Every school on my kid's list had supplemental essays. They all used the Common Application, but they all had supplements. I am afraid when you start talking of "statistics" with college admissions that you will fall into the trap of encouraging your son to apply to many colleges. The trouble is it is much harder to convince 20 colleges that you would be a good fit for them than 10 colleges. The time commitment involved in writing 20 different supplemental essays would be staggering. (That is, essays in addition to the Common App's essays.)

This is the University of Chicago's supplemental essays for 2012-13: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/pdfs/uchicago-fy-supp-2012-13.pdf

Tufts: http://admissions.tufts.edu/apply/essay-questions/

Williams: http://admission.williams.edu/files/2010/08/common_application_supplement.pdf

Amherst: http://tinyurl.com/amherst-supplement

Harvey Mudd: http://www.hmc.edu/files/admissionsfiles/firstyearforms/SupptoCommonApp_2.pdf

Dickinson: http://www.dickinson.edu/uploadedFiles/admissions/apply/dickinsonsup2013.pdf

Etc. I hope you see the problem. If you look at the links, and other colleges' supplements as well, you'll see that it would be extremely difficult to write all those essays at an impressive level. The answer, "why Tufts?" is not the same answer as "why the University of Chicago?"

SteveH said...

"Please tell me that you are not surprised that one is supposed to lie on these sorts of forms ..."

I'm the one trying to quantify how important creative preparation is for applications where so many students meet the [25/75] academic buckets. You have to show your intellectual curiosity and un-common app ability for the U. of Chicago. Then you have to recreate yourself into a hacker for MIT. Then, for Harvard and Yale, you have to portray your babe-in-the-woods ability to exclaim how everyone must be soooo much smarter than you. It's good not to be a valedictorian. That shows you're trying too hard. Someone from our high school got into Harvard on early action this year, and she was ranked 7th or something like that.

For your backup schools, it will be the hardest to come up with a good story. Yes, I really love good ol' U. of My State becuase, well, because it's "home". Go Rams! Yes, I really love Tufts' elephant mascot and how the Science and Technology Center is way the heck around on the other side of the RR tracks. Ah, Cornell. I so much look forward to your hills in winter and your constant lake-effect snow-mud.

SteveH said...

We went to Tufts last Friday when it was raining, sleeting and blowing. Do we get brownie points for that? We had to suffer through a long explanation of the mascot while standing in the cold next to the concrete replica.

Our tour of Harvard later in the day was cold and rainy. Harvard specifically tells you that they don't take names. You don't register even for the info session. The admission officer clearly stated that early action did not improve your chances. Some wag asked why anyone would waste their single school early action on Harvard. And we got to see (again) the video showing Yo Yo Ma and the son of a lobsterman. Golly. We're just regular folks. Let's rub John Harvard's foot for luck.

"I hope you see the problem. If you look at the links, and other colleges' supplements as well, you'll see that it would be extremely difficult to write all those essays at an impressive level."

I rest my case. The silly essays do make a huge difference.

The message we got from the MIT admissions officer was much more direct. They turn away many students who would be perfect for the school. (Funny thing, considering they work so hard on getting more students to apply. How genuine is that? Actually, they did a great job.) They tell you that you have to apply to many schools and learn to be happy at any one of them. And write really good essays because you have to impress admissions people, not your future professors. At least MIT wasn't telling us how we could avoid taking real math classes. Rather, they were saying that to get advanced placement in math, you had to get a 5 on AP Calculus BC. Then again, on the handout, they asked my son if he could think of any good hacks. Yup. Hack the admissions system to send out an acceptance letter.

cranberry said...

The admission officer clearly stated that early action did not improve your chances.

Well, that's funny, because the Early Action admit rate is 18.43%, while the overall admit rate is 5.79%. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/04/15/education/thechoice-2013-acceptance-rates.html/

That looks like a difference to me. Now, recruited athletes go early. The early pool may be stronger than the rest of the pool. I wouldn't know. It just seems to be a standard line of admissions folks to say that applying early doesn't make a difference.

It can be a great decision to apply to some colleges early, through rolling admissions or colleges with early dates. If you know you have a Solid you'd be glad to attend in hand, you can focus on a few reaches. It decreases stress.

ChemProf said...

Katherine Beales asked: "Or can admissions committees essentially get away with whatever decisions they make?"

Yes and no. No one holds them responsible for individual students who cheat or do poorly, but if statistics fall off (retention is bad a particular year, or yields drop), then yes, admissions people do get fired. But it is usually the larger numbers, or if there is a change in something like the US News rankings of a school.

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Anonymous said...

To go along with Steve's point that merit alone does not assure you admittance to the ivy league colleges here is an interesting article which shows that asian high school kids who have high grades and SAT scores are discriminated against for admission to selective colleges.
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-myth-of-american-meritocracy/

SteveH said...

It's not just an Asian thing. It has to do with how much of the decision is based on non-academic reasons. Once you get over a level that shows that you can handle the course work (although few places expect you to state your major or a school you will be applying to), better GPAs and scores don't help as much as you would think.

The admissions person at Yale told the students that they had too many qualified students applying; that her comments were to help them apply well to any college.

"Apply well."

Clearly, this means that your record of academics and extracurriculars is not enough. It's easy to see that it doesn't help if you show that your passion is to look good on a college application. However, it's also not enough to show a history of accomplishment in athletics, music, or theater. You have to provide well-crafted essays and quality recommendations. There is as much of a danger in under-applying as over-applying.

I've learned that my son can't just let his record naturally speak for itself; that he has to learn how to "apply well". If you don't do that, then you might not get into the schools at your academic level, and the lower tier schools won't believe you will accept.

cranberry said...

SteveH, it's a great idea to build your son's college list from the bottom up. Find a college (or two) with strength in his major, a college which is not one of the most selective colleges in the country. ( I liked Barron's profiles of American Colleges for its lists of colleges in categories of "highly competitive," etc.) Visit it, make sure he likes it, meet professors, attend Open Houses--make certain to show those colleges sustained interest.

The uncertain outcome of the college admissions rat race and financial pressures mean that many colleges have able student bodies, particularly in the sciences.

I don't intend to scare you, but talent in music and talent in math often go hand-in-hand.

cranberry said...

Unz's article has some problems. See: http://andrewgelman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Mertz-on-Unz-Meritocracy-Article.pdf?a43d93

SteveH said...

I like major universities because some have top-level research. The U. of Mich. is on his list (42% admitted), and I assume it might help that I went there. (They are also #9 in math, #11 in physics, and #4 in piano.) I don't know, however, if the financial aid is so great at large universities for out-of-state students.

What I'm still trying to figure out is how he can "apply well", no matter what level the college is - beyond going to open houses and meeting professors. We met with a music professor at Yale and I doubt that the school knows anything about that visit. All they know is that we were with a very large bunch of other students showing their love at an info session and tour. Everybody knows that you have to show interest. We went to visit a physics professor at Princeton over a year ago, but admissions doesn't know anything about that. My son read a book on string theory by the professor and knew that the department holds a yearly recital.


It seems like a job application and interview process where you have to sell yourself to the personnel people, not those in the department where you will work.

cranberry said...

SteveH, read the Common Data Set for the relevant universities. One section of the CDS ranks factors in applications. Yale does not consider the level of the applicant's interest. University of Michigan and Princeton rank it as "considered." UM also "considers" legacy connection.

So, I wouldn't worry about demonstrated interest at Yale. I would make certain your son opens emails from Princeton and the University of MIchigan. It woudn't hurt for you to attend area alumni events.

When you've identified the universities, pay attention to deadlines for merit scholarships. Many require apps to be in on the early side. I think (check this) Georgia Tech needed apps in by October for consideration for scholarships. This is not applying early action/decision--it's possible to get a regular decision application in early.

GoogleMaster said...

If you're looking for the intersection of math, physics, and piano, you could also look at Rice. Private, but has need-blind admissions and a fairly generous aid package. Rice graduates have some of the lowest student debt in the country.

Your son could get a B.Mus concentrating in piano
http://music.rice.edu/undergraduate/degrees.shtml
or add math/physics as a double- or triple-major. Actually, I think Rice has added minors since I graduated a gazillion years ago.

Or he could double-major in math and physics and supplement with courses and private lessons from the Shepherd School of Music.

Note that applications to the Shepherd School go through a different route than those of the general candidate body, and Shepherd School doesn't do early admission (whereas the general candidate body does).

SteveH said...

I've heard a lot of nice things about Shepherd/Rice, but it's a tough sell for a New Englander. Maybe that's a plus for admission. I will, however, give it another look. I'm starting to pay more attention to money and I think that might rule out Michigan. When I was there, out-of-state tuition was $1300 per semester and everyone was working hard to claim that they were independent and a year-round resident of the state. It was a tough sell.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

What would your local state school be?

Rutgers?

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

Rhode Island. Brown seems to take a number of state students, but many take it for granted.

SteveH said...

"According to Wikipedia, 22,764 student sat for AIME in 2006. The Ivies don't need that many math students."

The numbers are in. This year, about 9,000 took the test, but only about 5000 were from the United States. The biggest non-US groups came from Taiwan and China. Taiwan's average was lower than the US, but China's was higher, mostly due to better numbers at the lower end. The AIME has 15 questions that you have to answer in 3 hours and the answers are all between 0 and 999. No calculators. The average score on the AIME I was 4.69 out of 15. It's a tough test. Only about the top 270 move on to the USAMO.

My view is that at some of these top colleges, the math, science, and engineering departments probably wish they could tweak the holistic fudge factors of the admissions officers.

SteveH said...

And, if you look at just the number of juniors who would be using the AIME for their college applications (it comes too late for seniors), the number who took the AIME is 1961 worldwide and 1193 in the US. I think only MIT and CalTech ask for your AMC/12 score.

Do other admissions people know how to value this information if you put it in an application somewhere? It's easy to dismiss 50 points in math SAT above 700 to raise ingangibles to a higher level. Even one MIT admissions guy said something to the effect that who cares if you miss a sign or two on the Math SAT? Forget potential gender and racial quotas. I'm talking about a bias against students who appear to be math and science applicants. In fact, it doesn't look good if you try too hard. It's also not clear whether they make a distinction between those who get a 4 or a 5 on AP math and science tests.

I started this thread because I saw a trend. At Tufts, Harvard, and Yale, either an admissions person or a tour guide talked about how one could fulfill regular general education requirements in math by taking survey or pseudo-math sort of courses. I saw that holistic means giving admissions people way too much power over intangibles. They might have ten people vote on each group of applicants for one slot, but these people are not math/science people. Perhaps they have a quota for the math/science openings, but once you are in their academic bucket, other factors are raised to a higher level.

Do admissions people make different judgments based on which school they think you will enter? At Tufts, those applying to the School of Engineering have to submit SAT IIs for math and science. However, the admissions person happily exclaimed that they graduate more engineers from their school than the number who applied in the first place. Gee, I wonder why that is? Is it better to apply saying that you are really interested in some department other than math or science? At Oberlin, you can get into the music conservatory but not the regular school (they are two separate applications). However, the conservatory tour guide told us that all you have to do is take a few courses and show that you can get decent grades, then they let you go for a dual degree.

It's tempting not to play this game, but apparently, one might graduate will fewer loans at some of these rich schools.

cranberry said...

I'm talking about a bias against students who appear to be math and science applicants. In fact, it doesn't look good if you try too hard.

I found Tufts' Fact Book online. http://provost.tufts.edu/institutionalresearch/files/2012-2013-Fact-Book.pdf

Tufts admits far more Liberal Arts students (~1100) than engineering students (194). It's interesting to see how close the SAT scores are for both pools. The engineering students are about 10 to 20 points stronger in math, and about 10 to 20 points weaker on the verbal section. Neither pool is weak on SAT M/CR--they're both strong.

I venture to say that they graduate more engineers from the school because most of their Liberal Arts students are strong enough in math to be engineers. The admission rate for the engineering school (22%) is similar to the overall admit rate of 21%. The overall admit rate is pulled down by the lower admit rate for female applicants (19%). Fewer men apply, and the men receive more financial aid (41% men receive FA, vs. 34% women.) Oh, and 54% of enrollee engineers receive financial aid. So, if your son's a male engineering candidate at Tufts, he is more likely to be admitted (22%) and to receive FA than a female Liberal Arts candidate (19% admission rate).

Of course, it could be that engineering candidates are better with financial data, and are weighing attractive offers elsewhere.

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