Examining Subjectivity in the Fall 2021 College Admissions Process

The COVID-induced disruption of the educational system, has also upended the Fall 2021 college admissions process. From suspended admissions requirements, like submitting SAT and ACT scores to the implementation of Pass/No Pass style marks for Spring 2020, instead of academic letter grades, effectively reducing students’ cumulative Grade Point Averages (GPA), students and parents are questioning how applicants will be evaluated. 

During The Chronicle of Higher Education’s April 30 webinar, two admissions officers, Giselle Martin, director of recruitment and
talent in the office of undergraduate admission at Emory University and Robert Massa, vice president emeritus for enrollment and college relations for Dickinson College , offered their advice for families. Listed below each admissions officer’s quote, I’ve analyzed their advice, so families can understand the changes to the Fall 2021 application process, then revise their college admissions strategy, if needed. 

When asked, “What are some of the qualities colleges value? How do they evaluate candidates?”, Mr. Massa responded: 

Intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, being creative, being generous toward others, civic engagement, working hard, and openmindedness. How do you look for them? You look at activities, the personal statement, the essay, at letters of recommendation. You assess the interview. These are all ways that you can find evidence of these attributes.

In his answer, Mr. Massa emphasizes that the application is an interconnected set of information—“activities, the personal statement…[which is the essay], the letters of recommendation”— from which admissions officers review together as a complete package, then derive understanding of the applicant in order to determine how the applicant aligns with their particular college. Therefore, if applicants understand their own experience, they can determine how to utilize each section of an application to demonstrate the totality of their character. 

In addition, in listing a series of character traits (see bolded words), Mr. Massa reveals more about the college’s culture and the type of student they seek to join their community. Thus, applicants would be wise to study the culture of a particular college to understand if they and the university match.

Similarly, in her response, Ms. Martin reveals the traits desired in the ideal candidate for admissions to Emory University: 

We are looking for significant leadership and creativity in school and community. Students who are not afraid to put themselves out there and maybe have a difference of opinion. Academic achievement and unselfish character. Kindness. We are essentially looking for how the student has the potential to enrich the lives of their contemporaries at Emory. How do we look for kindness? Sometimes a letter of recommendation. There are elements in the essays that come through. I read thousands of these every year. We work all summer to craft these questions, to bring out these elements of students.

In her answers, Ms. Martin uses broadly interpreted terms, like “leadership” and “creativity”. Thus, applicants would be prudent to define terms, like “leadership”. Then, in their essays, using their definition as a guide, students can write about their experiences as examples of leadership. As Mr. Massa shared, the application is essentially an argument, reasoning why an applicant is a worthy candidate for admissions. 

Ms. Martin also shares insights about the purposefulness of the essay prompts to screen for applicants who have, in her words, “the potential to enrich the lives of their contemporaries at Emory.” To reiterate, applicants would be prudent to thoroughly investigate each university in order to understand how they match with the culture and community of a particular university, a connection that they can then explain in their essays. 

Since the Fall 2021 admissions process is changing from previous years, and as discussed Fall 2021 Admissions Turned Upside Down and CAUTION: Disruption Ahead, will likely be a more subjective evaluation, applicants and their parents would be wise to ask more questions and reflect on their own experience as thoroughly as possible. 

For more information about how Jill Yoshikawa, EdM can help students and parents navigate the complex college admissions process, even more complicated as admissions processes change for Fall 2021, contact her at Creative Marbles Consultancy

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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