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One of the things I have learned from writing “Ethical College Admissions,” both this column and the blog that was its ancestor, is that I can’t predict what will or will not resonate with readers. I have written pieces that I thought were powerful commentaries on controversial issues that evoked almost no response, and I have found that columns I wasn’t particularly happy with struck a nerve.

Last week’s column falls into the latter category. I thought the idea of consistency in admission decisions was a good one, but I wasn’t sure I had done it justice.

I clearly didn’t articulate my position very well, as several readers interpreted my plea for consistency as advocating formulaic rather than holistic admission. That’s not the case. In principle I believe in reading applications holistically, but I also think that holistic admission can be a shroud that insulates colleges from questions about how decisions are made. I recognize that a highly selective college or university reading holistically will produce decisions within a school reading group that don’t seem consistent. But holistic admission and the concept of consistency are not necessarily at odds.

In the column I cited a quote from an admissions office early in my career -- “Why are you so concerned about consistency?” The reality may be that school counselors and college admission offices have very different answers to that question.

Helping students make thoughtful decisions about where to apply requires information to ground their application list in reality, and there is no way to counsel students effectively if admission seems random. No college wants to be seen as a “safety school” (a term I don’t use in my counseling), but will there come a time when no college wants to be seen as a likely or realistic option?

Colleges, on the other hand, buy into Marxist theory (named for Groucho, not Karl) -- a corollary of “I would never want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member” is “I would only want to go to a college I can’t get into.” Accepting that line of thinking means that unpredictability becomes strategic and inconsistency creates desirability.

What generated even more discussion was a throwaway paragraph, painted with too broad a brush, where I described counselor calls with colleges today as “infomercials.” That led to a string of emails on the NACAC Exchange initiated by a dean of admissions for whom I have great respect.

He pointed out that the admissions offices he has worked in all devoted time (at a time when time is scarce) to have calls with secondary counselors, hoping to provide context and language that will help counselors, students and parents understand decisions. If the takeaway from my use of the word “infomercial” should be that calls are no longer useful, colleges would like to know that so they don’t waste their time.

Susan Tree from Westtown School in Pennsylvania responded, and as always made me wonder why I can’t be as articulate and eloquent as she is. (I am quoting her with her permission.) She drew a distinction between lobbying and reconnaissance, and points out there is a great difference between the two.

Lobbying is the call made for the sake of advocacy. Susan argues that it is a waste of time, and I agree, and yet one of the powerful myths about college counseling in independent schools is what the psychologist Michael Thompson refers to as the “relationship delusion.”

I prefer the term “suburban legend” to myth or delusion, but it’s the belief that schools have special relationships with colleges and that college counselors are like Hollywood agents cutting deals with admission offices. When I confront and attempt to dispel that belief in meetings with parents, it always generates laughter -- but it’s nervous laughter.

Susan contrasts that view of counselor calls with the reconnaissance model, where the goal is fact finding or understanding. It’s a conversation that, done right, helps both sides of the desk do their job more effectively. For the counselor it answers these questions posed by Susan:

  • How are the numbers impacting on your selection process?
  • What are your priorities this year as you decide whom to admit?
  • Where is your pool especially strong and soft?
  • Grades and scores aside, what compelling features/achievements/qualities advance students in the competition?

It also helps a counselor see which students may not be reading particularly well. For the college the call can be a way to understand what is distinctive about a school or to see the human beings behind the applications, to read with what Susan calls an “educated lens.” An educated lens is something all of us in the profession should aspire to.

What differentiates the two different conceptions of the call is a fundamental difference in the relationship between admission officer and counselor. In the lobbying paradigm (which can include the college bragging about how good a year it’s been, measured by how few students they admitted), the relationship is adversarial. In the reconnaissance paradigm, the relation is collegial and the call is mutually beneficial.

In retrospect my use of the word “infomercial” was a feeble attempt to express concern, or perhaps even fear, about the declining value placed on relationships across the desk in our profession. Of course many calls between admission offices and counselors at this time of year are valuable and helpful, but fewer than used to be the case. Does that portend that collegiality may be an endangered species?

Last fall a young admissions officer from a selective national university called to request a visit. It was the week of the NACAC conference, and both counselors were going to be in Boston, so my secretary asked if the admissions officer wanted to reschedule or come anyway. “I don’t need to meet with a counselor” was the response. She was right -- she didn’t need to meet with a counselor to conduct a school visit -- but she also had no understanding that there would be benefit from a conversation with a counselor.

Drawing conclusions from that may be like adding two and two and getting five, but what is that telling us? Do young admission officers need better training? Is this a generational issue, that those who have grown up glued to their phones don’t know how to develop personal and professional relationships? Or are colleges no longer seeing relationships with schools and counselors as important?

College admission and college counseling are lonely jobs. Our bosses and colleagues in other offices don’t understand the work that we do or the pressures we face, and that makes having a network of people who understand and empathize on both sides of the desk an essential tool professionally and personally. I hope we will always preserve collegiality and relationships as the cornerstone of our profession.

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