Monday, February 10, 2014

What Football has Taught Me about College Admissions

When I want to expand my knowledge of football, I don’t typically turn to college admissions.  Yet Peter Johnson, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Columbia University, recently introduced me to the term YAC, though Super Bowl Sunday was not the topic of conversation.  Johnson was addressing a group of professional members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) at an industry retreat. Responding to a question about the importance one’s high school plays in the college admission process, Mr. Johnson used yards after catch as a metaphor to form the perfect imagery.  His point: Columbia doesn’t admit schools; it admits students.  Where a student goes to school is the pass; where the student takes that opportunity is what counts. 

Think about that for a moment. Johnson just explained how competitive colleges not only seek to level the playing field, but also identify the MVPs.  Test scores and grades may put students in the conversation, but it’s their independent intellectual curiosity that propels them towards the end zone. 

Though fewer than 7% of applicants will likely be admitted to Columbia this year, Director Johnson’s message is useful advice for anyone seeking admission to a highly selective college or university.  It is no longer simply about having top grades, perfect test scores and a plethora of extra-curricular activities.  The student who catches the attention of an admission officer fills a niche and demonstrates a deep commitment to and measurable success in something that sets him or her apart.  It can be national or regional recognition for science research, development and mastery of a talent, or demonstration of a relentless curiosity through an academic pursuit. Elite colleges are interested in students who have been carving their niche over time and through their own persistence.  And as President Obama seeks to include college accessibility for more low income and first generation students as part of his legacy, colleges will search out the students who have excelled in the absence of certain privileges and advantages. Expect the trend towards measuring the yards after catch to become even more entrenched in the competitive college admission process.  

I am sharing Director Johnson’s candid message with you not to discourage, but to add a bit more transparency to the admission process at the most selective colleges.  His insights also dovetail well with the ideas expressed by journalist and author David Brooks in his February 4th New York Times Op-Ed article: What Machines Can’t Do.  Though the subject of his piece is not what selective colleges look for, Brooks emphasizes that these same qualities are valued in life as well as in college admissions.  The era of technology no longer rewards skills that machines can replicate, i.e., mental functions that rely on facts, rules and the information we are given.  Instead, our new age society will continue to find more value in and reward those who are motivated by pure enthusiasm and who possess “a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity.” Elite colleges look to build a class of niche players who possess this same independent intellectual curiosity to run the distance with the ball.

While Peter Johnson’s talk was specific to Columbia admissions, I think it is safe to say that the top tier colleges in terms of selectivity (not to be confused with quality) all employ their own version of YAC in how they admit students.  Coming to terms with what these colleges want to see is not a cause for despair; it might just be a reason to broaden the focus.  There are many fine colleges and universities that realize students don’t necessarily develop their interests at the same pace.  Instead these colleges hope to provide the opportunities and stimulation to facilitate that discovery.   Sometimes that means we must reassess our own goals. Today’s world and the one our children will encounter in the future will value, as David Brooks noted, enthusiasm that drives their intellectual curiosity.  Now is the time to encourage our kids to not only catch the ball, but also find the college or university that will excite their desire to run with it.