by Frances Nan, college counselor
November is a frantic time in the college counseling office: counselors are writing recommendation letters, meeting with students, and reviewing draft after draft of essays. After November, though, there’s a noticeable shift from this frenzy toward waiting for early round decisions for seniors (and starting to work with next year’s class! Already!) When I was on the college side (working in admissions at Pomona College, and reading applications for Stanford University, Barnard College, and scholarship programs QuestBridge and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation), November was another type of transition: from “travel season” — weeks on the road, missing family and friends, and when a meal often meant scarfing down granola bars between school visits — to “reading season,” and preparing to read applications.
In college admissions, reading season always begins with a process called “norming,” where application readers are directed on how to read, as well as briefed on the institution’s priorities for that cycle. The “how to read” directions cover things like: How many applications would each of us review, and by when? What would it take for applications to get to full committee (i.e., the select group of applications that, after initial review, advanced to committee for admissions consideration)? What information was useful to pull into written evaluations? Were we using a rating scale to score students? What characteristics counted for which ratings? At some places, an initial norming phase is followed by a norming check: readers read the same sample applications and then compare evaluations and recommended decisions, to see if all readers are on the same page.
The briefing on institutional priorities is likewise critical: From year to year, the institutional priorities can shift, based on various factors that the admissions office and its officers need to respond to in the context of that particular year. What happened in previous years with the college’s “yield” (the percentage of admitted students who chose to enroll)? Perhaps the university was yielding certain categories of students at a higher rate than others, which could mean a need to admit more of the latter to create a balanced class. Are there new directives from the board or other upper-level administration? At need-aware admissions offices (institutions that consider a student’s ability to pay), what distribution of applicants from each range of ability-to-pay is necessary for the institution to meet revenue goals? What are projected upswings or shortages — by geographic location, race, gender, ability to pay, prospective academic major, and more — among high school applicants across the world? The answers to these questions help guide what counts as “a thumb on the scale,” i.e., which factors can be more or less weighted in an applicant’s favor.
This norming means that when application reading begins, an application reader is guided—perhaps gently hemmed in — by the directives for that year. While reading and deciding whether and how to build a case for an “admit,” a reader must build their case within the context of that year’s institutional priorities. If a college were up in both quantity and quality of, say, computer science applicants, then the threshold for an admit might be higher than in years past. New, special programs — like a new athletics center, a new art museum, or affinity spaces for underrepresented students — need certain students to populate them. As Jeff Selingo writes in his 2020 book, “Who Gets In and Why?”, “A rejection then is not about you; it’s about what a college needs the year you apply.” Admissions is not a pure meritocracy: not being admitted doesn’t mean the college disliked the student’s application or that the applicant is a “bad” or insufficient person.
Understanding the norming process — particularly the role of an institution’s annual priorities — can help students and families shift misguided assumptions about who gets into what college and why. This collective mind-shift is good for our community and can decrease people making harmful comments to students. Instead of thinking or saying, “You’re so lucky, you’re going to get into X school because you’re hooked as Y,” students (and families) should remember that they don’t know what is in a person’s application that would make them appealing to a particular college that year. We know, from our collective decades in the field, that the college admissions process can easily trigger a scarcity mindset. In response, it’s important to remember that a person’s worthiness has nothing to do with where they get into college.
This thinking about the bigger picture, and helping Lakesiders stay connected with their values, is an important part of the work we do in the college counseling office. It also links the work that happens here with students’ overall educational experience at Lakeside.
Frances Nan (they/she) is a college counselor at Lakeside School. Reach them and other members of the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.