Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Applying Emotions to Applications (Continued)

Originally featured in the Crimson Admissions blog


Here’s an angle you don’t usually hear in discussions about the increasingly competitive landscape of college and graduate school admissions: Rejection letters don’t only sadden students and keep them up late at night repeatedly asking themselves “why?

…They have the same strong emotional impact on admissions committee members as well.

Angel B. Perez, Director of Admission at Pitzer College in Claremont, wrote in her emotional op-ed for the Los Angeles Times:What…families don't see is the amount of emotion that admissions officers across the country pour into making these decisions. These students don't know that behind closed doors, we argue about these difficult decisions. Each of us fights for the kids in admissions committee meetings, and we're truly sad when we turn away applicants…"

Jean Webb—former Director of Admissions at YLS and current admissions counselor for InGenius Prep—felt similarly when discussing her emotional reactions to making decisions on law school applications. 

She explained that “admissions officers care about people; if they don’t, the simply don’t last long in the business. They also care about creating opportunities for people who have encountered obstacles to success. It is incredibly exciting when an offer of admission is a dream-come-true for someone.”
But, the unfortunate flipside of that, she explained, is that it is saddening to not be able to do so. And, at an institution as selective as Yale, she had to do so more than 90% of the time. I would imagine that after making these life-changing decisions for people for seventeen years can really take its emotional toll, but Jean’s passion to help students work toward their dream has not waned one bit.
When we asked her to recount one of those thousands of sad cases without, of course, she told us:

One of my saddest experiences was of a case like that -- but one that didn’t have a happy ending.  The admitted student -- with a learning disability -- had had strong support from his family throughout his education and appropriate accommodations from his undergraduate institution.  The documented disability made it possible for him to take the LSAT under accommodated conditions, and he performed very well.  His letters of recommendation were outstanding.  Once the student enrolled, however, his work was far enough below the expectations of his first-semester faculty member and student teaching assistant that they came to the admissions office to look at his file.  Had we made a mistake?  I don’t think so.  But such situations -- for better or for worse -- make admissions officers cautious about reaching outside the school’s “comfort zone” in making offers.

So, by now, I know what you must be thinking …“Boo Hoo! Admissions officers had to make tough decisions, but that doesn’t make me feel any better, and it certainly doesn’t put an acceptance letter in my hands.”

The point of this article isn’t to make you feel bad for these admissions officers, but rather to raise awareness about the fact that it doesn't always have to be this way. As Angel Perez explained, admissions readers bring applications to committee and actually vehemently argue about the difficult cases. By putting yourself in the best possible position with the most polished application and a truly compelling application persona, you can arm your admissions reader-advocate (should your application be compelling enough to pique enough interest to have one in the first place) with all the fodder he or she needs to get that “admitted” stamp on your file.

Noah Greenfield, the co-founder of InGenius Prep – an admissions consulting company for aspiring college, law school, medical school, and business school students with the one of the largest teams of former admissions officers in the world—shared a similar sentiment as his impetus for starting the company:

I was involved in making decisions for summer programs at Columbia and Yale. What was surprising to me was just how easy the decision making process was. The good applications were just so good - everyone who got into these competitive programs (from about 250 applications for 20 spots each) stood out far above most of their peers. It was only when some students contacted me after they were not accepted and asked me to help them understand what they might improve that I realized that a good number of those rejected students had the exact same numbers, extra-curriculars and experiences, etc., that the WOW students had. But, the difference to me was that they couldn't figure out how to communicate it to us in a WOW fashion. We might have taken a closer look if they had, but why would we bother when a) we were busy with other aspects of the program b) the great students were so compelling they were no-brainers?

The idea of the people behind these applications being probably equally qualified, but having less polished application materials made me uncomfortable for a long time. It would really keep me up at night that I seemed to be making such snap judgments based on such a small sample size of information. What I take solace in, though, is that a lot of that polish reflects the “extra mile” that students can go to in order to make sure their application truly stands out as a WOW application instead of one that just has like many others status upon review. I also realized pretty quickly that this phenomenon isn’t unique to the admissions process. It’s prevalent in job applications, almost any competitive or selective process in the world, and almost any important decisions that a businessperson or professional makes. Decisions are always made on sub-optimal information and often with limited resources and time, so preparation, persistence, and presentation are just as important as performance.