As reported by Forbes —a recent Case Studies Program for seven Tampa Bay independent schools hosted by Berkeley Preparatory School , required Juniors and their parents to read and consider three applicants to fictional “Prestigious University.” I posted about a similar exercise last fall with Does Your Application Have Coherence and Congruence?, but the takeaway this time was different and also essential: Knowing a college’s institutional priorities can help you predict which applicant will be accepted.
The cases we read included a white male working class hero valedictorian from a mediocre public school who had overcome the death of his mother and achieved academic excellence while helping support his family through part-time work; a Latina diva with strong academics and transcendent performing arts talent who was a legacy by virtue of her father’s having graduated from Prestigious; and an underperforming male National Merit Semifinalist engineering candidate from California who happened to be an Olympic-caliber rower.
In the small committee of parents I led, we spent a good deal of time presenting and discussing the cases, looking at the school profiles, course selections, grades, test scores, resumes, recommendations and essays of each candidate. There were differences of opinion on the Latina dancer’s essay, which one reader loved and others found a bit much. Then again, we had a sense the alumni office might want PU Grad Dad’s darling accepted, but we couldn’t tell how generous or involved with his alma mater he had been.
There was sympathy and admiration expressed for the young man who would be first in his family to attend college, had lost his mother, and needed to miss academic review sessions without ever telling his teacher it was because he had to work to support his widowed father and siblings. There are college admissions officers of expansive heart, at institutions of ample means, who will do everything to see this high-need, high-achiever accepted and funded.
All that said, the prefatory remarks regarding Prestigious University included the notes that the university “is known for its highly selective and unique engineering program….and its Division I athletic program…(where) athletes excel at the highest level. A recent donation will fund the establishment of a crew program….(the) administration will support the development of the team immediately….(and) the President of the college has asked the dean of admission to actively recruit qualified students from California….Finally, PU offers generous financial aid to accepted students, but is a need-aware institution.” The college’s cards are now on the table.
Let’s start with that last part. Once a dirty little secret regarding college admissions, the reality is that the vast majority of American colleges and universities are indeed “need-aware.” Higher education in many ways mirrors the “Top One Percent” dilemma that plagues our society: some colleges and universities have the financial resources to be truly need-blind in admissions, take anyone they judge qualified, and meet 100% of demonstrated need. Good for those accepted to the fortunate few, but there aren’t many of those places. Think about campuses where the percentages of those admitted are in the single digits or teens, and you are probably looking at a need-blind/full need place. Most colleges and universities are not in that group.
When it comes to our Latina legacy American Idolcandidate, there’s something to like in Dad’s having graduated before going on to law school, as there is in the ethnic diversity that a student of Hispanic heritage embodies. But again, in the notes on PU’s institutional priorities, the matter of geographic, not socioeconomic, diversity is what the president has in mind. Diversity is in the eye of the holder of the corner office, and in this case residents of the Golden State, not Miami’s Cuban emigres, are what PU’s CEO has placed in the Admissions Office’s marching orders.
So two admirable candidates—indeed the two with the higher GPAs—are likely to be looking for admissions love somewhere else. The one who has hit the PU Presidential trifecta—engineering, crew and California—can’t be bothered to do his homework when it doesn’t interest him. That said, he is smart—highest test scores of the three—so he can certainly handle PU’s work in an area of his choosing; moreover, he is so strong and dedicated in the crew boat that, in the words of the coach who is recruiting him, he will put Prestigious University “on the map.”
So what’s an earnest student or parent to do about institutional priorities? Ask! The general information session and tour guide scripts do not include explicit statements on such matters; most student guides and young admissions officers will be unaware of what’s percolating in the president’s office. But veterans will know what’s high on the institutional “To Do List.” Look for someone with gray hair and enough years in admissions to know what the bosses are emphasizing and get that person to tell you who is likely to have—if not EZ Pass—certainly a better chance to drive in the HOV Lane in the next admissions cycle.
No information from such a source? Look at what’s under construction on campus: any new building will need to be filled, and you might have the right stuff to have a seat in it. Unless you know which candidates a college most wants for its own reasons, you are playing darts blindfolded.