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Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Day in the Life of an Admission Counselor, or, What We Do, and Why It Takes So Long

Our phones ring a lot. Aside from the urgent calls from the Oval Office and one or two from my mother asking why I'm not coming over for meatloaf, the vast majority are students (or their parents) wondering why they haven't received a decision yet. "What," they ask (and ask, and ask), "Could possibly be taking so long?" 

T.J., one of our counselors, has kindly given you a candid glimpse into a day in his life in hopes of answering this oft-repeated question. 

I live 35 miles from the office, which, in Los Angeles, might as well be the entire distance of the Oregon Trail. As such, I leave for work at an hour that is great if you’re, say, a bat; but not so great if you plan on operating a two-ton piece of machinery at high speed. Thankfully, I’m usually jarred into wakefulness by a near-collision with a BMW (for some reason it’s always a BMW) and by the time I reach the office I’m ostensibly “up and at ‘em.”

This time of year—known by-and-large in the admissions world as “reading season”—my desk is perpetually obscured by a huge mass of application folders. At first I thought that it was because we are in the process of whittling over 10,000 prospects into a freshman class of a few hundred. Now, I think my files are breeding and will soon form a central government, militarize, and forcibly colonize my mail tray.

As reading season is concurrent with football season, I generally take a few selfish moments each morning to remind everyone within shouting distance that the Atlanta Falcons are actually good this year and that Matt, “Matty Ice” Ryan is quite possibly the avatar of the Sumerian God of victory. After they all shut their doors and/or put on headphones, I pop open the caffeine source de jour, crack my neck, and buckle down to begin reading.

“Read” is an admissions term, and somewhat misleading. Very little “reading” is actually done at this stage. Most of what I do is deciphering high school transcripts, which apparently are printed using movable type in an early form of Sanskrit.

For instance:

07-08 Cp *09 INTCOOR ERTH/PHY II-HP-----------------------RP

I am pretty sure that its either some kind of science class or the password to the National Security Administration’s mainframe, so I am forced to scrounge around for a school profile—the admissions equivalent of the Rosetta stone—to make sure that I am giving the student correct credit for his or her (I'll just pick "her") hard work. Invariably the school profile offers something exceedingly helpful, like:

“A” 90-100%
“B” 80-90%
“F” stands for “Fail.”

On a side note, many schools have moved away from using “F” grades. It’s too mean. Now they use “NP” for “Not-Passed,” which studies show is much cheerier.

I plug the student’s grades into a grid, which, through the wonders of mathematics, eventually reveals  her “Marymount GPA.”

A “Marymount GPA”, incidentally, is the average GPA of the courses that we at Marymount consider indicative of a college-prep program. If you want a pretty good idea of what your Marymount GPA will be, cut out your P.E., art, drama, health, and elective classes, and then average your remaining grades.

I then dig through her application and the attached records to compile the proficiency (i.e. CAHSEE) test scores, extracurricular activities, work history, volunteer work, and ACT/SAT test scores onto the same grid—so at one glance we can see exactly what a student has been up to for four years of high school.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of taking the time to fill in the “extra-curricular and volunteer information” section of our application. Otherwise you have a big, blank spot on your grid, and we get to theorize whether:

A)     You're too lazy to properly complete the application.
B)      Your computer was afflicted by a sudden power surge and you were prevented from typing your extensive resume by the blue bolts of electricity that were arcing from your keyboard.


C)      You were filling the 4-year void with activities that you didn’t really want to advertise on a college application.

Call us jaded, but we usually go with “A” or “C,” which isn’t a great start. So, if you’ve done ANYTHING worthwhile in high school, make sure it’s on the application.

Finally, I read any additional documents you chose to send. This includes essays, personal statements, teacher evaluations, and letters of recommendation. I make notes (and occasionally share a particularly choice example with a colleague) and then pass the whole file on to the admission committee—sometimes with a personal recommendation if I feel strongly about a particular applicant.

This is why it’s a really good idea to make the effort to get to know your counselor. We’re human, and we’re all passionate about getting students into college (hence our choice of careers), and thus we all have our favorites students and our soft spots. A glowing recommendation from your Admission Counselor goes a long way with the board. The opposite can also be true. So please be professional…and for the love of god don’t get drunk before coming to your interview (true story).

Then, you’re out of my capable hands, and in the more capable hands of the committee. They look at all the information compiled and annotated in your grid; compare it against our admissions standards and the other students that have been admitted that semester; do their best to determine what you’ll be able to contribute to the school in terms of talent, ability and diversity; and finally render a decision.

The decision is processed, input into our computer system, the file is returned to me, and your decision is sent via both e-mail and snail-mail.

So how long does all of this take? I’ll break it down.
  • You, filling out the application: <30 minutes (assuming no unfortunate power surges occur)
  • You, sending your transcripts, etc.: 1-2 weeks (but it often takes much, much longer. I think I have an incomplete application in my desk from 1792.)
  • Me, reading your completed file: 10 minutes (one of our counselors claims to take 6 minutes…but she might be an alien.)
  • Pending time while waiting for the committee:  ~ 5 days
  • Time with the committee: 1 week
  •  Processing time: 1 - 2 day(s)
  • Mailing time: 1 week (it’s sent first class, but who knows what happens once it’s in the possession of the US Postal Service.)
  • Total time to decision: 3 to 4 weeks (though it can be slower or faster depending when you applied)
  • Admittance into Marymount: Priceless (Well, except for tuition.)

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