An imaginary university, a virtual platform, and real-life opportunities

“The college application process is a nerve-wracking journey, and this is a fact,” said Melanie Ahn ’21. Enter the Mayfield College Counseling Department’s annual Case Studies program, which helps ease college app anxiety by giving students an inside look into the admission process. At this hands-on event, which has been mandatory for Mayfield juniors for over a decade, students play the role of college admission officers for a night. They review applications and make admissions decisions. “It's a great exercise for the girls to see how an application can be perceived by others,” said Co-Director of College Counseling Lynn Maloney.
This year, with statewide “Safer at Home” restrictions in effect, Mayfield’s College Counseling team worked quickly to translate this extremely popular event into an entirely online format for the first time. Students were given a basic profile of the fictional Plymouth Shores University, and worked alongside professional college admissions staff—in Zoom meeting rooms—to evaluate applications from three imaginary students.

In spite of the fictional elements, the program offers a lot of real-life experience for Mayfield girls. This year, 23 admissions officers from universities across the country joined their small groups. The role play is highly collaborative, and although moderators occasionally share general tips and advice, students aren’t treated as applicants—they’re fellow members of the “Plymouth Shores” admissions team. And as a team, there is a mission to accomplish. By the end of the hour, every group has to decide which student to accept, which to waitlist, and which to deny. And not all of the groups make the same decisions.

The participating admissions officers work at universities that receive applications from Mayfield students every year, including USC, UCLA, Purdue, and Chapman. The Class of 2021 not only got to hear what goes on inside the mind of an admission officer, but they were also directly exposed to the decision-making of someone at a university they might hope to attend one day.

In small groups, students evaluated all the elements of each application, including GPA, the number of APs and extracurriculars taken, even delving into disciplinary action records. But what surprised some of the girls was hearing the seasoned admission representatives actively trying to discern the applicant’s genuine interest in attending this particular school. One of the fictional students, “Henry,” had a deep math and science focus, and Plymouth Shores is a liberal arts school. Caitlyn Latta, Senior Assistant Director of Admission of Denison University, asked her group, “Do you all think that Henry would do well at a liberal arts college? Does it seem like he wants to go to Plymouth Shores?” The girls went on to discuss their similar reservations, while weighing his clear merits. High school students spend a lot of time worrying about being denied by colleges, but they now see the deliberations of the decision-makers as well. It’s an entirely new concept to most of them: universities get rejections too.
One of the deepest dives the girls embarked on during this event was evaluating the fictional applicants’ essays, and it's clear the Mayfield girls have given this component extra attention. “This is really the one time that you have the tell us about yourself, however you want,” said Ms. Latta. Girls on the Zoom meeting screen nodded in agreement. In a simultaneous virtual chat, in another digital “room,” Libby Browne from the University of Rochester reinforced the same point, “We prioritize [the essay] in our process,” she explains. “It's our opportunity to see you directly speaking to us.”

For those who have been fretting about Scantrons robotically sorting applicants by GPA, this conversation with a person who actually reads applications for a living was a revelation. “One of my biggest worries prior to this event was not understanding how all of the factors of my application would truly weigh into the admissions process,” said Giulia Moschella ’21. “This exercise definitely helped.” 

Many students expressed a new-found appreciation that admissions isn’t all about numbers, but a constellation of other factors, and these pieces are weighted differently at different universities. Whereas “Henry” may not get a slot in a class at Plymouth Shores, that doesn’t make him unattractive to another institution where his strengths might be better appreciated. Being up close to the process of evaluating these many components in this way can be profoundly empowering.

Lynn Maloney and Samantha Pieper, Mayfield’s Co-Directors of College Counseling,  were both pleased with how well the event transitioned to a digital platform. “The college reps always comment on how well prepared our girls are,” said Ms. Maloney. “They do these events at many high schools, and several say this is the only event where they know the students will have done their homework ahead of time.” 

Some girls admitted a different set of fears though, directly related to the unique challenges created by COVID-19. Alejandra Casillas ’21 worries how members of her class will be evaluated, with so many activities cancelled and new test formats. “Being able to place a face on the admissions officers allowed me to know that they are people,” Alejandra said. “My hope is that they will understand that we are only 17-year-olds trying to do our best.”

Ms. Maloney said that most students feel much more confident about themselves after the event—a key goal of the program—and notes that Mayfield students should take immense pride in their authenticity: “They see that they don't have to be perfect; they can be themselves.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.