College Admissions: An Area Ripe for A Healthier Perspective

As I continue my rumination on the theme of “perspective,” no educational topic is a more fitting one for scrutiny than the college admission process. My most recent episode of the From My Angle podcast offers a conversation with arguably the most knowledgeable voice on the college application process, Jeffrey Selingo.

If you have listened to my podcast series over the last two years, you have had ample opportunity to hear from some of the country’s top admission officials on how getting into college works today – and how it has changed dramatically within the last generation. In my opinion, the changes have been primarily to the detriment of the student-learning experience at schools like Parish. In fact, I would argue that college admissions has become one of – if not the primary – source of the anxiety now rampant among this generation of young people.

The best way I know to address this anxiety – and begin to deflate it – is to provide perspective in the form of education. My podcast series has been designed, in part, to help parents understand how college admissions work, to understand the breadth of schools available to students (too many of which go unrecognized by “brand name”-seeking students and parents), and to recognize how generally random the results of the admission process actually are.

Indeed, Jeff is one of the country’s pre-eminent writers and thought leaders in the area of higher education and college admissions. I can’t overstate how excited I was when Jeff responded favorably last summer to my request to record an episode of the podcast. We have been in touch throughout this school year and recorded the session in January 2019. I have read one of Jeff’s three books – There Is Life After College. I am a regular follower of his writings for The Washington Post and The Atlantic. I follow him on Twitter and I listen each week to the FutureU podcast on which Jeff, and his co-host Michael Horn, engage higher education innovators and practitioners in conversations about the industry. Needless to say, I am a Jeff Selingo groupie!

In this conversation, Jeff and I assess the state of college admissions today and the changes that have overtaken this space in the last decade and a half. Jeff talks about the concept behind his latest book project on how students and families experience the college admission process; I am excited Jeff has included Parish students and our Center for College and Life Planning team in this project.

I hope you will take the opportunity to listen to my conversation with Jeff and further develop your healthy perspective on the college admissions process.

A Perspective on School

Each February, I have the opportunity to share my thoughts on the world of education – and Parish’s place in it – with parents who are considering our school for their child.  Rather than enumerate metrics about Parish’s student achievement or drill into details on our program or curriculum, I choose to offer a “vision-level view” of forces at play in the college-preparatory education, suggest implications these forces are or may have on the student experience, and offer parents some points to consider relative to these trends that might help them in selecting the best school for their child.  In the end, I have embraced these talks more as a “public service” to a group of parents considering a  selection of schools and less a “pitch” for Parish.  The result, I hope, is a thought-provoking 50 minutes for those who attend.  You can view this year’s talk – entitled “A Perspective of Schools” – below.  Whether you are presently searching for a school for your child or are just one interested in my perspective on the educational experience children are having today, I hope you find the contents of the talk to be both informing and provocative.

A Perspective on Success and Impact

Among the books I am presently reading is Scott Cowen’s Winnebagos on Wednesdays: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education. Cowen served as Tulane University’s President from 1998-2014, a period that included the institution’s recovery from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

WinnebagosYou may be as intrigued by the title as I was.

The Winnebago phrase emerged from a circumstance Cowen experienced in his first year as President. As Cowen tells it, he offered the coach of Tulane’s undefeated football team “an offer he couldn’t refuse – and he refused.” The coach (Tommy Bowden) left for Clemson where, he noted, the program was so spectacular that the fans lined up their Winnebagos on Wednesdays in anticipation of Saturday games. For Cowen, this phase frames his perspective on the current reality for higher education leaders: they face a range of competing, complex, and in certain instances, almost comical pressures that require transformative leadership to solve.
One compelling pressure addressed by Cowen relates to how one measures an institution’s impact and consequently assesses its reputational value. Cowen recounts what many of us know: In an age of skyrocketing tuitions, limited resources, and anxious students facing greater competition for admission, our society has defaulted to an oversimplified and flawed set of ranking lists to evaluate a college or university’s quality and impact. Cowen asks:

“…how can we construct a nuanced and accurate portrait of a school’s impact? How can we get a real picture of how graduates are doing, not just economically but in their lives as a whole?”

Several universities and higher education leaders featured in Winnebagos on Wednesdays have led the charge to reclaim the narrative and paint a more holistic and precise picture of their institution’s impact. To do so, Cowen suggests it requires that we “expand our longitudinal data to take into account what happens after graduation…collect qualitative data that illuminate personal satisfaction and contribution to society…and consider the mission of an individual institution when assessing its value and impact.”

As the head of a young school whose oldest graduates (from our first class of 2007) are just turning 30 years old, I find Cowen’s questions compelling and his suggestions affirming. We believe we can measure how effectively we have met the charge articulated in our mission statement to “guide young people to become creative learners and bold leaders” who positively “impact the complex global society.” Indeed, we seek a broader perspective on what makes Parish – or any school, for that matter – a “success” beyond standardized tests scores, college placement lists, or number of national merit scholars. We have formulated a plan to engage our alumni – through focus groups; as mentors and coaches to our present students; and via programs like ParishConnect. These points of contact help us gather meaningful data points on Parish’s impact on our graduates.

A part of this plan, not surprisingly, involves me. I am increasing the amount of time I spend with our alumni – and I must say it is one of my favorite parts of the job. Listening to them proves equal parts affirming and guiding. Our graduates are thriving and Parish has prepared them well.

At the same time, they hold us accountable. Elements of our program that have shaped them – such as the powerful, personal relationships they forged with high quality faculty and staff members or our focus on character development through chapel and ParishLeads – should remain steadfast institutional commitments. As new members of “the real world,” though, they recognize the urgency for the school experience to evolve – to, among other things, incorporate more open-ended, problem-based learning; to lessen stress by heightening engagement; and to promote student agency and personalization.

Recently, I have recorded five podcast episodes with alumni. I hope over the holiday break, you will take an opportunity to get to know these young adults as they share their perspectives on success and Parish’s impact. Through my conversations with these Parish graduates, I think you will recognize what Scott Cowen and I believe: that the lives an institution’s alumni lead represent the greatest testimony to that institution’s impact.

Listen to the complete Alumni Playlist or to individual alums on From My Angle podcast.


Mastery Transcript w/Scott Looney

I am often asked to whom I or Parish turns when looking for inspirational innovators in the education space. As my year-long writing and speaking on the theme “perspective” continues, I am excited to offer this From My Angle podcast with fellow Head of School, Scott Looney. Scott is Head of School for Hawken School in Ohio and founder of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Scott would be among a handful of educators whose perspectives on teaching and learning, change management, and future trends I seek and admire. In this conversation, Scott and I explore our shared belief in a balanced and student-centered education that engages students in authentic, meaningful learning, and how that translates to the high school transcript.


Listen now and Subscribe & Share the From My Angle Podcast

Seeking Engagement

Are you one of the 33%?

If you are a working parent, I sure hope so.

3TypesEmployeesIn this instance, 33% represents the small number of employed Americans who see their work as “engaging.” Consider that for a moment: In any room of adults, roughly 7 out of 10 of them are not happy going to work each morning.

How depressing is that?

Since 2010, Gallup has collected data from millions of American workers in order to report on the state of the American Workplace (see the 2017 report here: “State of the American Workplace”). It was the 2017 report’s data that indicated only one in three Americans intellectually and emotionally connect with their work.
More disheartening, of course, is what the remaining 67% of American workers represent. According to Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, “16 percent of employees are actively disengaged – they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build,” while the “remaining 51 percent of employees are not engaged – they’re just there.”

Just there.

This is no way to spend one’s day, be it at work . . . or school.

Indeed, engagement is as critical an issue in the schoolhouse as it is in the workplace. Across the country too many of our older students are “just there” while at school. They experience the courses, lessons and tests associated with their education as merely another set of rungs to be climbed if they are to have “successful” lives. This phenomenon of a joyless school experience has been dubbed “doing school.”

Among those who have studied engagement in schools like Parish is Independent School Management (ISM), a Delaware-based research and consultancy firm. Their research involving more than 13,000 students in private and independent middle and upper schools demonstrates that “early middle school students (grades 5 and 6) reported significantly greater engagement” than upper school students. Late middle school students (grades 7 & 8), while more engaged than their older peers, “were more likely to be classified as merely ‘doing school’.” ISM’s research concluded that “something happens between grades 6 and 7 to change the engagement picture.” Students continue to “play the game” of school behaviorally (e.g. hand in assignments, study for tests, etc.) as they move into the upper grades (especially grade 9-12), but their cognitive and emotional investment in learning diminishes.

In addition to being a waste of the precious days that God has given to us, disengagement at work or school poses an even more harmful consequence:
anxiety and stress. Data abounds to illuminate the inverse correlation between engagement and stress. Anxiety declines when our hearts, minds and actions are engaged in the work before us. When we question the relevance of the work we are asked to do; find it too difficult or unstimulating; and/or do not feel we have an advocate (as a boss or teacher) who cares about developing us to be more effective at the task, stress and anxiety rise.

AtWhatCostIn previous First Monday’s and From My Angle podcasts (including this one with Dr. David Gleason, author of At What Cost?) I have shared statistics on the elevated levels of stress and anxiety now evident on high school and college campuses alike.

Why do I talk and write about this so frequently?

Because since I arrived at Parish in 2009, we have sought to reimagine how students experience and perceive school. Especially since the birth of the Reimagine strategic vision in 2014, we have been laser-focused on creating vibrant, powerful learning experiences. To do so, our curriculum has been evaluated and articulated with greater specificity; our use of time has been scrutinized and new models tested; and our instructional and assessment strategies have been increasingly personalized. These efforts will continue in the months and years to come, all in our quest to find solutions that promote deep learning, student engagement and – as a result – student well-being.

We believe our work is at the leading edge of what today’s most thoughtful, forward looking schools are doing. This perspective was affirmed in August, when we were fortunate to have on campus Dr. Denise Pope, senior lecturer at Stanford and co-founder of Challenge Success. Dr. Pope is one of the leading experts on student engagement and school reform. In my latest From My Angle podcast, Dr. Pope and I explore the topic of student engagement and the work she is doing with our teachers to support the ongoing evolution of our program. Please listen to it and share it with your friends in the community.

See More. Be More.

What follows is my September chapel talk to the students and faculty at the Midway campus (grades 3-12) as the school year set sail. Each year I anchor my writing and speaking in the community around a central theme. This year’s theme is “perspective.”  The talk below, based on John 6: 35-44, challenged our community members to reflect on their aspirations for the year and their perspective on self.  Could they see more in themselves or would they allow their own self-doubt and the cynicism of others to narrow their perspectives on how they might grow and evolve this school year?

parisfaceSo I begin today with a photo taken by one Gianni Sarcone.

The basics of the image are evident: an outdoor scene; it’s a mall lined by trees.  In the distance you can see a domed building. A structure – resembling the Eiffel Tower – arcs over a pedestrian in the foreground holding an umbrella.  If you look more closely, you might discern moisture on the pavement and note that the person in the center is holding an umbrella.  I wonder, though, whether you see anything else?

Perhaps the photo’s title helps: “The Other Face of Paris.”

Can you see the face?  Notice how a dry spot of pavement forms the pursed lips of the mouth and the round of the chin. The shadow of the umbrella makes a nose of sorts and the person the nose’s bridge.  If you stare hard at the shadowing of the trees, it makes for two eyes – sometimes I see them as closed, other times as open; who knows?  The arcing gray sky constitutes the forehead.

I love illusions like these. You have likely seen them before – is that a duck or maybe a rabbit?


cigar_bricksWhy is this photo of a wall an internet meme?  Because people have spent hours looking at it…unable to see the cigar stuck between the bricks.

Besides providing amusement, these photos also exemplify vividly how it’s possible for two of us to look at the same thing and see it differently. We each bring a unique perspective to the world.  Our background, education, and age are just a few of the many factors that shape the way we view ourselves and how we experience our relationships with the people, places, and circumstances we encounter. Depending on our perspective it is even possible that we miss something right in front of us.  We can struggle to recognize that there is more to something or to someone than first meets the eye.


When I come to speak with you in chapel this year, you will hear this word a lot: PERSPECTIVE.


Those of you who have tuned in during my homilies the last nine years know I like using such an annual theme.  We have explored being remarkable (you seniors were in fourth grade); the infamous #success campaign (during your 8th grade year); and last year’s quest: the hero’s journey.  Using the theme, the scripture reading and our ParishLeads framework, I endeavor to promote reflection about how we might be the people of impact I know each of us can be.


Today, I want to talk about the perspective we have of ourselves – your “self-perspective” one might call it.

After all, we are at the beginning of a journey: the new school year.  Anytime we prepare to start something – be it a new school year, a next level of scouts, an advanced level our religious studies or music lessons – it should be natural to ask: where am I as this new chapter begins?  And, how might the journey to come help me become a better version of myself?

In our reading today, we see Jesus nearing the end of a journey of His own.  Jesus spent roughly three years, most believe between his 30th to 33rd birthdays, teaching by parable and miracle. Early in John 6, Jesus has performed a miracle most of us know well: He multiplied a handful of fish and loaves of bread to feed thousands of people.

Today’s verse picks up just after this miracle. Crowds are increasingly curious about this young, revolutionary teacher.  Their perspective? That Jesus is “just” another prophet sent by God, as Moses had been.  Just as you may have struggled to see the face embedded within the “Other Face of Paris,” the Israelites could not see past Jesus’ earthly form. Scripture tells us their doubt came in the form of murmurs:

 “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

To the crowds, Jesus was one of them. They could not envision him as the Son of God on earth, the one who would die for their sins and, in so doing, deliver them to eternal life.

As for Jesus’ self-perspective, listen again to what He said:

I am the bread of life.”

 “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.”

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day.”

Jesus didn’t murmur this under His breath. He did not say “I might be” the bread of life or “it would be nice to be the bread of life” or “I hope to be the bread of life.”  He declared it with clarity and boldness, even as those around Him murmured in doubt in a way that reflected their narrow perspectives on Him.

Do you want to accomplish something meaningful this year?

Then a lesson lies within the photo I showed you, Jesus’ declaration, and the murmuring of the crowd: See more to be more.

To be more you have to lift your head – from your phone, your shyness, or your doubt – and see more in yourself, just as we came to see the face in the photo or both a rabbit and a duck in the sketch when we looked harder.

Place you gaze on something. Focus on it. Make it something that matters to you, and declare your intention with the same certainty that Jesus asserted that he was the bread of life.  Be more consistent with your commitment to studies; express gratitude daily; climb a mountain; write a song. Whatever it is you dare to see in front of you, commit to making it real – something you can see, touch, and feel.


Well, for one, listen to the stern direction Jesus gave the crowd:  stop murmuring

Jesus answered and said to them, “Stop murmuring* among yourselves.”

bart simpsonThe murmur is the chatter in our heads that tells us we can’t be what we see; that chastises ourselves after we make a mistake; that fills us with worry that the game or the test or the project idea is not going to work as we think.  Stop murmuring negatively to yourself.

The murmur is also the doubt or displeasure you perceive in the voices and eyes of others.

If we listen to what others murmur, our “self-perspective” will be narrow, not broad. It will be limited, not expansive. Don’t allow the doubts of others to blur your vision for who you aspire to become.

In these opening weeks of school, look up and out ahead – toward May when this school year ends.  Look carefully.  Fix your eyes on who you aspire to be.  Declare your vision and move toward it with might and energy and confidence.  See more so that you can be and become more.


A Perspective on College Admissions with Christopher Gruber, Davidson College VP and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid

From My Angle - Chris Gruber Twitter.pngThe second season of the From My Angle podcast continues with this episode featuring Chris Gruber, who has been in higher education admissions for 33 years at the University of Richmond and Davidson College.  As I explore the theme of perspective this year in my writing and speaking within the community, this podcast features insights from Chris and me about the changes in the college admissions process over the last 15 years, the ways a college admissions team views applicants, and how perspectives on teaching and learning on colleges campuses are shifting. I am sure you will enjoy the conversation.  Please subscribe and share the podcast with friends and colleagues!