March 20, 2007 — With admissions decisions only weeks away, Jeanine Lalonde thought the time was right this week to remind candidates for admission to the University of Virginia that they cannot use the “envelope test” to determine whether or not they have been accepted to U.Va.
So Lalonde, assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, posted a late night update to an entry on her blog, “Notes from Peabody II: The UVA Application Process.”
“Remember that all decision letters are thin!” she wrote, linking to an entry that she had made back in November explaining that, contrary to the popular notion that thick letters mean acceptance and thin mean rejection, U.Va.’s letters are all thin because the University sends more detailed information to accepted students in separate mailings.
That’s just one example of the tips that Lalonde offers a steady stream of visitors to the two blogs she maintains. The original “Notes from Peabody” has more general information about admissions while her other blog, “Notes from Peabody II,” is quite specific about the process at U.Va. Both serve the same purpose.
“My primary goal is calming the anxiety,” said Lalonde, whose entries serve to correct the misconceptions about the admissions process that sweep across the Internet like wildfire these days.
Lalonde monitors many of the popular message boards where high school students and their parents discuss their admissions searches, trading stories and offering advice about rankings, campus visits, SAT scores and admissions essay topics. The discussions are lively but the facts can often be wrong.
“I find that the people on these boards speak with great authority, even when they’re wrong,” Lalonde said. “For instance, Virginia high school students are apt to say something like, ‘I know this is the way U.Va. does it.’ And often it’s not that way. So I spent a lot of my time online reassuring them that, no, that isn’t how it works no matter what they’ve heard.”
When it comes to the admissions process at U.Va., Lalonde says that she is constantly correcting the mistaken belief that decisions for in-state students are based on geography. “A lot of people are convinced that there are rules about the percentage of students that we can admit from various parts of the state or even from specific high schools,” she said. “When I see that fallacy being spread on a message board, I’ll join the conversation myself and explain that we don’t read the applications that way.”
Another common misconception that Lalonde squashes on message boards and through her blog is the relative importance of standardized test scores. She says that even though admissions officers constantly tell students that SAT scores are only part of the process and that their high school transcripts are more important, students are bombarded by different messages in guidebooks and from firms that offer courses to improve SAT scores. “I know Kaplan or the Princeton Review is telling them that the SAT score is the biggest piece of the puzzle, but that’s just not true,” Lalonde said.
Lalonde is uncertain how much the Internet has ratcheted up the anxiety among prospective students. While it’s undoubtedly contributed to what many have labeled an admissions frenzy, Lalonde thinks there have always been a certain number of students who have been obsessed with the process. What might have changed is that those students who are especially attuned to the ins and outs of admissions are sharing that information more widely through the Internet.
Lalonde points to the example of the so-called “likely letters” that many schools send to their top prospects in advance of admissions decisions to signal that their prospects for admissions are particularly good.
“People never used to know what those letters were, and they were certainly never a source of conversation,” Lalonde said, “But now the message boards are filled with comments with students clued in to when those letters are being mailed and trading information about who got the letters.”
John A. Blackburn, dean of admission at U.Va., says that he and the admissions staff rely on Lalonde to keep them apprised of the issues being raised on the blogs and message boards.
“This is very valuable information that Jeanine brings us from these sources,” Blackburn said. “We really do need to keep on top of these electronic resources because there is so much information out there.”
Traffic to Lalonde’s blogs has picked up in recent weeks, partly because the admissions decisions are going to be announced on March 30 and partly because a story in the Washington Post cited her use of blogs to communicate with prospects.
Many of the messages posted by visitors to the blogs express appreciation for the advice and information Lalonde provides. On March 14, an anonymous poster wrote: “Thank you so much for running this blog. It really has helped me understand the human aspect behind ‘the system.’”
That is precisely Lalonde’s goal.
“In addition to correcting all those misapprehensions that the Internet spreads,” Lalonde said, “I’m also trying to make sure that people see that admissions officers are actually friendly people, that we’re not huddled together in a dark room somewhere trying to deny them admission.”