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Don't Take it Personally

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The goal of the UWCSEA University Advisors is to help students find a list of universities whose institutional values and priorities align with their own.
Johanna Fishbein
Head of University Advising

Johanna joined UWCSEA in 2014 from the International School of Brussels where she was the Head of College and Careers Counseling. Previously at Barnard College, she was Director of Pre-College Programs and Coordinator of International Recruitment. She began teaching in NYC public schools, and is Past President of the International Association for College Admission Counseling (IACAC).

Don't Take it Personally

Thoughts on the Holistic Admissions Process

When students enter the IB Diploma programme and begin thinking ahead to life beyond UWCSEA, students (and their families) have some big decisions to consider. Universities around the world have very different admissions processes; some are very straightforward, like Australia, where students are admitted based on their IB Diploma points, and some are very complex, like the US, where a holistic admissions process is utilized.

As we guide our students through the holistic review process we are often struck by how personal it all feels for them. And it is true that the holistic admissions process is a very individualized one for students. However, since it is attached to what is probably one of their first major life decisions, what is sometimes forgotten is that actually, the holistic admissions process grew out of the desire of the university to match its student intake to its own goals and its own values. The process, when viewed through this lens, is a whole lot less personal.

What is holistic review, from a university’s perspective? As the University of Wisconsin explains, holistic review is: “An individualized, non-mechanical review of the applicant. To do that effectively, the admission decision should include an evaluation of the applicant as an entire person. The decision-making process should consider a broad range of factors that reflect the student's readiness for college, potential for success, and contributions he/she can make to the student body. Such factors might include:
•    Academic factors
•    Demographic factors
•    Socioeconomic factors
•    Race/ethnicity
•    Work experience
•    Leadership and extracurricular factors
•    Accomplishments
•    Personal qualities
•    Skills and abilities
•    Other factors determined by the institution”

Why are we concerned about the mindset with which our students view this process? This past spring, Stanford University made the news for being the most selective US undergraduate institution in history, admitting just 5.1% of applicants for the Class of 2018. With this trend of the highly selective universities becoming even more selective, we feel we need to help our students better understand how to go about deciding what type of university is right for them.

Recently, Brian Wright, formerly a University Advisor at the UWC Costa Rica and currently an Advisor at the new UWC Dilijan in Armenia, gave this TEDx Talk You Don’t Deserve To Be In University, about applying to universities that use this holistic review. He argues that it is necessary to change the way students construct their understanding of the university application process at these universities. Many students have the frame of mind that by being something or doing something they deserve a place. However, as Wright explains, this is not the case. Many other factors play a part in a university’s holistic admissions decisions - and as a result, students should stop taking it all so personally.

The first step is examining how our students are deciding what their “dream university” really looks like. For many students, the dream university is the university they have heard about since they were small. This may be the university their parents attended or the setting of a favorite movie, but as Wright explains, students need to make the university application process much more thoughtful and focused on their own needs.

Students should choose the universities to apply to with their personal goals in mind. This includes looking at which universities align with their academic interests, personal philosophies, and social priorities. Students need to do as much research about universities as the admissions officers do about them. Students should be scouring the university’s websites to see what are the “hot topics” on campus. They should be talking to current students to get a feel for the philosophy of the university. They should be reading mission statements to make sure they really do believe in the core values of the university, not just the name! Students should think about what skills they want to develop and what they care about in the world - and then find a university that has similar goals, regardless of if it is a university whose name is popular. If students really think about their own personal mission and where they can achieve their goals, Wright argues very convincingly that success and satisfaction at university is sure to follow.

The second step is to convince students (and sometimes their parents) that as much as the admissions process seems personal, it is not. Students are asked to submit personal essays or personal statements and are told by universities around the world that universities want to get to know them. This is true and the process is as fair as a subjective process can be. But what is often not clear to the student, is that one of the very important factors in a holistic review are the institutional priorities of a university. And these institutional priorities, somewhat unfairly it may seem to our students, change constantly - because they are based on the priorities of the university in that particular admissions cycle. On one hand, they can benefit students based on gender, race, ethnicity, finances, major choice, legacy, or location. But on the other, they are not predictable and they are always changing.

Visiting university Admissions Officers often make the point to our students that what helped someone the year before will not necessarily weigh in favour of a student this year, and that there is no way to predict who will gain admission in any given year to a given university. Although the University Advisors use data from past years to guide the selection process, there are surprises every year. Students should therefore be prepared for the unexpected, and if they are not successful, recognize that it is not a personal decision.

The goal, therefore, of the UWCSEA University Advisors is to help students find a list of universities whose institutional values and priorities align with their own, where they can develop their skills. If students take the time to ensure their university application list is thoughtful and well-researched then every university on their list will be a good fit for them. So, even when disappointing news may come from some universities where the institutional priorities did not align with the applicant’s in a given year, the student has plenty of other options to choose from - and will feel empowered to be the one selecting the university they will attend, rather than feeling that the university picked them!

Every student and their parents should take the 12 minutes to watch Wright’s TEDx talk. Regardless of where in the world students may be going to university, his message about self-examination to better define our own “personal missions” and thinking carefully about what type of setting helps us attain our own goals is powerful. As Wright says, students must “figure out their personal mission and make it a world of their dreams, not just the college of their dreams.”

Find out more about the destinations of UWCSEA's graduating students here.

Watch the TEDx Talk:



12 Oct 2014
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