Reframe Podcast: Episode 38

College Admissions Explained

Susan Schaurer standing with a picture frame of Miami University's campus

Today, there is a lot of pressure to go to college. College graduates, on average, now earn more money, face less unemployment, and have more satisfying careers. But that also means that college is getting much more competitive, so getting into a good school, or the right school, can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.

So in this episode, we speak with Miami University's Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management, to break down the college admissions process. What to do, what not to do, and where to even begin. 

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. 

Today, there is a lot of pressure to go to college. College graduates, on average, now earn more money, face less unemployment, and have more satisfying careers. But that also means that college is getting much more competitive, so getting into a good school, or the right school, can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.

So in this episode, we speak to Susan Schaurer, Miami University Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management, who is here to break down the college admissions process. What to do, what not to do, and where to even begin. 


James Loy:

Thanks for your time today. We’re excited to learn all about the world of college admissions. 

Susan Schaurer:

Good. Fantastic!

So going to college, getting into college, is clearly a big deal today. Probably more than ever before. So what is the college admissions process like today? Has it changed in the last 20 or 30 years? Or maybe since parents had a child go to college just 5 years ago to how it might be now?

Susan Schaurer:

I think that’s a great question and certainly just the landscape of higher education and the college the application and search process has changed tremendously, really, over the last five to ten years. I think several years ago, students would think about schools, maybe they would hear word of mouth or some recommendations from friends, family or a high school counselor. They would put two or three schools on their list, go make some visits, apply to one to two schools. And then ultimately make a decision from there.

Today, there are more than 4,000-degree-granting institutions across the U.S. And it has really become a consumer-driven industry. Meaning that parents, students - they are savvy consumers. And rightfully so. The cost of higher education has increased tremendously over the past 20, 30, 40 years. And so families are making a significant investment in higher education. They're doing a fair amount of due diligence to ensure that they are taking a thorough look at colleges and universities before they even apply.

So it is not uncommon today for students to utilize the web to do virtual tours to find out everything they want to know about an institution. They may take advantage of live Twitter events or Facebook events in order to learn more about an institution from an administrator or from current students. And it's not uncommon for students to apply to 8, 10, 12 schools. And then, once they are admitted, to go out and visit campuses.

I think it’s also changed a lot in the fact that parents and students, again, rightfully so, are now thinking about the end result. It's kind of a return on investment industry. Whereas 20-30 years ago, when you look at colleges, you said, okay, what are the dorms like? What kind of food do I get? What kind of academic programs do you have? 

And today, often times the first questions we are hearing from students and parents are: How long will it be before I graduate? What's the starting salary of the job I'll get? What are the job opportunities for students with a degree from your institution? So it's very much about the return on investment and we as institutions always have to be communicating what our outcomes are to students, parents, to counselors, and other key stakeholders. 

James Loy:

It seems like there are so many different factors for students and parents to consider. You have 

grades, test scores, college prep courses, extracurricular activities. It goes on. Is that often daunting to people? Are there certain things that should be prioritized? Certain things that may outweigh other factors?

Susan Schaurer:

That's a great question and, I think, probably the question we hear most from students. What is the highest priority? What is most important in making certain I'm admitted to your school? And unfortunately there is no right or wrong answer. Just as there are more than 4,000 institutions across the U.S., most of us will have different processes. And, more often than not, schools won't be putting the exact recipe out there in terms of how they make their admission decisions. And most schools are going to practice something called holistic decisions, holistic review. And schools that practice holistic review are really taking into consideration the entire applicant. They're looking beyond just test scores or grades, the type of courses students have taken. But they are looking at the essay, the letter of recommendation, leadership, and work experiences. Taking a look at those extracurricular activities, volunteerism. 

We, in our profession, always tell students, first and foremost, we are admitting you to ensure that you can graduate and be successful at our institution. So while academics play a key role, and we want to see students who can first and foremost be academically successful at our institution, we also want to bring in a great campus community. And each and every year, we're trying to determine what parts students will play in creating that dynamic campus community.

So I would always tell students academics, probably, are the key. Because, again, we are looking to see that you are going to be successful at our institutions. But beyond that, it really is the entire picture. A lot of students will ask, well, should I take the harder course and get a lesser grade? Or should I take the easier course and get a higher grade? And our answer is, you know, we want to see if you are going to challenge yourself. College is all about challenges and providing opportunities for students to be challenged. And we want to see you take advantage of those opportunities, to continue to learn, to grow, to develop. But also, we don't want you to do that by sacrificing your GPA. So it is a balance. And I think as students look at different schools, they have to look at what are the things that different institutions are looking for from students.

James Loy:

You mentioned grades, obviously, being important and you’ve also mentioned the essay. That’s something I think every knows about and thinks about. I have literally seen books of successful examples that colleges have published. So how important is the essay and what are you looking for in that essay?

Susan Schaurer:

It's funny. I think the dreaded essay is what most students think about when they think of applying to college. The application process itself isn't that difficult, but thinking about crafting just the perfect essay, the amount of pressure that goes in for students, and thinking about how are they going to convey who they are in a 500-word essay. I would say the essay is one part of a holistic review process. So it certainly provides a great opportunity for students, in the fact that it gives a personal statement. What is the student going to contribute to our campus community? What role will they play in the dynamic of their residence hall? Or the classroom? And it really shows us a little bit of their personality.

And schools vary. Some schools conduct interviews. Some do not. For larger schools, particularly that don't practice and interview process as part of the application process, the essay can be really important. Because it is the one glimpse we really get into the student's personality. So transcripts, test scores, taking a look at any of the extracurricular activities, or work experiences, those things we can just get from paper. But that personal statement gives us a glimpse. Are you the class clown? Are you someone who is really dedicated to activism? What is your life's passion? What do you want to do 50 years from now? What do you hope to accomplish? It really can be something for us that gives us that first glimpse of who the students is

I always tell students, particularly who are on the bubble, meaning if you look at the school you are wanting to attend, you look at the academic profile of those who are admitted or who enroll, and maybe you are right on the cusp or maybe it's a stretch school for you, the essay can be extraordinarily important. Most schools will have a practice they call committee. And committee is where the reviewers, those who are in the office reviewing applications for admission, get the opportunity to bring candidates amongst the entire staff and really advocate for that student. And all the time, it's students whose essays they’ve read that have been impactful. And so, you know, if you have a great story to tell. If you need to talk about why, perhaps, your grades took a dip. Or if you want to talk about, perhaps, just what your life's plans are. Or why you're so passionate about one particular thing. The essay is that opportunity to do that.

James Loy:

We talked a lot about what students should do. But what are some things to not do? What should students avoid? 

Susan Schaurer:

If you think about the application process, it really is your chance to advocate for yourself. Often times, many schools have more qualified applicants than they have spaces available. And while it's not about standing out from the crowd, and coming up with something that is just so extraordinary, that you are the one that, you know, stands out in a crowd of 30,000 applications. 

It is, however, your chance to tell us everything we need to know about you. So I think try to avoid anything that may not present you in the best light. Try to avoid making certain that you don't share everything we need to know. I think sometimes students falter in the fact that they try to avoid being oversharing, I guess. Or students try to avoid the fact that maybe it's too comprehensible of a list of activities. Students make assumptions that there's information that isn't of interest to colleges and universities.

I always give an example of a student that I recruited from the Columbus area several years ago. I had worked with him as a high school junior all the way up to the time he was at Miami. He worked in our office, and I think his junior year here, he made mention of the fact that he was a manager at McDonald's when he was in high school. 

I said, “Oh my gosh, I never knew that about you. I don't think you've ever shared that.” He said, “Well, no, I didn't share it. Why would I have done that? I wanted to come to college so I could avoid flipping burgers for the rest of my life.” And I said, “You were a manager at a part time job. That speaks volumes to us in terms of time management, that you were identified as a leader.”

So I think students should avoid making assumptions about things that would be of importance, or would not be important to us. Likewise, I think students should avoid not giving the attention needed to their essays. Sometimes they procrastinate and they think, well, I'm avoiding this. Now is the deadline. I have this essay that I used for history class or for English composition. It was a really well-done essay, so I'm just going to recycle that to show an example of my writing. And to get back to our earlier conversation, use every bit of space and time that you have in the application process to really tells about who you are. 

James Loy:

Do you have any advice on how to start the college search process, especially if students have no idea what they want to major in? And is it important to apply early?

Susan Schaurer:

So, I think today, in the fact that we've become such a marketed oriented society, right, whether it's social media or email web presence, even direct mailings, students can get bombarded with college mailings. With brochures. With emails. And I think sometimes it's so overwhelming that they just disregard a lot of it. So mass deleting emails and, perhaps, toss anything that comes in the mail. And I understand. Again, 4,000 colleges. There's a chance that you're going to get a lot of mail.

I think the best way to start the college search process is to give those communications some due diligence. And I understand you're not going to have time to look at every email or give every brochure the full time and attention maybe that it deserves. But really do leaf through those publications. Take a look at the emails. Try to garner a sense of what speaks to you. What kind of experiences are you looking? Which colleges seem like they would be a place that you could call home for the next four years? 

I would encourage students to really seek the advice of their college counselors, their high school guidance counselors. You know, these are valuable partners in this process for us. They know their students really well. They know what types of institutions students flourish at. Which ones maybe aren't the best fit. So seek the advice of your high school counselors. Listen to the advice of parent, family friends, talk to alumni, people who've gone to different institutions and had wonderful experiences. Often times, they can really give an inside view of what that experience was like.

And then, my biggest bit of advice is to visit campuses. You really can't get a sense of what type of school really appeals to you unless you're out there, you're on the college campuses, and you get a sense for that. You know, there are all kinds of different institutions, public, private, some that are religious affiliated, urban, rural, suburban. And I tell students, as you comb through the emails, as you look at the different brochures, there might be a type of institution that starts to emerges as really what your kind of . . . that appeals to you, and that you're attracted towards.

However, go outside of your comfort zone and push yourself to visit a completely different type of institution. So start making lists. Lots of different dates, deadlines, application processes for all of those different schools.

So the next question you asked was should you apply early? Does that make a difference? One of the things that's changed about higher education in the application process over the last several years is the introduction of this priority consideration deadline. So, most schools will now have priority consideration dates for admission, for scholarships, for competitive admission programs, whether it's an honors program or maybe a nursing or business program, and those dates can make or break a student's admissibility to a certain program or even scholarship.

So, I would really encourage parents and students to make lists - whether it's just an old-school Excel spreadsheet. Often times, that's the easiest way to list the schools, list the different dates and deadlines. I was just serving on a panel with some of my colleagues last night and we talked about the fact that you could have two students who look identical on paper. One applies by your priority deadline of November 1. The other one applies December 5th. One could get full tuition scholarship [or] half-tuition scholarship. The other applicant could get nothing, just because the date by which they apply for admission. So, now more than ever, those priority dates are very critical for families to think about and adhere to.

James Loy:

Alright, good to know. What about if students don’t really know what they want to do? Today there’s a lot of pressure to know where you want to go, what you want to be. But I think a lot of students may not know. Is it better to choose undecided for your major and risk looking like you don't have a specific direction? Or is it better to at least select a major in a certain area, even if you may change it or aren't really sure?

Susan Schaurer:

You know, I mentioned earlier this idea about ROI, return-on-investment. And often times we’re getting all these questions about what career outcomes look like? What's the starting salary? And students feel like they have to have the end in mind before they even begin college. And I think that's a pretty big pressure to put upon 16-17-year-olds, particularly when many of the careers out there, you don't even know exists when you're in high school. 

And so the answer to your question is: It really depends on the institution. And really on the program. And that's a question students and parents are going to want to ask in the college search process. Is it a negative in the review process if I'm undecided? What happens if I decide later I really want to go to a particular major? Am I penalized? Is there access to that major once I'm a sophomore? How many of your students come in undecided? Or, how many switch majors once they're here and still graduate in 4 years?

A lot of times you're going to want to ask those questions and make certain that college admission reps can talk about that with ease because that's going to give you a sense of: Is this a school that allows room for students to explore? How many students graduate with double majors? Or, how easy is it to attach a minor to that? And what that tells families is that this is an institution that values kind of a broad sense of learning, and students are encouraged to take classes outside of their major, that there is the feasibility to add different areas of study once they've started. 

For Miami, and our review process, we have a couple of areas in which there's a direct admit process. So, students need to identify that on the application for admission. So, it's anything within our business school. It's nursing. It's some of our creative arts programs that have a talent part of the admission process. For students who want to be considered for those programs, it is important that they identify that coming in. That being said, if they come in undecided or even if they come in psychology or education or engineering and they change their mind and they say, I want to be a theater major. Or, I now want to major in business. There are opportunities for students to ultimately land in those areas. 

But those are questions that students and parents are going to want to ask as they visit college campuses and, particularly, once they're admitted to an institution and they're trying to make that final decision. I think sometimes, one of the things that students do in the search process, is they focus on a particular major and they only consider schools that are really strong in one major. And they may do that not being 100% certain in what they want to do. And so, unless students have great certainty, they have had their mind set on a particular profession, you know, for years and years, and they know 100% that's what they want to do, I would recommend that students avoid not considering schools that maybe aren't the top in a certain program. Because you do want some flexibility. That's what college is all about. Exploring new majors, finding out what lies beyond in terms of career and professions, what really interests you. And so, look for schools that offer a great number of opportunities to really explore, to seek new academic interests.

James Loy:

How much does it matter where the students come from? Like the specific school district? If a student doesn’t live in a highly-rated school district, should they stay there and be in the top of your class? Or is it better to go to a stronger, more well-known private school? Does the school district or the specific school itself matter?

Susan Schaurer:

That is a great question, and one that we often hear from parents, particularly, you know, they're doing planning, their thinking ahead. And one of the questions we advise parents and students to ask as they are visiting schools is: Ask if students are reviewed in the context of their high school? I know at Miami we seriously consider the school in which the student attends as part of the review process. And we don't penalize students who go to schools with great opportunities. But likewise, we don't want to disadvantage students who go to underserved high schools, schools that may not have the funding that other districts have. 

And so for us, in the review process, we are very much aware of the courses that are available at each and every high school from which a student applies. In fact, in the review process, when a high school guidance counselor submits a student’s transcript, they also provide to us a profile of what kind of classes are available.

So we're going to know for each school: Were there 3 AP courses available? Were there 26 AP courses available? Were there no AP courses available? Are there honors courses? Do students have access to a college credit plus program in the state of Ohio? So, we look at the context of the high school, we look at the grade point average for that particular high school, the grading scale. All of those things are taken into consideration. 

Some schools, in order to put every student on an even playing field, will recalculate GPA. So they'll take a look at a student's transcript and will calculate an entirely new grade point average based on core academic coursework. That's not something we practice at Miami, but it's something that other colleges and universities do to try to level the playing field in terms of looking at one district to another. So we don't advise, really, on this matter of where parents should send their students. Rather, we want to assure parents and families and students that we are giving every consideration to every applicant, and we're making decisions based on the context of the student’s high school.

James Loy:

What if someone is right on the border or even slightly below the admissions criteria? Are there things that could help swing the student towards acceptance? You did already mention the essay as a great tool to add context and depth to the overall application. But, beyond that, are there things that people might be surprised to learn that are also taken into account?

Susan Schaurer:

So, I think, you know, and you’re right, I talked about the bubble students earlier with the essay. And again, I can't underscore enough how much that essay, our interactions with admission representatives, can help students on the bubble. It really just helps our staff advocate for the student. 

Another thing that I would tell students is that there are times that recommendations from your high school counselor can mean a lot to us. Often times, these are professionals that we have long-standing professional relationships with. They have counseled of hundreds of students. We've had, you know, decades of interactions with these individuals, and we value greatly their opinion. And it is not uncommon for us to get phone calls from counselors, or emails, to say, “Hey, can we chat about this person?”

It's not uncommon, sometimes, to get a call from a counselor advocating for a student saying, you know, I've counseled a lot of students and I think this student would be a great fit. And so, I think students and parents really should value the insights of the high school counselors. They are just invaluable partners for us on the other side of the desk, and someone that we look too often in terms of opinions. 

For students on the bubble, sometimes demonstrated interest can play a key role in the decision factor. Demonstrated interest isn't something Miami University uses in our review process, but certainly, it is a growing trend in the field of admission. For some schools, demonstrated interest may mean a physical visit to that school. So you’ve participated in an information session and a tour, or you come to a special event on their campus. Other schools are a little broader in their idea of demonstrated interest. So it may simply mean you participate in a Skype interview or Facebook live event. It may mean that you engage in an email conversation with your admission representative. So you will want to be proactive and ask that question when you're visiting colleges and universities: Is demonstrated interest something that's taken into consideration?

And I think, you know, one of the things students overlook is, particularly, if you had a rocky start in high school . . . you know, we hear from students all the time, “Well, I really struggled my freshman year.” That is completely normal. And we see that, right? It's a big jump from junior high to high school. And we tell students, “Let us know that.” Those are things that we’re looking for. You know, how did you react in the face of adversity? Did you give up and you just didn't put any effort towards your grades the rest of your sophomore year, your junior year? And maybe second semester of your junior year, you kicked it in because you thought about the application process. Or, did you have a tough freshman year and then, from that point forward, we saw a subtle and continued increase in your grades? We can see that you were making gains. That you continued to work hard. 

Those skills and those attitudes and aptitudes, those characteristics, are things that we know will make a student successful once there are on college campuses. And I think for students on the bubble, tell us, you know, “I really struggled when I started out. But I persevered and I continued to ask questions, to make certain that I was getting good grades.” Those kinds of things are very important.

James Loy:

That seems like a really good thing to know. I would think that a lot of people would have the natural inclination to not call that out. If they did struggle, they may only see that as a negative, rather than as an actual opportunity to highlight the positive trajectory and the change they went through.

Susan Schaurer:

Right. And that's why we tell students a lot when we are able to connect with high school freshman and sophomores, you know, own that and turn it into a positive experience. And I think, whether it's the essay that’s submitted with the application for admission, whether it's your transcript, what we are looking for at colleges and universities is a student to talk about what happened. Why it happened. And, most importantly, how they're learning from that. That helps us understand more about the student and how they will add to our campus community. 

James Loy:

You have already established, of course, how important it is to start thinking about college early, to prepare as far in advance as possible. But the reality is that not everyone will or for whatever reason everyone may not be able to apply early or start thinking about this well in advance. So, do you have any advice for anyone who wakes up tomorrow thinking, “Oh my goodness! Why haven’t I thought about college at all yet?!” And they are behind. Is there anything they can do to catch up? 

Susan Schaurer:

Yeah. I think that is the great thing about living in the digital age, right? So even if you're a high school senior and it is July, it’s August, you really haven't given thought to it. There is an opportunity for you. There are 4,000 colleges and universities out there, and so, while, maybe thoughtful planning might mean that a couple of those schools are out of reach for you, depending on what your academic career thus far has looked like. Or, maybe you haven't had the opportunity to visit every school that interests you. There is still ample opportunity and ample colleges and universities that would be good fits for any student.

And so, I think you wake up tomorrow, you're behind in the process. So what? Start looking at the web sites of colleges and universities you've heard of. Start asking questions. Start seeking the input and advice of people you know: friends, family members. Talk to your high school counselor. Tell them, “Maybe I haven't thought about this, but I think I've recently decided that college is what I want to do.” Whether it's an associate's degree, whether it’s a 4-year degree, close to home, you commute, you live on campus. Truly, there is an opportunity out there for everyone. 

James Loy:

Finally, are there any myths about the application process? Anything that you'd like to clear up? Or, what are the biggest misunderstandings or misconceptions that you often see?

Susan Schaurer:

So, the one bit of advice that I give to students and parents when we're doing panels and presentations across the country is to keep in mind that there are thousands of colleges and universities out there. And just because a student isn't admitted to one school, it doesn't mean they're not admissible. It doesn't mean that they aren't a great fit for another institution. It simply means that student isn't what that institution is looking for.

Colleges and universities have different priorities and goals each and every year. Some years they may be seeking many education majors. They're trying to grow their school of education. Other years, they may find they have an overage of education majors, and they’re now looking towards engineering. It is impossible for students and parents, even high school counselors, to know what those goals are each and every year. So oftentimes, colleges and universities make decisions and it's not about the student themselves. It's about what are the goals and priorities of the college or university? And so, I think it's really important for students to keep that in mind. Particularly, we hear all this publicity about, you know, it's harder than ever to get into schools and admission rates that are below 10%. Keep in mind that's at just a handful of institutions across the country. Most institutions have admission rates, acceptance rates, that are above 50%. There is an opportunity for every student.

And I think about as adults, you know, often times we have dream cars or dream houses that we want, we have great lives that we live, in houses that aren't our dream house. We get from point A to point B in cars that maybe weren't our first and dream car. College is a vehicle to get you on the journey of life's path, and there are many options that are going to get students to their future. And so, while we want you to have a dream school in a place that you're aspiring to be, don't let a decision by a college or university determine who you are or let you make an assumption about, you know, what you have to contribute to any college or university.

So keep that in mind. That it's not always about what the student brings. Oftentimes it is about what the college or university is needing that particular year. And for students to enjoy the process. You know, the college search and application process really has gotten the stigma as overwhelming daunting, mysterious, and extraordinary stressful. But I like to remind families it really is the prelude to what should be four of the most exciting, transformative years of a student's life. And to keep that in mind. That the end result of this is going to be a wonderful opportunity for someone. 

James Loy:

Alright, great. Susan Schaurer, Miami University Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management, thank you again for talking with us today.

Susan Schaurer:

Thank you. And I enjoyed it and I wish everyone the best of luck as they go through this process.

James Loy:

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