When I was a college counselor, I used to tell my students that there are three major decisions to be made during the course of any process of applying to schools:
- Where to apply;
- Who gets admitted;
- Where to enroll.
Much like our system of government, there is a duality of power in the admissions system. If one measures power by, say, how many representatives a state has in the U.S. Congress, then in this scenario, the applicant has significantly more power than the school. The applicant has the power to make two of the three decisions: where to apply — which, given that it is the first decision, puts every other decision into motion; and where to enroll — which, given that it is the last decision, is the most important one. I used to use this example frequently with my students who complained about the powerlessness they felt during the college admissions process to demonstrate that they actually did possess quite a bit of power; based on this model, one could even argue that applicants have all the power in this process.
However, it’s not just the House of Representatives that passes the legislation, and the importance of just one decision — or in the case of Georgia’s Senate race, just one vote — can wield an enormous amount of power. Thanks to the Connecticut Compromise, the power of one U.S. Senator is much greater than one U.S. Representative; so, too, the power of just Decision #2 — who gets admitted — propels a young person to or from individual institutions. It doesn’t matter where you apply if you don’t get admitted. Decision #2 is a big one, and as such, evens the balance.
There is no question that decision-making in a pandemic world presents a new set of challenges. While not exactly easy, Decision #1 had little risk involved in 2021. With common applications and no standardized testing requirements, deciding to apply to schools that just seemed good based on the website, word of mouth, or an hour of virtual programming wasn’t too difficult. Families did not have to use time and resources to visit schools or emotionally invest in them. (It’s hard to have a “favorite” school when you’ve never even seen one.) And that’s why many schools, including Loomis, saw significant increases in their applicant pools this year. Low risk, high reward.
For those of us making the crucial Decision #2, we were faced with a higher set of challenges primarily surrounding trying to determine whether applicants were a good fit for our academic program based on a year that included some or all of the following: all remote; all hybrid; remote/hybrid; all in person; all synchronous; all asynchronous; cameras off; cameras on; on mute; off mute; fewer than ten in a classroom; more than forty in a zoom class; at home labs; no labs at all; group projects; no group projects … in short, academic experiences that were as varied as our global applicant pool. Overlay that with a wide range of teacher recommendations, many written by teachers who never met the applicant in person as well as the fact that the majority of our applicant pool did not have standardized testing available to display a common set of content knowledge. And that’s just the academic assessment! It’s safe to say that the decision-making process for admissions officers in 2021 was unusual, to say the least.
Now that Decision #3 is upon us, the tables are turned. Uncertainty now reigns among many of our accepted students. I would argue, however, that like the admissions officers faced with Decision #2, being forced to make a decision without the usual road map can actually be liberating. For admissions officers, it meant that we could worry less about what a test score told us about academic preparation and focus more on what the teacher who never saw the student in person said about their ability to stay engaged during remote classes. It required us to consider things like evidence of ability to engage with others or to take advantage of resources. Talking with students or reading how they dealt with the onslaught of free time during quarantine periods, for example, told us something about how they would manage the independence required in boarding school. COVID-era decision-making forced us to look for a different set of clues and consider context in a broader way that will ultimately benefit the community we are trying to build. We knew we had to make a decision — we just had to use different tools to get there.
For students now facing Decision #3, I hope they, too, will continue to embrace the new and the unknown in the same way they have done repeatedly this past year. Genuine admission: You do not have to see a school to know it’s the right place for you; in fact, every year students enroll at schools and colleges without ever visiting them and do just fine. You don’t need to know every single answer to every question, either; yes, it’s good to do your research, but you will never know everything there is to know, so don’t worry about knowing everything before you decide. What you do need to know is this:
- Have I heard or talked to enough people at the school who make me feel I will be both supported — i.e., people I can get along with and like — and challenged — i.e., people who are not like me and will make me grow? This is about finding the right community.
- Do these people seem, within the reasonable boundaries of everyday life, to be happy to be at this school and genuine about their experiences, both good and bad? This is about finding the right place.
And guess what … you probably won’t be able to feel 100% confident in the answers to these questions, either, because you will not truly know a place until you are there. This in and of itself can feel overwhelming, or it can feel exhilarating. I know that when making Decision #2, I personally experienced both of these feelings, sometimes at the same time. But the acknowledgement of uncertainty is freeing, because at the end of the day, life itself is a combination of both external and internal factors, and we do know one thing: mindset means a lot. All we can do is make the best decision with the limited amount of information we have been given — whether it’s Decision #1, 2, or 3. As I said last year in Curveballs, Pt. 2, it will all end up okay, because YOU will be there and will make it your own experience, challenges and all. Like the design of the U.S. Congress, admissions decisions can consist of “both” and “and.” Making a decision can be both exciting and anxiety-provoking just as your school can be both a great fit and a great challenge. We know whatever your decision, it will be the right one. As long as you make it by April 10!