Uncertainty in Admissions

On our most recent podcast with current applicant "Barb," who has yet to receive responses to any of her applications, we spoke a good deal about the uncertainty of the admissions process. Barb knows at an intrinsic level that she will get admits, but interestingly enough, humans hardly ever operate at the intrinsic level toward what is best for them. In actuality, we operate on an imitative or "mimicking" level — i.e. what is happening with others is what should be happening with us. Enter uncertainty and its greatest disciple, anxiety. There's a reason why the admissions process causes anxiety like no other, and there's a way to diminish it. We'll do this in multiple parts, blogs and podcasts, but a bit on both.

Anxiety has no evolutionary benefit, but fear does. Every animal we know of not only has fear, but has a fight, flight, or freeze response to it. Most of which has been programmed into us through 300,000 years of survival. You don't have to think about the process of not walking across a busy highway, or do the physics calculations in your head of a car smashing into you at 80 mph. You have been conditioned to avoid this — much the same as you have been conditioned not to walk off a cliff. The thought process is immediate and known.

Fear plus uncertainty, however, is the equation of anxiety. Just think about the start of COVID. Anxiety levels measured in China rocketed. So too in other countries as the pandemic became global. Why? because we knew very little about the virus, and there was great uncertainty. In fact, there was a great deal of contradictory information. Much the same in the first days of 9/11 when alcohol sales sky-rocketed. I could cite thousands of examples. Fear and an uncertain future because of lack of information produce anxiety.

This is no more pernicious than in the admissions process. Of course we are fearful of rejection: it is evolutionarily supersized and hardwired in us. Dr. Guy Winch spoke about just this in our very first podcast with a global expert on the topic. But there is also an almost complete lack of information. Think about it:

  1. You often have to wait months to hear from a school. This is true is every cycle and more true in the current 2021-2022 cycle than ever before. Because of last year's highly irregular data, schools are going very slowly this cycle. We knew it was coming, but still, we've never seen anything like it before.
  2. Your information doesn't add up. Looking at past cycle data doesn't help much, because the applicant pool is different every year (and this applies to this cycle and last more far so than normal). It's why I hate predictor websites. All they do is drive traffic to the benefactor (the website) and cause anxiety and misinformation for you, the applicant. The data is often highly misleading.
  3. Current cycle data is limited and not always accurate. It's limited in that it is a fraction of the total applicant pool; it's limited because you do not see the application or the applicant, just a few data points; and it is not always accurate because... wait for it... other people applying often want to throw you off. They want to get in your head, because they believe it gives them a strategic advantage. You may see someone with your exact numbers admitted everywhere and start a flurry of emails to those schools. We have seen this exact phenomenon unfold every year — please never do it. (More on emails in the link below.)
  4. There is contradictory information. Someone claiming to be an expert, for example, claimed this cycle that if you didn't submit your application by September that you shouldn't submit it at all. No one with real admissions experience would ever say this, and it can cost someone not just admissions but potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in the time-value of money. Yet when they say it like an expert, your brain hits that contradiction wall. Or take my all time favorite personal statement here . I try to make sure to post this once a year before the cycle starts, because it highlights how you can completely differentiate in the admissions process, it shows about you versus tell about you, and it paints a beautiful picture of the kind of truthful and vulnerable person that an admissions officers thinks: "I'd want this applicant as a student at my school." And he was admitted to a top 6 school below both medians. But when I post it, there is often a good deal of head-scratching. Why? Lack of real information. A new applicant doesn't know just how important differentiation is, and they have been told by others to talk about themselves. Brag about themsleves. So that disconnect between what is good and worked and what someone has been told should be good causes anxiety. I've seen it every cycle and now know why. Per Dr. Judson Brewer, in his best-selling book Unwinding Anxiety, these kinds of contradictions of information are the greatest generators of anxiety there is. Which makes sense, again, from an evolutionary perspective. When your prefrontal cortex is forced to deal with completely contradictory information, it goes haywire, and all kinds of not-good hormones are released to help your body survive. In fact, some experts contend you should scream or jump up to get rid of these chemicals. Animals actually do it in the wild, believe it or not. So go ahead and scream at the admissions process — it's actually healthy (in moderation).

The admissions process (be it college, law school, or any other graduate school) is a perfect incubator for large-scale anxiety. No different than the hiring process, in which I have seen tenured faculty looking at other schools, deans, and presidents of companies in constant states of panic when they don't hear from their potential new employers. People who appear unflappable in their every day lives.

What is the antidote? Well, there are many. I am going to reread parts of Dr. Brewer's book and write a part II to this blog within a week. We also believe we have come close to securing Dr. Brewer as a guest on our podcast in February or March. Our emails to him are included in this link, because we also wanted to show how we communicate with incredibly busy professionals — templates for you of sorts, because I feel like there aren't many provided to applicants.

But let me address a few things.

  1. Don't use social media and message boards to compare. That is such a cause of psychological misery. It may seem like everyone else is getting admitted, but they aren't. Again, this is the slowest cycle on record, and most schools make a majority of their offers AFTER the new year. Not in September, October, November, or December.
  2. Things get a lot less anxious with that first admit, and for the vast majority, it is coming. The vast majority of applicants get admitted to at least one school, and that admit will come. We've run surveys before, and after their first admit, applicants' anxieties and emotions often settle down incredibly — even with just that one admit. Why? Because they gained a huge piece of information that was previously incomplete. You now know you have an application that didn't turn away an admissions committee. (Incidentally, we have a program where we will assess and discuss with you your submitted application if you want immediate feedback; more on that here).
  3. Don't listen to me; listen to some of the world's leading experts. I linked our podcast with Dr. Winch above, but we've also interviewed Dr. Gabor Maté and world-renowned therapist Terry Real on stress, self-esteem, and the challenge of self-doubt in admissions. Dig into their calming expertise, and I'll dig into Dr. Brewer's book.

See you in a week!

– Mike