Media Outlets Tap Into Admissions Season Angst

By Mark Walsh — March 24, 2014 3 min read
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It’s college admissions season, and media outlets have started delivering fat envelopes to their audiences.

I know that few colleges actually send out fat or thin envelopes to their admittees and rejectees anymore; nervous high school seniors typically check their status online. But check out this entry in the Motherlode blog of The New York Times.

Writer Tracy Mayor notes that one of her son’s highly anticipated admissions decisions came in an envelope that “was so flat, it seemed to contain nothing at all, like some last, cruel joke from an admissions department that had been indifferent from the start.”

The decision was a “no,” and Mayor writes about how she and her son coped with a string of rejections.

“If your household is waiting this week for an envelope, or an email, or a phone call, know that your kid is likely going to thrive wherever he or she ends up,” Mayor writes. “But if the answer is no, know also that it’s okay to cry a little first.”

In The Washington Post on Sunday, reporter Nick Anderson got an inside look at the admissions process at George Washington University in the nation’s capital. Anderson got to sit in as admissions officers debated and made decisions on applicants to the university, which sits a few blocks from the White House and is reasonably selective, though not in the very highest tiers of higher education institutions.

“Everyone wants the formula for getting in,” Anderson writes. “There is none.”

“The successful applications withstand probing of every line item, from high grade-point averages to that unfortunate 10th-grade C in chemistry,” he adds. “They also show evidence of a student who actually wants to enroll. But sometimes, what appear to be strengths also can be seen as weaknesses.”

“This is what Yes sounds like” at GW, Anderson writes. “‘Like her rigor, love her personals,’ GW Admissions Director Karen S. Felton said before moving one New York student’s file into the admit pool. ‘I have “Leadership!!!!” with four exclamation points. A-B girl. She has a great story. She’s a great student. . . . She feels GW to me.’”

And, he writes: “This is the language of No: ‘The boards are what they are,’ Felton said of a Pennsylvania candidate’s test scores. ‘They’re pretty average. My bigger concern is what looks to be a declining GPA in a very modest senior year. . . . Yeah, I would agree with a deny.’”

Perhaps needless to say, Anderson is not allowed to identify the students discussed.

The traditional target date for admissions decisions is April 1, notwithstanding developments such as early decision and early admission.

The Chicago Tribune last week reported that “filling the class of 2018 at many of the nation’s estimated 2,600 colleges has become trickier than ever.”

Colleges are mining social media data about potential applicants to hone their marketing pitches, Tribune reporter Bonnie Miller Rubin writes.

“The trove of data,” the story says, “allows recruiters to mine social media interactions, Internet habits and the socioeconomic standing of a student’s parents, experts say. The result allows schools to send prospective applicants targeted information, Amazon-style. You’re a vegan? Expect an alert about the cafeteria’s healthy offerings. Have a passion for travel? Here’s the ‘study abroad’ program. Mention University A on Twitter and University B will follow with a blurb on what sets them apart.”

To reduce the number of students who reject offers of admission, the technology is aimed at helping colleges weigh “demonstrated interest,” Rubin writes.

“By feeding every contact—every email, phone call and school visit—into the right software, schools can foresee who is most likely to say yes to an acceptance letter,” she says.

Meanwhile, admissions season is also a big time for financial aid offers. National Public Radio began a multipart series last week looking at how the high school class of 2014 will pay for college.

In the first part, reporter David Greene visits with David Sherker, a senior at Coral Reef High School in Miami, who wants to study film and is awaiting admissions decision from Florida State University and the University of Southern California, which will presumably present starkly differing tuition costs.

Greene sits done at the kitchen table with Sherker and his mother, who notes that their family of two teachers and three children “fall in the middle” of the financial aid game, making too much for significant need-based aid, but not enough to cover every one of their children’s college expenses.

NPR’s “Paying for College” series continues this week and the next two weeks, on topics such as financial aid, debt, and solutions.

Those are the topics that will also be the subject of conversations at a lot of kitchen tables over the next month.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.