Admissions By Design

Admissions By Design

Joseph Freeman
Director of College Counseling
Beacon Academy

My parents love HGTV, so whenever I go home to visit them, I will consume hours of “Fixer Upper,” “Love It or List It,” and “Design Star.” While I am neither handy nor inclined towards interior design or landscape architecture, I get engrossed by the same inevitable narrative: a homeowner has a vision, competing ideas for achieving that vision are presented, pricey obstacles force the homeowner to revise that vision, designers and contractors work some magic, and a gorgeous result prompts my awe and envy—all in 38 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, it took me over a month and a couple of shower-door catastrophes to retile my bathroom. By equating my own process to the highly edited version on television, I set myself up for a false comparison. I focused my own renovation too much on the end product, a pretty new bathroom, and not enough on the collaborative design process that would lead me to a realization of my vision.

College admissions and design thinking share much in common. The design process relies on a complex understanding of the user’s (student’s) explicit and implicit needs, prototyping and retesting, devising multiple solutions to the design challenge, empathy, open-mindedness, resilience, flexibility, and collaboration. Just as a team of experts work together to craft a variety of solutions to a design challenge, college admissions also requires collaboration between students, families, college counselors, teachers, advisors, and peers. 

Leadership+Design, an educational collaborative that infuses design principles in schools, developed six “norms” for collaboration. These norms provide a useful framework for collaboration in the college admissions process:

1.)   Assume Good Intentions. It is easy to dismiss or misjudge the intentions of others in the college process—a counselor who believes a parent is living vicariously through you, a parent who deems you unable to take responsibility for your applications and runs to the rescue, an admissions officer who downplays your strong test score by envisioning a high-priced tutor, even you, when you dismiss a college because your friend makes a funny face at its name. Collaborative design urges us to put aside negative judgments and adopt a positive, optimistic mindset. Working from “a place of yes” helps all members of your team overcome mistrust and empowers you to engage in an open-minded, open-ended search.

2.)   Avoid Avoidance.  Instead of putting off that tough talk about finances, or neglecting geographic boundaries in the search, or ignoring the realities of an institution’s accepted student profile, or waiting until the eleventh hour to start that personal statement, collaborative design requires students to confront and address the challenges unique to each student’s unique process. While it’s tempting to avoid difficult conversations and realities, confronting daunting challenges early will alleviate your admissions anxiety. 

3.)   Be a Learner, Not a Knower. So many students and families “know” exactly what they want, sometimes from a moment long before they enter high school. I learn something new about college options every day, for the thousands of institutions in our country continue to innovate with new programs, degrees, services, and facilities. I also watch students and parents learn about themselves, their strengths, their desires, their values, and their limitations. If you enter the college process already “knowing” exactly what you want and where you are going to find it, your horizons will be cramped and narrow. If you adopt the foresight and humility of a learner, you will discover many more well-fitting options. 

4.)   Lead With Your Strengths. Knowing your strengths, concisely articulating them, and frequently putting them into practice will help you not only write meaningful essays but also find a college that complements your talents. You should design your college process around the best possible version of yourself, for this best possible you will be the student who ultimately clicks “Submit.”

5.)   Take Risks. Too often, students and families “play it safe” in college admissions, submitting a boilerplate personal statement over a creative, authentic one; dismissing a school that lacks instant name recognition; refusing to look beyond the borders of your state, region, or nation; or deeming a college unaffordable or unattainable early in the process. While balance is an important trait in college admissions, so is ambition. You should take smart, calculated risks to maximize your options after high school. 

6.)   Play. College admissions can take on an unnecessary tone of joyless drudgery. While it’s hard to call a standardized test or a ten-page application “fun,” the admissions process offers opportunities for play. Utilize scavenger hunt apps on tours, find hilarious admissions videos, repurpose glossy view books, keep running tallies of which college emails you most often in a single week or month. Many college applications also furnish imaginative, creative play space through personal statement prompts (sometimes intentionally). When you allow yourself to play, you unleash creativity and let down your defenses, alleviating your stress and authentically engaging in the process. 

After lots and trial and error (and a snazzy new shower curtain), I finished renovating my bathroom and pledged never to engage in such a project by myself again. I strongly encourage you to incorporate collaborative design thinking into your college process, as doing so will make applying to college less stressful, more fun, and more personally meaningful to you. 

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