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Admissions office probes applicants’ scary depths

People like me who try to understand the college admissions process often give up in frustration. Applicants pick certain colleges for reasons that make no sense, like the weather on the day they visited. College admissions officers seem unable to shed their belief in SAT or ACT scores as reliable measures. Family and friends are likely to be more enthusiastic about a mediocre college they have heard of than a better one they have not.

It has occurred to me that these alarming tendencies probably have something to do with the unconscious mind. That frightens me. Psychology is beyond my competence. I took a course in that subject my freshman year of college, but that was because I needed an easy A. I was assured, correctly, that that was what I would get.

So I wondered if I really wanted to write anything about an article I found in the spring 2010 issue of the Journal of College Admissions with this unsettling title: “One College’s Journey Into the Unconscious Mind of its Prospective Students: How a New Research Methodology is Helping Us Recruit.”

The authors, Jennifer L. Kretchmar and Ashley T. Memory, worked for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the most selective state universities in the country. They had used a method called metaphor elicitation to see if their office was connecting properly with the unspoken and in many cases unrecognized inner thoughts and feelings of their applicants.

I try to stay away from my own innermost thoughts. I was not sure I wanted to know about anybody else’s. But UNC was employing techniques developed by Penn State professor Jerry Olson and Harvard business professor Gerald Zaltman. Their ideas were like those explored in the book “Blink” by my former Post colleague Malcolm Gladwell, one of the two most brilliant journalists I have ever known (the other being Gene Weingarten). So I decided to take the risk.

The UNC admissions office conducted what seems at first to be a very modest experiment. They asked 13 North Carolina high school rising seniors, selected for high achievement and interest in attending UNC, to find “six to eight pictures that express your thoughts and feelings about your desired college or university experience." A week later they were interviewed for 90 minutes each by people trained in techniques developed by the two professors’ firm, Olson Zaltman Associates.

They only picked male participants. My gender is now a hot topic among college admissions professionals. As a group we guys are not as ready for college as our female classmates. This makes it more difficult to balance the sexes at institutions like North Carolina without dumbing down the requirements for males. The UNC admissions office wanted this opportunity to probe our psyches deeply.

I am sure I join many of the male persuasion in saying: lots of luck. But the interviewers knew how to get these young men talking. They produced some intriguing conclusions. “Four metaphors and a consensus map of more than 35 different constructs emerged from the discussions,” the authors said.

There are many words like that in this article. I had to read carefully to make sure I did not lose my way. Here is my unauthorized and horribly simplified summary:

Deep in their largely unexplored unconscious, bright and ambitious male teenagers in North Carolina look at college as several exciting but unnerving journeys. They will be spending four years moving toward jobs and opportunities they do not yet see. At the same time they will be growing personally and discovering things about themselves. They will also be seeking their connection to the rest of the world.

The science behind this says emotion precedes thought. Decisions are made by feelings, and explained later---often wrongly—by conscious expression. The pictures each interviewee produced were used to unlock those hidden feelings.

One student, explaining a collage, said “the face, which is in the forefront, is important to me because at this point the face is somewhat more indistinct and hopefully through the college career it can become more focused on a specific interest or specific career.” The pictures and the interviews also tapped into a longing for contacts with people of different views and backgrounds, the researchers said. One student used a spider web to illustrate that. Another had a map of South America.

The article discusses consensus maps---lots of circles with words in them like “intellectual curiosity” or “need guidance,” connected by lines. One map was focused on personal growth, another on life success. The authors said “while some prospective students think of success in terms of financial independence and jobs, others also define it in terms of life-long relationships with people, setting and achieving meaningful goals, effecting change in the world, and finding peace and contentment in their own lives.”

I assumed the article would end there, with the UNC admissions staff mulling this over, letting it soak in. I was wrong. Almost immediately, they tore up their standard letters to prospects and went with a new theme---college as a journey. Carolina students, one new letter said, “want more than a degree. They want their four years to be a journey---a life-changing experience that will help them to learn, to think, and ultimately to grow into the person they want to become.”

The admissions office staff began talking less about admission criteria and more about what happens after college, particularly in activities appealing to students who, as the interviews told them, had deep desires to change the world. “We now tell visitors, for example, that Carolina ranks seventh nationally in the number of students entering the Peace Corps, and sixth nationally in the number of students entering Teach For America.” They also added more quotes from students in the material sent to prospects, such as the Carolina undergrad who interned at the Beijing Olympics and found it “difficult to capture in words how important that experience was to my self-development.”

The authors note the process has limitations. But they say they are convinced that “much of our decision-making takes place on a subconscious level.” They are right. What I am trying to figure out is how long it will take North Carolina, and similarly sophisticated universities, to start requiring student collages in response to questions on the application. Written essays are so 1997.

I don’t want to think of what the private admissions consultants will do in response to this new challenge, and how much they will charge for guidance in collage selection. As I said, when I began reading this intriguing article, I was not sure I wanted to explore this new territory. But there is no stopping now. Get ready. We are all going on a journey.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | July 22, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Ashley Memory, Gerald Zaltman of Harvard, Jennifer Kretchmar, Jerry Olson of Penn State, UNC study of 13 male high schoolers, college search desires, importance of a journey, looking deeper inside the applicant's head, personal growth  
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UNC needed to do an experiment to determine that prospective applicants are interested in how the school will help them in their future beyond college graduation? Seriously?

Posted by: CrimsonWife | July 22, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

"Psychology is beyond my competence. I took a course in that subject my freshman year of college, but that was because I needed an easy A. I was assured, correctly, that that was what I would get." - Jay, why would you ever make a statement like this? Why would you want to insult all of the hard working psychologists out there?

Posted by: prnt23 | July 26, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

"Family and friends are likely to be more enthusiastic about a mediocre college they have heard of than a better one they have not.", it could apply to people's perception about a product as well...
one wonders where Critical Thinking has gone (it does not seem to have legs).

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | July 26, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

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