On Thursday, November 10, 2016, Saint Louis Priory School welcomed Mr. John Mahoney, Director of Admission from Boston College, to share his thoughts and observations regarding the state of college admissions. He also fielded prepared and impromptu questions from an audience of students and parents from Forms IV and V.
Mr. Mahoney has 32 years of college admission experience at Boston College, serving as the Director of Admission since 1990. During that time, he has overseen enormous change both in the BC office and in the profession and higher education overall.
Mr. Mahoney began his remarks by assuring Priory families of their good fortune to have both obtained an outstanding education at Priory as well as having the services of a comprehensive college counseling staff. He indicated that Priory is well-respected among the elite colleges and universities for the quality of its education and the professionalism and expertise of its college counseling.
Mr. Mahoney asked that each student approach this process by looking for a new home, without regard to rankings; to imagine the place where he will be that meets his vision for a college experience. He emphasized that this must be done by disconnecting from your busy life to think carefully about:
- What you are seeking from your college experience
- What learning environment will suit you best
- What qualities (size, campus culture, location) of the school are most desirable
After considering these qualities, he charged each student to seek the counsel of trusted adults—parents, teachers, and counselors—about what he has discovered.
Mr. Mahoney advised families to examine selective schools with their “eyes wide open,” indicating that the 100+ most selective schools in the country receive far more qualified and deserving applicants than they can possibly admit. And, he emphasized that, with 2500+ four-year colleges and universities in the country, allowing the frenzy around these 100 or so schools to consume your attention can cause you to miss the point of the all the opportunities available.
Other thematic points Mr. Mahoney discussed:
- You can do everything right and still be denied.
- Grades, curriculum, and test scores are only part of this process.
- The admission process does NOT measure your humanity or even the quality or kind of your academic achievement.
- Give yourself the opportunity to explore your interests and talents – don’t focus too much on majors and careers to drive your process.
- Be open to the liberal arts, where real learning and growth may occur.
The question and answer portion of the evening continued at this point.
The first question asked was about the role of the parent and the student in this process. Mr. Mahoney reiterated that students MUST drive the bus with the parent carefully assisting. He encouraged parents to allow students to develop the profile of the college he is seeking and to cooperate in determining the college choice. Parents must recognize that students need independence and that this process is fraught with anxiety. He also emphasized to the students that parents have invested a lot in getting them to the point of having so many opportunities and that they care deeply for their sons. He told students to be tolerant and empathetic.
The next question was about the appropriate number of applications to file. Mrs. Sams indicated that Priory students on average apply to six different schools. Priory policy is to strongly discourage any student filing more than nine applications. Mr. Mahoney indicated that eight or nine well-chosen applications was a good number of applications.
Another question touched on the many differing early application programs. Mr. Mahoney admitted that colleges contribute to the confusion surrounding early applications. He clarified that early decision is a binding program whereby a student applies to only one school under this policy and agrees to matriculate if admitted. Early action applications, however, are not binding. Students who apply under the early decision or action application programs may or may not be offered an advantage in the admission process, depending on the individual institution.
Mr. Mahoney indicated that testing continues to be a metric used in evaluating a student’s likely success at Boston College, although many schools have elected to allow students to apply without standardized test results, called “test optional” schools. ACT and SAT results are held in equal regard, and the new SAT, which was launched for the class of 2017, is and will continue to be evaluated for its validity.
There was then a question about rankings. Mr. Mahoney acknowledged the utility of rankings as a tool in understanding a college’s academic reputation. However, Mr. Mahoney emphasized that the key to understanding a school’s culture and academic experience was to visit campus. Taking your time, eating in a dining hall, and meeting with students not employed by the admission office are all good strategies for developing a complete understanding of a school. He also encouraged Priory students to meet with Priory alumni (and parents to connect with Priory alumni parents) at the schools they are visiting.
Mr. Mahoney and Mrs. Sams discussed managing the cost of higher education. Mr. Mahoney emphasized that with many selective schools hitting the $60,000+ a year total cost point, most families have to consider cost as a factor in college choice. He said that while Boston College is among the few schools fully committed to meeting a family’s financial need, many schools award moneys based on financial need and/or merit. Families should have a list of schools to which their son will apply that includes schools the family knows they can comfortably afford. Mrs. Sams encouraged families worried about paying for college to take advantage of the Net Price Calculator (NPC) tools now available on each college’s website. This tool will give a family a ballpark figure of what they can expect to pay at that institution. She emphasized that families should complete two or three different NPCs in order to see a range of what the real cost to the family might be.
The final question was in regard to the conversation so prevalent in the news these days about enrolling a broader array of students in terms of geographic, socio-economic, ethnic, talents, etc. Mr. Mahoney addressed why colleges want to have a diverse student population and the value that adds to the total college experience for all students. He emphasized that colleges think of diversity in many ways and that for them it is not a limiting factor but rather one that broadens the possibility of who might be a match for their school.
At this point, questions from the audience were taken:
- There seems to be conflicting information about what college admission officers are looking for in an applicant: do they want students who are well-rounded or focused on a definite area of interest? Mr. Mahoney said that some college admission offices are working to amp down the pressure to be all things – great student, amazing leader, generous community volunteer, etc. But, he said that it is true that there can be conflicting information given to a family in the process and he understands it is difficult. He emphasized working with your counselor to assist you in navigating the process.
- How much rigor is enough? In other words, is it better to get an “A” in a regular course or a “B” in an honors or AP course? Mr. Mahoney urged students to take a reasoned approach to their choices. He stated that a student should not be making academic and educational decisions based on how a college might view the choice but rather on what is in the student’s best interest.
- How can a student make himself “interesting” to selective colleges? Mr. Mahoney emphasized the importance of the essay in the application process.
Finally, Mr. Mahoney reiterated that no matter how much your parents may seem to be driving you crazy in the process, they do have much wisdom and experience to offer you and they only want the best for you.