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Preparing for a career in college admissions: You should umpire Little League games. #admissions #emchat
Last Friday I received the first of call of the year from a parent questioning why we’d denied her son admission. It was a respectful call and the questions were serious and genuine. I sensed advocacy and curiosity on the other end of the line. The call ended in the same way these calls always end, with an invitation to be proven wrong by the student attending another college and transferring.
It was the first of many more to come, I suspect.
These calls are an important part of the cycle and I appreciate the parents who call (even those who don’t do their homework before calling). These parents are advocates for their kids and are involved, which is a good thing.
These calls are never joy-filled, even after more than 20 years, but they’ve never really troubled me. In fact, I believe my job as a Little League umpire prepared me for my job today and equipped me to handle even the most unreasonable passionate parents.
I grew up in Gering, Nebraska, which is a small town in Western Nebraska. As a teenager I had a number of jobs including a morning paper route, mowing lawns, painting houses and serving as a Little League umpire. It was may dad, an Episcopal priest who knows nothing at all about sports and probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a ball and a strike, who suggested I try umpiring. I don’t know if his encouragement was to make sure I earned some money—Lord knows it was not “easy money”—or if he genuinely wanted me to learn a little bit about life. Whatever the rationale, I am grateful for the lessons learned as an umpire. Those lessons, described below, have been important to my work as an admissions officer.
A few lessons from behind the plate (and the catcher) and how they relate to college admissions
Trust your gut—As an umpire, you have to trust your gut. If it looked like a ball, you have to call it a ball, AND it probably was. You can’t second-guess. An umpire has to make the call and has to trust his or her experience. This is the same for an admissions officer. Our work is about good judgment, not certainty. Students with great application and records can bomb in college, just as those with modest backgrounds can go on to excel. As admission officers, it is our job to trust our gut when making a decision.
Listen respectfully—As an umpire, I got yelled at A LOT. Yelling is what parents do—particularly parents living vicariously through their 6 or 7 year old! The worst thing an umpire can do is get emotional, yell back, raise his or her voice or let the chatter become an irritant. The best umpires are those who keep their eyes on the game and ignore the yelling. When a coach challenges a call, the umpire must listen respectfully and allow the coach to speak (when doing so it’s important to be open to the idea that a mistake was made, too). This is the same thing an admissions officer must do when working with a disgruntled parent or student. respectfully is critical. Many times the yelling and complaining is simply part of the process—a catharsis or mourning. A good admissions officer, just like a good umpire, will take it and take respectfully.
Perspective is dependent upon proximity—Balls and strikes look different depending upon perspective and proximity. What looks like a strike to some often looks really different from behind home plate, which is why the umpire has the best position to call the game. A parent’s perspective when it comes to their student’s application to college is the same as fan calling balls and strikes from the stands—they are not positioned to best see the big picture and all they can see is what’s right in front of them; their kid and their kid’s desires and dreams. As an admissions officer, just like an umpire, you have the best perspective because of your proximity.
Someone has to make the call—In college I was an intramural referee (a topic for another blog post) and we had an honor code, which could be invoked if a referee could not make a call. As you can imagine, when participants were left to make a call it didn’t go so; everyone one thought they had the best position and their call was the right call. This is exactly why an impartial umpire is so important. An umpire needs to see the big picture and have the long view AND he or she needs to make the call, rather than rely on someone else to do. I recall fondly my days as a catcher in Babe Ruth baseball; I frequently tried to make the call on behalf of the umpire. I’d not so subtly suggest a ball was a strike, move my glove into the strike zone and make snarky comments when the ump “missed the call.” A good umpire makes the call because he or she has to. A good admission officer does the same thing. They are there to make the call—even the difficult ones. They have to exercise good judgment, but they must make the call.
While all of the aforementioned qualities were developed as an umpire and honed as an admissions officer, I think the most important lesson I learned as an umpire was to be fair. Fairness is essential to both jobs. If one is confident that decisions are arrived at fairly it’s easy to defend and explain any decision. This is the essence of the work of admissions; to be fair.
What job prepared you for work in college admissions?
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission
#College #admissions, the silly season, Northern Exposure and spring break: Will you crack before the thaw? #emchat #highered
It is commonly discussed and lamented among admissions professionals that this time of year stinks. There’s a lot of pressure and waiting. Greetings of “how are you” are replaced by “how are the numbers.” This is annoying and one does get tired of answering the questions. The question defines the season in many ways. However, there is something else entirely that embodies this time of year for me and I suspect many of my admissions and enrollment colleagues from across the country.
I’ve been in college admissions and enrollment work since July of 1992 and it never dawned on me until this year how much this time of year reminds me of an episode from the great television program, Northern Exposure.
I know I am dating myself by discussing Northern Exposure, but it was cool, and had a bit of a cult following, before Arrested Development and The Office. I am pretty sure the new generation of admissions counselors would have enjoyed it for it’s odd characters and great storylines and suspect hat were it on today it would be discussed at college fairs, and on #emchat and #admissionsproblems.
What got me thinking about Northern Exposure last night was how bizarre I find this time of year. I mean there is this odd sense of helplessness (because 17-year olds are mighty hard to predict) and overwhelming responsibility to “make it happen,” which takes every possible ounce of one’s power of persuasion and saps physic- and physical-energy, non-stop. I suspect most admissions professionals nationwide feel similarly.
As I thought more and more about this odd time of year, I was reminded of an excellent episode from season two of Northern Exposure, titled “Spring Break.”
The episode’s storyline is as follows, “Temporary madness sweeps through Cicely as the townfolk await the ice meltdown and the arrival of spring.” You can read the whole episode review here.
Working on college campus for the last 20+ years this same thing occurs this time of year as we work diligently to enroll next year’s class. On a college campus the storyline might be something like this; “Campus leaders are overcome with uncertainty and anxiety as they count the tuition deposits from now until May 1.”
Do you see this similarity?
What the storyline from “Spring Break” does not describe is that in the episode all of the characters go crazy–temporarily. The whole episode includes stories of characters doing something uncharacteristic of how we’ve come to know them: the straight-lace one becomes a kleptomaniac; the superficial, not very bright, bombshell, dives deeply into classical literature; and of course, there is sexual tension among the couple of the show. They are overtaken by something beyond their control. It’s mighty funny and the tension and anxiety is palpable throughout. The tension continues until a moment when the ice thaws, spring begins, and, magically everyone returns to a normal state.
It’s a classic episode.
You are still asking, how does this relate to college admissions?
Well, because of the tension of the season and the long wait we have for “the thaw” of May 1, it is tempting to go crazy, too. While crazy probably does not include stealing or reading the Great Books as witnessed in Northern Exposure, it is likely to include an overwhelming temptation to micro-manage, to ask endless questions that have already been asked and answered, to offer endless suggestion, to fret, to be short with teammates and others, and generally act unlike oneself (or, at least, they way you really aspire to act). I think this is especially true of admissions and enrollment leaders who feel the pressure and want to act. But, I’ve also seen this occur just as frequently with admissions counselors who start to crack under the pressure of the job.
Even though this is the nature of the season (just like the thaw), we must resist the temptation to lose our mind, temper or compassion for the students we serve and our colleague. Instead we must do our very best and call upon our finest character during this time of year as we work toward our own spring break on May 1.
For kicks I’ve included a link to the last part, which I think is funny. You can watch it here and although you might be inspired by its celebratory nature, I recommend caution. I think a similar celebration might get you in a little trouble on your campus if you celebrate a great May 1 and your own thaw in a similar fashion. Enjoy.
Good luck to all of my admissions and enrollment friends and my your Spring Break (and eventual thaw) come speedily.
W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission
When I started working in college admission in the early 1990’s I recall that one of the items we requested as part of the application was a photograph of the applicant. Most of the time the photograph of the 17-year old applicant matched the story told in the application, but there were exceptions. We’ve all heard the adage “a picture conveys one-thousand words,” and a picture included along with a college application in my experience frequently reinforced this.
However, somewhere along the way, we ceased asking for a photograph to accompany the application. (We’d still occasionally receive grainy black and white photos on transcripts—these often would go back as far as sixth grade through high school and were always of great interest). While I cannot recall the exact justification or rationale we applied when we quit asking for pictures, I imagine it had to do with the argument that the photos could be used to discriminate (which is a real issue) or we’d seek to admit only the “pretty people.” However, it might have been the very practical argument of matching and processing.
Honestly, I cannot remember and have not thought about it at all until today.
Why am I thinking about it today?
I just finished reading Daniel Pink’s terrific book, “To sell is human: The surprising truth about moving others.” (I highly recommend the book—especially for college admissions folks). Near the end of the book he describes a fascinating experiment completed by a radiologists named Yehonatan Turner.
The experiment involved providing radiologists with photos of patients when given the computed tomography (CT) scan to diagnose and analyze. Typically, a radiologists gets the CT scan and that’s all. The photos of the patients represents the twist here. All of the radiologists reported having more empathy toward the patients for whom they had photos. While interesting, it’s not what Turner was really looking for, according to Pink.
As Pink describes it, a great radiologists, in addition to identifying an injury they are told to look for, will make “incidental findings.” These incidental findings are discoveries of additional problems and sometimes are life-saving.
Turner’s purpose was more complex that finding out if a photo led to greater empathy. Three months after the original experiment, he provided a sample of scans from the original study, in which radiologists had found incidental findings to the same group of doctors. However, he did not include the photograph of the patient sand did not disclose that the radiologist had seen the scan previously. Turner discovered that 80% of the incidental findings were not discovered!
The photo and the personalization it provided made a difference in the diagnoses, not just the empathy.
You might be asking, why am I writing about radiologists and describing this passage from Pink’s book? It’s a fair question. College admissions is not radiology. However, both jobs, particularly this time of year for admissions officers, can be very mechanical and isolating. Given the expanding applicant pools at colleges and universities and the pressures to make speedy (but good) decision, I can’t help but wonder if every applicant is getting the full attention they deserve?
I cannot help but think about college admissions and how important it is to make it personal when reviewing application.
Making it personal is one of Pink’s main themes and is clearly something that it crucially important in college admission, too.The passage in Pink’s book also got me wondering out loud if going back to a day of asking for a photograph to accompany the application would help us be more personal? Would seeing a picture that communicates 1,000 words help us become more effective champions for certain applicants? Would a photo help us understand and then communicate a story that helps shape the impression of the admissions committee? Would we see things that we are missing because we are speedily diagnosing what we are to diagnose, rather than taking it personally and finding an incidental diagnosis that leads to an offer of admission for a student who is a great match? Would a photo attached to an application personalize the review of an application to create a sense of empathy that ensures everyone gets our full attention and advocacy.
I don’t know the answers to these questions and don’t know the feasibility of reintroducing the picture, but I do know that sometimes and applicant is just that—an applicant.
(I did write this to remind myself about the work of a college admissions officer. But, I also want to think out loud about how a photo might serve as a good management tool and/or inspiration for personalization).
What do you think? How would you feel about a photograph as an application requirement?
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission
(This post was updated on January 19, 2013)
Leading people is hard…it’s even harder during crunch time in #admissions. Here’s some advice about meetings.
Once upon a time, I recall reading that leaders regularly cancel meetings with direct reports for a variety of reasons, including being respectful of their direct report’s time and workload as well as because as leaders they are busy themselves. I admit this stuck with me and prompted me to reflect on the frequency with which I’d cancelled or rescheduled meetings with direct reports.
Upon reflection I discovered I’d been guilty of this far too often and took some deliberate steps to change my behavior.
I did two things to change and I continue with them to this day.
First, I scheduled a 30-minute standing meeting with my direct reports that we maintain with 95% frequency—even during crunch times. The second thing I did was to identify the types of questions I want answers to during a meeting.
The questions I provide to my direct reports are listed below.
- Are you waiting on me to make any decision that is keeping you from doing something you need to do?
- What are your most immediate concerns? What is keeping you up at night?
- What are you thinking about that needs to happen six months from now?
- What is the one thing you can’t get yourself to do? How long have you been avoiding it? How can I help you get it done?
- What do you need from me in the next two weeks? Two months?
- Are there any “areas of gray” we need to clarify?
- What are you reading these days? Why does it matter and/or related to your job? Are you making time to read?
- Are you actively working to define your work philosophy? (i.e. What do you stand for professionally and as a leader?)
- What is one thing you think I do that you would like to know more about?
- 10. Are you proud of the job you are doing?
The 30-minute meetings I have with direct reports seldom (if ever) include a question by question run down. But, these questions, without question, drive the information provided by my direct reports and provide the kind of focus necessary to make regular meetings worthwhile.
A take-away for leaders (even during crunch time) is to maintain your meetings and give them focus so they are worthwhile even while there are competing priorities.
How do you respond to the idea of 30-minute meetings on a regular basis (for me and my direct reports it’s weekly)?
How do you respond to the idea of questions to structure the information shared and gained in such meetings?
How do you respond to the questions I ask of my direct reports? Are they worthwhile?
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a @bowtieadmission