This American Life College Episode: Our Reaction

On August 31st, This American Life released an episode of their iconic radio show entitled “How I Got Into College.” Even before anyone had time to listen to it, we were getting texts and emails. Most of the episode isn’t actually about getting into college, but, in the first ‘Act’ of the episode, there are some things that are we feel need to be addressed.

The episode starts on the campus of Columbia University—of course. It’s one of the hardest schools to get into in the world, which the listeners are quickly made aware of with an admissions stat.

Ok, press pause. Yes, 30-something-thousand people apply. Yes, less than a few thousand get in. That is true, and we trumpet those stats like everyone else when trying to help kids understand why being in the middle-50 for a school doesn’t make it a safety. However, what the acceptance numbers don’t take into account is that somewhere around half of applicants aren’t even qualified to apply in the first place. They don’t have the grades. They don’t have the scores. They didn’t even send their scores. They didn’t take the necessary courses.

The list goes on, and those applications are tossed. If, and only if, you are a qualified candidate, the pool you’re competing with was just decimated. And that isn’t reflected in inflated admissions statistics.

Then, the interviewer starts talking to some new freshman and asks them “Why did you get in?” A few casually throw out that they were professional circus clowns, Olympians, cured cancer (or close enough), before adding, “But I don’t really know.”

But you got into Columbia. You may not know precisely why the Ivy League gods smiled down on you, but there are a few things that are obvious. Unless there is a profound extenuating circumstance (such as being a refugee, and escaping your hometown doesn’t count), you have perfect grades and perfect scores. That is the basic floor for admittance. That wasn’t enough to get it, but it got you considered. This isn’t a “fairy godmother waved her wand” situation. If you get into Columbia, it’s because you worked for it.

Finally, one girl says that she thinks she was accepted because she is passionate about physics and is a woman (who, if you live under a rock, are underrepresented in most scientific disciplines).

What isn’t explained is that, if it is physics that got her in, she didn’t just take AP Physics and then put it down as a prospective major when she applied. On top of your perfect scores and grades, top schools want to see 2-4 areas of interest that you excel in. And whatever your interests are, you need to pursue them with passion and commitment. If it’s a sport, you need to be competing at the highest level. If it’s a subject, you need to have taken every course related to it, joined or formed clubs, and conducted independent projects. She didn't just click the physics box.

We recognize that this is intense. But Columbia is not for every student, just as working on medical research isn’t for every high school junior. That’s not only okay, most of the time it’s also healthier for the kid. Just don’t expect to get into Columbia.

Basically, none of the kids interviewed is the average incoming college freshman who is waffling between English, Anthro, and going Pre Med, aka having no idea what they are going to do.

After it is clearly articulated that many members of the freshman class at Columbia are dealing with a significant case of imposter syndrome, the episode moves into the offices of Rick Clark, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology.

The admissions officer hits on five points that we really appreciated, so we’ll break them down for you.

Point 1: Demonstrated Interest

Demonstrated interest, as the admissions officer explains, is when you actively show a school that you are interested in them. This may include visiting, interviewing, calling, emailing, or sending a skywriter. Logically, it makes a lot of sense. You want them to let you in. They only want to let in people who really want to go there. So you need to show them that you are serious.

In reality, demonstrated interested is that quicksand that John Mulaney has been searching for.

Most schools do not take demonstrated interest into account. Even more schools are minimizing or even eliminating the role of demonstrated interest. Carnegie Mellon, for example, recently announced that they will not be conducting alumni interviews as part of the admissions process because, while it did demonstrate interest, it created an exclusive checkbox that only some people had the resources or opportunity to ‘tick.’

The people who are consistently the most obsessed with demonstrated interest are, as the admissions officer lamented, parents—even though they may have been told that getting their kid to pester admissions officers or, even worse, to try to impersonate their kid and do it themselves, is a form of flailing. They can feel themselves sinking into the college quicksand and are waving their arms around wildly trying to catch onto something.

Moving forward, please understand that if you tour a school, and you should tour as many as you are interested in and have time for, it is for you. It is not for the school. Same goes for any interviews or really thoughtful and well-reasoned questions that you really can’t find the answer to online. Instead, demonstrate your interest in your application, not by bugging an office. Show that you are passionate about a school through your writing, not through incessant phone calls or repeat visits.

The only exception is that if you live within 1 hour of a school that you are interested in and you can get there for a visit (i.e., it isn’t cost-prohibitive) and haven’t visited, that is a problem. If you live in Brooklyn and want to go to NYU but have no intention of doing a formal visit, that is a problem. If you live in Brooklyn and want to go to Pomona and can’t hop on a plane for a 1-hr tour, they understand.

Point 2: Catch Your Crazy

The college admissions process has a unique skill for bringing out the unhinged in all of us. Most frequently, in parents. It all goes back to that quicksand (listen to the link above to get the reference). You’re panicking, your kid is freaking out, and it’s not just you, information actually is hard to find. More than half of the blog posts we publish are in direct response to emails we get from parents and students who can’t seem to find reliable answers to simple questions. It’s not that they don’t know how to use Google, it’s because the answers just aren’t there.

We do not fault parents, we understand, but please please chill out. While demonstrated interest may not help a kid get in, acting crazy could sabotage their chances.

So before you call a school to ask a question directly, please exhaust all of your options for finding an answer that doesn’t involve contacting an admissions office.

Point 3: Sloppiness is Bad

The transition from handwritten or typed applications to online versions was a gamechanger for those with terrible penmanship, but even putting the application online doesn’t cover up someone is just plain sloppy.

The admissions director from Georgia Tech says that we would all be shocked by how many kids name the wrong school in the “why us?” essay. Color us unsurprised, because we see this in applications too.

There is no secret to not being sloppy other than actually paying attention. We have zero sympathies here. If you aren’t detail-oriented, show your supplements to someone who is. If you’re copying and pasting your way through an application, you aren’t interested enough in the school to apply. And if you don’t have enough motivation to write something original, you don’t deserve to go there. Sorry, we're harsh. 

Point 4: Cheesy Essays Are Universal

Universal in a bad way. As in everyone seems to think they can get away with them. But, as the admissions officer points out, they are calling you on your b.s. bigtime. We are adamant that students not write about short-term volunteer trips or mission trips, but there are always a few parents and kids who insist that THIS trip to Ecuador to hand out shoes was actually different. No. It wasn’t, and it’s absolutely not interesting enough to write your essay on.

Colleges have been saying for years that mission trip essays do not work. Still, trip providers and promoters continue to list their trips as resume builders.

So lets just all agree to not fall for it. “I was supposed to help them, but they helped me,” is the most cliche, vomit-inducing theme and we refuse to use it. Focus on universals, on what makes us all human, on small things. We all eat, we all sleep, we all operate within a community. Start there, and you don’t need to fly half-way around the world to find something to write about.

P.S. If you are still thinking of ignoring us and the Georgia Tech admissions office, remember that whoever is reading your essay while you’re on Thanksgiving or Winter Break would rather be on a beach. Waving your overpriced vacation in their faces (even if you fundraised, someone paid for those flights) is not helping your cause.

Point 5: Colleges Are Propaganda Presses

Hearing from an admissions officer that the piles of propaganda students receive from colleges is absurd was relieving. Even as things have moved online, students still frequently receive stacks and stacks of brochures, semi-personalized letters, magazines, and flashy postcards reminding you of visit days, deadlines, and that they just opened a new stadium and there is a rock climbing call in the gym and Chance the Rapper came to campus and wouldn’t you like to check it out?!

These materials are overwhelming in volume, frustrating in content, and they can make it harder for students to narrow down their lists when all of the information that is being thrown at them sounds the same. 

The Verdict

The rest of the episode wasn’t about college admissions at all (it actually feels like it was two partially finished episodes that they mashed together), but we got all we needed from the first Act. As school starts up, things are going to get more and more stressful. Please remember to take care of yourself and to block out the noise whether it’s from peers, teachers, family members, or flashy brochures. Focus on what you need. It’s ok to be selfish to keep from flailing in the quicksand.


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