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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Social Norming, College Admission, and Stress

The concept of social norms was emerging when I started my career (I was in student affairs) and isn't really discussed in admission all that much. With a social norms approach, we talk about what is normal instead of what is happening with outliers when discussing behavior or outcomes. I use a social norms approach when talking to students about the college application process and I've been thinking that students could benefit from more widespread use.

I spoke on a panel at a Fairfax County summit on teen stress last weekend and it is so clear to me that many people draw conclusions about the college admission process based on stories they've heard about outliers. Outliers are probably interesting because their stories amaze and excite us. The outliers get so much air time that even the most calm, rational people lose sight of what is normal. If we focused more on norms, maybe there wouldn't be as much pressure to do what the outliers are doing.

Let's look at something as simple as the number of college applications high school students are submitting. This New York Times article says:

...In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges. By 2011...that group had risen to 29 percent.

In the class of 2014, according to Naviance, 16.5 percent of seniors using the system said they intended to apply to 11 to 20 colleges.

Flip that around so that the normal behavior is highlighted:

In 2011, 71% of students submitted six or less college applications.
In the Class of 2014, 83.5% of students who use Naviance intended on applying to 10 or less colleges

The data that the Common App puts out about the number of applications the average user submits might help back up the norms approach. They've been putting these charts out for years and the numbers haven't changed all that much. In fact, in our mid-Atlantic region, the average number of applications submitted was lower in 2014 than in 2012 at every kind of high school except the ones with religion affiliations. The number for those schools stayed the same.

It's still interesting to marvel at outliers (that NY Times article cites someone who applied to 56 schools!), but maybe we can take things down a notch by talking more about what is normal.