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My Love/Hate Relationship With Numbers

By Robbie Jefferiss
My Love/Hate Relationship With Numbers

Numbers and I have a long-running love/hate relationship. Memories from trigonometry class make my palms sweat. Spreadsheets make my body temperature rise—and not in a good way! I walk quickly past our math department in constant fear that a student will stop me and ask for help with Algebra. But after years working in the world of college admissions, you can’t escape the inevitable impact of numbers when it comes to our students’ applications.
GPAs, SAT scores, Predicted IB grades, and many other objective tools for assessment are ever-present in our counseling offices. The numbers on transcripts are faceless and cold. How difficult it becomes as a counselor when your realize your favorite student’s chance at being admitted to his or her dream college may be dashed, based in part on not having the right numbers. Your favorite student. The one that you love to see walk into your office. The one who is honest, caring, insightful, and joyful. Yet you know that she may not make it past the second reader due to a number, or a combination of numbers.
Unfortunately, numbers don’t show a student’s starting point, or the growth that has occurred in the interim. They’re only a polaroid picture—a Saturday morning’s effort—and, in most cases, the end product of a very long equation that could fill a mathematician’s mile-wide chalkboard.
How much I wish that this number on the transcript could be “hyperlinked.” A simple double click would reveal videos of early morning study sessions in the library, or late nights at the kitchen table after the soccer game, unshowered, bologna sandwich in hand, doing Chemistry homework. Click again to see a pile of assignments, quizzes, and tests that took place to achieve that one, lonely, singular number on a page.
Can we boil down all these efforts so concisely? Can we quantify knowledge and student potential so easily? Can the counselor’s barrage of adjectives bring context to these numbers in a few short paragraphs? If only there were an adjective that could articulate the blood, sweat, and tears. And yes, there are tears!
This is why I don’t love numbers… but also why I’m thrilled to hear colleges talk about their holistic review process, particularly in the context of U.S. admissions. I love to hear admissions officers recite teacher comments and excerpts from my students’ essays. I love knowing that, yes, someone is reading these applications and, yes, my favorite student is more than a number in their eyes.
However, the other side of my brain does love numbers. Maybe it is the right side, the part that tries to bring order to uncertainty, the part that loves black and white. It’s the same part of my brain that is fond of the U.K. admissions process.
Here, on the university website, a cold, heartless minimum IB score is indicated, and perhaps the exact courses you need along with it. No long conversation or explanation will be necessary when a student is not accepted; they simply did not have the right numbers. Case closed.
Here, I envision a tweed-clad, grey-haired man at the gates of the university, stating in a dry Oxford accent, “You did not meet the conditions to your offer… now move along young lad.” Part of me thinks, “Thank you old chap,” for now there will be no guessing. No guessing as to whether or not an admissions officer found the essay fascinating. No wishful thinking to entertain the notion that the student’s volunteer work saving endangered snow leopards in Bhutan struck a chord with an admissions reader. Thank you old man. You saved me from writing long emails to unhappy parents wondering if they should have signed their child up for extra violin lessons or if they should have had more leadership on their resume. No, they simply didn’t meet the objective conditions.
I am under no illusions. I realize that my students’ most desired universities will not follow Bard College’s move to an essay-based application, or Goucher’s essay and two-minute video application. I also know that the SAT and ACT will not fold from lack of test takers.
The challenge lies in perfecting the dance an international counselor must do each year, along the fence separating multiple educational systems, always careful not to exclude certain countries, and not to “be too American” or “too British” in our wording or approach to families. Meanwhile, understanding that for many families, all of this is completely alien. It’s a fine line and a delicate balance.
Conversations in our offices are rarely short. “Are my SAT/IB/GPA numbers important?” a student asks. “Well, that depends,” we typically respond. “Please come in, take a seat, have some tea, and I’ll explain.”
It’s fair to say that numbers will remain a part of the equation for our students and for the counselling office for the foreseeable future. So each autumn, I will continue searching the thesaurus for adjectives that bring my students’ numbers to life. In the winter, I will subject my anxious pupils to an off-pitch rendition of Tom Petty’s classic tune, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.” But most importantly, in the Spring, when decisions roll out, I will remember that my favorite student will remain joyful, honest, insightful, and happy—no matter where she goes to university, and no matter how you add up her numbers.
Robbie Jefferiss is University Advisor at United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) East Campus in Singapore.

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