Are You Shopping for Salmon, or Oreos?

College admission officers, school counselors and independent educational consultants gathered for NACAC’s annual conference in Louisville.

Last week, thousands of college admission professionals gathered in Louisville, KY for the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  College representatives, high school and independent counselors met for the first time since the Varsity Blues college admission scandal, and to discuss the ongoing issues and challenges in the college admission world.

It was my fourth NACAC conference.  For me, the two and a half days of breakout sessions, a monstrous college fair, and lots of conversations with college admission officers followed three days of college tours in Kentucky and Tennessee.  (You can see a few of the pictures I took on our Facebook page; working on posting write-ups soon!)

At the conference, I had a long chat with Rick Clark, Director of Admission at Georgia Tech, after he presented a session on writing about college admission.  Clark’s newly-released book, “The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together,” co-authored with a boarding school counselor, intends to help families work through the stress of the college journey together, so that everyone has the same goals, and everyone celebrates the outcome.

The college admission ‘experience,’ as some are now calling it (to avoid using the word ‘process,’ which may make you think that step 1 leads directly to step 2 which leads directly to the outcome you want and expect), is sometimes stressful because parents and students have different images of what the ideal college outcome will be.

Georgia Tech Rick Clark
Georgia Tech Admissions Director Rick Clark crouches while Magellan founder Evelyn Jerome-Alexander stands on her tippie toes!

As a parent, you want ‘the best’ for your child.  To some parents, that means ‘the best’ college, defined by college ranking.  Your Gen Z teenager, however, might see ‘the best’ college differently: somewhere they have access to professors, or can enjoy small discussion-based classes, or can join a fraternity or sorority and take advantage of the social aspects of their college experience.  It’s kind of like sending different members of your family to the supermarket without a shopping list:  if you’re not all on the same page, everyone’s looking for something different.

Someone will come back with Double Stuf Oreos, and someone will come back with a fresh salmon fillet.

I told Rick my purpose in writing this blog, which I’ve been writing since 2012, is to help humanize and demystify the college admission process for high school students and their families, and to lower everyone’s stress.  We get it – it seems like you’re sending your applications into a black box, where they’re reviewed for who knows what by who knows whom.  While it feels safe to assume you know what they’re looking for, or that their priorities are the same as yours, every spring, we get calls from frustrated parents who didn’t see the rejections coming. “How could this have happened?”

Ask any college admission professional – an overworked public school counselor, a private school counselor with more time and resources, or an actual college admission officer, and we’ll tell you the same thing:  the solution is to have a balanced list.  A list with all ‘reach’ schools is a recipe for disaster.  We know when you hear about a school with a 5% or 7% admit rate, you just assume that your kid is one of those 5%.  But we see it the other way – we know that most of the other 93-95% of the applicant pool was ALSO well-qualified, had great grades and test scores and a few really stellar extra-curricular activities.

So this brings us to what ‘holistic’ admissions really means.  It sounds like a good thing, right?  They look at all of the factors.  But in the end, what it means is that colleges can choose whomever they want – whomever they think will make a contribution to their campus – whomever they LIKE – without much accountability.  It means that someone with lower grades and lower test scores than your superstar is going to get in over him or her.  And it’s just going to piss you off.

We have a few words and phrases we don’t use in our counselor group:

  • Fair
  • Worked so hard
  • Deserves
Magellan College Counseling counselors
Evelyn, Lesa, Diane and Debbie, visiting Middle Tennessee State University before the NACAC conference, 2019.

In the wild west of unpredictable, holistic admission practices at highly-selective colleges, there’s no room for these concepts.  Instead, the best way for you to outsmart the system is to play the odds.  Stacking your list with a majority of colleges that admit fewer than 25% is not a good strategy.  It’s not about throwing dozens of applications to top-tier institutions at the wall randomly to see what sticks just because your child ‘has worked so hard’ and ‘deserves’ to go to a top college.  It’s about finding the few about which your child can truly articulate how well s/he fits, and what they will contribute to the college community.

And then ensuring that there are other colleges on the list which aren’t as much of a crapshoot.  Remember – the ‘likely’ schools where your child’s grades and test scores are above the admitted average are the most likely to offer generous scholarships (more about merit and financial aid overall here).

Of course, as I drove home from the airport following the conference, I spoke with a mom who literally used the phrase, “He’s worked so hard” four times during our half-hour conversation.  I tried to gently steer her to understand the numbers.  There are 35,000 high schools in the United States, and 19,000 seats in the ENTIRE Ivy League’s freshman class.  I think I got her to the place where she realized that a list full of reaches is likely to add even more stress to her son’s college admission experience, leave him not feeling good about his high school accomplishments, and worst of all, that he had disappointed his parents.  This is not a good feeling for an 18-year old.

We’re often accused of downplaying students’ chances at top-ranked colleges – the ones many parents have in their mind when they begin this journey.  It’s not that we’re trying to discourage superstar students from reaching high.  It’s that we want them to get more acceptance letters than rejections – rejection hurts more when you’re 17 than when you’re 50.  We want everyone in the family to be on the same page, with goals aligned.  We want you to get salmon if you want it, not Oreos (unless you want them!).  In the end, I’d rather have a student with lots of choices that may not have been the original first choice than a student with no choices at all.

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