Published on 2016/01/26
The EvoLLLution | Experience and Fit Central to Application Success for Prospective Students
Admissions is more complex than simply looking at a transcript, which means students of all stripes need to be more courageous and more honest in their applications.

Application season is a stressful time for all prospective students. Many students, both traditional and non-traditional, try to be strategic in their admissions, finding institutions that their grades qualify them for and putting as much focus on reputation as fit. But is this the best way to go about kicking off a postsecondary experience? In this interview, Philip Ballinger shares his thoughts on what institutions are really looking for from their applications and reflects on a few of the most common mistakes prospective students tend to make during the application process.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the most significant challenges to managing applications and enrollments every year?

Philip Ballinger (PB): From where I sit at a large public institution, a few of the challenges are very practical, namely matching up our internal resources with the steady increase in application as students apply to more schools. This is especially challenging at an institution like ours that uses a holistic review. It’s an issue of resource management.

Another issue, which is always present at a public institution like ours, is managing the continuing increase in the number of applications from international students. Projecting outcomes for these students becomes a little bit more challenging because we’re lacking a history of application, admissions and enrollment data.

Finally, a constant challenge for us is finding ways to do the very best we can to build a broad diversity in our student body, within the constraints of the law and good practice. That remains a challenge and my guess is it’s going to be a growing challenge as we move forward.

Evo: When it comes to attracting international students, how important is to offer them language education pathways and non-credit opportunities to gain college-ready English skills?

PB: That’s not an issue we have to deal with at this institution because we would expect all applicants to already have a level of English mastery where they can directly enter into a degree pathway.

That said, I know that many other institutions have those kinds of programs in place as part of a pathway into an institution and I can imagine that those pathways are very important for those schools. However, for many flagship public universities it’s just not that important. We certainly offer a whole variety of these opportunity and extension programs but they are not targeted at matriculated, degree-seeking students.

Evo: What are a few of the most common mistakes you see students make in their applications?

PB: There’s one mistake that I would even put prior to the application process for students, and that’s a self-selection process. Students often select themselves out of the applicant pool for elite institutions because they have a perception that they won’t be able to get in because of their academic record. It might be an ok or even a strong record, but they hear the averages for previous cohorts and just assume they won’t get in, so they don’t even apply. But an institution that use holistic review goes beyond academics. Of course academic markers are important but there are many other things that are very important as well and I think students self-select without adequate knowledge about what those factors are. Students approach the application process without adequate or sufficient understanding of what a holistic review process might be at a particular university. That can be remedied by simply visiting university websites and taking a look at their admission process.

The second issue, also at the pre-application stage, is whether or not a student has been sufficiently thoughtful and sufficiently honest with themselves about what they are hoping to get out of their postsecondary experience. It’s more important for students to be specific about their aims than to take a “willy nilly,” shotgun approach to applying to colleges. Some of the bigger issues aren’t actually filling out the applications; it’s the decision process involved in deciding to fill out applications for a particular school or a group of schools.

The third issue students run into, and this is during the application phase, is providing answers they think we want to see rather than truly introspective responses. We ask students to do a considerable amount of writing in the application process that is meant to be self-reviewing. By that I mean when we ask these questions there isn’t a right answer, at least not at my institution. What we’re asking students to do is share with us information about, on one hand, information about their education and their family experience with reference to education but also what is important to them and what they value. The reason we ask for these insights is because students aren’t simply widgets that come to a university, absorb things and then leave somehow more complete. They’re people that are adding to a community of education. So when we ask students to talk to us about things that are important to them there’s no right answer there. What we’re really interested in is what’s important to you because what’s important to them is what they’re going to bring and add to the education community. That is a very individual, personal answer and so we ask students to tell it like it is with references to themselves. A big mistake that some students make is they attempt to come to some conclusion about the ideal that we seek and they attempt to express it and honestly probably more often than not when a student does that they just don’t come across well because there not expressing anything that is of value or importance to them personally.

Evo: For non-traditional students especially, what can they do to stand out when applying to selective colleges and universities?

PB: In our holistic review process, we’re attuned to student histories and stories that demonstrate development, the acquisition of wisdom or achievement in the face of adversity. The kinds of experiences that a student has had—and therefore will bring with them to the educational community—at the university are of great interest to us. Non-traditional students have often had a considerable life experience or have probably faced some form of adversity in getting to where they are, whether that’s family adversity, economical or financial adversity, or even adversity in obtaining their education. What’s more, non-traditional students often have a relative richness in experience compared to students that are your “typical” student coming out of high school.

In a holistic review process that looks for those kinds of things, non-traditional student often do stand out.

Evo: How important is it for prospective students to ensure the college or university they are applying to is a good fit for them?

PB: Ensuring colleges will be a good fit is extremely important. The first step a student needs to take is to ask themselves, “Why college or university?” We know it behooves everybody to get further education but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to go to a university. Every student should be aware of this and have a sense of why they’re doing it and what they’re hoping to achieve. I’m always concerned when I hear a student has applied to ten or more colleges and I look at the list and they’re all over the place in terms of institution type and in terms of location. It shows that they don’t have a clue as to whether those colleges are good fits are not. They’re just applying based on factors that have nothing to do with themselves or they’re doing it because of what they’ve read or about a ranking or reputation or even because of something that someone else has told them.

Students have to do the internal work before they start worrying about the external stuff like applying to college. That’s why this pre-application work is so important for students.

Evo: In your ideal world, how would the college and university admissions process work?

PB: In an ideal world I could think of a lot of things that would exist so that the application process would be more aligned with students rather than the institutions. For example, in an ideal world the financial aspect of college would be a non-issue. In an ideal world, colleges and universities would be very explicit about what they intend to do, why they exist, what their mission is, what their purpose is, and what they seek to do in admitting students. I’m not saying that college and universities aren’t explicit now, but I think what doesn’t happen is a matchup between that and the students that are admitted. There are complicating factors that impact this alignment, for example, the reality or at least the perception of real financial limits.

In an ideal world, all students would have similar academic opportunities prior to college. That doesn’t exist right now. Currently, one high school compared to another high school and the opportunities that exist in all high schools can be the difference between living on Earth and living on Mars.

Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about how students can really take advantage of the holistic approach to university admissions?

PB: I would go back to the work that a student has to do themselves that has really very little to do with applying to a particular college. Students need to be as thoughtful and imaginative as possible when it comes to determining where they want to apply. Other people can be helpful by just asking questions about what students are envisioning college to be or what are they are hoping to experience.

When it comes to applications themselves, students need to trust themselves. That’s to say, they need to feel free to express themselves and share the things that are important to them, the things they value, the things they disagree with or the things that they hope for. Students also need to trust that institutions are doing holistic review and are really after that kind of self-expressiveness. Colleges aren’t just looking at what students can achieve at a college, but what they can bring to a college.

This article has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Students should apply to whatever college or university they feel can help them achieve their goals, regardless of whether they think they’re likely to be accepted.
  • Given the experience non-traditional students bring to the table they should especially avoid undermatching based on fears of inadequacy.
  • Institutions are looking for more than just grades from applicants; they’re focused on how different students can enrich their learning environments.

Readers Comments

Camille Ward 2016/01/26 at 9:12 am

This is some good advice and I hope it’s truly born out in admissions practices. Students have this almost stereotypical ideal in their head about what a college essay should look like, and in the end trying to recreate some idea of the perfect college essay it more likely to hurt their chances. Seeing this played out more often in admissions will hopefully inspire a little more faith in themselves.

Ken Lawrence 2016/01/26 at 11:17 am

That’s also where the prep work of finding a good fit comes in. If a college is really a good fit for the student, there’s no reason for the student to be anything but honest in their applications about what they value and what they’re looking to get out of their education.

May Hansen 2016/01/26 at 4:07 pm

It’s also gotten to the point where admissions officers have seen those grades over and over again. Lots of people can get good grades, lots of people have inflated (or in rare cases, deflated) grades. What we really want to see is how a prospective student is different from all the other students out there vying for a spot. That college essay is a chance to stand out. There’s no point in trying to write “the idea” college essay.

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