A thought that keeps me going at this time of year: I am truly grateful that so many people are passionate about wanting to attend our school.
With decision notification dates looming, Admission Directors are busy managing committee work, evaluating applications, organizing mailings and/or online notifications, consulting with school heads, and squeezing in one or two more meetings with applicant parents—all while managing re-enrollment and gearing up for the financial aid season. March Madness has arrived, and in spite of our best efforts, a significant number of families will be disappointed. Disappointment is an inevitable part of the admission process, and managing disappointment is an important part of what we do. Ultimately, all we can do is transparently communicate our policies and procedures, treat applicant families respectfully, and listen—nothing new, of course, but perhaps at this time of year it is helpful to remember that all we can do is all we can do.
Process transparency builds confidence in the decision process. At St. Mark’s, we sometimes quip that process communication will either allay fears or confirm them—hopefully, the former. How do we decide? Who decides? How important is testing? What role do committees play? What types of students do we seek? How many spaces are available at each grade level? Is there a preference for community applicants? What is the admission percentage rate? Is preference given to community applicants? I believe process communication instills faith in our decisions and we take advantage of every opportunity (open houses, coffees, meetings, etc.) to talk about our decision process. When parents are left to wonder how decisions are made, they will inevitably engage in negative speculation. A mysterious decision process is an invitation to bitter assumptions. Parents who believe the process is fair, professional, and carefully planned are less likely to feel victimized, even though they may be disappointed.
This is Personal
Experiencing the admission process as a parent was my most important admission education experience. While I knew the drill, I was amazed at the perspective I gained from being an anxious applicant parent. I knew what questions to ask and I knew a lot about the schools, but I foolishly assumed that my insider perspective would somehow empower me with objectivity. I was wrong. This is personal. In the years following my children’s admission experience, I have abandoned boilerplate answers and polished presentations. I want applicant families to know I am listening to them and that I am genuinely grateful for their interest in St. Mark’s. As a parent, the schools that impressed me the most were the schools where I felt known, valued, and respected. With so many applicants and so little time, the task of connecting with individual families is perhaps my greatest challenge. Little things, as always, matter a lot: returning calls and emails promptly, writing personal notes, addressing concerns directly, and never promising more than can be delivered. As in all other pursuits, treating people respectfully is a prerequisite to gaining trust and confidence.
Listen and Learn
In Dallas, many Admission Directors offer to meet with families in the weeks following decision notifications. While the information we are able to communicate in these meetings is limited, our willingness to meet communicates respect and builds confidence. Of course, these meetings are not always pleasant, but in my experience, post-decision conferences can be informative for both parties and frequently become a catalyst for future (successful) applications. Whether in a face-to-face meeting or over the telephone, it is important to hear what parents have to say. I learned the hard way that most parents come to my office with more than “why not?” on their minds. I learned quickly that “decision defense” is not usually the primary purpose of the meeting. Once I decided to listen rather than defend, I started learning a great deal about our process. Hearing criticism is always difficult (and the timing could not be worse), but I have learned important lessons by listening to our most passionate critics. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, parents simply want to be heard, and by hearing, I learn a lot.
Disappointment is an unavoidable outcome for many of our applicant families and there will never be a perfect answer to “why not?” Nothing can “fix” the immediate disappointment many of our applicant families will feel, but I believe we can and should present our process transparently, treat families respectfully and listen to them objectively. We want people to be passionate about our school and I am truly grateful for their passion.
The Psychology of the Wait List– Presentation by Jon Deveaux (Westminster School, CT) and Fran Ryan (Rumsey Hall School, CT) at the SSATB 2012 Annual
Talking to Parents – Effectively Delivering Tough Decisions: Presentation by Marjorie Mitchell and Julie Williams, The Westminster Schools (GA), at the 2010 SSATB Annual Meeting
Only 58% of Kids Go to the Colleges They Most Want to Attend– an article by Dino Grandoni, The Atlantic Wire, 1/27/12
Wait-Listed & Rejected Students: How to help students handle disappointment: An article from the College Board